Che Guevara (14 June 1928 – 9 October 1967) was killed 55 years ago. Following is a report on Che’s legacy in socialist construction in Cuba.
As Minister of Industries in Cuba between 1961 and 1965, Che Guevara addressed the challenge of increasing production and labor productivity in conditions of underdevelopment and in transition to socialism, without relying on capitalist mechanisms that undermine the formation of new consciousness and social relations integral to socialism. Under capitalism, Guevara noted, competition for private profit drives the application of science and technology to industrial development, revolutionizing the productive forces. Socialist governments must find alternative methods. To these ends, Guevara set up nine research and development institutes, focussing on sugar cane derivatives, minerals and metals, the chemical industries, agricultural by-products, the mechanical industry, technological innovations, and automation. He established an institutional framework to begin experimentation at different ends of the production chain simultaneously. The short-term results were inevitably limited, but more significant than the productive achievements attained was the methodology introduced, the application of science and technology to production.
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Guevara perceived socialism as a phenomenon of both technology and consciousness. Advanced technology, including electronics, automation and computing, would facilitate productivity gains based on technological innovations and administrative controls and not by appeals to workers’ self-interest, via material incentives, or by increasing labor exploitation. Adopting the most advanced technologies and techniques would facilitate Cuba to ‘burn through stages’ of development. Guevara insisted:
We cannot follow the development process of the countries which initiated capitalist development … to begin the slow process of developing a very powerful mechanical industry, before passing on to other superior forms, metallurgy, then chemicals and automation after that. We have to burn through stages. And … try always to make use of the best world technology, without fear. (Guevara, 1962a, p. 140)
How to industrialise Cuba?
Following the Revolution of 1959, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America sent an advisory mission to Cuba to promote its import substitution industrialisation (ISI) strategy for bolstering national (capitalist) development.2 Guided by this ISI approach, the Cuban trade mission to the socialist bloc which Guevara headed in October 1960, purchased factories according to a list of finished products needed in Cuba, with the intention of replacing imports. Within a year and a half Guevara complained this had been the wrong criteria:
We worked with our vision fixed on the substitution of imports of finished goods, without seeing clearly that we can’t produce those articles without having the raw materials they need … We continue to be largely dependent on foreign trade to resolve our problems. (Guevara, 1962a, p. 103)
He listed factories for brushes, screws, pickaxes and shovels, electric solders, barbed wire, among others, which Cuba had purchased because the finished product was needed, but which relied on imported materials to manufacture. This was a costly mistake; the US blockade was cutting off imports from the capitalist world.
As the US government pressured other capitalist countries not to trade with Cuba, the revolutionary state was obliged to import equipment from the socialist bloc, which was sometimes two decades behind that existing in advanced sectors of Cuban industry in 1958. Edison Velázquez, director of the Consolidated Enterprise (Empresa Consolidada, or EC) of Nickel in MININD explained:
Many factories turned out to be inefficient, because we depended on what the Russians and the socialist camp had achieved, and they were behind. You could say these factories were obsolete. This wasn’t Che’s fault. The Yankees wouldn’t sell us factories … we had to make more effort, it was more work for the country. (Velázquez, 2006)
Meanwhile, thousands of Cubans went to the Soviet bloc. On 31 December 1964, MININD had 1271 Cubans abroad studying at universities, receiving technician training or other ‘worker qualifications’ (MININD, 1965, p. 78). This assistance, Guevara said, would create Cuban technicians who would construct Cuban factories built with machines designed by Cubans, using domestic raw materials, processed with Cuban technology (Guevara, 1964, p. 139). In the short term, however, he acknowledged the advantage enjoyed through socialist bloc assistance in mitigating US sanctions and consolidating the Revolution.
The Soviet Union did this alone; without friends, without credit, surrounded by ferocious adversaries, in the middle of a bitter struggle, even within its own territory. We do this in far superior conditions than those of the Peoples’ Republic of China, and those of the peoples’ republics of Europe, which came out of destructive war. (Guevara, 1962a, p. 118)
Technological incompatibility was also a problem, as explained by Tirso Sáenz, named director of the nationalised petroleum industry in 1961.
Refineries are designed according to the type of oil they are going to process. Soviet petroleum was different from the Venezuelan oil that we received before – it had a higher content of salts and sulphur. The corrosion problems were terrible. The crude was eating away the pipes and equipment and we had the blockade so we couldn’t get spare parts from anywhere. (Sáenz, 2005)
The sugar industry
For most Cubans, the sugar industry was associated with slavery, racism, poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment and imperialism.4 The first instinct of many in the revolutionary government was to replace sugar with diversified agricultural production, manufacturing and heavy industry (Boorstein, 1968, p. 205). However, as Cuba shifted to trade with the socialist countries, the government fell back on a development strategy where sugar exports were the mainstay of capital accumulation. In 1963, Guevara acknowledged:
The entire economic history of Cuba has demonstrated that no other agricultural activity would give such returns as those yielded by the cultivation of the sugar cane. At the outset of the Revolution many of us were not aware of this basic economic fact, because a fetishistic idea connected sugar with our dependence on imperialism and with the misery in the rural areas, without analysing the real causes: the relation to the unequal balance of trade. (Cited by Pollit, 2004, p. 323, fn 6)
Given favourable trade deals with the socialist bloc, the revolutionary government believed it had redressed the unequal balance of trade.5 While sugar production remained pivotal to Cuban economic development, Guevara sought to mechanise its cultivation and develop a secondary manufacturing industry on the back of it.
Alfredo Menéndez, director of the EC of Sugar in MININD, recalled how Guevara’s experience of voluntary labor in the cane field strengthened his resolve to mechanize the harvest:
It was a hot day … already 11am and everyone was tired, but they had not finished cutting parts of the cañaveral [cane field], which means that the cane can’t be picked up. Che sat down to rest in the shade. When people saw this, they stopped working too. I explained to him why you had to finish the cañaveral. He said: ‘Damn, I am going to get up and cut cane; but this is slave’s work, this has to be mechanised!’. (Menéndez, 2005a)
1961 Commission for the Mechanisation of the Sugar Harvest
Have you seen film footage of Che cutting cane? That was one of the first prototypes. He was struggling to breathe … The dust from the sugar cane was terrible for him. Che was one month, 30 days cutting cane, with a terrible asthma attack! (Sáenz, 2005)
1963 Cuban Institute of Research into Sugar Cane Derivatives (ICIDCA)
… the day will arrive when the derivatives of sugar cane have as much importance for the national economy as sugar has today. (Guevara, n.d., ICIDCA)
The extraction and exploitation of natural resources
1961 Cuban Institute of Mineral Resources [ICRM]
We must search for mineral resources … it is a task for everyone. We must prepare many geologists or mine engineers … and do the industrial preparation to get at those metals … . (Guevara, 1961, p. 276)
1962 Cuban Institute of Mining and Metallurgy Research (ICIMM)
We have lots of iron … nickel, cobalt, chrome, manganese; there is a set of minerals that permit us to make alloys, to make special metals when we have developed our steel and iron industry, and furthermore, we have copper which is also a really important metal. That means that we have to … develop with audacity, to go on creating our own technology … here there are no metallurgists, but there can and should be. (Guevara, 1961, pp. 286–287)
1962 Cuban Institute for Technological Research (ICIT)
The main task of the ICIT is in agriculture, to facilitate our industrial development and for the maintenance of botanical science … with scientific controls from the planting of the seed up to industrial exploitation. (MININD, 1964, p. 143)
1962 Ciro Redondo experimental farm
Che’s visits to the farm ‘Ciro Redondo’ were very frequent … he instigated experiments with the new salary system based on conceptions which were part of the Budgetary Finance System … Ciro Redondo developed a group of medicinal plants for the production of medicines, convinced of the future importance of ‘green’ medicine. (Borrego Díaz, 2001, p. 138)
1963 Cuban Institute for Development of Chemical Industry [ICDIQ]
The ICDIQ was created to develop the chemical industry … For now, this institute should just work to create technology and build factories to match that technology … to act as the investor organisation in relation to new plants. (ICDIQ, 1964, p. 98)
1963 Cuban Institute for Machinery Development [ICDM]
They tried to organise the production of spare parts – to generate ideas, to train people, with the aim of producing our own spare parts. Cuba didn’t have a mechanical industry, only small workshops. They also tried to develop some machines … This institute was the cornerstone for future developments. (Sáenz, 2006)
Naval construction, automation and electronics
The naval industry offers prospects of enormous importance to Cuba, but it is not just one industrial branch. Rather it is made up of a complex of factories: metallurgy, motors of various types, cables, electrical equipment and electronics, carpentry, etcetera. (Guevara, 1962a, pp. 106–107)
1962 Office of Automation and Electronics
Automation and electronics were a passion for Che as minister of industries. (Gómez Trueba, 2001, p. 44)
In January 1962 Guevara told MININD directors:
We are entering the era of automation and electronics. We have to think of electronics as a function of socialism and the transition to communism … Electronics has become a fundamental political problem of the country. Today and tomorrow cadre must be prepared so they are ready in the future to take up the next great technological tasks and for the automation of an ever-increasing part of total production, the liberation of man by means of the machine. (Guevara, 1962e, p. 149)
Technological progress imposes the centralization of the productive forces, he told MININD administrators, pointing to US power generators which, with a handful of operators, produced one million kilowatts each, greater than the total installed capacity in Cuba (Guevara, 1962f, p. 91). This should be a phenomenon of socialism and communism, he said:
In all the great modern, centralised and automated industries, man’s activity should take place outside of production. In the future man will express his wishes through political institutions which are being created, and which will determine the types of production which the country needs. (Guevara, 1962f, p. 92)
Automation would permit political control over the economy. It could ‘even accelerate transition to the new society … Without automation, that is, without substantially raising productivity, we will take much longer to reach that stage’ (Guevara, 1962g, p. 207). However, Guevara also cautioned that these steps could not be achieved quickly, describing automation as both an ‘aspiration’ and a ‘precondition’ for the development of a new society. ‘But for this there has to be preparation’ (Guevara, 1962g, p. 221).
We are inaugurating an epoch in which scientific knowledge is, and will increasingly be, the main force that determines our rhythm of development and our capacity to ‘burn through stages’ in the construction of socialism. (Guevara, 1962f, p. 148)
Notes on contributor
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