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Cuba was a slave to sugar. And sugar was hostage to the U.S. market.

roulette wheel

The Sugar Roulette

by Ana Simo

MARCH 5, 2000. Cuba's economy before Castro was like a roulette game in Mob boss Meyer Lansky's Havana-Riviera casino, with the U.S. as wily croupier. If the price of sugar and the annual Cuba sugar quota bought by the U.S. were high, Cuba would hit the jackpot; if they were low, Cuba would lose its shirt.

As always, the odds were with the house. Sugar, the bulk of which was sold to the U.S., accounted for nearly 90% of Cuba's exports and 33% of its national income. Economic planning was all but impossible, as sugar prices swung wildly, from under 12 cents per pound in 1920 to an abysmal 1 ¾ cents in 1937 to 5 cents in 1958.

American companies controlled about 40% of Cuba's sugar production and owned 75% of Cuba's arable land. Most of that land was not cultivated (in fact, only 22% of all Cuba's farm land was cultivated). American companies also controlled 50% of railways (crucial for sugar transportation) and more than 90% of telephone and electric services.

Cuba was a slave to sugar.

And sugar was hostage to the world market and to U.S. political calculations, making Cuba an economic colony of the U.S.

Enter Castro.

No wonder Castro's "first object of attack was the sugar industry, the monoculture it encouraged, the foreign-owned latifundia on which it was erected, and the landless peasantry it created," as the distinguished historian Eric Williams put it.

The 1959 Agrarian Reform Law, which was enormously popular in Cuba, even among many who would later flee to Miami, expropriated large latifundia, with compensation in the form of bonds issued in Cuban currency and maturing in 20 years.

cigar labelEisenhower retaliated by slashing Cuba's sugar quota in 1960. Castro countered by threatening to take a mill for every pound cut from the quota. "We can lose our sugar quota and they [the Americans] can lose their investments," he quipped. Which is exactly what happened.

Thus began the U.S.-Cuba vendetta of the past 41 years, a bitter operatic cycle of revenge and counter-revenge, secret wars and exodus, attempted regicide (of Castro), scorched-earth nationalism and superpower hubris, spies, nuclear threats, families torn apart, a cycle now winding down into the cruel opera buffa of the purloined raft child Elian Gonzalez.

Related links:

For more on Cuba's history, go to J.A. Sierra's The Timetable History of Cuba.

The Paper Trail:

Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969, Vintage Books, New York, 1984.

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