Cuba On The Cusp

Batista’s palace and the transformation of the Cuban Revolution

If the Museo de la Revolucion is to be taken at face value, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was nothing short of a miracle for its people. Rid of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the displays described how within months of the new government taking over Cubans enjoyed lower rents, cheaper telephone charges and they could access beaches that they were previously barred from. Soon healthcare and education would also improve for everyone.

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Batista’s former palace

The setting for the museum in Batista’s former sumptuous white-washed palace is quite spectacular. Over three storeys of chronologically-confused exhibitions, visitors get to read about how the Revolution took hold from its early days (with an array of tenuous mementos such as the glasses a rebel wore on X day or a notebook another left in a farmhouse), right through to a very official view of the new government in power.

From visiting the museum, it seemed liked the exhibition had been curated by Fidel Castro himself, with at times little regard for where information had been sourced from. For example under a picture of a large crowd supposedly cheering, the caption read: “Fidel has played a fundamental role in the political education of the people; through his orientating, persuasive and clearing words, his critics and the acknowledgement of his own mistakes.”

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Fidel Castro’s glasses

According to the introductory displays on the second floor, before 1959 some seven million people were unemployed or at the very least under-employed. And before the Revolution more than a million children were apparently without schools. In response, the new government created 10,000 classrooms (many in deprived rural areas). And a new law was passed restricting the maximum amount of land that a single person could hold as 402 hectares, which 100,000 peasant families apparently benefitted form.

This is only a snapshot of what the museum said the Revolution achieved, with deemed improvements in the volume of electricity delivered right up to advancements in healthcare.

“From now on,” Castro announced in a speech in Santa Clara soon after the Revolution, “the children of the peasants will have schools, sports facilities and medical attention, and the peasants will count for the first time as an essential element of the nation.”

There are black and white images of well-stocked bookshops, with the caption noting: “In the 80s decade Cubans could find thousands of books in a large number of bookshops and at very low prices.” By a picture of what appears to be a funfair, the text read: “Modern facilities all over the country guarantee the people’s recreation and enjoyment in the open air.”

And Castro wants visitors to understand that Cuba is a country that looks after its older people, according to another caption: “Elderly people have found a pleasant, useful way to spend their time at ‘grandparents clubs’. There they do physical exercises, they organise parties and take part in social, physical and cultural activities.”

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A ‘grandparents club’ in action


But just how accurate are the museum’s bold claims?

According to some academics, Cuba had the second highest per capita income in Latin America in the 1950s – behind only Venezuela which benefited from significant oil revenues. And on other factors such as infant mortality, literacy and life expectancy it had top five status in the region.

In terms of medical services, pre-Revolutionary Cuba wasn’t even that far off the US and Canada in a number of indicators. For doctors per person, the country was ranked 11th in the world and ahead of Britain, France and Holland.

But if you delve down a little further at the data, some of the findings seemed to be skewed. For example in the 1950s there was apparently plenty of food (around 70 pounds of meat available per person each year – twice the amount for someone in Peru). However, a survey by a Catholic association found that only 4% of famers ate meat regularly and only 2% ate eggs. And the World Bank said that by 1958 over half of 6 to 14 years olds were not attending school at all.

Cuba – in the eyes of the world – did make some significant progress in the years immediately following the Revolution. In 1960, for example, Fidel Castro told the United Nations that the new administration would rid literacy within a year. His 1961 campaign went some way to achieving this, with 100,000 student teachers teaching a million people to read and write in just 12 months, as he had promised.

The quick progress made by Cuba, attracted many admirers from around the world in the early years of the Revolution. But the United States was not one of its fans and within six months decided it did not trust Castro, so plans were put in place to overthrow the new government.

Although not a direct plot by the US government, the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles in 1961 was very symbolic. It was crushed by Castro’s men within two days and of the 1,500 people that took part 1,200 were captured and were 100 killed. Shrewdly, the prisoners were exchanged for food and medicine in 1962.

The decision by Cuba in 1962 to allow the Soviet Union to station nuclear missiles on its shores was a game changer for the United States. President John F Kennedy announced a blockade on trade between the two countries, which decades has yet to be fully lifted. For all the optimism at the start of the Revolution, the breakdown in diplomatic relations with the US and all Latin American countries – except for Mexico – took its toll on Cuba.

Cuba at the time of the Revolution was a massive exporter of raw sugar, yet it imported confectionary. It grew tomatoes, yet imported tomato paste. Fruit was exported, but it then imported it back in cans. Cuba was so reliant on the US to supply the manufactured goods it needed that it just wasn’t ready for the embargo. At a practical level, its docks could only accommodate small boats from Miami and New Orleans – rather than docks that would be needed to bring in bigger boats from further afield.

In 1967 Cuba it needed to turn to the Soviet Union for economic assistance. And there was positive growth for a decade from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, with an average annual growth rate of 4.1%. The purchase of Cuban sugar by the Soviets at a premium price went a long way to keeping the nation prosperous. They also help improve the education system further with more than 3,000 schools built in the first year of the programme alone. Some 7,000 additional teachers were trained, meaning that about 300,000 children attended school for the first time.

But by the mid-1980s Cuba’s economy was beginning to struggle. It was short of hard currency due to a drop sugar prices – its main export – on the global market, combined with drought and hurricanes and that it was over reliant on imports. And while President Jimmy Carter opened a downgraded version of a US embassy in Havana, the blockade was not eased.

Worst was still to come. During a 1989 visit to Cuba by Soviet statesman Mikhail Gorbachev he made clear that the economic relationship with price subsidies that kept the nation afloat would need to be phased out. Cuba would be on its own.

As I showed in yesterday’s blog, there’s no doubt that politics under Batista was corrupt and unfair. But the museum is very good at glossing over the teething problems that the new administration faced early on – and I couldn’t find anything about the trauma Cuba faced when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Built between 1913 and 1917, the luxurious palace housing the museum was used Batista and earlier Cuban presidents. With its chandeliers, marble floors, a gold-encrusted dining room (where black and white pictures show guests enjoying lavish feasts) and wonderful ceiling murals, the venue plays right into the hands of the story that the socialist government wants to tell the outside world.

In interests of comparison, few however know the sort of lifestyles that the Castro brothers live. Raul and Fidel (if he is still alive), both enjoy vast homes in well-defended compounds on the edge of Havana. Will one day those be turned into museums so that visitors can judge for themselves where all of Cuba’s money went?

Nevertheless, whatever you think of the government that came to power in 1959 – and the claims made in the museum – travelling around Cuba I found many admirers of the Revolution, with health and education to be particularly applauded.

Tomorrow: I’m moving on from Havana to discover more about Che Guevara and his role in the Revolution.

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Inside Batista’s former palace


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