The importance of sugar to the Cuban economy — and to the capital city of Havana — has been summed up in the widely quoted phrase sin azucar, no hay pais (without sugar, there is no nation).
It is notable, then, that as World War II ended, circumstances surrounding the world market for sugar brought a period of prosperity and optimism to the city of Havana, a welcome relief from the capital’s depressed wartime economy.
World sugar production had declined by almost 60 percent over the course of the war, but eventually the decline of sugar production in war-torn Asia spurred production in Cuba and brought a return of normalcy to Havana’s economy.
Specifically, from a combined worldwide cane and beet production of 28.6 million tons in 1940, output fell to 18.1 million tons in 1946. Cuban production, on the other hand, rebounded, increasing from 4.2 million tons in 1944 to 5.8 million tons in 1948, a gain of almost 40 percent at a time when sugar constituted over 90 percent of the island’s total exports by value.
Much of Cuba’s sugar was shipped to the United States, leading to a heightened dependency on Cuban-US reciprocity arrangements.
As the economy grew, public works programs increased, and the government bureaucracy resumed its expansion. According to Cuban scholar Louis A. Perez, Jr:
The ranks of the civil service became bloated. The number of persons on the government payroll more than doubled, from 60,000 in 1943 to 131,000 in 1949. By 1950, some 186,000 persons, fully 11 percent of the working population, occupied active public positions at national, provincial, and municipal levels of government: another 30,000 retired employees were on the state payrolls. An estimated 80 percent of the 1949-1950 budget was used to pay the salaries of public officials. Pensions accounted for another 8 percent of national expenditures.
Because many individuals benefited from the growth of the civil service, the enlarged administration did not create concern until, as the 1950s approached world sugar production began to stabilize, it appeared that rival producers would soon threaten Cuban prosperity.
Fortunately, a Cold War crisis ensured sustained economic growth when the Korean War gave renewed life to high sugar prices.