The outbreak of the Korean War gave renewed life to Cuban sugar production. At the same time, Havana’s other economic sectors were stunted by widespread government corruption which served to inhibit economic transformation and entrench the sugar status quo.
In this environment, trade unions pursued a policy of militant reformism as a way of safeguarding employment. Interestingly, union efforts were usually effective. While unemployment and underemployment were widespread, job security for union works who had employment was virtually guaranteed.
Despite union achievements, though, the work force was not necessarily sharing in the country’s growing prosperity.
Even though real wages rose 25 percent, inflation jumped to 60 percent between 1941 and 1947. Also, non-union workers were dealing with both rising rates of inflation and high unemployment. Both groups were plagued by Havana’s threefold rise in food prices along with a doubling of the overall cost of living.
As a result, by the 1950s, there was deepening socioeconomic frustration at the country’s continued dependence on sugar, an export product affected by uncertain market conditions and intense competition. Moreover, since Cuban-US trade reciprocity was believed to undermine the diversification of the Cuban economy, resentment toward the United States increased.
Clearly, the primacy of sugar inhibited the creation of other sectors of employment at the same time that the vagaries of the harvest cycle accounted for the high levels of employment and unemployment which led to seasonal migration.
Without diversification jobs could not be created or living standards raised. However, since economic diversification would require “a realignment of domestic actors, a new role for the state, and a restructuring of Cuban-US relations,” this process was not to occur.
Nevertheless, in spite of Havana’s many challenges, the capital was quite privileged when compared to the rest of the country since unemployment and underemployment afflicted habaneros less than other Cubans.
Even though 26 percent of Cuba’s population lived in Havana province, the city was less dependent on agriculture that the country as a whole and housed nearly 50 percent of all industry. Eight of the fourteen Cuban plants with more than five hundred workers were situated in the capital.
At 9.2 percent, Havana’s illiteracy was well below the national and urban averages. The city boasted more graduates from high school, vocational school, and institutions of higher education than did the rest of the country.
In addition, Havana was home to 66 percent of all Cuba’s professionals, contained 66 percent of the country’s hotel capacity, and possessed 40.7 percent of all hospital beds. According to Marifeli Perez-Stable
Havana was not Cuba. The capital was quite modern and habaneros enjoyed relatively high standards of living. Most were literate, had achieved higher levels of education, had more access to health care, were more likely to be permanently employed, and earned better wages than Cubans in the provinces. Havana, moreover, was undergoing a consumer boom …. While other urban areas received some [of the growing number of imported] consumer goods … New York and California department stores ran regular advertisements in Havana newspapers.
Still, most Cubans did not live in Havana and, by 1952, it was obvious to those in the countryside that postwar economic opportunities had been squandered.
Sugar dependency, economic stagnation, government scandals, and countrywide discontent spurred a military coup on March 10, 1952, which returned past President Fulgencio Batista to power.
In other words, “the effects of nearly a decade of graft, corruption, and scandal at all levels of civilian government had more than adequately paved the way for the return of military rule.”
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe