‘I didn’t know Che had any economic ideas’ has been a frequent reply I’ve received when telling people about the topic of my research and my book Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. It reflects the caricature of Guevara as a romantic guerrilla fighter with idealist notions of how human beings are motivated and how social change is brought about. The consequence is to overlook his contribution to Cuba’s economic development and socialist political economy debates and hence to lose any lessons that can be drawn from his endeavours.
It censors the complexity of economic decisions and debates within the Cuban Revolution, as if the revolutionaries who seized power on 1 January 1959 were chaotic adventurers whose economic policies were based on a naïve ideological agenda and not reflecting concrete conditions and constraints in the process of development. For example, Cuba’s incorporation into the socialist bloc’s trade relations, its continued dependence on sugar as a principal export and the importation of ‘backward’ technology from the socialist countries are viewed as political preferences — with little recognition made of the limits placed on Cuba’s development path by the imposition of the US blockade or the denial of credit from the Western countries. It also plays into the interpretation that sees Fidel Castro as synonymous with the Revolution, so that all policies were generated by this one omnipresent individual according to his whims, psychological traits and struggle for domination.
Che Guevara and Orlando Borrego in 1960 carrying out voluntary labour in the Havana docks.
Orlando Borrego with Helen Yaffe in 2008 in Havana.
The research carried out for this book involves interviews with 50 of Guevara’s colleagues during his work as President of the National Bank of Cuba (1959-1960), head of the Department of Industrialisation (1959-1961) and Minister of Industries (1961-1965). These individuals were not passive or homogenous. They were as varied and complicated as the rest of us. Their ideas, values and capacities evolved with their experience of working at his side. From their recollections springs a dynamic and rich history of grappling with problems, searching for solutions and experimenting with policies, structures and techniques. Guevara’s own voice emerges through them — giving us an insight into the development of his own work and ideas. It is also recorded in the internal meeting transcripts, reports, speeches, articles and letters consulted during the research for this book.
In late September 2008, George W Bush, perhaps the most neo-liberal, anti-regulation, aggressively imperialist US president in history, declared: ‘The market is not functioning properly.’ What did he mean? The market is failing to secure the continued accumulation and expansion of capital — threatening a crisis of the entire capitalist system and throwing into question the most basic premises of bourgeois economics. For decades it has been hammered into us that only the free market ensures efficiency, productivity and growth — the profit motive via cutthroat competition, deregulation and removing all constraints to ‘rational economic man’. But what form of rationality justifies the fact that 200 individuals have more wealth than over 40% of the world’s population? What logic leaves 12 million children under the age of five to die every year from malnutrition, diarrhoea and easily preventable diseases? Is this a rational way for humanity to organise production and distribution — making hundreds of species extinct each day and leading the world towards an ecological disaster?
If the market isn’t functioning what alternatives are there? There have been few such poignant moments in history to talk about the economics of revolution. In rescuing Guevara’s work as a member of the Cuban government, this book hopes to place his economic ideas firmly on the table for consideration in the search for alternatives.
Helen Yaffe, a Teaching Fellow in Latin American history at University College London, is the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. She has an article in the March 2009 issue of the journal Latin American Perspectives, a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. This article first appeared as an entry in her blog on 12 December 2008 under a creative commons 2.5 license.