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The Cubans are good people. They are very sensitive and easily aroused, but I have a feeling that they would listen to reason. The Cubans look upon us as big brothers. —Senator Allen J. Ellender, December 1958 3 AROUSAL THE EISENHOWER YEARS, 1953–1958 Perhaps the easiest way to start an argument with CubanAmericans who left the island around 1960 is to say that Cuba was “underdeveloped ” in the years immediately before the revolution. Nonsense, they will reply, Cubans had made impressive progress in the half century since independence, and they have data to back them up. In the 1950s, Cuba’s income per capita was among the highest in Latin America, and this wealth had spread beyond the mansions that continued to spring up in Havana’s western suburbs: in health care, prerevolutionary Cuba had Latin America’s lowest infant-mortality rate; in education it was tied for second for the region ’s highest literacy rate; and in secondary indicators of development such as television sets or newspaper sales per capita, Cuba was far ahead of the rest of Latin America and indeed much of Europe. “Undeniably there was poverty and there were social inequities,” admitted one Havana-based U.S. lawyer, “but where not? The fact is that Cuba had a larger and more substantial middle class than any country in Latin America and one of the highest if not the highest standards of living of any semi-tropical or tropical country in the world.” Years later, a longtime U.S. resident of prerevolutionary Cuba told President Gerald Ford, “I know the island [and] it was a paradise before Castro arrived on the scene.”¹ But all these assessments depended on perspective. A 1950 World Bank Arousal 53 study mission reported that “living levels of the farmers, agricultural laborers, industrial workers, storekeepers, and others, are higher all along the line than for corresponding groups in other tropical countries and in nearly all other Latin American countries,” but Cuba’s per capita income at midcentury was only about half that of Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state. And while Cuba may have been doing well by Latin American standards, it was quickly losing its advantage—the World Bank reported that Cuba’s postindependence growth spurt had come in the first quarter of the century , and the economy had subsequently made relatively little progress. There was also the thorny question of distribution: Cuba may have had a large middle class by Latin American standards, but that may have said more about Latin American standards than about Cuba’s middle class. “Any figure for average per capita income is rather fictitious,” the World Bank warned, “especially where—as in Cuba—there is a very wide gap between the incomes of a relatively few high-income receivers at the top and the mass of income receivers.”² This gap between the haves and the have-nots was especially obvious in the countryside, where a survey sponsored by the Agrupación Católica Universitaria found that “people are living in conditions of stagnation, misery, and desperation that are difficult to believe.” The data reported in the 1953 census were also discomforting: it was not that inside toilets were found in only 3 percent of rural homes, but that more than half of all rural dwellings had neither an inside nor an outside toilet—the residents simply used the bushes. Two-thirds of rural dwellings had dirt floors; 9 percent had electricity ; 2 percent had running water. As a result, the Cuban countryside constituted a public health nightmare, with the World Bank estimating that between 80 and 90 percent of rural children were infested with intestinal parasites, generally acquired by walking barefoot in animal feces; the fecal worms then work their way up through the bloodstream to lodge in the intestines , where they live on food intended to nourish the child.³ And to make the situation seem almost hopeless, education, the primary route to improvement, was closed to most of Cuba’s rural population. Less than a quarterof age-eligible rural children attended school, and onlyabout 40 percent of the adult rural population could read, four times the urban illiteracy level. The World Bank was also concerned about urban children, less than half of whom attended school and, again, especially about the absence of progress: “The general trend in the school system as a whole has been one of retrogression. A smaller proportion of the school-age children are enrolled today than a quarter of a...


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