In essence, the Agrarian Reform Law nationalized 40 billon square meters of land pertaining to large agricultural estates, without distinction between domestic and foreign ownership, offering compensation in the form of bonds that would mature in twenty years. It was a bold and decisive step, made necessary by the fact that a majority of agricultural land was foreign owned, and 85% of peasants worked on land they did not own. Of the expropriated land, 45.8% was distributed to 100,000 peasants, who, in addition to being granted titles of property, received favorable terms of credit as well as access to a state-regulated network for the commercialization of their products and the purchase of agricultural supplies, such as seeds and fertilizers. In the late 1960s, the revolution propelled the cooperative movement, which, on a voluntary basis, unified the lands and resources of the peasants, and which gave rise to small village communities, with schools, medical institutions, markets, and offices.
The remaining 54.2% of the expropriated land was converted into state-managed agricultural enterprises, which should not be interpreted as a top-down form of management. In the first place, the revolutionary government was taking steps in accordance with popular will and in defense of the interests of the people; and in the mid-1970s, it developed popular structures to ensure that the political process is controlled by the people (see “Popular Democracy in Cuba”). Secondly, alongside managers appointed by the appropriate ministry, the revolution impelled the organization of the workers, who elect their own leaders to work with the state-appointed managers in the development of the companies. In general, the state management approach was taken with respect to the large U.S. owned sugar plantations, where distribution of land to individual peasants as a transitional step toward cooperatives would have been complicated. In the early 1990s, in the context of the economic difficulties of the “Special Period,” the state-managed agricultural enterprises were converted into cooperatives, with contractual relations with the state.
The Agrarian Reform Law sought to break Cuban neocolonial dependency on the USA and to break with its peripheral role of exporting sugar and coffee on a base of foreign ownership and superexploited labor. It hoped to generate the diversification of agricultural production, the elevation of the level of consumption and the standard of living of the people, and the industrial and scientific development of the nation. Standing against the interests of the Cuban national estate bourgeoisie and U.S. corporations with landed property in Cuba, the Agrarian Reform Law revealed the essentially anti-neocolonial character of the Cuban Revolution. It provoked a firestorm of opposition from those interests, national and international, that benefited from the neocolonial world order.
The Revolution, however, sought to minimize conflict with the USA. The revolutionary leadership did not envision the rupture of USA-Cuba trade; rather, it intended a transformation of exploitative core-peripheral exchange into mutually beneficial commerce. On July 6, 1960, the Cuban revolutionary government emitted Law 851, which authorized the expropriation of companies and not merely land, including the expropriation of companies in non-agricultural sectors. Superseding the terms of compensation provided by the Agrarian Reform, Law 851 authorized the creation of a compensation fund that would be fed by deposits equal to 25% of the value of U.S. purchases of Cuban sugar in excess of the sugar quota. It proposed, therefore, a mutually beneficial resolution to the issue of compensation, linking payment for nationalized properties to the U.S.-Cuban sugar trade. By means of a higher U.S. sugar purchase and Cuban use of the additional income to finance compensation and invest in industrial development, Law 851 pointed to the transformation of core-peripheral exploitation into North-South cooperation. Although the United States immediately reduced U.S. purchases to a level below the sugar quota, thirty days later, in the announcement of the first nationalizations, Fidel appears to be hopeful that the U.S. government will accept the proposal of compensation through U.S. purchase above the sugar quota, thus maintaining a strong economic relation, but basing it in cooperation rather than exploitation. Perhaps Fidel had hoped that a constructive relation between the two peoples and nations would be a practical learning experience for humanity, pointing to the necessary road toward a transformation of neocolonial structures, such that a more sustainable world-system based on cooperation, mutually beneficial trade, and respect for the sovereignty of nations could be constructed step-by-step. However, the USA has been incapable of accepting Cuban sovereignty; it has continued to insist on a relation defined by Cuban subordination to U.S. interests, and it persistently has tried to effect regime change to this end.
Although the Agrarian Reform Law confronted the established neocolonial world order, it did not affect directly the interests of the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie. Moreover, lawyers with ties to the national bourgeoisie were included in the revolutionary government in January 1959, making possible a political alliance between the Revolution and a national bourgeoisie committed to the industrial and scientific development of the nation. However, the Cuban national bourgeoisie had been formed during the neocolonial republic as a puppet bourgeoisie, totally subordinated to the interests of U.S. capital. In the months following the triumph of the Revolution, the national bourgeoisie demonstrated its incapacity to reconstruct itself as an independent national bourgeoisie, in alliance with the social and political forces that the triumphant revolution had unleashed. Taking its cue from the U.S. corporations with which it was organically tied, the majority of members of the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie, after the enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law, increasingly abandoned their companies and emigrated to the United States, participating in the U.S. project of regime change in Cuba, with the expectation that they would return to Cuba and reclaim their properties under a government supportive of U.S. interests. As this political project failed, the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie integrated with other counterrevolutionary sectors in the Cuban émigré community, eventually reconstituting itself as a Cuban-American bourgeoisie.
Therefore, even though the Agrarian Reform Law did not affect directly the interests of the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie, the law was a decisive step that provoked the breaking of the national industrial bourgeoisie with the Cuban Revolution. The rupture reached culmination in the period of October, 1960 to July, 1962, when the Revolution nationalized Cuban-owned private companies, reasoning that members of the Cuban industrial and commercial bourgeoisie were abandoning the management of their establishments, participating in criminal counterrevolutionary activities, channeling capital out of the country, emigrating to the United States, and/or sabotaging production; and that such comportment made the nationalization of the companies, with compensation, a matter of public utility and social interest.
Cuba, meanwhile, persists in its quest for sovereignty, in the face of the hostility of its powerful neighbor to the North, but with the growing support of the governments and peoples of the world. It sustains itself by celebrating its modest gains. In commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Agrarian Reform Law, Ana Margarita González, a journalist of Trabajadores (Workers, the weekly newspaper of the Union of Cuban Workers), traveled to the village of Güira de Melena, where she talked with associates of the Niceto Pérez cooperative for agricultural and animal production. (All of the works of the revolution are named after martyrs of the revolution, and this cooperative is named for the above-mentioned peasant whose assassination prompted the declaration of the Day of the Peasant). The associates report that the cooperative, established nearly forty years ago, has always been profitable, and this year it has attained a record crop of grains, vegetables, and fruits. Celedonio Barroso, a sharecropper before the triumph of the revolution and an associate of the cooperative, declared that “the Agrarian Reform was the liberation of the Cuban peasant.” It could be said with justice that the Agrarian Reform Law is the foundation of the national and social liberation of the nation; and it constitutes a Cuban declaration of sovereignty, standing in defiance of the structures of the neocolonial world-system.
To read more on Agrarian Reform in Cuba, see “The Agrarian Reform Law of 1959” 09/23/2014 and “The defining moment of the Cuban Revolution” 09/24/2014 in the category Cuban History.