The 1959 Revolution transformed the bitter reality of rural Cuba, and even more so did the revolution within a revolution that took place on May 17 that year, when ownership of the land was awarded to those who worked it, bringing hope with an end to sharecropping, evictions and months of unemployment
When 65 years ago members of the Catholic University Group set out to conduct their landmark survey of Cuban rural workers (1956-1957) – perhaps the most complete and best documented portrait of life in our fields at the time – they were obliged to invent a convoluted way to ask about their subjects’ educational level.
“You don’t know how to read or write, do you?” the questionnaire literally asked, in an attempt to conceal or at best downplay the shame guajiros felt in recognizing the chronic illiteracy reigning in rural Cuba, which the survey itself would confirm with details and figures. In 1957, 43% of Cuban campesinos could not read or write and 44% had never attended a school.
This was not the only evil unearthed by the pollsters. In the “prosperous” Cuba of the late 1950s, only 0.8% of rural dwellings were constructed with masonry walls, tile roofs and cement floors; 63.9% had neither a toilet or latrine; 85.5% were illuminated by kerosene lamps; and even more alarming, according to the survey, Cubans living in rural areas weighed 16 pounds less than the acceptable average, equivalent to a malnutrition rate of 91%.
Early in the decade, amidst backwardness as cruel as it was well exploited, thousands and thousands of men and women in the countryside, and cities, as well, entrusted themselves to Clavelito’s Mailbox, a Radio Union program on which the poet Miguel Alfonso Pozo, from Villaraigosa, served as a sort of media sorcerer and “cured” the ills of the island, whether they were matters of health, money or love.
Many say with good reason that, to a large extent, the Cuban Revolution was a direct result of accumulated problems in rural areas, those which Fidel denounced in 1953, in his passionate self-defense statement which came to be known as “History will absolve me,” and were later confirmed by the Catholic University Group’s field work.
The fundamental problem, though not the only one, was that the best soils in Cuba did not even belong to the country, but to foreign companies that for decades had been “swallowing and swallowing” land, as a troubadour would say. U.S. companies owned almost 100,000 caballerias, and 1.5% of all owners possessed more than 46% of the nation’s farmland.
The Revolution of January 1, 1959 would transform this reality, and even more so, the revolution within a revolution that took place on May 17 of the same year, when ownership of the land was awarded to those who worked it, vindicating the blood of Niceto Perez, Sabino Pupo, Felino Rodriguez and many others. The wings of the latifundia and in particular of the sacraocracy were clipped. Ended were sharecropping, evictions and months of unemployment, giving hope to those souls who, immersed in helplessness and deception, came to trust more in Clavelito’s miraculous waters than in all the politicians of the era.