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Jean-Paul Sartre
© 1961

From Chapter 4 – The Latifundistas

Book cover: Sartre on Cuba

In 1900 Cuba had scarcely come out of feudalism. Its economy was in transition: few large estates, little industry, a scattered bourgeoisie, some artisans, but mainly peasants. This phase of national development is frequently called “precapitalist,” particularly by the Cubans themselves. The sugar agreements hastened the transition while at the same time channeling it in the wrong direction. Industrialization and industrial concentration were, from the outset, held in check. On the other hand, the influx of American capital and, secondariliy, the variations in the “quota”—which ruined the less wealthy—favored concentration in real estate. The big exploiters ate the little ones who could no longer resist; they increased their estates.


The owners are absent; they live in Havana, in New York; they travel in Europe. Their overseers distribute work to day laborers—four months of wages, from December to March. After that, let them go hang themselves elsewhere. They have to live eight months without doing anything. They get into debt, sometimes with their boss. Eight months later, when they go back to work, their future salary is consumed in advance by these mercenary loans.

To these lands without men, cultivated by men without land, the Cubans give the name that used to designate large ancient properties: “latifundia.” As in the time of the Romans, they are characterized by absentee ownership, by extensive cultivation, and by immense fallow stretches.


The single crop brings a double yield: first by what it produces, and secondly by what it prevents from being planted. If the Cubans sowed rice, cultivated tomatoes, what would the rural population of the content do? Certainly, the Americans didn’t hope that cane would overrun the island all the way to the sea coast. They were afraid of overproduction, of glutting the market, of depressions. But, they said, why deflower your lands? Virgin soil is so pretty. Take our orders for sugar and those of the rare customers that we let you have, and plant and harvest the cane to meet your obligations. For the rest, let island remain natural. Leave it to the sun and to the sea.


They wanted a flexible and prudent production that would follow exactly the capricious outline of the quota. The specialization of the island pleased its foreign protectors. The Cuban landowner found that it paid. What did the extensive cultivation require? Teams of agricultural laborers, who worked a third of the year, and who were then turned away until the following year. A multicrop system, if it should unfortunately develop, would require—as it had in other regions of the island—an “intensive” technique, the diligent presence of the cultivator. It would be necessary to develop a whole network of farms, of dairies. One would no longer be master in his own home.

The latifundistas—that’s the name that they are given here—feared that the peasants might become more difficult, more conscious of their rights. The cane cutters got angry sometimes, but they were nice guys who didn’t know how to read, and besides, they would work for a mouthful of bread.


Without a gesture, without a word, American imperialism, with the aid of its Cuban allies, reinforced the feudalism that its military forces had pretended to destroy.

The cattlemen and planters both served the interest of the Yankees, and vice versa. They discouraged this country from industrializing. The U.S.A. feared competition; the big landowners dreaded the rupture of the internal equilibrium. If they permitted the industrial bourgeoisie to grow, if the farm laborers left the fields to become engaged in the factories, what would happen?

From Chapter 6 – “I Can’t Stand Injustice”

No matter how important natural factors are, the evil that afflicts mankind comes from other men.


The Cuban masters of the island, lazy and morose tyrants, were suspicious of knowledge because it led to subversion. The shabby state of higher education was premeditated. To protect the underdevelopment of the Cuban economy, they tried to produce in Cuba only underdeveloped men.

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