Che as minister: The promotion of science and technology for Cuba’s socialist development

Che Guevara in Havana

First published at Globalizations on August 23.

Abstract: As Minister of Industries in Cuba between 1961 and 1965, Che Guevara addressed the challenge of increasing production and labour productivity in conditions of underdevelopment and in transition to socialism, without relying on capitalist mechanisms that undermine the formation of new consciousness and social relations integral to socialism. Under capitalism, Guevara noted, competition for private profit drives the application of science and technology to industrial development, revolutionising the productive forces. Socialist governments must find alternative methods. To these ends, Guevara set up nine research and development institutes, focussing on sugar cane derivatives, minerals and metals, the chemical industries, agricultural by-products, the mechanical industry, technological innovations, and automation. He established an institutional framework to begin experimentation at different ends of the production chain simultaneously. The short-term results were inevitably limited, but more significant than the productive achievements attained was the methodology introduced, the application of science and technology to production.

Speaking at the Cuban Academy of Sciences in mid-January 1960, one year after the Cuban revolutionaries took power, Fidel Castro declared: ‘The future of Cuba will be a future of men of science’ (Castro Ruz, 1960). This must have seemed like a pipe dream, given the backward state of Cuban scientific research and generally low level of literacy and education.1 The Revolution, declared Castro, needed thinking people who would put their intelligence to ‘good’, on the side of ‘justice’, in the interests of the nation. A succession of programmes, regulations and institutions followed; the Literacy Campaign in 1961, the University Reform Law of 1962, the establishment of the National Centre for Scientific Research in 1965. New schools, colleges and universities were built, new teachers trained. Thousands of technicians, educators and advisors arrived from Latin America, the socialist countries and elsewhere. Thousands of Cuban students studied overseas.

The endeavour to harness science and technology for national development was championed by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Cuba’s Minister of Industries, between 1961 and 1965. Guevara developed a unique system of economic management for the transition to socialism in Cuban conditions, known as the Budgetary Finance System (BFS). His practical policies were the product of three lines of enquiry: the study of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system; engagement in contemporary socialist political economy debates; and recourse to the technological and administrative advances of capitalist corporations (Yaffe, 2009).

Guevara perceived socialism as a phenomenon of both technology and consciousness. Advanced technology, including electronics, automation and computing, would facilitate productivity gains based on technological innovations and administrative controls and not by appeals to workers’ self-interest, via material incentives, or by increasing labour exploitation. Adopting the most advanced technologies and techniques would facilitate Cuba to ‘burn through stages’ of development. Guevara insisted:

We cannot follow the development process of the countries which initiated capitalist development … to begin the slow process of developing a very powerful mechanical industry, before passing on to other superior forms, metallurgy, then chemicals and automation after that. We have to burn through stages. And … try always to make use of the best world technology, without fear. (Guevara, 1962a, p. 140)

Under capitalism, noted Guevara, competition for profits drove the application of science and technology to industrial development, constantly revolutionising the productive forces. The socialist government had to find a method for fostering the application of science and technology to production without relying on capitalist mechanisms, which would hinder Cuba’s socialist transition. An immediate rise in productivity could be achieved just by rationalising production, improving wealth distribution and offering incentives to workers. However, the precondition to sustained economic development was research and innovations. How could this be achieved in an underdeveloped country emerging from dictatorship and imperialist domination via violent revolution – blockaded, attacked and in transition to socialism?

In the search for solutions to this challenge Guevara set up an apparatus within the Ministry of Industries (MININD) to institutionalise research and development for industrial production.

Download a PDF version of article by clicking the link below