In 1953, faced with a catastrophic fall in the price of sugar, representatives of the major sugar producing and consuming nations of the world met in London to agree a mechanism for stabilising the international sugar market. Cuba was heavily dependent on the export of sugar and any change in either the price received for the sugar crop, or the amount that could be sold, had a huge effect on the island’s economy. Despite having failed to diversify its economy into other areas to any great extent, by the 1950s Cuba had two independent markets for its sugar exports, one provided by the United States quota system and the other being the so-called ‘world market’. However, when the political threat of a reduction in the US quota coincided with a heavy fall in the price on the world market, the Cuban sugar industry faced a crisis. The Cuban government, which had come to power in a military coup in March 1952, had more economic problems to solve than just the falling price of sugar. A report for the World Bank had recommended wage cuts, easier dismissal regulations and mechanisation of industry as part of a package to raise productivity and increase profitability by reducing the share of the national income that went to labour. Cuban workers had a long tradition of militant defence of their wages and conditions, and so any attempt to increase productivity – which would have resulted in increased unemployment and lower standards of living for Cuban workers – required an authoritarian regime capable of overcoming resistance from the trade unions. Given the importance of sugar for the economy, any attempt to generally increase profitability could not succeed unless profits from sugar could be maintained, which in turn was dependent upon arresting the fall in world prices. The method chosen to implement the cut in exports, as required by the London Sugar Agreement, was to cut production by shortening the harvesting period. This served the double objective of reducing the amount of sugar on the world market, while reducing the plantation owners’ wage bill because the cane cutters were only paid during the actual harvest. Such an approach, given the militant traditions of the sugar workers, would bring the Batista regime into direct confrontation with the sugar workers and lead to their biggest strike for 20 years.
As both the London Sugar Agreement and the sugar workers’ strike of 1955 are largely ignored in modern historiography, this paper traces the course of events and argues that, in an economy dominated by an industry that was so dependent on international market conditions, the contradiction between the needs of capital and labour would give the Cuban workers good reason to support the revolution in 1959. Starting from a discussion of the detailed relationship between sugar price fluctuations and the crisis in the Cuban economy, it can be seen how this led to participation in the London Sugar Agreement. The fact that this in turn brought the government and employers into conflict with the sugar workers requires an explanation of Cuban working-class politics and traditions of struggle. Before recounting the details of the 1955 strike, the paper continues with an analysis of the US sugar-quota system and an explanation of the manner in which American domestic politics exacerbated the already grave problems of the Cuban sugar industry. Finally, it argues that the different perceptions of the sugar workers and their employers as to the outcome of the strike led to increased working-class support for the revolutionary forces at the same time as many capitalist interests became disillusioned with the dictatorship.