Dudley Seers provides a good point of departure in the preface to Cuba: The Economic and Social Revolution by stating that:

“In all the speculation about its role in global politics, we tend to overlook two points about Cuba. The first is that this government of a somewhat backward, tropical country, traditionally dependent on sugar exports, is attempting to achieve a very rapid rate of social change and economic growth. Second, the former plantation economy of Cuba is now using techniques of highly centralized planning; it is in fact the only major exporter of primary products to have taken this path”.

What requires emphasis is that Cuba has emerged from the cocoon of the plantation system which still, in one way or another, envelopes the rest of the Caribbean. All the territories have shared a history of colonization, of slavery, of sugar, of foreign-owned plantations and of domination by one metropolitan power or another. The Cuban government and people are today trying to come to terms with the same problems confronting the rest of the region. The problems of economic and social backwardness – of unemployment, poverty and ignorance – were created by a similar set of circumstances. The solutions to these problems may, therefore, be of general applicability in different parts of the region. Cuba is, on this account, relevant to the Caribbean.

This is, of course, not the first case of a Caribbean country experimenting with a development model which may have significance for the region as a whole. Puerto Rico had set a pattern earlier with a development model which was subsequently copied in quick succession by nearly all the other territories. The difference with Puerto Rico, however, is that the American media of communication paint a glowing picture of developments there, while they present a dismal picture of Cuba.

For Caribbean peoples, the difference between Cuba and Puerto Rico is one which it is necessary to explore at some length. The two countries represent what have been described respectively, as the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ models of economic development and social change.

The active model involves a radical transformation of the economy. In the West Indian case, this means a complete transfer of the dynamic for change from outside the society to within. This involves a complete erosion of the plantation system with its inherent capacity for metropolitan control. For, as Lloyd Best has suggested in a paper soon to be published, it is largely this outside control which has inhibited the development of an internal cultural and technological dynamic within the region. A preliminary examination of the case suggests that the plantation system has a built-in capacity to maintain itself. This is precisely why the active model calls for a complete break.

On the other hand, the passive model means a retention of the traditional order. It is based on policies which do not disturb established metropolitan connections. Operationally, it involves the creation of the ‘right’ environment in order to attract foreign capital and management and to maintain traditional foreign markets. (“Industrialization by invitation” is the feature of the development policy). The dynamic for change, therefore, remains in the metropolis while local political leaders, bureaucrats and technicians busy themselves creating a “welcoming society”. Per capita income grows but there is little or no change in its distribution.

This is the choice that faces Caribbean peoples. And it is from this point of view that we need to inform the choice with appraisals of the experiences of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Through the instrumentality of American media of communication, it is general knowledge that Puerto Rico has achieved considerable material advance, in the sense that per capita income has increased spectacularly since the War. Little or no publicity is, however, given to the facts presented by Seda in the last issue of New World Quarterly that the rate of illiteracy in that island is as much as 18%; that 14% of the labour force remains chronically unemployed; that American firms account for 88% of Puerto Rico’s annual investments; that the social structure is characterised by a small group of American managers and businessmen at the top, their supporting Puerto Rican characters in the middle and the bulk of the population selling their services in the cheap labour market at the bottom; and that the passive model of development has tended to erode Puerto Rican value system. This does not reflect well on the passive model, especially when it is appreciated that Puerto Rico has special arrangements that provide it with free access to the American market and easy migration of labour to the mainland; arrangements which are not likely to be extended to any other of the territories.

The passive model has had similar and characteristic results in all the other Caribbean countries which have followed Puerto Rico: Jamaica, Trinidad, Guiana, Surinam, Barbados and elsewhere. In every case, this development model “has produced characteristic Caribbean results: duality in the social system, disequalization of the national wealth, disorder in the labour market, dependence on the outside world and disaffection among the population – all in a context of expanding output and rising population”. (Best). Since these phenomena have been a feature of the Caribbean economy since its colonization, it is clear that the passive model only serves to reinforce the traditional order.

The failure of the passive model is all the more reason why Cuba is of special relevance to the Caribbean. What are the possibilities, problems and prospects for a Caribbean society operating with an active transition model? In spite of the fact that data are hard to get and that it is still too early to judge (seven years being too short a period to observe long-term processes), some attempt must be made to consider this question seriously.

The rest of the present article is based largely on the author’s own impressions from a visit, even though every effort has been made to substantiate these personal notes and information with what reliable data prove available from standard sources such as United Nations publications and the volume edited by Dudley Seers.