Letters From the Editor

I Make Bad Trebek

People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and people who write questions for contests should avoid ambiguous phrases, lest they spend their weekend in the library double-checking an answer they thought was airtight.

Recently, we showcased a gallery of work by photographer Marshall Sokoloff, and with his generosity and some sponsorship by Jewelboxing, we were able to throw a contest hawking two of Marshall’s prints. The question for the contest was:
What year did Fidel Castro begin nationalizing all U.S.-owned companies in Cuba?
The contest stated that readers had (about) a week to answer, and two winners would receive a framed print in the mail. Predictably, most people went straight to Google; I know because lots of people pasted text from various websites related to Cuban history into their emails (including quite a few people who got it wrong). Reading through the entries, I thought it would be a simple case of separating the rights from the wrongs, but enough people made strong arguments for a different answer than the one I had pegged as correct.

‘Hmm,’ I thought, and scratched my handsome chin. Eventually it started to bleed and I knew I had a real humdinger, so while my wife ran errands around the city this weekend, I headed to the books.

The correct answer, as I believed and most readers guessed, is 1960. From James D. Rudolph’s Cuba: A Country Study:
On July 5, 1960…the United States canceled Cuba’s quota for sugar exports to the United States. Cuba then nationalized United States enterprises operating in the country, including 36 centrales, the Cuban Telegraph and Telephone Company, the Cuban Electric Company, and all oil refineries. Three-hundred-and-eight-two other large enterprises, all Cuban, and most foreign banks were nationalized on October 13…finally, on October 17 the remaining United States banking institutions were nationalized. These steps enabled Cuba to quicken the pace of socialization of the means of production.
And from The Cambridge History of Latin America:
The pace of deterioration in U.S.-Cuban relations quickened in the spring and summer of 1960. In late June the Cuban government requested the foreign-owned petroleum refineries to process crude oil it had purchased from the Soviet Union. When the companies [Standard Oil, Texaco, and Shell, as noted by Louis A. Pérez, Jr. in Cuba: Between Reform & Revolution – ed.] refused they were expropriated…On July 5, the Cuban Council of Ministers authorized the expropriation of U.S. property in Cuba…On July 15 the newly established Bank for Foreign Trade became Cuba’s sole foreign-trade agency. On August 7 the expropriation of all large U.S.-owned industrial and agrarian enterprises was carried out, and on September 17 all U.S. banks were confiscated…On October 24, Cuba expropriated all U.S.-owned wholesale and retail trade enterprises and the remaining smaller U.S.-owned industrial and agrarian enterprises.
However, my question wasn’t so simple in the first place. Many entrants noted my murky language in the question – specifically the use of ‘begin’ – and made convincing arguments for 1959 as the correct answer, when the Agrarian Reform Act was issued (May, 1959).

Though that act wasn’t primarily meant to nationalize foreign businesses, many U.S. businesses were affected; in fact, as noted in the previously-mentioned Cambridge history, that year ‘Fidel Castro obtained generous concessions from Shell in exchange for forgoing expropriation “at this time,”’ and, ‘The Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA) was more willing to intervene in labor-management conflicts when farms were foreign-owned, and to suspend the strict application of the law in these cases to expropriate foreign-owned land. Such agrarian conflicts soured U.S.-Cuban relations.’

So, the decision was made to accept entries citing either 1959 or 1960, and, after drawing two entries randomly, we are pleased to announce that Zach Feldberg and Jonfox24 have each won a print. However, if you would like a print for yourself, you can always contact Marshall directly.

Next contest (and, happily, I can say that there will be more contests in the future), the question will be multiple-choice, and hopefully have a whole number for an answer. Until then I’ve applied a band-aid to my chin and gone back to my regular restful state of extreme panic about nuclear technology sold to stateless terrorists.



Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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