Playing politics in Tropico 4 (II of II): Guevara’s socialist Tropico

Image credit: Jack Harvey Image does not depict game playthrough described below!
Image credit: Jack Harvey
Image does not depict game playthrough described below!

Shortly after ending an article with the conclusion that Tropico 4 could not be played, I re-installed it on my laptop and started playing as a banana republic dictator once again. Determined to play out the challenge I had made to a friend, I played the game twice, under the same conditions and in the same ‘location’; once as a capitalist, the other as a socialist.

In the second playthrough I selected Che Guevara, the face on thousands of students’ walls, to lead Tropico into the establishment of a socialist society. I felt that Guevara was the embodiment of left-wing ideology, though I would not employ of any of his violent ideas to the development of the island. Tropico 4 includes capitalists and communists, making no distinction between communism and socialism, so I had to appeal to the communists of the game but to the socialism of real life, at least as far as I understand it.

While Pinochet cut wages in his first year, Guevara upped them. Engaging keenly in public investment moved the Tropican economy into debt within two years of Guevara’s tenure as Presidente – I feared that he would be voted out in the first election, an embarrassing situation to report to my capitalist chum. But Guevara’s heavy investment in farms paid off: the people of Tropico were so well-fed that most food was sold abroad, bringing in a vast profit at a higher rate than in my first playthrough as a capitalist. I was bowled over as I earned $80,000 from a mere 127 inhabitants within seven years of socialism.

1959 saw Guevara achieve a second democratic term in charge of the island. The budget peaked at $114,173, wages were already higher than the Caribbean average, and the best (and most expensive) housing was already being constructed. This, I felt, was the opportunity for a massive public investment programme. A large amount of public funds went into bringing in foreign labour to ensure that the economy continued to move, while housing continued to be funded by the government. A 1961 tornado could not stop Guevara’s commitment to socialism, granting the people free housing and double food rations in that year.

Finally, in 1963, all of this good fortune came to an end. The income gained from exports was overcome by the maintenance costs and high wages paid out, to the point where the economy went from achieving a major surplus yearly to a major debt crisis. Three years later, Tropico was high in debt, with striking workers and, bizarrely, the religious members of Tropico slandering their leader. (Considering the fact that, as a socialist, I had not built a single church on the island, the ‘Religious Faction Disaster’ would not have any real effect.)

With each boat in the docks came immigrants, discovering that there was no work for them. Unlike in real life, the Tropico 4 government cannot create anything once its government is over $10,000 in debt. There was no way of growing the economy by constructing profit-making things. In a humiliating move I had no choice but to revoke socialised housing and give everyone a huge wage cut. To keep the economy going I did not wish to sack anyone and let unemployment get out of control, but with such low wages, rents started going unpaid. To keep unemployment down Guevara forbade immigration until the economy stabilised.

Hanging around in low debt, Guevara debt-financed new farms and mines. It was not until 1974 that a considerable profit was made. The economy was back on track, construction went ahead and wages could slowly rise. Within a year, Guevara had an alliance with the USSR and $90,000 in the kitty. Wages returned to the pre-crisis levels and Guevara won another election 297 to 118 in 1979, sealing his seat in office as the game ended in 1980.

What was notable about this playthrough? I sought to uphold socialist principles, something that gamers have admitted is hard in Tropico 4.

  • industry only developed in the late 1970s as a result of the huge debt crisis; before that, factory-based industry had not been developed out of respect for the environment
  • wage inequality was kept as low as possible; the top wage earners earned, at the most, three dollars more daily than the middle class
  • no churches were built; Guevara couldn’t care less about the religious demands of the population
  • no banks or stock exchanges were built; all production was state-owned
  • the best houses that could be afforded by the state were constructed for the people, usually with no rents
  • social security was paid to students and retirees, food consumption was doubled

So who won? Pinochet’s capitalist government had scored 20899; Guevara’s socialist government had scored 20769. By a very small margin, it seems that a free-market-oriented government did better than a socialist government!

Along the way, some economic principles that could be applied to real life did reveal themselves, most notably when the socialist government plunged into huge debt. At first, export income brought in vast profits, enabling vast investment; but when upkeep and wages cost more than the money earned, the economy went into the negative zone. Costs beat profits, meaning that there was only one thing that the player could do. The solution, however, was not quite like real life. In Tropico 4, without good luck, austerity is forced upon the player, as nothing that could generate more profits can be created when the economy dips past a certain point; in the real world, borrowing and debt-financing has far greater boundaries.

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Jack Harvey

Alumni & Public Relations Officer at The Yorker
Comment and Politics Editor 2015/2016, Editor 2016/2017, Alumni & Public Relations Officer 2017/2018 and acting, 2018/2019. Waiting to graduate with MA in Philosophy at University of York in 2019.