Ambiguities of the Cuban Revolution
Due to its historic dependence on the United States Cuba had long had the characteristic of whatChehabiand Linz term a “clienteliststate”—one in which political support is gained through exchanges of goods and wealth.Cuban society up until the Revolution was largely apolitical and non-ideological. While political parties and a strong, unionized working class existed in the 1930’s they were beset by internal conflict and corruption.FulgencioBatista had neither a forceful personality, nor any strong ideological position. He rose to power twice in Cuba because of his ability to make side-deals with political parties, (including the Communist Party who supported his bid for president in 1940)
Similarly, and unlike other nations in Latin America, the Cuban bourgeoisie had little organic relationship to the Armed Forces following Batista’s 1933 overthrow of Gerardo Machado and his restructuring of the army.Bastistawas in and out of power at least twice. He oversaw the coup against the failed government of Gerardo Machado in 1933, ran for president in 1939 and won, resigned in 1944 and seized power again in 1952.Batista’s second regime (1952-1959) was characterized by a combination of US backed economic expansion and authoritarianism. Batista suspended the 1940 constitution, revoked civil liberties and courted wealthy landowners and American business moguls (and the Mafia)
Batista also became fervently anti-communist, imprisoning, torturing and executing dissidents. (Conservative estimates vary between 1,000 and 2,000)Fidel Castro attempted to coordinate a guerrilla attack against Batista forces on July 26th1953, targeting the isolated Barrack ofMoncadato attain weapons. Castro’s designs on being elected to the Cuban senate had been derailed by Batista’s seizure of power a year earlier.Captured after the failure of theMoncadaattack, Castro was put on public trial and exiled to Mexico.
In Mexico, Castro met Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Guevara had recently come from Guatemala where he had witnessed the overthrow ofJacoboArbenz.Chehad been looking for a way to strike back against the United States for their role in the Guatemalan coup. Cuba, the US’ “best buddy” provided a perfect target.Cheenthusiastically joined Fidel’s revolutionary group called the “26thof July” movement.Fidel, his brother Raul,Che, Camilo Cienfuegos and 78 others embarked on the small yachtGranmaand sailed into Cuba in 1956, they headed to the SierraMaestramountains and coordinated guerrilla attacks and drew support from people in the countryside disaffected by Batista.
Castro would continue building support and making small-scale attacks on Batista strongholds. In 1958 Batista attempted to rout out Castro’s forces by sending a large section of his army into the mountains. Castro’s forces disarmed and defeated them using guerrilla tactics.In 1959 Castro led an army of 5000 into the city of Havana. Batista fled, Castro became the leader of Cuba.
In its first year, the revolution was ideologically ambiguous. Castro did not declare himself a Marxist. Most activities including rounding up and executing Batista supporters. Castro enjoyed unprecedented popular support.According to Samuel Farber the country was swept by a wave of optimism. Workers, Peasants, students and Cubans of the lower classes felt that the rotten social and political institutions of the republic would be transformed.Also during the first year, the country experienced an open political life, there was little restriction on the free-flow of ideas and multiple media organs of varying political views clashed with each other.
The United States initially welcomed the new government. Castro visited the United States in April, 1959 to an enthusiastic reception.In May 1959, Castro introduces an Agrarian Reform Law expropriating large and small farm holdings, by 1960 all Cuban industries are nationalized without compensation. Church holdings are also expropriated and private schooling illegalIn 1961 the USA breaks all diplomatic ties with Cuba and pronounces itself a safe haven for disaffected Cubans fleeing the revolution: supports an abortive invasion (Bay of Pigs)In July of that year the 26thof July movement merges with the People’s Socialist Party forming the IRO which would later become the Communist Party of Cuba. Cuba would thus become allies with the Soviet Union (New “best buddy”)
Castro, Marx and Marti
There is very little evidence that Castro had Communist sympathies in the 1950’s.In his “History will absolve me” speech, given at his public trial for his role in theMoncadainvasion, he makes no mention of Marxism, but rather defends his actions as those of a “faithful Cuban” opposing an illegitimate government (Batista)Nelson Valdes inIdeological Roots of the Cuban Revolutionary Movementputs forward the theory that Castro came to Communism laterally through his reading of Jose Marti’s philosophy.Marti’s writings praised collectivism, (via Whitman) Cuban identity, romanticism of thecampesino. It also opposed US imperialism.
Valdes proposes Julio AntonioMellaas a “transitionaryideologue” between Marti and Marx in Cuba.Mellafounded the Cuban Communist Party and was a reader of Marti. His assassination in Mexico in 1929 made him a symbolic martyr-figure for the Revolution.Cuban Communism would distinguish itself from Soviet Communism via its nationalistic and Romantic elements. At times the Soviets were highly critical of the Cubans and vice-versa.The Revolution (now capitalized) would foment and solidify a national identity suturing together Marti’s idealism with Marxist practice. The Revolution became a quasi-religious signifier encapsulating a quasi mythological Cuban identity.
Upsides and Downsides
Due to the mass-exodus of upper and middle-classes, the Revolution was able to proceed without much opposition. It’s organizing bodies were almost entirely composed of people from traditionally marginalized classes.The regime focused on increasing access to education, especially in ruralareas. Cuba’s literacy rate increased from 76% in 1958 to 90% by the mid sixties.The regime also ended racial discrimination in employment and education increasing the numbers of black students in Universities.
The regime also consolidated health-care providers into a single system, increasing access to people in rural areas. Health care was also made free, supported by the state.
Castro’s regime also, in Samuel Farber’s words, was a “political monolith enshrining a single point of view”. (2011, 11) This involved the slow creation of an “apparatus of repression” over the two years between 1959 and 1961.Castro, without cause, seized all critical and opposition presses, placing them under state control in May of 1960.The government also took control of mass-organizations, including those dedicated to Black and Women’s issues.
The regime also formed Committees for the Defense of the Revolution whose job was to “protect the revolutionary state” by establishing a system of “vigilence” (neighbourhoodspies. “While the CDR’s helped to protect the Cuban revolutionary state from sabotage and other violent activities aimed at destabilizing it, they also functioned as a major mechanism of social control (Farber 2011, 17)Each school and place of employment kept detailed dossiers on every worker, including personal information.The state had total control of the polity, economy and society (totalitarian)A new class system based on party membership, rather than family of birth formed. Those with close ties to the party had the greater share of benefits.
While the government repressed “violent” forms of dissent, it also repressed “non-violent” ones as wellTheregime also banned “microfactions”, basically non-State approved gatherings. This included a meeting by the StalinistAnibalEscalante to critically analyze the Cuban economic system from an Orthodox Stalinist perspective. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Revolutionary Youth Culture
In its early years the Revolution had an idealized view of Youth.“Losjovenes” were seen not only as the group that had brought about the victory against Batista but also as the architects of the new society.This lead to a veneration of youth which eventually clashed with what youth were actually doing
In a speech given in 1961 Castro described young people as “Universally healthy and generous”. He argues that representative democracies fail because they “can’t rely on the support of youth”This idealization was in part due to the history of radical youth movements in Cuba as far back as the 1920’s.It was also partially due to the notion that youth were less tainted by the “bourgeois past” representing “purity” and “enthusiasm”The Revolution primarily identified itself as a youth movement.CheGuevaraoften spoke “nosotroslosjovenes”
In the Early sixties, Castro’s government began separating itself from the younger generation in his speeches (Ustedeslosjovenes)The regime also started taking on a deterministic view of youth as a generation to be shaped by Revolutionary ideals of hard work and self-abnegation. “Not just [their energy] but also responsibility, not just youth but also purity, heroism, character, love for the Revolution and faith in it” (Castro, speech to the AJR, 29/09/63)“Porqueno sepuedeconsiderarningunjovenunrevolucionariocompleto?Porqueelrevolucionariotienequehacerse,tienequeforjarse”
Castro’s education strategy drew from a combination of Marx and Marti – “Sercultoesserlibre”.The Socialist “New Man” must be formed in terms of intellect as well as civil values. Education must also be universal and not racially divided.Three policy initiatives created in the sixties encouraged a combination of classroom instruction andlabourin rural areas “Escuelasal Campo” “Escuelasen el Campo” and “ColumnasJuveniles” This would inculcate students in Revolutionary values in the classroom, and then have them put them into practice in the fields.The work ethic also encouraged the militarization of civilian life. All labor activities were configured as part of the “lucha” or struggle. The Youth association AJR (AsociaciondeJovenesRebeldes) formed out of the armed forces and male students were expected to do military service at 16.Military Values (“moral ydisciplina”) became the model for youth education andbehavor.
The education system also placed a great deal of emphasis on sports.Sports not only “produced healthy minds in healthy bodies,” and “stimulated physical development and health” It also “developed attitudes ofcollectivisationand comradeship which assist in integrating the individual into the group.” (G.Torroella,)As the 1960’s advanced some young people refused to work or study, a youth “problem” came to be perceived. This created “moral panics” about indolence which created tougher policies. (Mandatory boarding schools, work camps)
In a speech in1963, Castrocondemned youthculturefor failingto live up to the Revolutionary ideal. “Porqueesoserrores?Porquetambienmuchagentejovenzuelanosabianiloqueeraunarevolucion, ycreiaquelascosassehaciande aporquesi” (Castro 1963)“Many of these idle and alienated individuals, the children of bourgeois families, roam the streets wearing trousers that are too tight; some of them carry a guitar, try to look like Elvis Presley, and have taken their licentious behavior to the extremes of wanting to frequent certain public places to organize their effeminate shows just as the fancy takes them. Socialist society cannot permit this type of behavior.” (Castro, 1963)
Founded in 1965 and abolished in 1967, UMAPs (UnidadesMilitaresdeAyudaa laProduccion) were forced labor camps.Originally begun to provide a place for young military personnel who were unfit for military service.Came to be used to “discipline” young men, first those who avoided work, then homosexuals, then any group deemed “counter-revolutionary”The camps were eventually closed due to both internal and external pressure.
In 1971, in the wake of the failed “10 milliontonnesugar harvest” the government tried several more initiatives based on fears of youth indolence.The “Ley contra lavagancia” of 1971 punished frequent absenteeism from work by sending the “criminal” to a re-education camp.Hippies were also frequently rounded up and shaved in front of the HotelCoppelia.From 1968 onward, artists and young people (those not celebrated by the revolution) began to experience repression for any activities or works deemed critical of the regime.
The “grey five year period” from 1971-1976 represents the Revolution’s harshest period of repression.Many artists who were professionally active at the time experienced public condemnation, loss of party membership, loss of employment, blacklisting or time served in jail.Some suggest that this period was brought about by a combination of economic difficulties and increasing reliance on Soviet aid
Also during the 1960’s the CIA made several attempts to destabilize the socialist government and assassinate Castro.The leadership began viewing everything that came from the United States/Western Europe as suspect. Including Rock Music. Censorship became widespread.Rock music and hippie culture were viewed as cultural threats and forms of “Imperialist Decadence”A complete revamping of the regime’s cultural policy surfaced during theCongresoCultural de La Habana in 1968 placing stricter criteria for censorship of “counterrevolutionary arts”.Cuban Youth, meanwhile, were both enthusiastic about the Revolution (and critical of its shortcomings) and interested in the musical and artistic works coming out of the West in the sixties.