Looking at Cuba's Revolution 61 Years On
In the popular imagination, the Cuban revolution
that took place 61 years ago was as a heroic act of a group of guerrilla
fighters led by the charismatic Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. This perception
does not do full justice to the many internal complexities of the revolution.
It is also perceived as the overthrow of a dictator by a group of young
adventurers, inspired by the rich tradition of armed struggle against Spanish
colonialism in the19th century. Therefore, this revolution is often categorised
as a mere subset of communist revolutions. In doing so, some of its unique
features are papered over.
Because of its association with guerrilla warfare
and the immense popularity of Che Guevara, the Cuban revolution is often
romanticised at the cost of its intricacies. Indeed there is much to fuel the
romantic imagery of those days: the young heavily-bearded revolutionaries or
barbudos, the failed attack on the Moncada barracks on 26 July 1953, the arrest
of lawyer-turned-rebel leader, Castro himself.
Castro prepared his historic four-hour "history
will absolve me" speech in prison, and it became the manifesto of the 26 July
Movement. The romantic imagery of the Cuban revolution owes itself also to the
series of events and how they unfolded: the historic landing of the shabby
wooden ship, nicknamed Granma, which was carrying 82 rebels from a safe house in
Mexico to a small Cuban Island in the rain and storm; the escape of the Castro
brothers, Camilo Cienfuegos and Guevara, starved and exhausted, and the few
others who escaped with them but ran into government patrols and spotter planes
the moment they crashed on the swamps of Oriente province.
But the Cuban revolution, which reshaped the
political landscape of Latin America and pushed the world to the brink of nuclear
war, as exemplified by the Cuban Missile Crisis, is much more than two years of
guerilla warfare. After the death of Castro, its paramount leader, in 2006,
academicians and scholars have attempted to trace how a socialist government
came to be established on this tiny island nation in the Caribbean sea.
Essentially, what we call the Cuban revolution
began as a multi-class, anti-dictatorship political movement that later
transformed into a socialist revolution. Perhaps the Cuban Socialist revolution
is the only one in history not initially led by a communist party leader with a
well-defined program. The Communist Party of Cuba, which is in power today, was
formed in 1965, six years after the revolution. The political movement
transitioned into a social revolution after the attack on Moncada barracks on
26 July 1953, which we know as the 26 July Movement.
The movement began with a group of unemployed
youth, industrial and farm workers led by Castro, who decided to undertake an
armed struggle after his failed attempt to challenge the constitutionality of
then president Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship in Cuban Courts. The revolution
then unfolded in two phases.
The first was the insurrection, in which the
peasants played the primary role, along with intellectuals and a few student
groups. The political economy context of the time was the growing imperialistic
influence of the United States, especially over the backbone of the Cuban
economy at the time, the sugar industry. The brutal rule of Batista along with
comparatively slower economic growth led to unemployment and widened the gap
between the rich and the poor. These were the prime reasons for growing popular
discontent among a significant section of Cubans.
The second phase began after the dictatorship was
overthrown and it was enmeshed within the politics of the Cold War. This phase
was far more complex compared to the insurrection phase.
Earlier, Castro had tried to keep himself and his
movement at a distance from communism. His alliance with the Popular Party of
Cuba (the Communist Party of Cuba before 1944) was motivated by the party's organisational strengths. But during the second phase, Castro slowly and
steadily began to move towards Marxism-Leninism.
Analysts now say that before the victory Castro never
claimed to be a Marxist, though two members of his group, Raul, his brother,
and Guevara, were avowed and vocal communists.
In the insurrection phase, alliances had been
formed with different groups in the context of fighting Batista's forces rather
than on the basis of concrete ideological considerations. But in the second
phase, the revolution became more complex as the attention turned to the future
of a country that had for a very long time been dominated by American economic
and political imperialism.
The course the Cuban revolution took under Castro
was influenced by the socio-economic and political developments since the
country's independence from Spain and the continuous US intervention in Cuban
politics during Batista's dictatorship. In an article he wrote in 1963 for
the New Left Review, British historian Robin Blackburn provides rich empirical data on the
structure of Cuban society in the immediate post-revolution phase. According to
him, there were around 4,00,000 highly-unorganised urban proletariat, 2,50,000
petit bourgeoisie, around 5,70,000 rural workers, a peasantry of 2,50,000. The
largest category was of the unemployed, around 7,00,000 who lived in shanty
After becoming prime minister, Castro took on a
massive program of nationalising industries, education and health. He
instituted agrarian reform, including land programs that directly benefited
2,00,000 peasants. He raised the pay of petit bourgeoisie officials at the
expense of higher-ranked officials. As a large chunk of the land and factories
were controlled by US capital, and the nationalisation project was seen as 'socialist', the infant revolutionary socialist state garnered US ire. This
manifested in the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
The second post-revolutionary phase of the
revolution was influenced by Castro's leadership skills. This phase allowed his
brilliant statesmanship to rise to the fore. Castro started a project to bring
together various influential forces in Cuba, which led to the Integrated
Revolutionary Organisation or ORI in 1961. It comprised of the Castro-led 26
July Movement, the Popular Socialist Party and the initially anti-communist
Student Revolutionary Directorate led by Faure Chomon. In 1962, the ORI become
the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, which in 1965 became the
Communist Party of Cuba.
In this way, the history and development of the
Cuban ruling party of today are deeply influenced by the course of the Cuban
Sixty one years on, the Cuban revolution has
survived the Cold War, the fall of the Communist bloc and severe embargos by
the United States. Cuba is the only one of four socialist states modelled on
the principles of Marxism-Leninism. The Cuban revolution and its leaders have inspired
people and movements around the world and continue to do so.
The author is a research
scholar at JNU. The views are persona