January 1, 1959 marked the beginning of a new era for the Republic of Cuba, an era in which the society would be transformed through socialist revolution. The new political model addressed the needs of the majority of the inhabitants and rebuilt Cuban society in the 1960s. These changes directly threatened the power that private businesses and foreign interests had on the island.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 arose from a movement that was led by a young lawyer, Fidel Castro Ruz. His immediate goal was to put an end to the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista and rebuild the country by removing the leaders and business owners who had been controlled by foreign interests since the founding of the Republic. The obvious repression and violence the island suffered after the coup led by Fulgencio Batista on March 10, 1952, as well as the high rate of unemployment, served to mobilize diverse sectors of society to join together in opposition to the regime.
The opposition’s success is attributed to the combination of social classes that joined forces to put an end to the Batista government’s control over the island’s population. Among the opposition were workers, students, intellectuals, professionals and members of the Catholic Church who were willing to speak out against the violations of human rights. Although groups with varied political interests joined the anti-Batista struggle, credit for the revolution’s victory was given to the 26th of July Movement. This movement became known at the national and international level with its attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.
The attack on the Moncada barracks led to the arrest and imprisonment of Fidel Castro and some of the members of the movement. During his prison sentence, Castro represented himself in a trial that attracted attention around the world. His defense, later published under the title “History Will Absolve Me,” appealed to the sensibilities of many Cubans who were outraged by the crisis on the island. His moving defense, framed in patriotic rhetoric, called for a new Cuba that would break from the patterns established under Spanish colonialism and perpetuated by the Platt Amendment in 1934, which had guaranteed the United States the right to intervene in the island when it considered its interests threatened. By using his legal defense to draw attention to the social injustice that pervaded the island, he disseminated the movement’s goals to the public.
Fidel Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, strong popular and international pressure led the Congress to grant him amnesty on May 13, 1955. Months earlier, Batista had been declared president after an electoral process in which his opponents did not participate. Immediately after he was freed, Fidel Castro went into exile in Mexico along with a group of rebels. On this strategic trip, Castro came to know the well-known Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Meeting at a ranch on the outskirts of Mexico City, they developed a strategy for an armed uprising. Castro then traveled to the United States, looking for allies for his revolutionary cause. He returned to the island in 1956 along with 82 men, twelve of whom survived the battle when they arrived. Among the survivors were Fidel, Raúl Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Once in Cuba, the rebels holed up in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The topography of the lushly forested mountainous region allowed them to develop guerilla strategies to fight against Batista’s armed forces.
Citizens in both the country and the city supported the 26th of July Movement insurgents. The tactical organization of the movement divided the members into individual cells in charge of specific activities, such as collecting funds by selling bonds in workplaces, providing housing to the insurgents, transportation of munitions and propaganda, and other tasks. Each cell had limited information about the movement so plans would not be compromised if one cell was captured. The combination of a civil base and the seizure of military regiments around the island led to the insurgents’ advance on Havana, where the Batista government was thrown out of its military base. Without support from the United States, Batista was defenseless, and on January 1, 1959, he decided to flee the country. With Batista gone and the insurgents in Havana, the triumph of the Revolution was officially declared. That same year, Fidel Castro declared himself prime minister. He remained in that position until 1976, the year he assumed the presidency of the Council of State, which included the leadership of the state and the government.
Among the first changes implemented by the revolutionary government was the wide-ranging Agrarian Reform. In this first stage of this reform, implemented in 1959, landholdings larger than 993 acres were expropriated and, in 1963, those larger than 165 acres were expropriated. The second phase of the reform left 70% of the fertile land under state control. The majority of this land had belonged to United States companies such as the United Fruit Company, which also controlled vast landholdings in Central America.
The expropriation of the land caused significant conflict between the island and the United States. In May of 1960, the Cuban government pushed that relationship to the breaking point by establishing diplomatic and trade relations with the Soviet Union — the main ideological adversary of the United States during the Cold War. Cuba established a trade relationship in which the Soviets agreed to buy 425,000 tons of sugar from Cuba immediately and a million tons over the next four years. In addition to benefiting from the sale of sugar, the relationship with the Soviet Union supported the government by bringing the island $100 million in credit, technical assistance, and both crude and refined oil. This relationship with the United States’ main adversary caused friction between the island and Washington. The U.S. government decided to eliminate the quota of sugar it bought from Cuba. Trade and political relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated quickly. The revolutionary government began to expropriate and nationalize all of the U.S. companies on the island. In January of 1961, the U.S. government imposed an economic embargo on Cuba, which prevented trade between the two countries and prohibited United States citizens from traveling to the island.
In addition to his efforts to dismantle the Cuban economy, President Kennedy of the United States provided financing and military training for a group of Cuban exiles who landed at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, with the goal of overthrowing the new revolutionary government. The group did not count on the government’s intelligence work or the efforts by the Cuban public to protect the new government. The 1,200 invaders were captured and eventually handed over to the United States in exchange for $53 million in provisions and medicines. In November of the same year, Fidel Castro declared the Revolution to be socialist in nature. The following year, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev began to install missiles on the island aimed at the United States. When the United States intelligence services obtained proof of the missiles, the incident known as “The Cuban Missile Crisis” was unleashed. The incident led to a threat by President Kennedy to invade the island. Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union positioned the island in the center of an ideological dispute between two world powers. As a result, the Cuban economy came to depend significantly on Soviet economic aid.
The strong wave of expropriation and nationalization led many wealthy Cubans to go into exile in the United States and other countries. Between 1959 and 1965, approximately 215,000 Cubans, many of them members of the island’s middle class, settled in the United States. For many of them, the new government was a threat to their privileged way of life and their economic future.
The agrarian reform was well received by many landless rural people and farm workers, however, as it provided a stable source of jobs. Many Cuban families in the countryside depended on seasonal agricultural work for their main sustenance. In the months between harvests, many subsisted on credit offered by the small stores run by the same landowner who hired them to work the land and harvest crops. As a result, most rural families amassed debts during times of unemployment that they could not pay off with the meager salaries they earned during the productive months. The labor situation also had a direct impact on the quality of life, limiting access to costly doctors, education and housing. In the face of these serious social problems, the revolutionary government developed health, hygiene and literacy campaigns in the early 1960s that extended to even the most remote parts of the island.
The health, hygiene and literacy campaigns were carried out by thousands of young volunteers who were trained in intensive programs and then sent to spend a season in the homes of families in the interior of the island. During their stay, they taught all the members of the family to read, which led to admiration for and loyalty to the Revolution. The literacy campaign was a success and made education a right for every citizen, not just a luxury that only a minority could afford. Access to education, housing and medical services cemented the loyalty of many Cubans to the new government and increased their willingness to participate in these programs.
The exodus of a large number of professionals, however, left a gap in the population best prepared to rebuild Cuba’s society, politics and economy. This factor explains the Cuban government’s emphasis on educating its citizens and the immediate incorporation of women into the Revolution through the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC for its Spanish acronym). Under the leadership of Vilma Espín, one of the fighters in the Sierra Maestra and the sister-in-law of Fidel Castro, all of the women’s organizations that had supported the Revolution were joined together in the FMC. The FMC’s role was central to the development of the Revolution, as it created a very organized structure that gave Cuban women a role in building a new Cuba. At the same time, it created a space where Cuban women could articulate their needs and speak out for new opportunities that transformed central elements of the island’s gender relationships. For example, through the FMC, the government subsidized abortion, expanded women’s opportunities for education and work, and included in the 1976 Constitution the Family Code, which made men and women responsible for domestic aspects of the home. These measures put Cuba on the map internationally in the context of the feminist struggles in Western countries for legislative changes as important steps toward equality of rights and opportunities between men and women.
The development of social programs and services for the public were possible, in part, due to the economic relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union. However, the measure in which the Soviet Communist model was adopted and the lack of both economic growth and freedom of expression, led to social discontent among many Cubans who anxiously looked for a way to escape the island. The government’s restrictions on allowing citizens to leave the country increased the criticism from the international community about Cubans’ lack of freedom. It was in that context that the revolutionary government decided to open the port of Mariel in 1980 so that anyone who wanted to leave the island could do so. In addition to the citizens who voluntarily set sail for Miami, the Cuban government kicked out many common criminals by opening the doors of the jails and sending the inmates to the United States.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, in combination with the ongoing embargo imposed by the United States, led to rationing of food, energy and other products. The Cuban economy was kept afloat thanks to investments from Europe, Latin America and Canada, mainly in tourism. Additionally, changes were slowly implemented that allowed companies to import and export products without special permits. Despite the state’s measures, residents of the island continued to risk their lives on homemade boats known as “balsas” to sail to the coast of Florida in the United States.
From the “Special Period” to the present
The dissolution of the Soviet Union led to a new stage of the Cuban Revolution called the “Special Period.” From the 1990s on, the island has faced a precarious economic situation, leaving behind the notion that this would be a passing stage in the Revolution. The economic difficulties and the lack of opportunity and civil liberties have led many Cubans to abandon their homeland to settle mainly in the United States, Europe and various countries in Latin America. The remittances sent home by these exiles are the main source of income for many families in Cuba.
The Cuban government has also undertaken various transformations in response to the island’s economic crisis and the absence of Fidel Castro from political life. After his illness in 2006, Castro handed over power to his brother, Raúl, who in 2008 officially became president of Cuba. Under Raúl Castro’s leadership, the island has developed strong economic relations with China and Venezuela. Diplomatic relations with the United States continue to be affected by the embargo, despite President Barack Obama’s intentions to establish a dialogue with the island.
Author: Johanna Moya Fábregas, Ph.D.
Published: April 13, 2012.
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