Since 1959

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Since 1959

The Cuban Revolution has passed through three phases since it triumphed on 1 January 1959. In phase one, from 1959 to 1965, Fidel Castro consolidated political power with the collaboration of the popular classes; the second era, from 1965 to 1991, featured the institutionalization of communist rule with predominant economic and international alliances with Soviet Bloc and Third World countries; and the final phase, the Special Period, began with the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Although circumstances and external relationships differed from one phase to the next, several tendencies of the Cuban Revolution have endured. The revolutionary leadership maintained Cuba on a definite anti-U.S., anti-imperialist course. As a second consistent feature, the revolution has steadfastly upheld the power and authority of Castro, whose leadership has enforced redistributive social policies providing free educational, medical, and employment opportunities to all loyal citizens. Finally, the economy of Cuba has been so thoroughly subordinated to the previous three concerns that it has lost dynamism and became ever more dependent on outside factors, whether Soviet largess or currently a tightly controlled opening to non-U.S. capital and tourism. Of the three phases, the first was the most important in establishing these lasting features of the revolution.


New Year's Day of 1959 filled Cubans with possibilities and hope. The first crisis of the revolution consisted of dealing with an interim government set up by generals of the army of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. The dominant rebel armed force, the Movimiento 26 de Julio (M26) of Fidel Castro, quickly moved to eliminate this threat. Castro sent two guerrilla columns into Havana and called for a general strike that neutralized Batista's former supporters. The old army quickly collapsed, laying the groundwork for the hasty arrival of the government-in-exile, made up of M26 collaborators and distinguished political opponents of the dictatorship. By prior agreement, the government of President Manuel Urrutia with José Miró Cardona as its prime minister prepared to revive the Constitution of 1940 and to set up elections. Comandante (major) Castro served as chief of the revolutionary armed forces, which consisted of batistiano soldiers not involved in atrocities, officers previously imprisoned by Batista for insubordination, secondary rebel forces such as the Directorio Revolucionario (DR), and the more numerous guerrillas of M26. Officers from Castro's own revolutionary movement took over the highest commands of the new army.

In the first months of 1959, the principal question concerned the intentions of Castro. His entry into Santiago de Cuba on New Year's Day had been triumphal, as were his slow journey westward and his reception eight days later in Havana, the nation's capital. The people who filled the streets and stood in the blazing sun for his several-hours long orations attributed to Castro all of the credit for overthrowing the dictatorship. His pronouncements as a rebel against Batista had proclaimed elections as well as social reforms, but two of his closest associates in M26, his brother Raúl Castro (b. 1931) and the Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara (1928–1967), had espoused more radical ideas. One thing had already become evident: Castro's anti-Americanism. When foreign officials and news media criticized the revolutionary trials and executions of hundreds of batistianos for war crimes, Castro asked why the U.S. government had refrained from criticizing the Batista dictatorship for its torture and murder of the "heroic" youth of the revolution. He also demanded that American officials extradite to Cuba those "war criminals" who had fled to the United States with wealth plundered from the Cuban people. The American government did not respond. In the first six weeks of the revolution, the Cuban public seemed to respond more strongly to Castro's leadership than to that of the interim government. Therefore, when Prime Minister Miró Cardona resigned in mid-February, the cabinet quickly replaced him with the only logical choice—Fidel.

Castro moved speedily to institute several policies at once. He designed a land reform decree that divided up the largest sugar and tobacco plantations into smaller farms; established the National Institute of Agrarian Reform to administer the decree; and, without any publicity whatever, brought in members of the old communist party to take up positions in military and agrarian affairs. As American landowners complained about the lack of prompt compensation for their properties, Castro branded them agents of imperialism. As Catholic laypersons, the independent press, and even some members of M26 complained of the communist presence in the government, Castro equated these whistleblowers with traitors and counterrevolutionaries. In the meantime, the prime minister attended labor meetings and urged the unions to rid their leadership of the former collaborators of the dictatorship. His armed forces, now commanded by Raúl Castro, began to raise militia units from among the unions and the universities. Their purpose was to defend the revolution against its enemies—foreign as well as domestic. Former M26 guerrilla comandantes like Huber Matos resigned, an act of betrayal that earned him a twenty-two-year jail sentence; another popular comandante, Camilo Cienfuegos, died mysteriously in a plane crash. In the universities, the government purged the faculties of counterrevolutionaries and replaced them with leftists. When students protested these changes, they faced dismissal by disciplinary committees. By the end of 1960, the last of the independent newspapers and radio stations reverted to state ownership.

The exodus of the Cuban middle class was also reaching alarming proportions. A few politicians and rebel army officers began leaving for exile, but the land reforms followed by seizure of rental properties under the urban reform laws shook the propertied and professional classes. Well-to-do families sent their children abroad and joined them after attempting to settle their affairs in Cuba. At that moment, armed opponents of the revolutionary regimes went into the Escambray and other mountains to begin guerrilla uprisings against Fidel, himself a former guerrilla commander. The involvement of Catholic priests in these underground movements exposed the hierarchy and the educational institutions of the church to government repression. Revolutionary leaders quickly raised peasant militias in areas infested with counterrevolutionary groups and ruthlessly hunted down hundreds of anticommunist rebels. So effective was the government campaign against the so-called bandidos (bandits) that armed opposition groups moved offshore to Central America, Puerto Rico, and increasingly Miami.

U.S. opposition to the Cuban Revolution had been tardy in forming. Throughout 1959, the State Department attempted to work with the dwindling numbers of moderates in the Revolutionary Government, even though Castro relentlessly attacked U.S. policymakers for supporting his enemies inside and outside the country. When an explosion in Havana Harbor sank a ship delivering weapons to the government in March 1960, Castro accused the Central Intelligence Agency of sabotage. This was the moment at which Castro introduced his motto, patria or O muerte, veneceremos ("fatherland or death, we will conquer"), and the photographer Alberto Korda took the iconic photograph of Che Guevara. Indeed, the Central Intelligence Agency was already actively aiding Cuban dissidents and exiles. Plans were afoot to launch an exile invasion of the island. Between 1960 and 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reduced trade with Cuba by stages—and Castro responded by gradually confiscating all U.S. businesses there. Thus it was that a social revolution in an island nation of just 6.5 million inhabitants dragged Latin America into the cold war.

Fidel Castro had anticipated, even worked for, the United States retreat from Cuba. He nurtured relations with a reluctant Soviet Union, sending Che Guevara to conclude trade deals with the Eastern Bloc countries and Raúl Castro to sign defense pacts. Castro's collaboration with Cuban communists facilitated these overtures. Although the communists had refrained from the struggle against Batista, Castro offered them participation in the consolidation of the Revolution. He knew that communist infiltration into government would flush out moderate competitors for power, and the communists proved useful in carrying out revolutionary reforms and confiscations. His use of old-line party personnel had the added benefits of alienating the United States as well as winning the reluctant support of Soviet leaders.


In January 1961 the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and prepared to bequeath the CIA's invasion plans to the incoming administration of President John F. Kennedy. CIA and U.S. Army training proceeded in Guatemala for approximately fifteen hundred men of Brigade 2506, as the exiles' combat unit was named. Castro's intelligence agents as well as Latin American journalists were reporting on these efforts, and the men and equipment moved to the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua for launching. President Kennedy agreed to the CIA invasion plans, which promised to rid him of this "communist beachhead" in the Americas. But Kennedy ordered that no U.S. military units engage in or support the émigrés in this invasion. The amphibious landing of exiles depended on several expectations: (1) that the "majority" of Cubans would rise up against the regime, (2) that the peasant militias would run away at the first sight of the invasion forces, and (3) that the invaders' bombers would destroy Castro's small force of fighter planes. As one CIA trainer told the Cubans of Brigade 2506, after you secure the beachhead, "turn left and go straight into Havana." However, when the Bay of Pigs invasion (named for the location of the landing) took place, not one of these three conditions materialized, and the invaders surrendered on the beach after three days of fighting. Castro himself arrived to command the Cuban defense forces. Pictures showed Castro directing the battle from the turret of a Soviet T-34 tank.

Although Castro eventually negotiated a U.S. "indemnity" for the return of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, he still predicted an invasion of American military units. Eastern Bloc weapons and Soviet military advisers arrived to help the Revolutionary Army and militias, some 150,000 in number, prepare for the defense of the Revolution. In the meanwhile, the popular classes of Cuba responded to Castro's militarization of the island. They joined various revolutionary organizations, such as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), neighborhood watch groups that carried out surveillance against counterrevolutionary elements within Cuba. However, popular backing was not enough. Cuban authorities either requested or agreed to Soviet suggestions that medium-range missiles be activated for Cuba's defense. U.S. spy planes photographed the missile sites, and President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade of the island to prevent the Soviet ships from delivering the rockets. The resulting standoff in October 1962, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, produced an agreement between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971). The United States pledged that it would not invade Cuba and that it would remove U.S. missiles that were aimed at Moscow from Turkey. The Soviets promised to remove its own missiles from Cuba and permit Americans to inspect the disassembled installations. Castro and other Cuban leaders erupted in anger (and a long list of expletives) that they had not been consulted. Indeed, the U.S.-USSR agreement offered no assurances to the Cubans that the United States would halt attacks by mercenaries and exiled counterrevolutionaries or that it would terminate spy flights over the island. Castro adamantly refused to permit American inspectors to visit military installations on the island.

Population:11,394,043 (2007 est.)
Area:42,803 sq mi
Official language:Spanish
National currency:Cuban peso (CUP)
Principal religions:Cuba was officially atheist until 1994. Roman Catholicism is believed to be the most widely practiced religion, with Protestantism, Santería, and Judaism are also practiced.
Ethnicity:mulatto 51%, white 37%, black 11%, Chinese 1%
Other urban centers:Camagüey, Guantánamo, Holguín, Santa Clara, Santiago de Cuba
Annual rainfall:45 inches in lowland areas, 70 inches in mountains
Principal geographical features:Mountains: Sierra de los Órganos; Sierra Maestra, with Cuba's highest point: Pico Real del Turquino (6,578 ft); Trinidad (Escambray) Mts.
Rivers: Cauto
Islands: Isla de la Juventud, numerous small coastal islands
Economy:GDP per capita: $4,100 (2006 est.)
Principal products and exports:Agricultural: coffee, fruit, sugar, tobacco
Manufacturing: agricultural machinery, sugar processing, pharmaceuticals
Mining: nickel
Government:Cuba gained complete independence in 1902. It has a Communist-led single-party government. The president is chief of state, head of government, and in practice has control over the government. A 609-seat legislature called the National Assembly of People's Power is popularly elected from a list of approved candidates, and it selects the president.
Armed forces:Men and women are subject to 2 years of mandatory military service.
Army: 38,000
Navy: 3,000
Air force: 8,000
Paramilitary: Over 1.1 million, mostly in the Territorial Militia
Reserves: 39,000
Transportation:Rail: 2,626 mi
Ports: Cienfuegos, Havana, Matanzas
Roads: 18,529 mi paved; 19,286 mi unpaved
National airline: Cubana Airlines
Airports: 75 paved runway, 95 unpaved runway airports
Media:All print and broadcast media is under government control. Major newspapers include Granma and Juventude Rebelde. There are 150 AM and 5 FM radio stations, and 58 television stations.
Literacy and education:Total literacy rate: 99.8% (2002)
Public education is free, and children ages 6 to 11 are required to attend school. Cuba has five universities, including the University of Havana and Oriente University.


The Sovietization of Cuba began in the second half of the 1960s, as the alliance between the Cuban revolutionaries and the Eastern Bloc countries grew tighter. This process did not evolve without disagreements. The evidence indicates that Cuba did not serve as the Caribbean puppet of the Soviet state—far from it. In these developments, the resignation and disappearance of Che Guevara marked a turning point. During his administration of the revolutionary economy, he had instituted a policy of socialization of the markets and production, rapid industrialization, and rigid central controls. Sugar exports declined drastically and rationing became a revolutionary fact of life. Che pretended to be the strict Marxist-Leninist and charged the Russians with revisionism. His policies drew opposition from older communists, who favored the contemporary Soviet economic model featuring decentralization and emphasizing profitability in state industries. After Che left Cuba in 1965, Castro settled on an economic policy that split the difference. He kept the tight state controls while returning to sugar exports, mainly to the Eastern Bloc countries. The Soviets paid higher-than-market prices for Cuban cane sugar and charged its Caribbean partner below-world prices for its petroleum. Therefore, trade with the socialist countries of Eastern Europe amounted to a subsidy for the island nation. In addition, Soviet technical and military aid flowed into Cuba in a way that entrenched inefficiencies in Cuban productivity. Russian, East German, and Czech families inhabited the largest high-rise apartment complex in the Vedado district of Havana. Jokes circulated among the Cuban hosts about the Russian predilection for strong drink and aversion to regular bathing. Nonetheless, socialization meant that, with Eastern Bloc assistance, all Cubans had access to jobs, medical care, and free education.

Cuba was by no means subservient to Soviet direction; it was not a puppet regime. Castro dominated the Communist Party that he established in 1965, and occasionally purged communists who too zealously spoke in favor of policies with which he disagreed. In 1962 and again in 1968, he broke up a "microfaction of divisionists" led by long-time communist Aníbal Escalante. Castro also maintained an aggressive revolutionary policy abroad that clashed with Soviet ideology; Soviet leaders maintained that conditions in the Third World were not propitious for armed revolution and that the existing socialist countries would defeat the capitalist countries by out-producing them. If conditions for revolution did mature, the old-line pro-Moscow communist parties would lead the workers in armed struggle. Therefore, trade and detente with the West—not armed insurrections—remained the order of the day in Soviet communism.

Cuban officials resisted this model because their experience in the Sierra Maestra mountains had taught a different lesson. As Che had written in 1960 in his primer Guerrilla Warfare, the Cuban struggle proved that the rural guerrillas could create the conditions for social revolution and that, with peasant backing, they could defeat the armies of dictators. During the Cuban insurrection, Castro added, the communists were hiding "under the bed." These ideas became the heart of the theory of the rural foco (guerrilla insurrections in rural areas). For these reasons, Che Guevara served as one of the architects of the export of revolution, and all those Latin American leftists who came to Cuba for military training returned to their countries with the idea of leading rebellions in the countryside. The Sino-Soviet rift between the communists of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and those of the Kremlin complicated the relationship in Cuba. To the Soviets the rural foco looked too much like the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Essentially, the Cubans sponsored and assisted armed insurrections in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. Although none of these succeeded, the United States responded by engineering a break in relations between most member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) and Cuba. Cuba became isolated in the Americas except for Mexico and Canada.

When he disappeared from view in 1965, Che Guevara led a Cuban expedition into Africa to train revolutionary guerrillas in Eastern Congo. He failed in this task and escaped back to Cuba, whence he launched a guerrilla incursion into Bolivia in 1966. Che had been operating there for several months before two members of his band captured by the Bolivian army revealed that he was still alive. Because no one had seen Che for two years, CIA analysts had speculated that Castro had had the Argentinean-born revolutionary executed over a policy disagreement. The United States immediately responded to a Bolivian request for military assistance, which partly contributed to Che's capture and execution in October 1967.

Despite the setback of Che's death, the Cuban revolutionaries continued diplomatic and military assistance to leftist governments and national liberation movements both in Africa and Latin America. Cuban troops supported the Angolan leftist government in 1988 and helped defeat mercenary forces supported by the CIA and South Africa's apartheid government. These aggressive policies forced the Soviet Union reluctantly to support Cuban international initiatives even though Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) found them "adventurous." Leaders in Moscow deemed preserving the Cuban Revolution as a symbol of defiance against U.S. "capitalist imperialism" important enough to tolerate Castro's impulsiveness. Besides, Castro and the Soviets realized that the Caribbean island was located too far away for the Soviets to enforce its influence with tanks as they had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The most that Moscow could expect was Castro's verbal backing of the Soviet tanks in the streets of Prague to preserve socialism in Eastern Europe. Something less might have jeopardized Soviet subsidies and military support. On other occasions, the Cubans were brutally frank with their Russian benefactors. Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), the only Soviet premier to make a state visit to Cuba, stoically endured Castro's denunciation of his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) for their dangerous deviations from Marxism-Leninism.

The Mariel Boatlift

As for the American government, the only serious rapprochement developed during the presidency of Jimmy Carter (served 1977–1981). Diplomatic negotiations resulted in the easing of trade and travel restrictions, and a renewal of diplomatic relations between the two governments appeared possible. Then Castro turned an incident to his advantage to further tighten his grip on power: on 1 April 1980, a group of five dissidents crashed a bus through the fence around the Peruvian embassy seeking asylum, which the embassy granted. Over the next few days tensions mounted between Castro and the Peruvian government. On Easter Sunday, ten thousand Cubans jammed onto the Peruvian embassy grounds. Castro led a parade of fervent supporters in wishing good riddance to these gusanos (worms) and any others who wished to abandon the fatherland. This open invitation caught President Carter and U.S. authorities by surprise. Overnight, hundreds of Cuban Americans piloted pleasure boats from Florida to the port of Mariel near Havana to pick up the thousands who gathered there to leave the country. Cuban authorities emptied the jails and mental health facilities, and these inmates also joined the exodus. The influx of so many refugees (and criminals) taxed U.S. infrastructure and prisons for years to come. The exodus of 1980 contrasted sharply with that of the 1960s: few of these newer refugees came from the professional class, and many were poorly prepared to take advantage of opportunities in the United States. American politicians thereafter recoiled at the idea of courting Castro and worried about future massive arrivals of refugees. The Cuban community in Florida mostly favored continued restrictions against the Castro regime as it built up a new generation of citizens and political power in South Florida.


In 1991 Cuba's number-one trade and military partner, the Soviet Union, along with the communist governments of Eastern Europe, collapsed. The Russians in Cuba returned home, and Soviet foreign aid dried up. The island's economy, never strongly self-supporting, declined precipitously. During this time, known as the Special Period in Time of Peace (Período especial en tiempo de paz), electrical production and transportation shut down for lack of affordable Russian oil supplies, unemployment spread, and the medical and educational infrastructure grew impoverished. The Cuban government had to ease some of its central controls to open up the economy to other than U.S. investors, especially in tourism. The influx of hard currency promoted a return of class divisions, as those workers with access to tourist dollars had higher incomes than those stuck earning wages paid in Cuban pesos. Sugar exports plunged, as Cuba could no longer compete on foreign markets for want of customers willing to pay high Soviet-era prices. The government defrayed maintenance of apartment buildings and roadways, and as a result Cuban cities grew shabby. Elements of prerevolutionary maladies, such as prostitution and corruption, resurfaced. Many Cubans grew nostalgic for the halcyon days of Soviet largess.

Finally, Cuba's plight since the fall of the Soviet Union has drawn the sympathy of the world community outside of the United States. Between 1972 and 2000, most Latin American nations abandoned the boycott and renewed diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. Developments in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have had a significant impact on Cuba: The rising giant of the Far East, the People's Republic of China, began seeking economic opportunities and widening trade with Cuba. Panama began widening its interoceanic canal to facilitate Asian-Caribbean trade. Socialist and left-of-center governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela have lent support to Cuba's recovery efforts. Hugo Chávez, a great admirer of Che Guevara and Castro who was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, began selling petroleum to Cuba at deeply discounted Soviet-style prices. At the United Nations, nearly all member nations supported nonbinding resolutions condemning the U.S. boycott on Cuban trade. During the Special Period church services resumed on the island, and in 1998 Pope John Paul visited Cuba and conducted Mass. In 2002 former President Carter also traveled to the island, denouncing American restrictions while also criticizing Castro's human rights record. Cuba also ended its program of fomenting armed revolutions abroad. Despite these changes, there remains no certainty that diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will normalize anytime soon.

Cubans have responded to the economic crisis with their characteristic resourcefulness and ingenuity. To provide political stability, the army under Raúl Castro has become partner with foreign investors in car rental agencies, resort hotels, and manufacturing plants. In towns and provincial cities, small-time entrepreneurs harness horses to wagons for public transportation and convert bicycles into service as affordable taxis. For Cuban drivers, lovingly maintained, Russian-made Ladas from the 1970s complement the American cars of the 1950s. The government has purchased late-model Japanese cars for the tourist trade. To stimulate food production, the government imports breeding stock for dairy and beef production and permits direct sales of vegetables and fruits in farmers' markets. The egalitarian revolution earns hard currency by exporting medical and education workers to Africa and Latin America. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Cuban economy had regained its balance if not its dynamism. As of this writing, Cuban leaders were pushing forward with recovery, helped by trade and tourism open to every country of the world save the United States, whose government maintains policies that prevent travel and trade between these natural economic partners. In 2008 Fidel Castro, who underwent surgery in 2006 and handed over temporary power to his brother Raúl, officially resigned. Raúl Castro was elected president on February 24, 2008.

See alsoBatista y Zaldívar, Fulgencio; Bay of Pigs Invasion; Castro Ruz, Fidel; Castro Ruz, Raúl; Cuba, Political Parties: Communist Party; Guevara, Ernesto "Che"; Russian-Latin American Relations; United States-Latin American Relations.


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                                    Jonathan C. Brown