The Cuban revolution headed by Fidel Castro (b. 1926) began on January 1, 1959, after Cuban military dictator Fulgencio Batista (1901–1973) fled the country. Since that time Cuba has been headed by a nationalist, revolutionary government. The prime mover of the revolutionary process has been Fidel Castro himself, although his brother Raúl Castro took over in August 2006 when the 80-year-old president underwent major abdominal surgery.
To understand the Cuban revolutionary process, it is necessary to appreciate the philosophy of Cuban patriot and writer José Martí (1853-1895), whose radical anti-imperialist thought was adopted by the Castro government several decades after Martí’s death. Martí was the leader of the movement for Cuban independence from Spain and was killed in battle in 1895. It is also crucially important to bear in mind the United States’s role in Cuba. After Martí was killed fighting against Spanish forces, the war for Cuban independence dragged on for three more years. Under U.S. president William McKinley (1843–1901), and following the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, U.S. troops intervened, and three months later Spanish forces surrendered. This liberation war (1868–1878, and 1895–1898) is often referred to as the “Spanish American War,” an act of historical oversight, since the name ignores the Cuban role in the struggle for independence and the death of over 200,000 Cubans.
From 1899 to 1902 the U.S. military ran the country, under the leadership of two American generals. U.S. investment grew quickly in agriculture, banking, mining, transportation, and utilities, and by 1911 U.S. investment had reached about $200 million. U.S. military intervention also occurred on several occasions, to shore up governments friendly to Washington. The end result was a profound frustration among many Cubans with U.S. domination of the political and economic systems. This combination of the radical thought of José Martí and a sense of frustrated nationhood brought about the overthrow of Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado (1871–1939) in 1933, and it would later result in the downfall of Batista in 1958.
Fidel Castro was already well known in Cuba before 1959. He had been a candidate for political office in 1952, though those elections never took place since Batista mounted a military coup. Afterwards the young Castro decided to use arms as a means of taking power and attacked the second largest military garrison in Santiago, Cuba, on July 26, 1953. Castro was arrested, but his prison sentence was commuted in an amnesty given by Batista, a costly mistake for the dictator. Castro laid out many of his basic tenets in his defense speech at trial (later published as History Will Absolve Me ). After his trial Castro left for Mexico where he trained approximately eighty men (including Argentine physician and revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara [1928–1967] and his brother Raúl Castro), and on December 2, 1956, they arrived in Cuba in a small yacht called the Granma. Castro and his followers took to the mountains where they fought a relentless guerrilla campaign until December 31, 1958, when Batista fled Cuba.
There has been much debate as to the nature of the political thought of Fidel Castro when he took over as leader of Cuba in 1959. For some he was a committed Marxist, determined to install a Communist dictatorship in Cuba. Others saw him as a nationalist radical, intent on bringing social justice to Cuba after another mammoth struggle in which an estimated 30,000 were killed—many as the result of acts of barbarism by Batista’s forces.
There were several stages in the revolutionary process. The initial years witnessed a political radicalization, with massive social divisions appearing. The revolutionary government brought in sweeping legislation to protect the weakest sectors of society—reforms that were introduced at the expense of the middle class. Of the population of almost six million in 1958, approximately 10 percent formed a powerful middle class, who came second only to Venezuela in terms of per capita income and lifestyle.
Meanwhile, while Havana boasted that in 1954 it sold more Cadillacs per capita than any city in the world, rural Cuba suffered. Some 25 percent of the total labor force worked only 100 days annually (mainly in the sugar industry) and lacked many basic amenities. The urban-rural division was a major factor for many Cubans in supporting the revolution: rural illiteracy, for example, was four times that found in cities, while only 9 percent of rural homes—compared with 87 percent in the cities— had electricity.
The period from 1959 to 1961 was accompanied by social, economic, and political reforms—mainly realized at the expense of the wealthy middle-class sectors. The nationalization of many businesses, a sweeping land reform, an urban reform law, legislation protecting the rights of Afro-Cubans, closure of private schools, and criticism of the influential Catholic Church and opposition media, all resulted in a broad social polarization. Many U.S. businesses were expropriated, and Washington responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.
After this rupture the revolutionary process appeared in dire straits. Cuba’s major export product, sugar, went to one major client—the United States. It appeared only a matter of time before the revolution crumbled. But the cold war with the Soviet Union and the United States was about to warm up considerably, with Moscow arranging to buy all of Cuba’s sugar, and to provide arms, industrial training, technology, investment, and aid to Cuba. This arrangement of increasingly close Cuban-Soviet cooperation continued until the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989–1990.
In many ways the cooperation with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries constituted the golden years for the Cuban revolution. Generous subsidies (approximately $4 billion per year) flowed in, Soviet technology was installed, and military protection was effectively guaranteed. This was seen as being particularly important after the U.S.-sponsored invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles in April 1961 (known as the Bay of Pigs) and the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba were dismantled after enormous international tension brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
At this time Cuba was largely isolated in international circles, being suspended from the Organization of American States, and ignored by most members of NATO. Gradually, however, Havana was able to make alliances with nations in the developing world, many of whom respected the cooperation that the Castro government provided. In 2006 Cuba reached the zenith of this international support, with its motion condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba winning the support of 183 countries (with 4 voting against, and 1 abstention). Also in that year Cuba took over as the elected leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (representing countries with 60 percent of the world’s population). Moreover, with the exceptions of Costa Rica and El Salvador, Cuba now has excellent diplomatic relations with all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuban medical assistance is particularly noteworthy, with 30,000 doctors working in 68 countries in 2006.
Until 1990 Cuba was dependent on the Soviet Union for its technology, market, supplies (particularly its oil supply of which 95 percent came from the Soviets), and industrial inputs. In terms of foreign policy, however, it mainly pursued an independent line. Its role in Angola starting in 1975 (when an initial 36,000 Cuban troops were sent to support the MPLA government, otherwise known as the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) illustrates this well, and it is clear that Moscow was not pleased with Cuban military expeditions to Africa and Latin America.
There were several periods of crisis during this period. In 1980, for example, an estimated 125,000 Cubans left for the United States from the port of Mariel in a large flotilla of boats. In all about 10 percent of the Cuban population has left Cuba, and most have settled in southern Florida, where their presence has revitalized the city of Miami. There have been several periods when an attempt has been made to improve relations between Havana and Washington—most notably during the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s—but these efforts have largely been fruitless. Intransigence has been the order of the day for almost five decades, with President George W. Bush being the tenth U.S. president in a row seeking “regime change” in Cuba.
Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the Cuban revolution faced major challenges. Again Cuba had to find new markets for its goods, but also it now had to retool its industries, find suppliers for its factories, secure fuel—and it had to do so in a harsh international capitalist market. After some five extremely difficult years, the economy bottomed out, but it has grown annually since 1994. In no small measure this is due to a series of economic reforms, including the legalization of hard currency, the promotion of joint ventures with foreign capital, and the development of the tourism industry. An exchange program with Venezuela—which provides 90,000 barrels of oil per day in return for the medical services of 20,000 Cubans—has also proved beneficial.
The radical thought of José Martí in the late nineteenth century, the resentment of U.S. control, and the subsequent profoundly rooted nationalism, all came together to produce a leader who has held center stage in Cuban politics for five centuries. Despised by a vocal minority (most of whom have voted with their feet and are living in exile), Fidel Castro has acted as a lightning rod for social change in Cuba, a process that has brought about a revolutionary socialist society and which to the present has survived against all odds.
SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Authoritarianism; Bush, George W.; Carter, Jimmy; Castro, Fidel; Cold War; Cuban Missile Crisis; Justice, Social; Nationalism and Nationality; Protest; Revolution; Socialism; Sugar Industry; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; Urbanization
Azicri, Max. 2000. Cuba Today and Tomorrow: Reinventing Socialism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Bardach, Ann Louise. 2002. Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana. New York: Random House.
Castro, Fidel. 1975. History Will Absolve Me. Havana: Editorial Ciencias Sociales.
Chomsky, Aviva, Barry Carr, and Pamela Maria Smorkaloff, eds. 2003. The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Domínguez, Jorge I. 1978. Cuba: Order and Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.
Erisman, H. Michael. 1985. Cuba’s International Relations: The Anatomy of a Nationalistic Foreign Policy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
John M. Kirk