The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Cuba, January 1959:
The Guerillas Enter Havana

Feb 4, 2019

The following article was translated from Lutte Ouvrière, the newspaper of the French revolutionary workers’ organization of that name.

On January 1, 1959, the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba. One week later, on January 8, Fidel Castro entered the capital, Havana, at the head of an army of guerillas and insurgent peasants.

The island had been under the thumb of U.S. businesses, which owned 80% of the services, mines, ranches, and oil refineries, 40% of the sugar industry, and 50% of the trains. The Mafia had made Havana the brothel of the Americas, with casinos and nightclubs. It was also a country of prison, torture, and death for opponents of the regime. A wave of jubilation swept the country when Batista fell, and the international press discovered The Bearded Ones, the guerillas with their facial hair grown long. France, Germany, and Great Britain recognized the new regime.

Castro and his followers wanted an end to despotism and corruption, an improvement in the living conditions of the population, the re-establishment of parliamentary democracy, and the end of the country’s dependence on the United States. The prime minister Jose Miro Cardona was a pro-U.S. business lawyer, and the leaders of the guerillas, Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara, did not figure on immediately becoming ministers.

Hoping to make an agreement, Castro went to the U.S. in April, but the U.S. government refused to receive him. Addressing the press, Castro made his position clear: “Capitalism sacrifices humanity. The Communist state, with its totalitarian conception, sacrifices human rights. This is why we do not agree with either.” He called himself a humanist, and hoped to establish cordial relations with the U.S.

It was not until later, when it became clear that Washington only wanted to impose its will on Havana, that Castro discovered that he was a socialist; and only because this allowed him to get from Moscow the aid which Washington had refused him.

Unending Stand-Off with the United States

In May 1959, Castro launched a moderate agrarian reform, which essentially applied the old Cuban constitution of 1940. This reform distributed unused land to peasants, and paid its owners for it. But the U.S. wanted more money for the land, and sooner. Castro did not give in, and the Cuban army seized the lands of U.S. companies.

In March 1960, the Eisenhower administration prepared to overthrow Castro. The CIA was told: the Cuban revolution could become a model “because the social and economic conditions in all of Latin America encourage struggle against the authorities in power and social agitation in favor of a radical change.” Other guerillas tried to follow in the footsteps of the Cuban revolution, but they did not meet with the same success. Castro’s movement triumphed because the guerillas, who had for years remained isolated, hidden in the mountains of the island, had finally linked up with a peasant uprising against the big landowners. They had also benefitted from help in the cities, where underground fighters had increased their attacks against the dictatorship, and from workers’ struggles that had undermined the regime. But they insisted that the cities, and by extension the working class, not take the leadership of the struggle. The guerillas had also been a state apparatus in embryo that was outside the control of the workers and peasants, and that, after 1959, was able to fuse with part of the old state apparatus.

In April 1960, the first Soviet oil tanker arrived. The U.S. companies refused to refine the oil, and Castro seized them. The U.S. Senate reduced the orders for Cuban sugar. In reaction, Castro nationalized some U.S.-owned property: the telephone and electric companies and some sugar refineries. And in reaction to that, Washington imposed an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba.

The nationalizations were not the result of some socialist ideology of the Cuban leaders, but a pragmatic response by the leadership of a country defending its sovereignty against imperialism. It was the hostility of the U.S., which was trying to strangle Cuba, that pushed its leaders, in search of economic aid, into the arms of the Soviet Union.

Radical Nationalists, Not Communists

On January 3, 1961, the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. On April 17, it launched a military invasion at the Bay of Pigs. This invasion was a fiasco for the anti-Castro forces, the CIA, and the Kennedy administration, and it showed the level of popular support for the regime. The population mobilized to defend the island and drive the anti-Castro “gusanos,” or worms, into the bay.

Washington has continuously tried to overthrow the Castro regime, but without success. If the links between Cuba and the Soviet Union served as a pretext for the embargo, those ended in 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared. But the U.S. reinforced the embargo, and without any exterior aid, the 1990s were very difficult – but Cuba did not give in. In 1999, the Clinton administration lifted sanctions against some “terrorist states,” but not Cuba. The island nation had to wait until 2009 when the Obama administration moderated the embargo, without lifting it altogether.

Since the beginning, the political perspective of the Cuban leaders has been limited to defending the independence of their island in the face of U.S. imperialism. At this level, it makes sense to support them. Certainly, they were in favor of other radical nationalists taking power. For example, they exchanged the know-how of Cuban doctors for oil from Chavez’s Venezuela.

But, because they were not militants of the workers’ movement, because they were courageous radical nationalists, but not socialist and communist internationalists, they never addressed or thought of seeking the support of the working class of their neighboring countries and certainly not of the most hostile country, the United States.

Because the Cuban revolution pulled the descendants of the black slaves of Cuba with it and put them in the forefront of the fight, it found an echo among millions of black workers in the citadel of U.S. imperialism. The Castro regime took the side of Cuba’s black population in order to find support, perhaps a decisive support – but this was not the reason Castro and his comrades fought. So this revolution, born out of their nationalism and the defense of the sovereignty of the Cuban state, remained isolated behind its borders, and despite the progress and advances that it gave to many people in the region, it remains unable to escape the pressure of imperialism.

The fact that the Cuban leaders have been able to resist for more than half a century, at least partially, is to their credit. But the socialist revolution remains to be accomplished. Only the conscious and organized working class, at the head of all the oppressed, can carry this out, in Cuba as elsewhere.