Main Factors Leading To The Cuban Revolution History Essay
Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
What at the time seemed so surprising about Cuba in 1959 was that such a thoroughgoing social revolution happened there, given its relative prosperity. The answer is to be found in the particular historical conditions of the country. Cuba had, since independence from Spain, been prone to political instability and had undergone many attempts at change ranging from reformist governments, revolution and dictatorship. All of these attempts, and the reasons underlying them, played a part in the eventual triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution and, in the failure of previous attempts at changing Cuba, lay the seeds of the new order on the island. As Ruiz (1968, p.7) points out, the 1959 revolution represented “no sharp break with the past”. The conditions for revolution had long been present and previous responses to them conditioned the path that the revolution of 1959 would take. What, then, were the factors in Cuba’s history and in its social and political life which made that revolution possible? Having identified them, one must turn to a discussion of the conditions during Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship from 1952 to the end of 1958 and the course that resistance to it took, and how that resistance, with Castro at its head, eventually triumphed.
The historical conditions which contributed to the triumph of the revolution were categorized by Wright (2001, p.2) into four main areas: firstly, anti-American sentiment, provoked in Cuba by economic and political dependence on America since independence, secondly the negative effects on Cuban society and its economy of overdependence on sugar production, thirdly, the fragmented and divided nature of Cuban society and lastly, the weakness of Cuban political institutions, their lack of legitimacy, and the unpopularity of a political class tainted by corruption. To this last point may be added the propensity of Cuban politics to descend into violence, a trend dating back to the independence struggle against Spain.
United States forces occupied Cuba after it had gained independence from Spain in 1898 and its influence was to be a constant in the political and economic system of the island. The most glaring and most resented example of United States intervention in Cuba was the Platt Amendment of 1902. This put limits on how much Cuba could borrow from foreign countries and the negotiation of treaties. It also allowed the United States the right to intervene for the “maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty” (Williamson, 1992, p.439). In effect, Cuba became a protectorate of the United States.
The Platt Amendment represented a humiliation to many Cubans and a betrayal of the independence struggle, and remained a contentious issue even after its repeal in 1934. It linked advancement and progress to the need to rid the country of foreign interference and became a key question in Cuban politics. American intervention at such an early stage cut across the process of building confidence in, and legitimacy for, the new institutions of the state recently freed from colonial rule and identified the whole political system from its start with foreign domination. It also influenced the conduct of politicians who relied on the support of America to settle political disputes, which were many in the first 20 to 30 years of the Republic’s life (Thomas, 1971). Early Cuban elections were fraudulent affairs and United States intervention was called upon on a number of occasions. An armed challenge to the government elected in 1906 resulted in United States intervention and resulted in direct rule until 1909. Further interventions took place in 1912, and again in 1917 when the election result was challenged by an armed revolt by the defeated party. Another important intervention came during the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. The American ambassador first replaced the dictator Machado and then supported the army backed overthrow of his successor, Ramon San Martin Grau (Argote-Freyre, 2006).
A sense of the humiliation and moral decay suffered by Cubans is offered by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (McPherson, 2006, p.40) who said of Havana in 1950 that it resembled a giant casino and brothel. American tourists were “picking up 14 year old Cuban girls and tossing coins to make men scramble in the gutter”. He went on to say that nobody could be surprised if Cubans hated America.
American political and economic influences on Cuba were closely linked. Investment from the United States had been steadily growing from the last days of Spanish rule. It increased in the 1920s as many Cubans had been ruined by the slump in the price of sugar in 1920, and by 1927 amounted to more than a billion dollars (Wright, 2001, p.4). Two thirds of all Cuban exports went to America in the 1950s (Paterson, 1995, p.35). By the 1950s, American interests controlled 90% of the telephone and electricity system, 50% of railways and 40% of the banking sector (Girling, 1980, p.49). This economic control had a number of effects on Cuba, one of which was in the way it limited the room to manoeuvre of Cuban governments.
According to Ruffin (1990, p.77) economic dependence severely restricted political leadership in Cuba. Politicians for the most part acted in defence of American interests. For much of Cuba’s Republican history the need to appease American interests, and those of their followers in Cuba, made it difficult to influence any reforms which conflicted with those interests. The increasing American control over the Cuban economy meant a tightening of American political influence over Cuba’s affairs and meant that defending those interests became a prime concern for Cuban political parties.
Legislation, such as much needed land reform, became subservient to the interests of the sugar producers who owned vast areas of land. In 1933, the government of Grau fell in part because the Americans refused to recognise it due to the reforms which it attempted to implement. Most Cuban politicians were unable or unwilling to upset the Americans and to disrupt the industry to which Cuba owed so much of its prosperity but which also fatally undermined its institutions (Ruffin, 1990). Taking on America was daunting, given Cuba’s dependence on American markets. Nowhere was this dependence on American markets more apparent, nor the need for change greater, than in the reliance of the Cuban economy on sugar production.
The overdependence on sugar, which accounted for 85% of Cuban exports in the 1950s, (Wright, 2001, p.5) skewed not only the Cuban economy but also its political life and brought many social problems in its train. Decisions taken in Washington concerning quotas, duties and so on can and did have a profound effect on the Cuban economy. Cuba produced 3.6 million tons of sugar in 1923, rising to 5.2 million tons in 1925 and 7 million tons in 1952, falling to 4.7 million tons in 1954. Prices underwent similar swings which made economic planning difficult (Williams, 1970, p.480).
The consequences of this dependence were many. Peasants were displaced creating an army of landless rural workers. Furthermore, as work on the sugar plantations was seasonal, from December to April, many were unemployed for a good part of the year (Ruffin, 1990). This unemployment, unlike the rise and fall of employment in other industries, was endemic to the system in Cuba appearing predictably every year when the sugar harvest was over.
In addition, sugar attracted investment away from other crops and industries. Sugar companies owned or rented 70-75% of Cuba’s arable land (Sheer & Zeitlin, 1964, p.24) and Cuba had to import much of the food which it needed. Other negative effects were to be seen in the financial sector. American banks were attracted to Cuba to underwrite the costs of the sugar industry. The 1920s was a key decade in this respect. Many who had borrowed in the boom years saw their fortunes wiped out during the depression and the stock market crash of 1929. The Cuban banking system collapsed, and the gap was plugged by foreign, mainly American banks.
Whether the crop was good or bad or whether prices were high or low also had political and social consequences. Dulles (cited in Paterson, 1995, p.35) in a comment to President Eisenhower said that a reduction in the amount of Cuban sugar coming into America “might easily tip the scales to cause revolution” For example, Machado’s regime from 1925 to 1933 was marked by the convulsions caused by the fluctuations in the price of sugar and the collapse in the economy following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and which provoked a wave of strikes and street violence which were countered by a range of repressive tactics. On the other hand, the good years could help to provide a measure of political and social stability, as during the 1940’s.
There were social aspects to the sugar system as well. To meet the demand for labour in the good years, manpower was imported from Haiti, Jamaica and China sharpening already tense racial relations (Patterson, 1994). The existence of large numbers of workers who were unemployed for most of the year outside of the sugar harvesting season between December and April was always a potential focus for social and labour unrest.
According to Sheer et al. (1964) all the mischievousness of the sugar system were aggravated by the fact that many Cubans saw them as having been inflicted by American business interests. The insurgents who had fought in the war of Independence targeted the cane fields and sugar mills burning many. It was during the American occupation when the industry was built back up again. Hostility to dependence on sugar and America constituted a grievance around which diverse groups in the fractured Cuban society could unite.
Cuba also suffered from the fragmentation of its society throughout its history (Gott, 2004). Cuba, unlike other countries in Latin America lacked political elite, often composed of large landowners, with ties to the Catholic Church and the Military. In Cuba the old aristocracy had been wiped out during the independence struggle between 1868 and 1895, and there did not exist a powerful landowning class with close ties to the land (Williamson, 1992, p.439). The large sugar plantations dated from the last days of Spanish rule and much of them were in foreign hands. Nelson argued (Thomas, 1971, p.1111) that there was no national middle class. What middle class existed was based overwhelmingly in urban areas. The upper reaches of Cuban society threw in their lot with the system installed by the Americans. Native industry was underdeveloped and the ruling class’ interests were identified with those of their American allies. The lower classes were also fragmented. Most of the poor lived in the country while only a small urban working class existed in the towns and cities. Class divisions in Cuba were largely along rural urban lines.
Some figures relating to rural housing conditions may help to illustrate this division. While Cuba in the 1950s could boast of relatively high figures in Latin American terms for ownership of consumer goods such as TVs, radios and telephones, the countryside painted a different picture. 97% had no refrigeration facilities, 85% no running water and 91% no electricity (Williams, 1970, p.479). Furthermore, seasonal workers were unemployed for a large part of the year and such an insecure life, in terms of employment, coloured their relationship with other groups and with society as a whole. Ruiz (1968, p.147) sums it up by his comments that no “social or ideological bonds” united workers or “integrated them into the structure of society”.
Racial and ethnic divisions were also a feature of life in Cuba. Fear of a black takeover retarded the development of the independence movement in Cuba. Blacks made up a considerable proportion of the Cuban population and were disaffected with their treatment after their role in the independence struggle and by the history of slavery on the island. This disaffection was on occasions exploited by politicians in the early years of the Republic. They made up a considerable part of the army assembled by the Liberals after their defeat in the 1906 elections. A revolt of disaffected blacks took place in 1912 which was ruthlessly suppressed with the loss of 3,000 lives. This event would alienate blacks further from the mainstream of Cuban society (Gott, 2004).
Fear of the black population also surfaced in the wake of the 1933 revolution. As the most impoverished section of the population, blacks seized upon the excitement of the times as an opportunity to improve their lot and played a leading role in the agitation on the sugar plantations where soviets were established. Despite the enthusiasm of many blacks for the revolution, thousands of blacks from Haiti were deported evidencing the degree of racial feeling in Cuba (Gott, 2004, p.141).
Other institutions in Cuban society lacked popular support or respect and did not constitute a focus for unity or action. The Catholic Church’s position in Cuba had been weakened from independence with the separation of church and state in 1900. The Church was also seen as a white Spanish institution and therefore lacked influence among the black population. Also, unlike other Latin American countries, the Church did not form an alliance with the ruling elite or the military (Gott, 2004).
Lastly, the political apparatus itself reflected the fragmentation in society. The parties were unrepresentative and by the 1950s the old mainstream parties were discredited and the way was open for others to fill the gap. Batista tried it with his dictatorship from 1952, but it was Fidel Castro who capitalised on the failure of democratic parties to address Cuba’s many and varied problems. This failure of democratic politics affected those groups who were to later make up the opposition to Batista and who helped in the success of Castro’s revolution (Gott, 2004).
Weakness, incompetence and corruption were endemic to the Cuban political system from its earliest days. The first President Estrada Palma, led a class of politicians who, according to Thomas (1971, p.472) only sought the spoils of war after their role in the independence struggle. There was not a great deal of ideological differences between the Republican and Liberal parties. They suffered from the start from the involvement of America which wrested prestige and legitimacy from political institutions. Furthermore, the lack of democratic institutions prior to independence had not prepared Cubans well for eventual self government. The tradition of taking up arms, forged under Spanish colonial rule, was also frequently resorted to, which called into question the credibility of the entire political system.
The possibility of calling in America as the arbiter of disputes was the default fallback position. The far from auspicious start represented by the fraud surrounding the first elections and the armed revolt against the government of Estrada Palma and the subsequent American intervention set the tone for electoral politics in the early years of Cuban democracy. Competition was not so much based on principle, rather as a crude struggle to see who would control the resources of the state which provided the means for personal enrichment, with the unfortunate turning readily to violence when hindered (Thomas, 1971).
In a society dominated by sugar, and foreign owned industry, control of government jobs and access to the states resources proved to be a source of patronage and of enrichment for many. For example, between 1943 and 1949 the government payroll increased from 60,000 to 131,000 (Goldenberg, 1965, p.110). Many other corrupt practices existed such as the granting of permission for the sale of lottery tickets and it has been estimated that the dictator Machado made $3,000,000 a year from lottery collectorships (Sheer & Zeitlin, 1964, p.46). These corrupt practices also provided a means of securing the loyalty of those who benefited from them.
Electoral fraud was also a fact of life in a system where none of the parties had genuine mass appeal. Gott reports (2004, p.114) that in the early elections, armed supporters of the different parties would be present at polling stations and in the elections of 1916 the number of votes cast outnumbered eligible voters (Gott, 2004, p.127). The government of Gerardo Machado promised a new start. It initially was reformist and enjoyed a degree of popularity. However, it suffered from the uncertainty and turbulence of the 1920s in Cuba, occasioned by fluctuations in the market price for sugar and the eventual collapse of the Cuban banking system.
In 1928, and despite a pledge not to govern for more than one term, Machado was elected unopposed for a second time. He also extended the length of his term from 4 to 6 years. It was a measure of the low standards of the Cuban political system that this flouting of democratic practice was supported by all the other parties in the Congress. There was a huge amount of social unrest, strikes, assassinations and bombings to which Machado responded with brutal repression (Gott, 2004). By the late 1920s a new generation was emerging of Cubans born in the Republic who expected more from it and who charged the old guard of betraying the ideals of the revolution which had won independence. Students, always to the forefront in Cuban political affairs, were particularly impatient for change, and groups such as the Directorio Estudiantil were to play an important role in the revolution which would topple the dictatorship of Machado (Thomas, 1971).
The situation in Cuba was fast escaping from Machado’s control. The strikes, violence and worsening economic situation raised fears of social revolution and engendered a feeling of insecurity and uncertainty. Groups like the ABC, a terrorist organisation made up of middle and upper class students, replied to Machado’s notoriously brutal police force in kind, killing many of them in the street (Gott, 2004).
The American government began to take an interest and sent their ambassador Sumner Welles to Cuba to try and settle the dispute. He tried to convince Machado to go, and when he eventually resigned, faced with the dire situation on the streets, the Americans sought to replace him with someone acceptable to them and amenable to American business interests on the island. Carlos Manuel Cespedes was appointed but proved unable to facilitate the unrest. He was brought down by a group of low ranking army officers led by Fulgencio Batista, a mixed race Cuban whose origins were far removed from the traditional military elite. Ramon San Martin Grau was eventually installed as the new president in 1933 (Argote-Freyre, 2006).
The 1933 revolution promised great things for Cuba. The revolution was led in by a new generation untainted by the past and pledged to honour the promises of the independence struggle. There was a strong nationalist hint to their programme and it seemed as if some of Cuba’s most pressing social and economic problems would be addressed by a new wave of clean politicians. Their hopes were however to be dashed by a combination of American hostility, the betrayal of the revolution by Batista and internal divisions between moderates and radicals.
The new government nationalised sugar mills and decreed that 50% of the workforce in all businesses had to be Cuban born. The American government refused to recognise Grau’s government, fearful of the effects it would have on American economic interests on the island. Batista, waiting in the wings, and mindful of the importance of American backing, especially given the internal opposition to Grau, helped to topple the revolutionary government in 1934 and so began the first of his reigns in Cuba, ruling through his control over a succession of puppet presidents until 1940, and in his own right until 1944. The army had become a player in the government of Cuba for the first time, a development which set a dangerous precedent (Gott, 2004).
The 1944 elections were won, surprisingly to many, by Grau in elections which were accepted by all to be fair. Batista’s rule had been positive in many aspects and had introduced a new, strongly social democratic constitution in 1940, the restoration of which would be a key demand of the 1950s revolutionaries. The peaceful handover of power to the man who had been vanquished in 1933 promised well for Cuba’s democratic future. However, the two terms of office of Grau’s Autentico party, formed after the defeat in 1933, were to prove some of the most corrupt in Cuba’s history and were probably the last nail in the coffin of peaceful, progressive democratic change on the island. Thomas (1971, p.737) asserts that Grau “did more than any other single man to kill the hope of democratic practice in Cuba”.
Corruption was nothing new in Cuban politics however, for many, the governments of Grau and Prio Socarras were particularly foul and tainted not only by corruption but the actions of armed gangs, according to Thomas (1971, p.741) at least 10, who were tolerated and even used by governments between 1944 and 1948. The actions of Grau and the Autentico party were all the more disheartening for having been responsible by the hero of the 1933 revolution and the party which he founded in its aftermath. The party was able to plunder the country’s inflated repositories by the rise in prices for sugar during the years of the Second World War. The government of Prio Socarras which succeeded that of Grau was described by Sweig (Gott, 2004, p.145) as the most corrupt and violent in Cuban history.
When Batista took power following a coup in 1952, it did not meet up with much initial opposition. Cuba’s political class had by now become totally discredited and many were doubtful if electoral politics could even begin to solve the country’s problems. In a sense Batista’s coup was a response to this disillusion but in itself was a continuation of the misfortunes facing Cuban society and could provide no new way forward. Each generation of Cubans had been disappointed by politicians and had seen their hopes dashed leading to a rejection of the leaders of the previous generation. Cubans had no dependable political role models to look to (Wright, 2001, p.6) in changing and difficult times, making it easier for new departures and new methods to gain a hearing. This would have been significant in the revolution of 1959.
Having looked at the factors in Cuban history which led to Batista’s dictatorship, the problems which the country faced, and their influence on the revolutionary movement of the 1950s, it is time to look at the years of the dictatorship and the opposition which it brought forward in order to fully understand how Fidel Castro’s revolution triumphed and the path which the final phase of the Cuban revolution took.
Cuba was, despite all its problems, a relatively prosperous society and there was some evidence of diversification in industry and a greater involvement by Cubans in the sugar industry. However, many inequalities and divisions remained, and the revolution which toppled Batista did not only seek to unseat an unpopular dictator, but also sought solutions to Cuba’s economic and social problems. In this respect it echoed the previous attempts at reform of the 1933 revolution and the promises of the 1940 constitution. Other factors were the absolute unpopularity, which was shared by a wide range of groups across society, and weakness of the Batista regime and the appeal and leadership qualities of Castro who at the end emerged as the leader of the new order in Cuba. Batista’s regime in contrast was supported only by America, the rich, and the old discredited politicians of Cuba’s past and had no real social basis of support. The key to the survival of the regime lay in the continued support of America, and once lost, there were few to turn to among the decadent and discredited Cuban politicians who could broaden its appeal (Thomas, 1971).
Fidel Castro was a product of the Cuban middle class and a member of the Ortodoxo party, formed in 1947 in response to the corruption of the two Autentico governments of the 1940s. Together with Ernesto “Che” Guevara he came to personify the revolutionary movement in Cuba. However, his 26th of July movement was not the only force opposed to Batista. Opposition, originated, as so many times before, with the students who were joined by the Autentico and Ortodoxo parties, Cuban intellectuals, and other revolutionary groups. Support for Castro was later to extend across a broad spectrum of Cuban society. The Civic Resistance Movement which supplied logistical support had as leading figures a former director of the National Bank, brokers and doctors (Paterson, 1995, p.30).
There was little in Castro’s radical, but not overtly socialist programme, which would alienate the less radical elements of the anti-Batista opposition or justify outright American hostility and was based on the nationalist sentiment of the war of independence and the anti-American feeling which was an outcome of its perceived betrayal and harked back to the frustrated revolution of 1933. It promised an end to the endemic corruption which had plagued Cuban politics and a restoration of the 1940 constitution (Gott, 2004).
The years of Batista’s dictatorship were marked by resistance answered with repression. As the repression grew ever more brutal, more Cubans were alienated from Batista’s regime. The contribution of the urban resistance to Batista has often been overlooked in favour of the more romantic guerrilla war waged by Castro and his followers when they took off to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra after the failed attack on Santiago in 1956. Resistance involved strikes, sabotage, assassination and propaganda. It was, as Wright asserts, (2001, p.16) the resistance in urban centres which pinned down the Batista forces and enabled Castro’s to grow in strength in the mountains and who also played a crucial role in supplying Castro’s guerrillas.
The weakening of this resistance in the face of Batista’s repression strengthened Castro’s position. An interview carried out with the American journalist Herbert Matthews and published in the New York Times in 1957 was a key event in the development of the war and a boost to Castro’s personal standing at home and abroad. It contradicted Batista’s claims that Castro had been killed and the guerrilla defeated and aroused a lot of sympathy for the rebels in America. A failed attempt to assassinate Batista carried out by the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil in March 1957 could have changed the course of the revolution but its failure increased repression and eliminated another potential rival to Castro (Wright, 2001).
Meanwhile Batista floundered on. An American arms embargo was evidence that he was losing American backing. A failed general strike in April of 1958 gave credence to the idea that only armed struggle would shift Batista. That Castro’s forces would be the most likely to lead it, was given a boost following Batista’s disastrous offensive against the guerrillas in May 1958. Without American backing and unable to defeat the rebels militarily, Batista was condemned. In a bid to win American support and add a veneer of legitimacy to his regime he called elections in November 1958 from which most withheld, highlighting the isolation of his regime. Meanwhile a strengthened Castro began to emerge as the most likely to unseat Batista and his campaign spread outside of his mountain stronghold. After the fall of the city of Santa Clara in December Batista realised his regime was doomed and escaped to the Dominican Republic on New Year’s Eve 1958 (Paterson, 1995). The revolution had triumphed.
The explanation of the 1958 Cuban revolution can be found then, in the history of the country: the anti-American sentiment of a broad spectrum of Cuban society, and the perceived betrayal of the ideals of independence by successive governments, the closely linked phenomenon of overdependence on the sugar trade and the subsequent underdevelopment of the country’s industrial base, the deep social divisions and finally, the weak legitimacy of its political institutions, the violent and undemocratic nature of Cuba’s political life and the low prestige of its politicians, all served to alienate Cubans from the political process and to seek answers from a new breed of leader. Events rooted in Cuba’s history made the revolution possible. As Johnson (1970, p.60) observed revolution often happens in countries which have already experienced change and where more change is necessary.
Castro in his evocation of historic Cuban grievances which also harked back to previous reform programmes in 1933 and 1940 appealed to a wide range of anti-Batista opinion, but that Castro would be the one to lead it and to take it in a Communist direction was not inevitable. Castro’s revolution, regardless of what happened after taking power, was not a socialist revolution. It triumphed because it, as Perez contended, “did not preach class war” (Gott, 2004, p.166). The Soviet Union played no part in his triumph, and indeed the Cuban Communists did not ally themselves with Castro until 1958. Rather in its focus on the betrayal of independence, and his echoing of past failed attempts at reform, Castro’s programme was the culmination of a process begun on Cuba’s winning of independence. The ambivalence of America also played a part in Castro’s victory. The American position on Castro was not clearly defined (Gott, 2004, p.164) and in Castro’s success in not provoking greater intervention from the force that could have decisively swayed the outcome of the revolution was a key factor in the revolution’s success. Another contributing factor was the weakness and indecision of the Batista regime and its identification with the failed policies and methods of the past. Batista’s regime fell in part because it was as Julien (Goldenberg, 1965, p.146) observed “rotten to the core”.
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