Sunday, September 25, 2016

Remembering the Cuban Revolution of 1959


Raúl (left) and Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra,1959
It was in the twentieth century that humanity took the first steps to free itself of class rule, ending thousands of years of oppression and exploitation. The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was followed by the Chinese revolution in 1949. Both were big countries, mighty empires. The defeat of their rulers by their own people caused the whole world to sit up. The world capitalist order was panic stricken. It launched a vicious war of attrition against the socialist camp and tried to crush communism elsewhere in the world.

But only a decade after the Chinese revolution, in 1959, a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea saw another people’s upsurge, which swept aside a hated military dictatorship. The island was Cuba, located just 90 miles from the United States. Such was the anger and panic among the ruling capitalist classes that they swore to destroy this new revolution before it could take roots. They feared that it would serve as a beacon to the whole of Latin America, which was treated as its backyard by US imperialism.

Cuba had been a colony for over four hundred years, initially of the Spanish, then of the British and finally, since the beginning of the twentieth century, of the United States. This meant that the vast majority of its people worked like slaves in plantations and mines, filling the coffers of barons in Europe and US. There were several attempts to get rid of colonial rulers, or their puppet rulers in Cuba, but they were either failures or short lived.

The final stage can be said to begin in 1952 when General Batista seized power as installed himself as the president in Havana. His ruthless rule, his open kowtowing with US corporations, and his greed in looting the country’s wealth led to increasing public anger against him. In 1953, a group of about 180 men attempted to storm the army garrison at Moncada, but they were badly defeated. The leader of this attack was a fiery young man called Fidel Castro. He and his comrades were imprisoned. In his trial, Fidel gave a famous speech that laid bare the injustice of Batista’s rule. He ended by saying, “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”

Fidel and his comrades were released from prison in 1955 due to huge public pressure on Batista. They went into exile in Mexico where another great Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara joined them. Secretly, they trained in the jungles for taking on the well-equipped army of Gen. Batista. They called themselves the 26th July Movement, after the date of the failed attack on the Moncada garrison. Thus began the final preparations for throwing out the dictator in Havana and freeing the people from neo-colonial yoke.

Cuba, meanwhile continued to bleed under the jackboots of the dictatorship and the exploitation of US corporations. Over three quarters of all arable land was owned by US corporations. By the late 1950’s, American capital controlled 90% of Cuba’s mines (mainly nickel and cobalt), 80% of its public utilities, 50% of its railways, 40% of its sugar production and 25% of its bank deposits. They paid a pittance to the labourers, and extracted enormous profits from their labour. At the end of the fifties, US corporations were earning about $77 million in profit from Cuba – that would be about $560 million in today’s value! Although there were several political groups actively fighting against the dictatorship, there was no uniting thread, and, most importantly, the vast mass of peasants in far flung villages were largely untouched by these movements.

So, this was the condition when, on 25 November 1956, 82 men set sail from the Mexican coast on an old yacht called ‘Granma’. Their destination was Cuba and their objective was to initiate an uprising to throw out the dictatorship. This band of men included Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camillo Cienfuegos. They landed on Cuban coast a week later, little knowing that a disaster awaited them. Just three days after landing they were attacked by the army – only 15 men survived. They had only 7 rifles between them. Dispirited, tired and hungry, they took to the SieraMaestra, a mountain range in the south of Cuba. As Che said later, “we were able to continue on, owing solely to the enormous confidence of Fidel Castro at those decisive moments, to his firmness as a revolutionary leader and his unbreakable faith in the people”. 

In the next two years - 761 days, to be precise - these men mobilized an army of about 9000 dedicated fighters, carried out a relentless guerilla war against an army that boasted of 80,000 conscripts, armed with the latest weapons sent by Uncle Sam across the sea, and ultimately liberated the whole country.

It was a time of intense difficulties, as the guerrillas moved from village to village in the mountains, hiding and attacking the army units that came after them in ever increasing numbers. There were heroic battles in various places and all of them had only one result – the rebels defeated the army despite being outnumbered 10 to one. They seized the arms and vehicles of the troops and used them in the next battle.

In 1958, Batista received $1 million in military aid from the U.S. All of Batista's arms, planes, tanks, ships, and military supplies came from the U.S., and a joint mission of the U.S. armed forces trained his army.

Western media often portrays this war in romantic terms, as if these 15 young men single-handedly brought down a government. There could be nothing further from truth. The role of the original band of men, who, alongwith some men and women who later joined them, cannot be underestimated. They were the core leadership, they provided the ideological framework, the military tactics, and the indomitable will to complete the task. But could it have been achieved just by them alone? Let us see what Che has to say about this.

“The peasant was the invisible collaborator who did everything that the rebel combatant could not. He supplied us with information, kept watch on the enemy, discovered its weak points, rapidly brought urgent messages, spied on the very ranks of Batista's army”, said Che, just a few weeks after the revolution succeeded. The key to the success was the immense support that the Cuban peasantry extended to the rebel army. And this came about not by a miracle but because the rebels decided to keep the agrarian question in the forefront. They seized land from the agents of the corporations and landlords, and distributed it amongst the peasants. They seized 10,000 heads of cattle from large dairies and distributed them among peasants. They set up schools where children of villagers started learning. They set up small workshops for making or repairing farm implements – and weapons when the need arose.

As Che later described it, a massive shift took place in the peasantry – “For the first time, the guajiros [peasants] of the Sierra, in this miserably poor region, had their well-being addressed. For the first time, peasant children drank milk and ate beef. And for the first time too, they received the benefits of education, because the revolution brought schools along with it. In this way the peasants in their entirety came over to our side”.

Another factor that helped the partisan war was the urban resistance. Although in many places it was led by other political groups but as time passed it coalesced. The assassination of Frank Pai’s, a leader in Santiago-de-Cuba, by Batista’s thugs was followed by a huge 60,000 strong demonstration and strike. In 1958, a general strike was called which did not succeed. But it led to a consolidation of the urban resistance with the guerrilla war.

In other words, the revolution succeeded because it became the revolution of all oppressed people of Cuba. And when this massive strength was unleashed, the US backed army was blown away.

It would not be correct to think that the Cuban revolution ended with the victorious rebels entering Havana on 1 January 1959. The Revolution still continues. In the past fifty seven years, Cuba’s people have built a more just and free society, defended themselves against economic and military attacks by imperialism, helped struggling people all over the world and thus held out hope for everyone. This building of a new society is the revolution. 


Excerpts from Speech given by Fidel Castro Ruz, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and president of the Councils of State and Ministers, at the main ceremony for the 40th anniversary of the triumph of the Revolution, in Santiago de Cuba, on January 1, 1999.

People of Santiago: Compatriots in all of Cuba:

I am trying to recall that night of January 1, 1959; I am reliving and perceiving impressions and details as if everything were occurring at this very moment. It seems unreal that destiny has given us the rare privilege of once more speaking to the people of Santiago de Cuba from this very same place, 40 years later.

Before dawn on that day, with the arrival of the news that the dictator and the main figures of his opprobrious regime had fled in the face of the irrepressible advance of our forces, for a few seconds I felt a strange sensation of emptiness. How was that incredible victory possible in just over 24 months, starting from that moment on December 18, 1956, when - after the extremely severe setback which virtually annihilated our detachment - we managed to gather together seven rifles to resume the battle against a combination of military forces which totaled 800,000 armed men, thousands of trained officers, high morale, attractive privileges, a totally unquestioned myth of invincibility, infallible advising and guaranteed supplies from the United States? Just ideas which a valiant people claimed as their own worked a military and political victory. Subsequent vain and ridiculous attempts to salvage what remained of that exploiting and oppressive system were swept away by the Rebel Army, the workers and the rest of the people in 24 hours.

Our fleeting sadness at the moment of victory was nostalgia for the experiences we had lived through, the vivid memory of the comrades who fell throughout the struggle, a full awareness that those exceptionally difficult and adverse years obliged us to be better than we were, and to transform them into the most fruitful and creative ones of our lives. We had to abandon our mountains, our rural life, our habits of absolute and obligatory austerity, our tense life of constant vigilance in the face of an enemy that could appear by land or air at any moment of the 761 days of the war; a healthy, hard, pure life and one of great sacrifices and shared dangers, in which men become brothers and their best virtues flourish, together with the infinite capacity for commitment, selflessness and altruism that all humans carry within them.

The enormous difference in equipment and strength between the enemy and us forced us to do the impossible. Suffice it to say that we won the war with rifles and anti-tank mines, in every important action always fighting against the enemy's artillery, armored vehicles and, in particular, airplanes, which were always immediately present in any military action.

We seized rifles and other semi-automatic and automatic light infantry weapons from the enemy in combat, and the explosives with which, in rustic workshops, we manufactured the shells we used against armored vehicles and their accompanying infantry always came from the rain of bombs which they launched against us, some of which failed to explode. The infallible tactic of attacking the enemy when it was on the move was a key factor. The art of provoking those forces into moving out of their well-fortified and generally invulnerable positions became one of our commands' greatest skills.

Box 2

Excerpts from speech by Che Guevara at a ceremony in Havana Jan. 27, 1959, sponsored by the cultural organization NuestroTiempo (Our Epoch). Guevara had been asked to speak on the topic "The Social Aims of the Rebel Army".

Transformation into army of peasants
What is of interest to me, and what is important, I believe, are the social ideas of the survivors of Alegri'a de Pi'o. This was the first and only disaster that the armed rebels suffered over the course of the insurrection. About fifteen men, physically and even morally destroyed, were reunited, and we were able to continue on owing solely to the enormous confidence of Fidel Castro at those decisive moments, to his firmness as a revolutionary leader and his unbreakable faith in the people.

We were a group of city people who were thrown into the Sierra Maestra, but were not part of it. We walked from hut to hut and touched nothing that did not belong to us. We did not even eat anything we were unable to pay for, and often went hungry as a result of this principle. The peasants looked with tolerance on our group, but did not join it. This went on for some time. We spent several months wandering through the highest peaks of the Sierra Maestra, making sporadic attacks and returning to higher ground. We traveled from one peak to another, where there was little water and living conditions were extremely difficult.

Little by little the peasants' view toward us began to change, spurred by the actions of Batista's repressive forces, who devoted themselves to murdering people and destroying homes and who were utterly hostile toward those who even occasionally had the slightest contact with our Rebel Army. The shift in the peasants' attitude translated into the incorporation of palm-leaf hats into our ranks, as our army of city folk was becoming transformed into an army of peasants.

As peasants yearning for freedom and social justice joined the armed struggle, the great magic words agrarian reform began to mobilize the oppressed masses of Cuba in their struggle for possession of the land. Thus emerged our first pronouncement on a major social issue. Agrarian reform would later become the banner and main slogan of our movement-although we passed through a stage of considerable uneasiness owing to natural concerns related to the policy and conduct of our great neighbor to the north.

General strike in Santiago de Cuba
Around that time in Santiago de Cuba, a very tragic event occurred: the murder of our companero Frank Pai's, an event that marked a turning point in the entire structure of the revolutionary movement. Responding to the emotional impact caused by Frank Pai's's death, the people of Santiago de Cuba spontaneously went out into the streets, producing the first attempt at a political general strike. Although leaderless, the strike completely paralyzed Oriente and had similar repercussions in Camaguey and Las Villas.

The dictatorship crushed this movement, which arose without preparation or revolutionary control. The massive character of the response made us realize the necessity of incorporating into the struggle for Cuba's liberation the great social force constituted by the workers. Underground efforts in the workplaces immediately began, to prepare a general strike that would help the Rebel Army to conquer power.

That was the beginning of an insurrectional campaign by underground organizations. Those who gave encouragement to these movements, however, did not really understand the mass struggle or its tactics. The work was conducted in completely mistaken ways: a revolutionary spirit was not created, unity of the combatants was not achieved, and attempts were made to lead the strike from above, without effective roots among the ranks of the strikers.

The victories of the Rebel Army and the difficult and painstaking clandestine efforts stirred the country, creating a state of ferment so great that it provoked the declaration of a general strike on April 9 of last year. That effort failed precisely due to errors of organization, primarily lack of contact between the mass of workers and the leadership, as well as the leadership's mistaken approach.

But the experience was put to good use, and an ideological struggle arose within the July 26 Movement that led to a radical shift in the organization's view of the country's reality and its sectors of action. The July 26 Movement emerged strengthened from the failed strike. That experience taught its leaders a precious truth, which was-and is-that the revolution did not belong to any one group, but had to be the work of the entire Cuban people. All the energies of our movement's members, both in the cities and in the mountains, were channeled toward this end.

At precisely this time, the Rebel Army began its first steps to provide a theory and doctrine to the revolution, giving tangible proof that the insurrectional movement had grown and therefore attained political maturity. We had passed from the experimental stage to the constructive one, from trial and error to definitive acts.

Immediately we began the work of creating small-scale industries in the Sierra Maestra. A change occurred that our forebears had seen many years ago: we passed from a nomadic life to a settled one; we created centers of production in accordance with our most pressing needs. Thus we founded our shoe factory, our weapons factory, our workshop to rebuild the bombs that the tyranny dropped on us, giving them back to Batista's soldiers in the form of land mines.

First act of agrarian reform
The men and women of the Rebel Army never forgot their fundamental mission in the Sierra Maestra or in other areas, which was to improve the conditions of the peasants and to incorporate them into the struggle for the land. Schools were set up, in which improvised teachers went to the most inaccessible parts of this region of Oriente.

There in the Sierra we made the first effort at dividing up the land, with an agrarian law drafted principally by Dr. Humberto Sori' Mari'n(8) and by Fidel Castro, and in which I had the honor of collaborating. The land was given to the peasants in a revolutionary manner. The large farms belonging to servants of the dictatorship were seized and divided up, and all state lands began to be put in the hands of the region's peasants. The moment had arrived in which we identified ourselves fully as a peasant movement closely linked to the land, and with agrarian reform as our banner.

This was a war in which we always relied on the people, that priceless ally of such extraordinary valor. Our columns were able to continually evade the enemy and situate themselves in the best positions, thanks not only to tactical advantages and the morale of our militiamen, but to a very large extent because of the great assistance of the peasants.

The peasant was the invisible collaborator who did everything that the rebel combatant could not. He supplied us with information, kept watch on the enemy, discovered its weak points, rapidly brought urgent messages, spied on the very ranks of Batista's army. This was not the result of any miracle; it was because we had energetically begun to implement our policy of responding to the peasants' demands. In the face of the bitter attack and circle of hunger that enveloped the Sierra Maestra, ten thousand head of cattle were taken from the landlords of the surrounding region and brought up to the mountains. This move was not intended to supply the Rebel Army alone; the cattle were also distributed among the peasants. For the first time, the guajiros [peasants] of the Sierra, in this miserably poor region, had their well-being addressed. For the first time, peasant children drank milk and ate beef. And for the first time too, they received the benefits of education, because the revolution brought schools along with it. In this way the peasants in their entirety came over to our side.

Box 3

Cuba - A chronology of key events

1492 - The navigator Christopher Columbus claims Cuba for Spain.

 1511 - Spanish conquest begins under the leadership of Diego de Velazquez, who establishes Baracoa and other settlements.

1526 - Importing of slaves from Africa begins.

1762 - Havana captured by a British force led by Admiral George Pocock and Lord Albemarle.

1763 - Havana returned to Spain by the Treaty of Paris.

Wars of independence

1868-78 - Ten Years War of independence ends in a truce with Spain promising reforms and greater autonomy - promises that were mostly never met.

1886 - Slavery abolished.

1895-98 - Jose Marti leads a second war of independence; US declares war on Spain.

1898 - US defeats Spain, which gives up all claims to Cuba and cedes it to the US.

US tutelage

1902 - Cuba becomes independent with Tomas Estrada Palma as its president; however, the Platt Amendment keeps the island under US protection and gives the US the right to intervene in Cuban affairs.

1906-09 - Estrada resigns and the US occupies Cuba following a rebellion led by Jose Miguel Gomez.

1909 - Jose Miguel Gomez becomes president following elections supervised by the US, but is soon tarred by corruption.

1912 - US forces return to Cuba to help put down black protests against discrimination.

1924 - Gerado Machado institutes vigorous measures, forwarding mining, agriculture and public works, but subsequently establishing a brutal dictatorship.

1925 - Socialist Party founded, forming the basis of the Communist Party.

1933 - Machado overthrown in a coup led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista.

1934 - The US abandons its right to intervene in Cuba's internal affairs, revises Cuba's sugar quota and changes tariffs to favour Cuba.

1944 - Batista retires and is succeeded by the civilian Ramon Gray San Martin.

1952 - Batista seizes power again and presides over an oppressive and corrupt regime.

1953 – Moncada Attack - Fidel Castro leads an unsuccessful revolt against the Batista regime.

1956 - Castro lands in eastern Cuba from Mexico and takes to the Sierra Maestra mountains where, aided by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, he wages a guerrilla war.

1958 - The US withdraws military aid to Batista.

Triumph of the revolution

1959 - Castro leads a 9,000-strong guerrilla army into Havana, forcing Batista to flee. Castro becomes prime minister, his brother, Raul, becomes his deputy and Guevara becomes third in command.

1960 - All US businesses in Cuba are nationalised without compensation; US breaks off diplomatic relations with Havana.

1961 - US sponsors an abortive invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs; Castro proclaims Cuba a communist state and begins to ally it with the USSR.

1962 - Cuban missile crisis ignites when, fearing a US invasion, Castro agrees to allow the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. The crisis was subsequently resolved when the USSR agreed to remove the missiles in return for the withdrawal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey.

1965 - Cuba's sole political party renamed the Cuban Communist Party.

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