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Cuba: How Workers and Peasants Made the Revolution (Part One)

2018-12-14

By Chris Slee

Some left groups claim that the Cuban revolution was made by a few hundred guerrilla fighters, and that the working class played no role.

For example, Ruth Braham, writing in Socialist Alternative magazine, claims that the Cuban Revolution “entailed a mere 800 armed guerillas seizing power, again on behalf of a majority but without their active involvement”.

Similar views have been expressed by members of the International Socialist Organisation. For example, Jonathan Sherlock says:

If you believe that Cuba is somehow socialist, however distorted, then you believe that is is possible to bring about socialism via several hundred guerrilla fighters coming from the mountains at the right moment and seizing power. You will believe … that socialism can be brough about without working-class struggle.

In reality, “working-class struggle” played an essential role in the Cuban revolution. The workers, peasants and students played an active role, before, during and after the insurrection which destroyed the Batista dictatorship in January 1959. The overthrow of the regime was not simply a matter of guerrilla fighters marching into cities. Fidel Castro called a general strike which developed into a mass popular uprising during the first few days of January 1959. The subsequent transformation of property relations was the result of ongoing mass struggles by the workers and peasants.

But before discussing this in detail I will give some historical background to the Cuban revolution.

Spanish Colonialism

Cuba was “discovered” by Colombus in 1492, and claimed as a Spanish colony. The indigenous population was treated with great brutality, including the horrific massacres. They were dispossessed of their land. Many died of hunger and disease. The majority of the indigenous population of Cuba was wiped out.

Havana became a major port and military centre for the Spanish empire. Ships taking the plundered treasures of central and south America back to Span gathered in Havana before crossing the Atlantic.

Sugar plantations were developed using slave labour. The slaves, who were brought in from Africa, were treated with great brutality. Many died from exhaustion, from industrial accidents in the sugar mills, or from disease, or were killed by their owners, often as punishment for trivial offences. A continual inflow of new slaves from Africa was required to replace those who died. Historian Hugh Thomas speaks of “the need for replacement of 8% to 10% each year”.

During the 1840s there was a series of slave revolts in various plantations and other worksites across Cuba. The revolts were crushed, but caused some plantation owners to consider replacing slavery by wage labour.

There was widespread discontent with Spanish rule, even amongst the upper classes of Cuban society. In 1868 a war of independence broke out. One of the leaders was Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a plantation owner who freed his slaves and enrolled them in his small army. Some rebel commanders, such as Antonio Maceo, raided plantations and freed the slaves.

But the rebel movement was not united on he policy of freeing slaves. The more conservative sections of the movement were reluctant to authorise Maceo to take the war into the western half of Cuba, where most of the sugar plantations were situated, and the movement remained on the defensive in the east for most of the ten years of the war. In 1878 an armistice was signed between the Spanish colonial government and most of the rebel leaders. Maceo refused to accept it, but his forces were defeated, and he went into exile.

In November 1879 the Spanish prime minister announced that slavery would be abolished in Cuba as from 1888. Many slave owners, believing that “free” labour would be cheaper than maintaining slaves, freed thm before the deadline. Once the slaves were free, plantation owners were no longer obliged to feed them all year round. Instead they could hire workers for a few months in the busy season, leaving them to fend for themselves at other times.

A new war of independence broke out in 1895, inspired by Jose Marti. Jailed as a teenager and then exiled from Cuba by the Spanish colonial authorities, Marti built a movement for independence and democracy amongst Cubans living overseas, particularly Cuban workers living in the United States. While campaigning for independence from Spain, he foresaw the danger of the emerging US imperialism, which aimed to dominate Latin America. He saw the need for Latin American unity to counter this.

Marti succeeded in re-uniting many veterans of the first Cuban war of independence, including Maceo, and returned to Cuba in 1895 to renew the struggle. Neither the rebels nor the Spanish foces were able to win a decisive victory. Marti and Maceo were both killed in the fighting.

In 1898 the United States stepped in, supposedly to support the Cuban independence fighters. But after defeating the Spanish forced, the US ordered the independence fighters to disarm. A military government was established in January 1899, headed by a US general.

US Neocolonialism

Cuba was ruled by the US military government until 1902, when formal independence was granted. However the US retained the ability to intervene in Cuba, not only economically and politically but also militarily.

A constitutional convention was elected in 1900. However the convention delegates were pressured to accept severe limitations on Cuba’s sovereignty. In 1901 the US congress passed the Platt amendment, which proclaimed the intention of the US to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it saw fit, and to maintain bases in Cuba. The constitutional convention was pressured to accept these US dictates, and to include them as an appendix to the new Cuban constitution.

The delegates were told that the US army would not be withdrawn from Cuba unless they agreed to accept the Platt amendment. They were also promised that if they did agree, Cuban sugar would gain preferential access to the US market.

The US formally handed over power to the new Cuban government in May 1902. Guantanamo Bay and Bahia Honda were leased to the US as military bases. (Bahia Honda was given up in 1912, in return for an expansion in the size of the Guantanamo lease.)

In 1906 there was a revolt against the government of president Tomas Estrada Palma, who has been “re-elected” without opposition in fraudulent elections in December 1905. Estrada called for US military aid to suppress the revolt. Two thousand US marines landed near Havana in September 1906. The US set up a new “provisional” government headed by a US judge, Charles Magoon.

In 1909 the US once again handed over government to an elected Cuban president. However, the US retained the ability to impose its will on Cuba through economic and diplomatic pressure and the threat of renewed military intervention. The US literally used “gunboat diplomacy” whenever this was felt to be necessary. On January 6, 1921, following protests against fraudulent elections conducted by president Menocal, the US sent General Enoch Crowder to Havana in the battleship Minnesota. According to historical Hugh Thomas, “He [Crowder] kept his headquarters on the Minnesota, issuing recommendation to Menocal which were in effect orders”.

Thus while Cuba wa formally independent and democratic (except that women could not vote), independence and democracy were to a large extent fictitious, since the US could veto or overturn any decision by the Cuban government.

This situation was conducive to a high level of corruption in the political system. Politicians took bribes in return for government contracts, for pardons, etc.

There were periodic outbreaks of protest and rebellion. Most of these rebellions were crushed. But protests by university students in 1922-23 won a victory. Under the leadership of Julio Antonio Mella, secretary of the newly formed University Students Federation (FEU), the students campaigned against corruption in the university. They were successful: a hundred corrupt “professors” who had been given fictitious jobs at the university because they were cronies of the president were sacked. Furthermore, a system of election of the rector by students, staff and ex-students was introduced.

In 1924 Gerardo Machado was elected president. His regime was extremely corrupt and highly repressive. Trade unionists and student activists were murdered. Mella, who had led the student protests in 1922-23, and who had become a founder of the Cuban Communist Party in 1925, was murdered in Mexico in 1929 by an agent of Machado. Political parties were suppressed, and Machado, a former amry officer, used the army as his main instrument of rule.

1933 Revolution

Many middle class people hoped for US intervention to remove Machado. A group called ABC, comprised mainly of students, carried out bomb attacks with the aim of showing that Machado could not ensure stability, thereby provoking US intervention to remove him.

Meanwhile the Communist Party was gaining strength, despite the repression. In 1930, 200 000 workers participated in a political strike against Machado. A communist-led sugar workers strike closed down many sugar mills in Cuba in early 1933.

In early August 1933 there were strikes throughout Havana, culminating in a general strike on August 12 and the flight of Machado from the country. The US ambassador Sumner Welles tried to organise a new pro-US government to replace him. Welles succeeded in having Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a conservative diplomat (and the grandson of the independence leader of the same name), declared president; but a few weeks later a coup was carried out by a group of sergeants in the Cuban army, in alliance with students from the University of Havana. Fulgenico Batista emerged as leader of the sergeants. He formed a provisional government headed by a university professor, Ramon Grau San Martin. Batista proclaimed himself a colonel and made himself head of the army.

The Grau San Martin government, which included a prominent former student leader Antonio Guiteras, introduced significant reforms such as the eight-hour work day, a minimum wage for workers, land reform, university autonomy and the repudiation of Cuba’s foreign debt.

But the army under Batista remained a repressive force. On September 29, for example, it attacked a memorial rally for Julio Antonio Mella and sacked the headquarters of the National Labour Confederation.

The US withheld recognition from the Grau government, and encouraged Batista to carry out a coup, which he did in January 1934. For the next six years Batista, as army commander, was the effective leader of the country, although there was a series of other people holding the title of president.

While Batista’s January 1934 coup marked a turn to the right, it did not mean the immediate and total reversal of all the gains of the revolution. Batista still claimed to be a revolutionary. While he was willing to repress militant workers, he also wanted to win popular support, which required him to support some progressive reforms. In some ways, Batista in his early years was comparable to third world bourgeois nationalist leaders of military origin, such as Peron and Nasser.

In April 1937 the CP characterised Batista as a fascist, and tried (without success) to form a popular front with bourgeois anti-Batista groups. But by 1938 the CP had changed its policy and made a deal with Batista. The Communist Party was legalised and allowed to reorganise the union movement under its control, resulting in the creation of the CTC (Cuban Confederation of Workers). In return the CP supported Batista, resolving to “adopt a more positive attitude towards Colonel Batista, compelling him as a result to take up even more positively democratic atttudes”. In 1940 the CP supported Batista in the presidential elections.

The CP’s deal with Batista was denounced by radical bourgeois democrats such as Eduardo Chibas. It contributed to the hostility towards the CP that continued to exist amongst a lot of radical activists, including many members of the July 26 Movement in the 1950s.

In 1939 a Constituent Assembly was elected. The union movement held demonstrations to demand the inclusion of workers rights in the new constitution. The constitution adopted in 1940 included provisions for a 44-hour week and a month’s paid holidays for workers, and restrictions on the ability of employers to sack workers, amongst other progressive measures. These provisions were, however, implemented very unevenly in practice.

Batista was elected president in 1940, with support from the CP, but also from many wealthy people who feared (wrongly) that his opponent Grau would carry out a social revolution.

Two CP members became ministers in Batista’s government. In 1944 the CP changes its name to the Popular Socialist Party. With its expectation of “lasting peace for many generations” after the second world war, the PSP appeared to have abandoned the Marxist understanding of imperialism and class struggle.

The 1944 presidential election was won by Grau. Batista, who did not contest this election, left office a very wealthy man as a result of corruption, and went to live in Miami. But Grau’s government, which included many former radicals of the 1930s, turned out to be even more corrupt than Batista’s.

The issue of corruption led to a split in Grau’s Cuban Revolutionary Party (also known as the Autenticos), with Eduardo Chibas setting up a new party, the Cuban Peoples Party (commonly known as the Ortodoxos) in 1947 on an anti-corruption platform.

With the onset of the Cold War, the Grau government launched an offensive against communists in the unions. Communist union leaders were murdered by pro-government thugs. From 1947 to 1951 the CTC was split, with two labour federations both claiming the name CTC. On July 29, 1947 the Minister of Labour Carlos Prio took over the CTC headquarters by force and handed it over to Autentico union officials.

Eventually the PSP-led federation gave up its attempt to maintain a seperate structure. Some of its unions applied to join the Autentico-led federation, while other unions were dissolved and encouraged their members to join unions affiliated to the rival federation.

The PSP has been considerably weakened, but nevertheless retained a following in some sections of the working class. According to one estimate, “25% of Cuba’s organised workers remained pro-communist, and of 120 sugar mill locals, the communists retained control of 40”.

In 1948 Prio won the presidential election. Batista returned from Miami and won election as a senator.

The Prio regime was highly corrupt. Eduardo Chibas regularly denounced corruption on his weekly radio program, and the Ortodoxos won growing support, especially amongst poor people and amongst the youth. But in 1951, Chibas committed suicide, depriving the Ortodoxos of their most popular leader.

The May 1952 elections were expected to be a three way contest between the Autenticos (whose presidential candidate was Carlos Hevia), the Ortodoxos (whose candidate was Roberto Agramonte, following the suicide of Eduardo Chibas), and Batista. But on the night of March 9-10, Batista carried out a coup.

The 1952 Coup

Although Batista was no longer army commander, he still had the support of many (though not all) army officers. Batista and his supporters quickly took over Havana’s main army base and sent tanks to surround the presidential palace. Prio fled to the Mexican embassy.

The CTC called a general strike in protest at the coup. However Batista promised the CTC leadership that he would respect the existing labour laws, and the strike was soon called off. CTC leader Eusebio Mujal (who had collaborated with the Autentico government in ousting the PSP from the leadership of the CTC) became one of Batista’s closest collaborators, and helped suppress opposition to the dictatorship within the unions.

The Struggle Against Batista

Batista’s coup initially met little resistance. On March 10, 1952 there was a protest rally at Havana University, involving a few hundred students and workers.

Opposition to the dictatorship grew. Students were amongst the first to take action, holding numerous rallies and demonstrations throughout the years of Batista’s dictatorship. On January 15, 1953 a student, Ruben Batista, was fatally wounded by police at a demonstration. He died on February 13. His funeral the following day became a large, militant demonstration of repudiation of the regime.

Groups of activitsts began to make plans for the overthrow of Batista. Fidel Castro was the leader of one such group, sometimes referred to as the Youth of the Centenary (a reference to the centenary of Jose Marti’s birth). This was the group that carried out the attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953. The aim was to spark a nationwide insurrection which would overthrow Batista’s regime. However it was quickly crushed. many of the participants were murdered by the army and police, while others including Castro were captured and jailed. Castro and others who participated in the Moncada attack later went on to form the July 26 Movement.

Another militant group formed in the aftermath of Batista’s coup was the the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), led by Rafael Garcia Barcena, a university professor who had been a radical activist in the 1920s and 1930s. This group planned to lead a student march on an army camp in April 1953, with the aim of persuading the soldiers to rise against Batista. However the plan was foiled by mass arrests. Garcia Barcena was amongst those arrested. Some supporters of the MNR who escaped arrest continued trying to build a revolutionary organisation. Many of them later joined the July 26 Movement.

Another group, formed in 1955, was the Revolutionary Directorate, led by Jose Antonio Echevarria, the president of the University Students Federation. The Directorate, which mainly comprised students, carried out an attack on the presidential palace in March 1957, in which Echevarria died.

The PSP was very slow to join the struggle against Batista. According to Hugh Thomas, the PSP leaders “denounced Batista but were slow to do anything more”. THe PSP denounced Castro’s attack on the Moncada barracks as a “putsch”. The PSP remained legal until November 1953, when it was banned, apparently became of US pressure rather than because Batista viewed it as a serious threat. The ban was not enforced very strictly.

Some members of the PSP and Socialist Youth opposed the party’s conservative policy, but it was not until 1958 that the policy changed fundamentally.