Until 1959, Cuba was under the US funded dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. He, however, was overthrown by a group of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, in which the Argentinian militant Ernesto “Che” Guevara participated. This is the time of the Cold War, and the US was implementing various measures against communism in Cuba, including CIA troops. Fidel Castro’s aim was always to free Cuba from US economic and social control, but it was unclear whether he, as Guevara clearly did, followed communist ideals. Cuba’s socialist regime has survived many measures against it organised by the US, like blockades and attempts at assassination. It has survived in large part due to its commitment to its socialist policies and ideas. These policies have also supported many liberation movements around the world. This article explains the roles of Castro and Guevara in the Cuban Revolution, the movement’s relations with Washington and Moscow, and the policies of Cuba’s communist regime, including its socialist internationalism.
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Fulgencio Batista became dictator of Cuba in 1952 after a coup d’état, and throughout the 1950s steady opposition to him grew. Under his governance, class inequalities were growing, with big landowners being benefited by the law. Most companies were from the USA, and practically all of Cuban economy worked for the benefit for that country, who funded Batista’s dictatorship. Conditions for the poor were steadily worsening and Havana, the country’s capital city, was like one big brothel. Various liberation movements appeared, but perhaps the most important is that of Fidel Castro. Fidel came from a wealthy family but he and his brother Raúl had been educated to feel sympathy for the less fortunate. Raúl Castro was a devoted communist, but Fidel remained more ambiguous in his ideology for the first years.
Fidel’s movement made its first revolt in 1952, on the 26th of July. The revolt was suppressed by the Cuban national forces, many members were killed and others, including the Castro brothers, were sentenced to prison – 15 years in the case of Fidel. He was released early due to popular pressure to the government and he immediately fled to Mexico. There he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentinian communist revolutionary. Ernesto Guevara also came from a privileged family, but had made a travel across Latin America with his friend Alberto Granada and seen the effects of poverty and exploitation, much like Marx himself in Europe. Guevara was an avid reader of Steinbeck, Gandhi, Mussolini, and he became obsessed with the image of the martyr who sacrifices himself for a bigger cause. Guevara was interested in President Jacobo Árbenz of Guatemala, bordering Mexico, who was organizing a socialist revolution in the country through land reform, nationalising banana companies from the US.
After Árbenz was overthrown and the next president started prosecuting communists, Guevara became a Marxist and, in the belief that the only hope fr his land was a revolution, he joined Fidel Castro’s movement in 1956. He was the only non-Cuban in the band, and because he was Argentinian he was nicknamed “Che”, a slang expression that Argentinians use to call attention, like “hey”. In December 1956, Castro’s band of 82 men left Mexico for Cuba, intending to resume the war of independence. The Mexican government informed Batista of this and CIA troops tended an ambush. Only 16 of Castro’s men survived, fleeing into the Sierra Maestra mountains. Throughout the following two years, however, they managed to recruit an army of 10 000 men. Some sources say that Che Guevara was openly a Marxist-Leninist (although anti-Soviet), and Fidel feared that a communist label might be attached to the movement. This label would have costed a great deal of world support, which Fidel Castro valued a lot. Other sources, however, suggest that Guevara himself kept his communist inclinations from his comrades, especially as his status grew, because he knew that otherwise they would not have wanted to be related to him.
Throughout this time, Fidel’s group faced more ambushes, and the CIA attempted to infiltrate people into the group. Eutimio Guerra was one of the first collaborators of the revolution, but he was found to be a spy. Fidel ordered his execution. Although no one ever said who killed Guerra, Guevara’s personal journal reveals it was him. Che describes the scene vividly, detailing the pistol he used and the thunderstorm that fell at the moment. This was Che’s first execution of a comrade, but wouldn’t be his last. Under the pressure of the CIA and Cuba’s national army, the group became intolerable with opposition and was ruthless to the sole suspicion of treason. This was a significant part of the reputation that the revolutionaries had around them in Sierra Maestra. Trapped between extreme poverty from Batista and the risk of being executed by the revolutionaries, many Cuban fled.
Cuba under Castro
Fidel Castro got in contact with the then president of the Soviet Union, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, and asked for support. Initially, Khrushchev hadn’t been interested in Cuba, even though he knew about its revolution, but he decided that it would be a beneficiary for the Soviets to have an ally or headquarters in the Western hemisphere. Thus, he sent weapons to the Cuban rebels. In 1958, Batista called Fidel Castro publicly a communist, which caused investigations by Washington DC. The investigations, however, concluded that Castro was a nationalist, and therefore not necessarily of international concern. In December that year, Batista fled Cuba, taking one million dollars with him. In January 1959, Fidel Castro entered Havana and claimed victory.
Fidel had minded to keep the communist inclinations of many of his men, including Che and Raúl, secret from public opinion. However, there was an intense debate in Washington and Moscow on whether the movement followed this political ideology. Fidel claimed, in a public speech, that the movement was not Marxist-Leninist, that they would not seize people’s land and property, and promised democratic elections within the following 18 months. Despite this, Fidel Castro was named Prime Minister of Cuba two months after he seized power without elections. In the first year of his presidency, he introduced 1500 new laws, including laws to nationalise farmlands and a large number of US-owned factories and companies. Cuba made a deal with the Soviet Union to exchange Cuban sugar for Soviet oil and industrial goods. In 1960, when US oil refineries refused to process oil coming from the USSR, Castro nationalised them too. It was becoming clearer and clearer that the regime’s inclination was Marxist-Leninist.
Castro’s regime, however, wasn’t solely influenced by Marx and Lenin, but also by Latin authors like José Martí, Antonio Maceo and Simón Bolívar. It is from these authors that the Cuban regime gets its internationalism and anti-imperialism. From the beginning, Fidel’s goal was to free his country from US economic control, and Che Guevara had similar visions for the whole of Latin America. Rejection of the US was precisely the kind of anti-imperialism advocated by Martí. In the First Havana Declaration (Castro 1960), Cuba said that it stood in solidarity with “all oppressed and exploited nations”, and has helped many liberation movements. Indeed, Castro had supported many of them throughout the continent, like the Bogotazo in Colombia in 1948, and Castro’s Cuba would continue to support them. The most notable example is Algeria’s national liberation movement against the French occupation, which lasted for almost a century.
In a paper by Gerber written in 1968, it is said that, for the Cuban population, conditions improved significantly after Castro seized power. “Life is austere”, he acknowledges, especially for those who had been of the upper or middle classes when such things still existed, but materially, the masses were better off in 1968 than under Batista. Unemployment rates had dropped drastically, everyone had the right to education, shelter and electricity, and infrastructure like hospitals and roads had had more attention than in previous years. The mortality of malaria, gastritis and related diseases had reduced greatly by 1966.
However, economically, Fidel Castro wasn’t very skilled. He failed to better gross national product, there was a reduction of per capita profit (from $450 in 1959 to $400 in 1967), and the average Cuban citizen still consumed less food a day than it was recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “The ration book in February 1968, for example, entitled each person to buy two shirts and two pairs of shoes a year, three pounds of rice”, writes Gerber. “… three-fourths of a pound of meat and three ounces of coffee a week, and a liter (slightly over a quart) of fresh milk a day for each child. Bread, eggs, and sugar have not been rationed. Chicken, although not rationed, has been scarce. The wait for the purchase of tires has been as long as a year, and spare parts for cars are reportedly available only through the black market.” Fidel signed the new currency of Cuba with his own name, which was perceived as an insult by many. Great opponents of Leninist communism, Catholic priests begin to be seen as enemies of the regime and Fidel expels many from the country, rejecting religion in general terms.
Castro made public his Marxist-Leninist political position after the Bay of Pigs invasion. The CIA, with the support of a local rebel movement, organised an invasion through the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba in 1961. The invasion failed because Castro knew of it before it happened and could plan ahead – a report ordered by President Kennedy concluded that someone had leaked the information, suggesting that Allen Dulles, then head of the CIA, was responsible, which might indicate that the CIA wanted the invasion to fail. Fearing that the US would attack again, Fidel Castro announced that Cuba would join the Soviet Union and publicly declared it a communist regime. In response, the US has thrown various economic blockades to Cuba, and economic development has been difficult in the country. In 1965, Che Guevara led a group to support a liberation movement in Bolivia. After an ambush from the CIA, he fled to a neighbouring village, la Higuera. Some villagers there recognised him and informed the authorities. Che Guevara was captured and killed in 1967.
The current president of Cuba is Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother after he stepped down in 2011. The government is a one-party state and, as a video by the YouTuber Bald and Bankrupt shows first hand, infrastructure such as houses and roads are very old. The cars are from the Batista period and furniture inside houses can be 30 to 40 years old, as explained by an article on Biz Evde Yokuz. Bald’s video also shows that the country has many national symbols to commemorate and celebrate the Revolution. These include images of Fidel Castro, posters of Che Guevara, labels that read “Gracias Fidel” (Thank you, Fidel), statues of José Martí and signs that celebrate the 26th of July, the date of the first revolt, which is still the most celebrated date today.
The article on Biz Evde Yokuz, titled Life in Cuba Today, says that although wages are very low – a doctor makes $30 a month – the government provides each person with housing and a ration that accounts for 40% of food products. They also have universal access to education and medicine, which are almost completely free, except for specialised operations. The constitution, moreover, ensures that people have access to music and art, and recreational activities such as concerts are either free or very cheap. On the other hand, life is expensive and people always need some extra money. For instance, many people have turned their houses into homestays for tourists because they can earn a doctor’s monthly salary in one night. Tourists are charged in CUC, while locals in Pesos (1 CUC = 25 Pesos). One night at a homestay can be almost 2 CUC.
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An Analysis of the Ideas at Play
The revolution movement’s primary goal was to free Cuba from US imperial dominance, and only later became Marxist-Leninist through the influence of some of its members such as Che Guevara and Raúl Castro. The movement fought against US companies, which took advantage of Cuban resources to bring money to their country without giving Cuba its fair share. When the revolution nationalised companies and private property, social classes disappeared, worsening the conditions of previous rich people (although improving those of previously poor people), and this created an opposition that the new regime faced in a similar manner to the Batista regime. However, it must be considered that the definitions of “poverty” vary. In communist Cuba, the state provides all citizens with most of their basic necessities. Thus, poverty in communism becomes a categorical concept, as in having or not having enough, whereas in capitalism under Batista it is more of a linear idea, where you can have more and more or less and less.
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The Truth About Che Guevara Documentary | Biography Documentary Films
The Guardian: Che Guevara’s Legacy Still Contentious 50 Years After His Death
Alphahistory: Cuba Under Castro
Harris. R (2009). Cuban Internationalism, Che Guevara, and the Survival of Cuba’s Socialist Regime
Gerber (1968). Cuba Under Castro.
The Cuba They Don’t Want You To See CU
BPS News Hours: Fidel Castro, who led Cuba for a half-century, dies at 90
Secrets of War: How Fidel Castro came to power.
Life in Cuba Today Bizevdeyokuz
The Cuban regime needed to kill the opposition. Can this be related to Hayek’s claim on the nature of socialism? If so, why did Batista’s dictatorship also kill the opposition?