Forty years ago, on January 1st 1959 a general strike paralysed Cuba and forced dictator Batista to flee the country. In a few days the July 26 Movement guerrillas, led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara entered the capital Havana and were received as heroes by the masses. The Cuban revolution had succeeded. What was the programme of that movement? What was the social basis of that revolution? In order to understand these and other questions we must look back a few years.
In 1898, Spain lost Cuba, one of the few remnants of her former colonial power. But that did not mean independence for Cuba. The island was just transferred from one colonial master to another: the United States of America. For three years after 1898, Cuba was militarily occupied and ruled by the US and the Cuban Republic was only declared on 1902, after Washington passed the Platt amendment declaring the right of the US to militarily intervene in the island at any time. Cuban politics for the next 60 years were to be determined by the US who did actually send troops to the island on several occasions (1906, 1912, 1917, 1920 and 1933).
The Cuban economy was also largely dominated by the US. The island's main source of income was sugar cane which was sold at preferential prices to the powerful northern neighbour. Most of the country's sugar mills were in the hands of American companies and so were most of the other key sectors of the economy (oil, electricity, telephone etc). The crushing domination of the US relied on a system of land property which remained basically the same as under Spanish domination: a few landowners had most of the land, while the majority of peasants were landless labourers. Fewer than 0.1% of the farms represented 20% of the land while at the other end of the scale 39% of the farms represented only 3.3% of the land.
The only other group to benefit from this situation was the small and very weak Cuban bourgeoisie, confined to manufacturing the very few things not made by US subsidiaries.
Meanwhile the living conditions of the Cuban masses were appalling. In good years 25% of the workforce was unemployed and the percentage went up to 50% in bad years. Illiteracy was very high and the average per capita income was only US$312 (compared to US$2,279 in Delaware).
For years the Cuban workers played a key role in the struggle against imperialism and to advance their own interests. A high point was the huge wave of strikes and demonstrations, including armed uprisings and the establishment of revolutionary councils in the sugar mills, in the 1930s. This led to the overthrow of General Machado's US puppet government, which was soon replaced by an army coup led by Fulgencio Batista.
Unfortunately, the Cuban Communist Party, instead of relying on the revolutionary might of the Cuban workers adopted the Stalinist theory of the "two-stages". According to this, they were supposed to look for an alliance with the so-called "progressive national bourgeoisie" in order to complete the "anti-imperialist and democratic revolution" and only after that would the struggle for socialism be on the agenda. This theory was utterly divorced from Cuban conditions, and indeed from the real class relationships in any of the colonial countries. The Cuban landowners and the tiny bourgeoisie were completely linked to and dominated by the US. They had no intention whatsoever of carrying through the tasks of the bourgeois revolution (distribution of the land, fight for national independence) because that would have meant dealing a mortal blow to themselves.
The Cuban Communist Party in its search for a non-existent 'progressive national bourgeoisie' discovered Batista to be the representative of this class and decided to support him. In exchange, the CP was legalised during the Batista dictatorship and even got two cabinet ministers in 1942.
Batista was replaced by the corrupt civilian government of Grau San Martín which in its turn was overthrown by Batista in a second military coup in 1952. The succession of corrupt governments and military coups with the real power in the island remaining firmly in the hand of the US and their local crooks created widespread discontent amongst the population, including the petty-bourgeois layers. Thousands of small businessmen made bankrupt by the big monopolies, students who resented the domination of their country by a foreign power, and small landowners paralysed by the US-backed big landlords entered into opposition. In 1953, a group of students and intellectuals decided to do something to put an end to this state of affairs and with a handful of followers launched an assault on the Montcada barracks on July 26th. Amongst them were Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. They were defeated and jailed but as soon as they were released they went to Mexico where they set themselves the task of organising a guerrilla group, the July 26th Movement, which landed in Cuba in 1956.
The programme of this movement was that of the revolutionary petty-bourgeoisie: distribution of land plots of more than 1,100 acres with compensation for the owners, a profit-sharing scheme for the workers aimed at expanding the domestic market, and the end of the quota system under which the US controlled sugar cane production. The 1956 Programme Manifesto of the 26-J Movement defined itself as "guided by the ideals of democracy, nationalism and social justice ... of Jeffersonian democracy". The same document also stated the aim to reach a "state of solidarity and harmony between capital and workers in order to raise the country's productivity".
They launched a heroic 3 year long guerrilla struggle which won the overwhelming support of the Cuban people, with only the exception of the tiny handful of people directly linked to the landlords and US imperialism. The main base of the movement during the fighting itself were the landless peasants and small producers in the countryside, for whom the only way of solving their problems was the expropriation of the landlords. Batista's army, made up itself mainly of peasants rapidly began to disintegrate during the fighting.
On January 1959 a general strike was declared which forced Batista to flee the country. Fidel Castro's guerrillas entered Santiago de Cuba and in a few days Havana and proclaimed a new government. Just after seizing power Castro went to the US in a goodwill tour declaring in New York "I have clearly and definitely stated that we are not Communists... The gates are open for private investment that contributes to the development of Cuba".
The problem was that even this limited programme of progressive reforms clashed head on with the interests of the big landlords and the US multinationals. In other words, to carry through the programme of the democratic bourgeois revolution in a backward country in the epoch of imperialism meant to challenge capitalism and imperialism itself. This had already been proved by the practical experience of the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks had argued that the national democratic revolution could only be led in a backward country like Russia by the working class (which represented no more than 10% of the population at that time).
The workers, having taken power at the head of the other oppressed classes, especially the peasantry, would then proceed to carry through the tasks of the socialist revolution as the only way to ensure the survival of the revolution. But, as the national democratic revolution also challenged the interests of imperialism, in order to survive, the revolution had to spread internationally seeking the help of the mighty working class in the advanced capitalist countries.
Trotsky was the first one to give a full theoretical explanation of this theory which is known as the permanent revolution. The revolution in a backward country therefore, has to be 'permanent' in two regards: because it starts with the national democratic tasks and continues with the socialist ones, and because it starts in one country but has to spread internationally in order to succeed.
The events which followed Castro's seizure of power in Cuba are a remarkable confirmation of this theory, which is even more striking because of the fact that Castro was forced to act in the opposite way to what he intended.
As soon as the new government started to seize the land owned by the big landlords (some of them US companies) they tried to organise resistance against these measures and were backed by the US. The masses, aroused by the revolutionary takeover were also putting enormous pressure on the government with a wave of land seizures and factory occupations and strikes.
The conflict came to a head in 1960 when the three oil companies in the island (all of them US-owned) refused to refine a delivery of Russian oil to Cuba. The Cuban government then "intervened" placing them under government supervision. The US retaliated by cutting the quota for Cuban sugar, but Russia offered to buy it. Then the Cuban government decided to nationalise the electricity company, the telephone company, the oil refinery and the sugar mills. Afterwards all Cuban subsidiaries of US companies were also nationalised and finally the biggest Cuban companies were taken into public ownership. The US government retaliated by putting in place a trade embargo (which is still in place) and preparing military intervention to overthrow the regime. In 1961 all diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken.
As we have seen Castro and his comrades had no intention whatsoever of eliminating capitalism and landlordism in the island. They were pushed to do so by a combination of the mistakes and blunders of the US and the pressure of the Cuban masses. But the key factor was that no fundamental change could ever be implemented in Cuba under capitalism. In the epoch of imperialism there is no room for a small colonial country to achieve real independence and advance unless it breaks fundamentally with capitalism. And this, Castro and his comrades of the 26-J Movement found out by their own experience.
The Cuban Communist Party played almost no role in the overthrow of Batista because its political activity was firmly rooted in the anti-Bolshevik theory of the two stages. They even denounced Castro as a "gangster"!
Undoubtedly, the support for the new regime was overwhelming. Two hundred thousand workers and soldiers were organised in a popular militia and Committees for the Defence of the Revolution organised in every neighbourhood and every village. Thus when the CIA sponsored an invasion of the island in April 1961, the Cuban emigre invasion force was rapidly crushed. For the first time in their lives, workers and peasants had something to defend, something to fight and even die for.
The revolution enjoyed mass support since its advantages were there for everyone to see: an enormous advance of the living standards, the eradication of illiteracy, one of the best health systems in the world, etc. But without workers control and management of the state and the economy there can be no socialism and the development of bureaucracy and mismanagement is inevitable. This is on of the most important lessons to be drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The way the new regime had come to power was to shape the organisation of the new state. The working class is the only class that, because of its working conditions and the role it plays in production, is able to adopt a collectivist viewpoint. During the process of the Russian revolution hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants and soldiers went through the school of the soviets, revolutionary committees where all decisions were taken democratically, and gained confidence in their own ability to run their own lives.
But the Cuban revolution was led by a handful of intellectuals and in the process of the fighting itself no more than a few hundred participated. The masses played mainly a secondary role. And this situation was to remain afterwards. There was a workers and peasants' militia and revolutionary committees, but their role was not to rule but only to approve decisions taken elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands gathered to listen to the speeches of the leaders, but they were not allowed to take decisions.
When the new regime broke with capitalism the model it based itself on was not that of Russian soviet democracy of 1917, but that of Russia 1961 when all vestiges of workers control had been eradicated long ago. An example of this can be seen in the fact that the Communist Party was created in 1965, its first congress did not take place until 1975, ten years later!
The lack of democracy and the scarcity of basic products (largely due to the criminal embargo decreed by US imperialism) has meant an increase in scepticism amongst the younger generation. The older generation remains largely loyal to the regime because they know how life was under the domination of the landlords and imperialism and if they look around to the neighbouring states they see a cruel reminder of what life would be like if capitalism were restored.
Socialists all over the world have the duty to defend the Cuban revolution against the attempts of US imperialism to destroy it, but also against the attempts of European capitalism to restore the rule of capital bit by bit. At the same time we have to explain that genuine socialism cannot be established unless there is real workers democracy and above all that socialism cannot be built in a single island. The best contribution we can make to defend the gains of the Cuban revolution is to fight for socialism in our own countries.