The death of Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz is being celebrated and mourned for many different reasons across the globe. His impact on the contours of global politics will surely live on for many generations to come, particularly since his life was marked with the struggle against American imperialism and the fight for liberation inside and outside of Cuba.
Many in Barbados, accustomed to the diet of western propaganda and United States hegemony, would hardly be aware that Cuba’s anxiety was long held for more than 100 years. This article is part one of a story on Cuba and its revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
Cuba’s evolution saw a country and people enmeshed against colonisation and re-colonisation. Between 1868 and 1878, there was the so-called Ten Years War of Independence which ended in a truce with Spain promising reforms and greater autonomy. However, the promises made by Spain were mostly never met. In 1886, slavery was abolished in Cuba. Then, between 1895 and 1898, another icon, Jose Marti, led a second war of Independence, and this time, the US declared war on Spain. It so happened that in 1898, the US defeated Spain.
Spain gave up all claims to Cuba and ceded the great Caribbean island to the US. The Spanish-American War was a conflict between the US and Spain that ended Spanish colonial rule in the Americas. US dominance over Cuba’s political economy and socio-economic culture rose sharply for the next 50 years. The formal military occupation of Cuba by the US began on 1 January 1899.
The ensuing agreements established with Cuba gave the US a position of hegemony on the island. This dominance manifested itself most thoroughly in Cuba’s sugar industry, which acted as the backbone of its economy. It was even stated by at least one US President prior to Cuban Independence, the aspiration for having Cuba politically annexed to the US.
It must be noted that by the turn of the 20th century, the US no longer wanted to annex Cuba, but the island was too important economically and strategically to the US to not be within the American orbit. To justify its economic control over Cuba, the US used the rhetoric and representation of race, culture and gender to control Cuba and ensure it was firmly within the American sphere of influence.
For the first 20 years of the 20th century, the US intervened in the internal affairs of Cuba. Cuba had become an independent nation in 1902 with Tomas Estrada Palma as its president. However, the Platt Amendment kept the island under US protection and gave the US the right to intervene in Cuban affairs.
Freedom from the imperialist intent of the US, notwithstanding any form of US assistance such as the 1912 military return to Cuba to help put down black protests on discrimination, can arguably account for Castro’s emergence as the Cuban Revolution leader. Throughout much of the period leading up to 1959, Cuba was saddled with all sorts of problems including widespread US-inspired corruption.
In January 1959, Castro gave an early exposition of his programme for safeguarding the Cuban economy. In fact, as early as 1953 when Castro stated that “history will absolve me,” he made a critique of Cuba’s socio-economic failings. He promised to deal with income inequities, dependence on the USA, slow economic growth and unemployment. He was to press for land reform, nationalization of utilities, improved tax collection, improved health and education, economic diversification and housing.
In the rural areas, poor housing, poor nutrition, and inadequate educational and medical facilities were common. Cuba had become the playground for rich American adventurers willing to spoil and deface the dignity of a country for their own selfish desires. Fidel Castro by 1959 was totally against this woeful debacle, and for the second time, led a militant group to overthrow the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.
Castro was not a Marxist or Communist at the time of Revolution. He was, while in exile from Cuba, heavily influenced after 1954 by the former Argentinian medical doctor – Che Guevara – whom he met in Mexico. Guevara became a militant guerrilla, fighting imperialism and the subjugation of peoples in Latin America. Castro’s determined attitude combined with the strategizing of Guevara changed the fortunes of Cuba ever since 1959. It was only in 1965 that Cuba’s sole political party was renamed the Cuban Communist Party. By 1972, Cuba became a full member of the Soviet-based Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.
Politically, Castro’s main issue was always about Cuban nationalism and combatting the exploitative relations that flourished between Cuba and the hegemonic US. For the Cuban people, it was an issue which produced ambivalence, because of the strong feelings of resentment against American domination combined with a fear of the consequences of challenging American power. Arguably, it was in this context that a charismatic Fidel Castro could ignite the imaginations of the Cuban people and become a counter-hegemonic force to US skulduggery.
Indeed, it remains a Cuban tradition, as in many other Latin American countries, to respect the strong leader as we have seen with the likes of Juan Perón (Argentina), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) Augusto Pinochet (Chile) and Luiz ‘Lula’ Da Silva (Brazil). Once Castro committed himself to a socialist system for Cuba, the revolution inevitably developed further in a totalitarian direction. In Cuba, as elsewhere, the road to socialism thus proved irreconcilable with an open society and representative democracy. Many aspects of the revolution can only be explained by the character of their leader.
That Cuba experienced several fluctuating episodes of development and backwardness since 1952 speaks to the ardent need and priority with which Fidel Castro placed the maintenance of political stability on the post-Revolution regime. Castro employed several strategies, both for pragmatism and the need to deliver on economic reforms. The first development strategy ran from 1961 to 1963 and was aimed at instant industrialization; this proved unrealistic and was aborted.
A second strategy was adopted in 1964 aimed at a 10-million-ton sugar harvest by 1970. This approach led to the sacrifice of much of the rest of the economy and was terminated in 1970. A more balanced approach was then adopted following generous Soviet economic assistance. But by 1986, stagnation set in. In response, Castro directed a ‘Rectification Programme’ and this was adopted from 1986 to 1990. There was much organizational re-centralization, a vastly reduced use of market mechanisms, and a re-emphasis on moral appeals and incentives.
Change began slowly in 1959 under the first post-Revolutionary government headed by President Manuel Urrutia but accelerated after Fidel Castro took over the Presidency in July. Of greatest significance in that period was the first agrarian reform law. The key parts authorized the expropriation and redistribution of landholdings of more than 996 acres.
The land confiscated included some 480,000 acres owned by US corporations. In fact, it was not until October, 1963 that socialism replaced capitalism in rural Cuba; it was more difficult to deal with the ‘colonos’ and peasants than with the bourgeoisie, many of whom simply left Cuba. Agricultural problems, especially food shortages, became so severe that the government enacted the Second Agrarian Reform Law, giving the government control over well over 70 per cent of Cuba’s total farm land.
The US tightened its fists against Cuba with an embargo. The Soviet Union quickly replaced the United States as Cuba’s chief trading partner and the Socialist countries dominated Cuba’s export and import patterns. Initially the Revolutionary leadership welcomed the US embargo and down-played its potential negative impacts, arguing that it would hurt the United States more than Cuba. By the end of 1960, the Cuban economy had been transformed into a state-owned economy in which central planning was the organizing force
There were several effective reforms and expansions that came in education and health. Of special note is the literacy campaign of 1961 that provided functional literacy to about 700,000 Cuban adults. Support for the revolution increased throughout the countryside, and with the passage of the Rent Reduction Act, the situation resulted in the transfer of about 15 per cent of the national income from property owners to wage workers and peasants.
A literacy campaign sent thousands of young volunteers to rural areas. Literacy was increased, and the young supporters of the revolution learned first-hand about the conditions of the rural areas. The new government also began building hundreds of new schools and training thousands of additional teachers. Health care was extended to the entire population for the first time with the construction of rural clinics and hospitals. Many private and racially segregated facilities such as clubs and beaches were opened to the public.
As early as 1959, Fidel Castro spoke about the need to free women from domestic slavery so that they could participate widely in production to the benefit of women themselves and the Revolution. Over the next 20 years the government increased women’s educational opportunities and labour force participation, while providing more and more services to lighten domestic chores for those who worked outside the home. In the early 1970s, Cuba went one step farther than any other socialist nation by enacting the Cuban Family Code, which made husband and wife equally responsible for housework and child care.
These radical social and economic measures carried out in the first years of the revolution often involved mass mobilizations, which served to unite the poor majority of Cuban citizens behind the government. By the end of the 1980s, and with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) happening in in the Soviet Union, the economic ‘melt-down’ of the Cuban economy hastened. Despite weak economic performance, Cuba’s socio-economic improvement was significant. Indeed, the 1970 to 1986 period perhaps could be called the “golden age” of Cuban socialism.
(Please note that several of the claims asserted herein are an aggregation of several studies on Cuba; not all points are originally conceptualised by this author. Next week, I continue with Part 2. Also, wishing all Barbadians at home and abroad a very happy 50th Independence).
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a part-time lecturer in Political Science at the UWI-Cave Hill Campus, and a political consultant.