Essay published under the title  “The Cuban Revolution,”  Manuel R. and Teresita P. Moreno-Fraginals, “The Cuban Revolution” International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Neil J.Smelser .Ed. (London: Pergamon, 2001).


Volume: 3.7 Article: 90
Title: Revolutions, Cuban Revolution

Manuel R. Moreno Fraginals and Teresita Pedraza Moreno 

The Cuban Revolution, as Fidel Castro proclaimed in January 1959, was a true revolution. A new society was forged with the triumph of Castro’s organization, the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement, over other competing political organizations and with the institutionalization of a Marxist-Leninist government. Cuba was involved in some of the most serious international confrontations of the last half of the twentieth century. The massive exodus that started in 1960 created a diaspora of more than two million Cubans. This essay explores the historical background of the revolution and the policies that made it both a success and a failure.   

1.   Key Events.

1.1. From Independence to Revolution.

  From 1895 to 1897, the War of Independence between Cuba and Spain was a protracted conflict. The war ended when the United States intervened and occupied the island in 1898. This intervention occurred as the war was starting to turn in favor of the Cubans. Although the Cubans collaborated with the American troops and constituted the fundamental land force that permitted the American swift victory, they were ignored during the peace negotiations at the Treaty of Paris of 1898. The United States aided in the reconstruction of the war-torn country, improving health conditions and education. American investments and the return of Spanish capital contributed to economic recovery.  When U.S. occupation (1898-1902) ended, there was only one objectionable point:  the Platt Amendment.  Imposed by the United States as a requisite for turning over the country to the Cubans, the delegates to the 1901 Constitutional Assembly attached it to the Cuban Constitution. Annexationist interest and the notion held by American officials that Cubans were incapable of self-rule, led to the imposition of the amendment. The amendment, drafted by U.S. Senator Orville Platt, gave the United States the power to intervene militarily in the island and restricted the Cuban government in its international relations.   

Traditional and pseudo-Marxist historiography reduces United States-Cuban relations to the events that occurred in and after 1898.  In this view, 1898 marks the date in which Cuba stopped being a Spanish colony to become an American one.  The truth is far more complex.  Cuba’s economic dependence on U.S. trade was a fact by the mid-nineteenth century. Cuba was the world’s foremost producer of sugar and the United States imported 90 percent of Cuba’s production.  The United States had also been a refuge for Cubans who aspired independence.  The first Cuban political party was created by exiles in the United States under the leadership of José Martí. Martí, although not anti-American, feared and staunchly opposed North American intervention. At the end of the war, the economic ties between the countries continued to play a direct role in U.S.-Cuban relations.  

Liberalism, political participation, the absence of strong partisanship, electoral fraud, administrative graft, and civil unrest characterized the early republic. The post-independence concentration of U.S. and Spanish capital in the sugar industry, together with the Spaniards’ domination of banking and commerce, rendered participation in the government the main vehicle for economic success for many Cubans. The creole elite had been nearly destroyed. Spain did not compensate Cubans for the loss of property during the war. Armed struggle was often a means to ensure circulation of elites in public office. The United States occupied the island for a second time from 1906 to 1909 and landed troops in several occasions.

 Cuba’s economy continued to depend on sugar exports. By 1902, the almost miraculous recovery of the sugar industry had turned Cuba into the world’s second largest producer. The preferential tariff treatment accorded by the United States in the Reciprocity Treaty of 1903 reinforced the preeminence of sugar, hindered economic diversification, and heightened Cuba’s dependence on the United States.  

Sugar production and prices rose during and after World War I.  The prosperity created a Cuban-born entrepreneurial class with a nationalist agenda. In the 1920s, the collapse of sugar prices and the Cuban banking crash plunged the nation into economic chaos. By 1923, students and workers joined industrialists and intellectuals demanding abrogation of the Platt Amendment, curtailment of government concessions to foreigners, and the end to the country’s dependence on sugar.  

Gen. Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship (1925-1933) coupled with U.S. government’s interference and plummeting sugar exports were the catalysts for the Revolution of 1933. A provisional revolutionary government was installed and its president, Dr. Ramón Grau, abrogated the Platt Amendment unilaterally. His administration, which enacted social, political, and economic reforms, encountered the unswerving opposition of the United States. Benjamin Sumner Welles, the U.S. Ambassador, and other opponents denounced the measures as too radical. Although Welles requested U.S. military intervention, Washington opted to withhold diplomatic recognition of Grau’s administration. It was axiomatic that no Cuban government could survive without U.S. support. Strikes continued and in the eastern provinces workers seized some sugar mills and established soviets. On January 1934, Fulgencio Batista, promoted to Army Chief of Staff, deposed Dr. Grau. Although short lived, the 1933 Revolution challenged U.S. hegemony, introduced changes in Cuba’s socioeconomic and political structure and rekindled nationalism. In 1934, the U.S. abrogated the Platt Amendment, signaling a curtailment of Washington’s interference in Cuban affairs.

Batista ruled by proxy until 1940, when he was elected president. The Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Auténtico) came to power with the presidential election of Dr. Ramón Grau (1944-1948). Cubans expected a continuation of the reformist policies enacted during Grau’s short administration in the 1930s. Those reforms, incorporated into the 1940 Constitution, reflected the revolutionary spirit of the 1930s. Unfortunately, many of the significant political and socioeconomic advances of the Auténticos were combined with governmental graft, corruption, and political gangsterism, which was also the case with the autentico administration of Carlos Prío Socarrás (1948-1952). 

In 1947, Eduardo Chibás, a disaffected Auténtico, founded the Partido del Pueblo Cubano (Ortodoxo). The Ortodoxos represented the hopes of a generation for whom the promises of the 1933 Revolution remained unfulfilled. Political legitimacy and honesty in public office were at the core of his movement. Chibás’s suicide in 1951 created a leadership vacuum and renewed the frustration that plagued Cuban society. A coup, on March 10, 1952, led by Gen. Fulgencio Batista, ended the constitutional experience two months before the 1952 elections. On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro, a young Ortodoxo, who had run for office in the 1952 elections pre-empted by Gen. Batista’s coup, organized the unsuccessful attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The daring act provided publicity for Castro and for his nascent anti-Batista organization, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement. When Batista refused the demands for free elections made by a coalition seeking a non-violent solution to the crisis, the Federación Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU) called for a student strike and violence escalated. In 1956, Castro and José A. Echeverría, FEU president and head of the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (DRE), joined forces. By December, Castro and his followers established guerrilla operations in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, in Cuba’s westernmost province of Oriente. On March of 1957, the Auténticos and the DRE stormed the presidential palace and Echeverría was killed in a separate incident during the failed assault. A growing number of the professionals and entrepreneurs joined the fight as the government’s repression mounted. Other guerrilla fronts were then established and the underground initiated a terrorist campaign. Several conspiracies in the armed forces were discovered between 1956 and 1957. In 1958, the U.S. imposed on the Cuban government an arms embargo; a military offensive against the rebels failed and they in turn mounted a counter-offensive. Batista was deposed by a coup in December.  On January 1, 1959, the army surrendered to the Rebel Army and the unanticipated communist revolution began its course. The Cuban communist party, Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), had been critical of Castro’s Moncada attack and barely participated in the struggle against Batista until 1958. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, however, was a communist and may have established contacts with the international communists at the Sierra Maestra.

On the eve of the revolution, Cuba was a developing nation ranking among the top five countries in Latin America. The movement to depose President Batista was neither anti-Yankee, nor was it anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois nor nationalist. By the 1950s, radical nationalism was mostly confined to the intellectual elite. Although the anti-Batista movement had ultimately a heterogeneous class base, members of the middle classes seemed to have comprised the core of the active participants, particularly in the urban underground. Among the insurrectionist, there was also an obvious presence of individuals of middle and upper class backgrounds, such as the Castro brothers and some of their closest collaborators. The Twenty-sixth of July Movement and the other anti-Batista groups focused on political freedom, constitutionality and fiscal integrity, which were the issues concerning the Cuban middle classes. Castro’s social and economic planks were grounded on the implementation of the provisions of the Constitution of 1940, which included agrarian reform.

 1.2 Revolution (1959-1970)

Between 1959 and 1961 Cuban society was transformed. Foreign and domestic properties were gradually expropriated.  Political parties, elections, freedom of the press and labor’s right to strike were eliminated. Universities, labor unions and professional associations were purged. The 1940 Constitution was proclaimed to be outdated, and the United States was identified as Cuba’s enemy. A new currency destroyed the power of the upper and middle classes.  All criticism was declared as counter-revolutionary and political opponents were imprisoned or executed. The first massive flight into exile of Cuba’s entrepreneurial and professional sectors was initiated.

 Cuba’s foreign relations changed just as rapidly. Soviet military advisers and weapons began arriving by September of 1960. In October, the United States imposed a trade embargo and diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in January 1961. That same year, an invasion was launched by Cuban exiles that had received covert military training and support from the United States government. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 consolidated the revolution. The underground was crushed as an estimated 100,000 persons were detained. On the eve of the invasion, Castro proclaimed the socialist nature of the revolution. One month later, diplomatic relations were re-established with the USSR and on December 2, Castro declared himself, for the first time, a Marxist-Leninist.

In 1962, after a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft discovered the construction of missile-launching sites and offensive Soviet intermediate ballistic missiles in Cuba, an international crisis between the two super-powers ensued. The outcome of the Missile Crisis had a dual impact on Cuba’s foreign policy.  When the United States promised the USSR not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet removal of missiles, any viable external threat was eliminated; however, the Cubans felt betrayed as the compromise was reached without consulting them.  Cuba then sought new allies by promoting and supporting revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. In 1967, these policies and the arrests of several members of the Cuban Communist party that followed the Soviet line strained Cuba-Soviet relations. The USSR retaliated by decreasing the amount of petroleum deliveries to the island.

Cuba attempted to chart an independent course during the 1960s. It was, however, facing trading problems similar to those experienced during colonial times. It had changed a trading partner 90 miles from its shores for one more than 3,000 miles away. By 1963, an ill-conceived industrialization program and the neglect of Cuba’s main cash crop caused the progressive indebtedness of the country.  The leadership turned again to sugar and a ten million-ton sugar harvest was programmed for 1970.  The sugar industry, however, was in shambles by 1964.  Professional administrators had gone into exile or were substituted with politically trustworthy personnel while expert cane cutters had been transferred to other activities or incorporated into the militia. Already facing the failure of its international policies and domestic economic strategies, coupled with the U.S. embargo, the impact of the Soviet sanctions on the regime was catastrophic. In 1968, Castro supported the USSR invasion of Czechoslovakia, signaling Cuba’s capitulation to Soviet hegemony and Castro’s determination to remain in power at any cost. 

By the mid 1960s the revolution was giving unequivocal signs of fatigue. Juvenile delinquency and crime were on the rise. Disaffected Cubans, together with priests, seminarians and homosexuals, drafted into Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), were interned in concentration camps from 1965 to 1967. The 1968 “Revolutionary Offensive” nationalized the remaining small businesses. Low worker morale and absenteeism led to low productivity and poor product quality. The strategy of moral incentives failed to mobilize the majority of workers who were no longer imbued by the revolutionary zeal. The revolutionary process had spent itself by 1970.

1.3           Institutionalization and Foreign Military Adventurism.

After 1970 Soviet political and economic models were adopted. Some material incentives were implemented and peasant markets opened. Institutionalization, however, continued under the charismatic guidance and legitimization of Castro’s leadership. In 1974, Leonid Brezhnev’s visit consolidated Cuban-Soviet relations. A year later Cuba’s African campaigns began with Soviet support and in 1979 Castro was elected president of the Non-Aligned Movement. Cuba’s support of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, diminished its prestige and its claims to non-aligned status.

Although increases in Soviet aid led to improvements in living standards, over 120,000 Cubans abandoned the island during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. By 1986, the failure of the Soviet models was indisputable. The crisis was compounded by the American embargo turned again into a powerful economic weapon by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the breakup of the USSR. By the 1980s Soviet subsidies had reached $3 billion a year. The Soviet Union supplied: 90 percent of the island’s oil needs and an inordinate proportion of basic foodstuffs. To confront the crisis, Castro launched the “Rectification of Errors Campaign” at the Third Party Congress. Material incentives and market reforms were eliminated and mass mobilization and volunteer work were reintroduced.  

In 1989, the arrest, trial and execution of Division General Arnaldo Ochoa and of Interior Ministry’s Colonel Antonio de la Guardia signaled an institutional crisis.  They were accused of drug dealing and breaching national security. A massive purge followed and several government agencies were dismantled. Many Cubans suspected that General Ochoa had supported political liberalization and economic reforms.   

1.4           Back to the Future: Authoritarianism and Capitalism.

The “rectification” measures proved insufficient to preclude an economic collapse. In 1990 a “special period in peacetime” was declared and policies to develop an autarkical state were adopted. To alleviate food shortages and decrease energy consumption, thousands of urbanites were forced to move to the countryside and to work in food production.  Austerity and mass mobilization were expected to extricate the country from the crisis, until foreign investments, tourism and an incipient biotechnological industry could generate the necessary hard currency.

   At the 1991 Party Congress, Castro revealed that he was a “slave” of power, entrusted with preserving socialism. There would be no political or economic reforms. By 1993, economic reforms were inevitable. Although private initiatives continued to be restricted, free markets for agricultural and consumer products, duty free zones and “dollarization” were introduced. Access to dollars, mainly through remittances from exile relatives, tourism, and illicit activities such as black market participation and prostitution, provided an economic respite to a growing segment of the population. As Castro had suspected, economic liberalization started eroding the state’s coercive power. Religious participation increased, critics became more vocal, human rights groups proliferated and short-lived rebellions erupted. In 1994 another mass exodus occurred when more than 30,000 people abandoned the island in unique, makeshift innertube-rafts. 

In the 1990s the regime encountered growing criticism from international leaders and organizations. The International Labor Organization, Amnesty International, and the United Nations repeatedly condemned the Cuban Government for its human rights violations. Pope John Paul II urged Cuba to open to the world and condemned the American embargo. In 1996, the embargo had been reinforced, by the passage of the Helms-Burton bill, after Cuban Migs shot-down in international waters two American light planes killing three American citizens.  The planes belonged to “Brothers to the Rescue”, an exile organization that flights over the Strait of Florida in search of rafts carrying Cubans fleeing

the island.  

2. Rebellions and Revolutions 

Rebellions and revolutions are terms often used to identify a series of political struggles in Cuba’s history. As with China, Cuba’s official, Marxist historiography proclaims one single revolutionary movement starting with the Ten Years War (1868-1898). Thus, that first war, which was restricted to the western provinces and was a classical war for independence organized by members of the white middle and upper middle class primarily made up of professionals and landowners, is interpreted as a revolutionary crusade. The War of Independence (1895-1898) is depicted as a continuation of that struggle, despite its broad popular base comprising workers, the middle class, peasants and the black and mulatto population. This second anti-colonial, nationalist war, which sought to establish an independent, democratic republic is then portrayed as a socialist revolution, interrupted by colonial, imperialist and bourgeois interests until Castro’s victory in 1959.

Another taxonomy could divide Cuba’s revolutionary history, beginning in 1868, into two anti-colonial, nationalist, strictly political revolutions (Ten Years War and War of Independence); a proto-revolution (1933 Revolution), which was revolutionary in intent but did not achieve radical social, economic nor political changes; and a true revolution after Castro’s triumph in 1959.  

3. Origins of the Cuban Revolution

The complexity of Cuban society and of revolutions in general becomes evident as one surveys the literature on the causes of the Cuban revolution. Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy see it as the outcome of peasant mobilization.  Theodore Draper claims that it was a middle class phenomenon. Andrés Suárez, among others, argues that it was the product of Castro’s charismatic leadership and political maneuvering. To Luis Aguilar, it was the frustrated 1933 Revolution and the absence of reforms. Jorge I. Domínguez emphasizes that it was the fragmentation and individual strength of the labor unions, professional organizations and other interest groups in pre-revolutionary Cuban politics, which allowed the revolutionary process to crystallize after 1959. Marifeli Pérez-Stable sides with contemporary Cuban historiography and claims the existence of a linear relationship between the republican failure to achieve the aspirations of the wars of independence and the revolution. In essence, there is no agreement among scholars regarding the causes of the Cuban revolution.

4. Revolutionary Dynamics

     The Cuban revolutionary leaders implemented strategies commonly used by totalitarian regimes. Castro’s policies are reminiscent of Nazi, Fascist, and Falangist tactics. The revolution marked a new beginning and required a radical transformation in the collective consciousness. Ernesto Ché Guevara expounded on the need to create both a new economic base and a “new man” to build communism. Destruction of the historical memory was fundamental to the creation of a new society.  The process of deculturation strived to uproot pre-revolutionary organizational and interpersonal social patterns.  The institutions of work and education, radically transformed, became the focus of Cuban life.  Institutionalized religion was crippled, while attempts were made to destroy the traditional structure and values of the Cuban family.  Places and events embody symbolic meanings that provide continuity and solidarity. The names of streets, sugar mills and other landmarks were changed.  The government monopolized all means of communication. Slogans, in which the names of key figures were always present, were incessantly repeated through printed media, billboards, radio, and television. Patriotic and religious holidays were replaced by revolutionary events. In 1968, the 10th of October, which marks the beginning of the Ten Years War, was reinstated and the leaders appropriated this patriotic date to proclaim themselves as the true liberators of Cuba "after 100 years of fighting."    Through symbolic manipulations Cuba became synonymous with revolution and the revolution synonymous with Fidel Castro. Thus, through this syllogism, Cuba, Castro and Revolution, (Fidel-patria-revolution according to Pérez-Stable) became one in the public imagery.  

     Mass organizations, which incorporated, voluntarily or coercively, all members of the society into the process, were responsible for transmitting the new ideology, introducing new patterns of behavior, conducting constant vigilance and mobilizing the population.  The euphoria that the revolutionary triumph inspired promoted an environment of fanatical solidarity in which there was no room for dissension. The “terror” stage, common to revolutionary upheavals, was unleashed by the trials, long jail sentences, executions, and the feeling of being under constant surveillance. A process of self-repression was set in motion among the dissenting population.  After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the exodus intensified with the massive flight of the urban middle class, including those who had fought against previous oppressive regimes. Their density of networks and their experience in underground activities made them a target of the regime.  The government, reluctantly, allowed them to leave although their flight represented a devastating loss of human capital. The impact of these policies, although not the one desired by the government, has been, nonetheless, sufficiently powerful to preclude organized domestic challenges for several decades. 


In the 1990s a Cuban joke that defined socialism as “the longest road between capitalism and capitalism” summarized the tragedy of a revolution that had gone full circle. Cuba’s economy is returning to capitalism and continues to depend on sugar and tourism. Cuban women and men, now from all walks of life, often prostitute themselves to make a living, or in the hope that contacts with foreigners may provide them the means to leave the country. The revolution’s greatest failure has been its historical incapacity to retain the nation’s greatest asset: its human capital. Making political survival its main priority, however, has won the leadership its greatest success, staying in power during four decades.





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