In commemoration of the Cuban Revolution
The sixty-fourth anniversary of its triumph on January 1, 1959
Today marks the sixty-fourth anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959. To commemorate the occasion, I post today a revised version of my commentary of June 22, 2021, originally entitled, “Cuba and the neocolonial world-system: An unseen, noble quest for sovereignty.”
In “From colonialism to neocolonialism,” June 15, 2021, I attempt to describe the characteristics of neocolonialism; and in “Neocolonialism and Cuba: The structures of a neocolonial republic,” June 18, 2021, I illustrate the phenomenon of neocolonialism with the case of Cuba. In today’s commentary, my intention is to stress that Fidel Castro, whose revolutionary consciousness was formed in the context of the Cuban neocolonial situation and the Cuban and Latin American anti-imperialist struggle, understood the essential characteristics of the Cuban neocolonial situation and the necessary steps for the attainment of true sovereignty. Thus Fidel, who functioned as the maximum leader of the revolution beginning with the Moncada attack of July 26, 1953, led the revolution to its consolidation on an anti-neocolonial foundation.
Fidel from the outset understood socialism to be an integral and necessary component of the Cuban attainment of sovereignty. But Fidel’s Marxism-Leninism was flexible and unorthodox rather than doctrinaire; and his concept of socialism was pragmatically adapted to the ongoing struggle in practice for Cuban sovereignty.
Like other exceptional leaders of Third World revolutions, Fidel combined theoretical understanding with a capacity for connecting to, leading, and teaching the people. He identified problems concretely, in down-to-earth terminology, without embarking on a theoretical discourse. And when he explained the historic and economic sources of social problems, he did so precisely and succinctly. When he put forth proposals that required somewhat longer explanation, he explained the matter in clear terms.
The Moncada Program
Fidel first conceived a revolutionary plan in 1951, prior to the March 10, 1952 Batista coup d’état. Fidel envisaged the revolutionary goal as the taking of power from a corrupt political class by the most committed and courageous of the nation’s youth, with the intention of exercising power in defense of the interests of the people from which they sprang. In Fidel’s understanding, the problem of Cuba was greater than the dictatorship. Nevertheless, when the crimes of the dictator became a part of Cuban reality, Fidel did not hesitate to denounce the tyranny, the torturing, and the assassinations of the dictatorship, invoking the principles of the continually evolving social and ethical consciousness of Cuba and of humanity.
In Fidel’s mind, the necessary revolution in Cuba had to be a synthesis of the ideas of José Martí, the late nineteenth century Cuban revolutionary, and the ideas of Marxism-Leninism. He had studied the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin on his own, during his last two years at the University of Havana, using the library of the Cuban Communist Party. This study enabled him to discern more fully the political immaturity of the Cuban people. He thus arrived to see the Cuban people as a great, healthy, non-conforming rebellious mass that did not have mature political consciousness. He saw the people as a force capable of carrying out the revolution, but due to their political immaturity, they must be brought to the revolution in stages. The first stage consisted in the dissemination of a discourse that focused on the taking of power through armed struggle and on implementing concrete solutions to social problems. In a second stage, Marxist-Leninist political education would be introduced, explaining to the people that the steps taken in the concrete resolution of the nation’s problems are in reality the first steps in the road to socialism.
Therefore, when Fidel called the people to revolution in 1953, he called upon the people to continue the unfinished Cuban revolution, which now, he declared, was entering a new stage of war. It was a single revolution, Fidel maintained, that was initiated by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in 1868, when he declared the independence of Cuba and the liberation of his own slaves; that was continued by José Martí in the 1880s and 1890s, culminating in the second war of independence; and that was carried forward by Julio Antonia Mella, Antonio Guiteras, and Eduardo Chibás in the period of the republic. The people knew that Mella was the founder in 1925 of the first Communist Party; that Guiteras had led an armed struggle and had declared for socialism; and that Chibás was thought to be the most radical of the political class of the 1950s, who denounced the political class itself for its corruption. But Mella and Guiteras were recalled by Fidel not as carriers of the socialist banner, but as heroes and martyrs of the historic Cuban struggle for independence and for a more dignified republic that responds to the needs of the people.
And Fidel did not call workers to a socialist revolution. Rather, he called the people to the taking of political power from the hands of a corrupt political class that served the interests of the landholders, the large companies, and the owners of rental housing and the utilities companies; with the intention of placing political power in the hands of a revolutionary government that would adopt measures in accordance with the interests of the people and the needs of farmers, workers, and professionals. He proposed measures with respect to concrete problems that he described in vivid terminology: pervasive unemployment in all economic sectors; wretched rural housing conditions; unsupportable urban housing rents; high electricity rates; limited electricity in the countryside; woefully inadequate nutrition, health care, and education in the countryside; low levels of land ownership among farmers; and widespread largescale landholdings.
The launching of a new stage of war in the single Cuban Revolution was proclaimed dramatically on July 26, 1953, when Fidel led an attack on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba. The intention of the assault was to seize weapons for the launching of a guerrilla struggle in the mountains. The assault failed, and 70 of the 126 assailants were killed, 95% of them murdered after capture by Batista’s solders in a four-day period following the assault.
Following the failed assault, Fidel was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, and he was brought to trial in a procedure separate from his comrades, which was not open to the public. He was permitted to address the court, and his address of October 16, 1953 was delivered from memory. A written version of the address was smuggled out of his prison cell, and it subsequently was distributed clandestinely. Fidel concluded the address by saying, “History Will Absolve Me,” and the underground document—at once manifesto, political platform, and program of action—became known by that phrase.
In his October 16 address to the tribunal, Fidel described the organization and the carrying out of the assault, its intentions, the reasons for its failure, and his capture. He praised the courage and heroism of the young insurrectionists who had carried out the attack. He condemned the soldiers who had tortured and murdered captured revolutionaries, maintaining that they had degraded the uniform of the army; at the same time, he praised the bravery of the soldiers of the dictator who had fallen defending the barracks against the insurrection. He harshly criticized the career of Batista and his deceitful message to the people on July 27. In addition, Fidel argued that the assault on the Moncada garrison was legal, inasmuch as it sought to overthrow an illegal regime and to restore the legitimate Constitution. He maintained that the right of resistance to despotism is established the Cuban Constitution of 1940, and it has been defended by the great jurists and philosophers since ancient times, a point that Fidel supported with numerous references.
In History Will Absolve Me, Fidel displays an insightful understanding of the neocolonial situation of Cuba, without naming neocolonialism as such. He describes how Cuba exports raw materials, and he notes that more than half of the best agricultural land is in foreign hands. He graphically describes the resulting impoverished conditions of the people. He explains a series of measures that indeed constituted reasoned structural changes in response to the maladies of the neocolonial situation, initiating the road toward sovereignty.
Especially important in this regard, Fidel declared in the October 16 address that had the revolution triumphed, the revolutionary government would have undertaken three initiatives, with the support of the people. First, the industrialization of the country, mobilizing the financial resources of the nation toward this end, reducing the purchase of weapons and military equipment. The great task of the industrialization of the country would be placed under the study, planning, and direction of competent specialists not associated with the corrupt political class. Secondly, agrarian reform, which Fidel explained as having two components: the conversion of one hundred thousand small tenant farmers into the owners of the land that they work; and the expropriation of lands beyond a determined size, both foreign and Cuban, supplemented by the stimulation of agricultural cooperatives. Thirdly, converting each urban family into the owner of its house or apartment. In addition, Fidel spoke of the need for a comprehensive reform of education, declaring teaching to be the most sacred mission of the world of today and tomorrow.
The Moncada program, as it came to be called, was a proposal that struck at the heart of the neocolonial relation: taking land from foreign interests and placing it in the hands of Cuban peasants and agricultural workers. In addition, full and equal access to education, as the foundation for scientific and industrial development, displacing the excessive dependency on sugar exportation.
Fidel was sentenced to imprisonment for fifteen years on the Isle of Pines. He and his companions were released on May 15, 1955, as a result of a popular amnesty campaign. Upon his release, Fidel was offered influential and lucrative positions in politics and journalism. He turned them down, seeking to continue with the revolution launched on July 26, 1953. The July 26 Revolutionary Movement was established on June 12, 1955; it distributed pamphlets that called the people to revolution, restating the points of the Moncada program. Fidel traveled to the United States, collecting money from small donors in the Cuban émigré community, in order to relaunch the guerrilla struggle for the taking of power. Following preparations in Mexico, the armed struggle was reinitiated in the eastern province then known as Oriente on December 2, 1956. After some time controlling the eastern mountain region known as Sierra Maestra, and following a failed Batista offensive, the guerrillas advanced to the west rapidly in 1958, culminating in the victory of rebel forces led by Che Guevara in Santa Clara, the flight of Batista, and the triumphant entry of Fidel in Santiago de Cuba on January 1, 1959. As all the world knows or ought to know, the Moncada program was implemented by the Cuban Revolutionary Government in the period 1959 to 1961.
The decisive revolutionary steps of the early 1960s
In taking decisive steps against the neocolonial situation in defense of Cuban sovereignty, the Cuban Revolutionary Government was not seeking to end the Cuba-USA relation; rather, it hoped to transform it into a mutually beneficial relation. The Agrarian Reform Law of May 17, 1959 expropriated sugar and rice plantations and cattle estates in excess of 3,333 acres and real estate in excess of 1000 acres. It provided for compensation to the owners in the form of twenty-year bonds at 4.5 percent annual interest, with prices determined by the assessed value of land for tax purposes.
A total of 4,423 plantations were expropriated, with approximately one-third of the acreage distributed to peasants who worked on it, who were encouraged, but not compelled, to form cooperatives; and with two-thirds of the acreage becoming state property, utilized for the establishment of cooperatives and state farms. In the state farms, the government appointed managers, and the workers formed unions and elected their leaders; managers and elected leaders managed the farms together. In the case of the cooperatives, there were comprehensive contracts with the state, which purchased agricultural products and provided technical assistance. The agrarian reform did not involve the state simply taking control of privately owned land; rather, it was a question of the management of agricultural land by the state and agricultural workers in cooperation, as was fully understood and actively supported by the workers.
On July 6, 1960, the Revolutionary Government emitted a law authorizing the President and the Prime Minister of Cuba to nationalize U.S. properties by means of joint resolutions. Like the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959, the nationalization law of 1960 established compensation, and it went further in defining the terms of compensation. The 1960 law established compensation for the nationalized properties through government bonds at 2% annual interest, with payment to begin in thirty years. Cuba was to create a fund that would be fed by deposits equal to 25% of the U.S. purchase of Cuban sugar in excess of the sugar quota. The Law, therefore, proposed a mutually beneficial resolution, linking compensation for nationalized properties to the U.S.-Cuban sugar trade. By means of a higher U.S. sugar purchase and Cuban use of the additional income to finance compensation and invest in industrial development, the July 6 nationalization law pointed to the transformation of core-peripheral exploitation into North-South cooperation.
The Cuban proposal to compensate the properties through mutually beneficially trade and cooperation was rejected without negotiation or discussion by the U.S. government. On July 6, the very same day that the nationalization law was emitted and the Cuban proposal was announced, the U.S. government announced a reduction of U.S. purchases below the sugar quota. Nevertheless, thirty days later, in the announcement of the first joint resolution nationalizing U.S. properties, Fidel appears to remain hopeful that the U.S. government would accept the proposal of compensation through U.S. purchases above the sugar quota. But it was not to be. The United States had already embarked on its policy of regime change through economic sanctions and the sponsoring of terrorist activities.
In order for things to play out differently, it would have been necessary for the U.S. corporate elite to adopt an enlightened response to the Cuban Revolution. In fact, the U.S. corporate sector in 1959 was economically, politically, and ideologically positioned to take an enlightened turn of accommodation to the Cuban Revolution, a fact that Fidel discerned. At that time, there were various indications that the neocolonial world-system was not going to be politically or ecologically sustainable. The national liberation movements of Africa and Asia were in the midst of sustained drives for political independence from European colonial rule, and the radical character of some of the revolutionary leaders as well as the cases of Vietnam and Cuba demonstrated that the newly independent nations were not going to accept the limited sovereignty that the colonial powers were conceding. Moreover, it was patently evident that the world-system was reaching the geographical limits of the earth, and that its historic method of expanding economically by conquering new lands and peoples had reached its natural limits.
Indeed, Franklin D. Roosevelt had seen the need for a transition to a form of neocolonialism that itself would evolve step-by-step toward a more genuine form of equality. Fidel in 1960 was proposing a first step in that direction, converting the U.S.-Cuban sugar trade into the source of compensation for U.S. properties, and the source of a fund for Cuban industrial and scientific development. This would have enabled Cuba to become a more equal trading partner with the United States, transforming the exploitative neocolonial relation between Cuba and the United States into a mutually beneficial trade relation on the foundation of the principles of the equality and sovereignty of nations. If the neocolonial hegemonic power had taken this step, thereby demonstrating the advantages of cooperation, it would have been a model for others, leading the world-system beyond its colonial foundation.
However, the U.S. corporate sector in 1960 did not have sufficient historical and political consciousness to see that Fidel’s proposal was consistent with its long-term interest in a politically stable and ecologically sustainable world-system. Not discerning the wisdom of Fidel, the U.S. political establishment continued on the road that had been taken by the Truman administration, defined by a permanent war economy and the military industrial complex, with military bases everywhere ready to support accommodationist governments and repress popular movements and revolutions in the neocolonies of the world.
With respect to Cuban industry, the Revolution did not plan nationalization in 1959. It planned a dynamic industrial, scientific, and commercial development, and it saw the national industrial bourgeoisie as possibly playing a vital role in the development project. Accordingly, it included representatives of the national bourgeoisie in the initial Council of Ministers, and Fidel exhorted the national bourgeoisie to patriotic participation in the Cuban revolutionary project.
However, the Cuban industrial bourgeoisie was unable to transform itself from a figurehead bourgeoisie effectively directed by U.S. capital to an independent national bourgeoisie allied with a popular revolutionary project. The members of national industrial bourgeoisie increasingly emigrated, abandoned management of their companies, sabotaged production, and/or participated in criminal counterrevolutionary activities. In response, the Revolutionary Government took measures that the circumstances required. On October 13 and October 14, 1960, more than twenty-one months after the triumph of the Revolution, the government authorized the nationalization, with compensation, of Cuban-owned properties in big industry, commerce, banking, and housing. By mid-1961, virtually all of the big industrialists had left the country. Further nationalizations were implemented from June 30, 1961 to July 27, 1962, thus completing the liquidation of the national bourgeoisie as a class and the incorporation of big industry and commerce into the structures of the Cuban state.
In the aftermath of the triumph of the Revolution, with overwhelming popular support for the Revolution internally, and with powerful external enemies, the Revolution took steps to develop alternative political structures that could ensure the political power of the people. In 1960, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were formed in all neighborhoods, for the purpose of vigilance over sabotage and terrorist activities. At the same time, revolutionary leaders from the ranks took control of the Federation of Cuban Workers and the Federation of University Students, previously controlled by leaders tied to the neocolonial order, and they expanded their numbers. In 1961, small farmers were organized into the National Organization of Small Agriculturalists, and the Federation of Cuban Women was formed. These mass organizations of workers, students, women, farmers, and neighbors provided structures for the active participation of the people in the forging of the revolutionary project.
Mass assemblies also emerged as an important element of popular participation in the unfolding revolutionary process. One such mass assembly was the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba, held on September 2, 1960. It emitted the Declaration of Havana, which defined the concepts and rights that would guide the revolutionary process in the subsequent stage. The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba was constituted by a mass meeting of one million persons, perhaps 20% of the Cuban adult population of the time. Fidel considered that the structures of mass organizations and mass assemblies constituted in embryo an alternative system of “direct democracy” or “real democracy,” in which the government is united to the people and seeks to provide for the social and economic needs of the people.
The revolutionary project was being led by a person with an exceptional capacity to analyze national and international affairs, to discern politically intelligent solutions to problems, and to forge the necessary unity of the people. As early as 1961, Fidel was speaking of the importance of replacing leadership by one person with the collective leadership of a vanguard political party. During that year, attempts were made to form a vanguard political party through the unification of the three principal revolutionary organizations, which were the July 26 Movement (established and led by Fidel), the March 13 Revolutionary Directory (initially a revolutionary student organization), and the Popular Socialist Party (the first Communist Party of Cuba). After some problems, these efforts eventually culminated in the formation in 1965 of a new Communist Party of Cuba. Its function was to educate and guide the people, becoming a collective teaching authority in the eyes of the people, eventually replacing the charismatic authority of Fidel.
Thus, in the early 1960s, basic structures of an alternative political practice were emerging, consisting of popular participation in mass organizations and mass assemblies and the formation of a vanguard political party that has the duty of educating the people. The emerging conception was that of a united leadership that possesses a commitment to defend the rights of the majority, and as a result of this commitment, is liberated from the distorted understandings that have roots in particular interests. The leadership seeks to educate the people, freeing them from the ideological distortions that are disseminated throughout the world. At the same time, it is the people who have political power, inasmuch as the people are organized in various mass organizations, and they have ideological clarity and consensus.
The political practices of the 1960s became the foundation for alternative structures of people’s democracy, which were institutionalized in the Cuban Constitution of 1976. The 1976 Constitution concentrates political power in the hands of the elected deputies of the people. It establishes a National Assembly that is the highest authority of the nation, with the power to enact laws and designate the high members of the executive and judicial branches of government. The deputies of the National Assembly are elected by the delegates of the municipal assemblies of the nation, which have been elected through direct and secret vote, in which voters choose from two or more candidates. These direct elections by the people of the delegates of the municipal assemblies occur in small voting districts, in which the candidates are known by the people, because of their work in mass organizations or other institutions in the community. Accordingly, electoral campaigns do not occur, and instead, brief biographies are displayed in public places.
The mass organizations established in the early 1960s remain integral to the political process. Among other functions, they play a central role in the second-degree elections for the National Assembly and the executive branch. They constitute candidacy commissions, which propose lists of candidates to the delegates of the municipal assemblies and the deputies of the National Assembly, when these assemblies carry out their electoral functions.
The changing and challenging international context
In the decades since the U.S. rebuff of the Cuban proposal for cooperation, revolutionary Cuba has been an important voice in the international arena in defense of the principle of international cooperation and in support of the Third World struggle against neocolonialism and imperialism. Cuba was the only country of Latin America and the Caribbean to be a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, and it had relations with the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia and Africa, which had been founded in 1958. Cuba was the host of the First Tricontinental Conference in 1966 and the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the same year. Cuba served as President of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1979 to 1982, and in that capacity, Fidel denounced the global powers: for their indifference to the 1974 Non-Aligned Movement proposal for a New International Economic Order, in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 1979; and for their imposition of the neoliberal project on the nations of the Third World, in an historic speech at the Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi in 1983. Cuba again served as President of the Non-Aligned Movement from 2006 to 2009, when it was able to re-establish the historic principles of the Movement as the basis for Movement’s demands and declarations.
Defense of the Third World by the Cuban Revolutionary Government had been evident from the beginning. On September 26, 1960, Fidel arrived to the General Assembly of the United Nations to explain the reasons for the revolutionary measures that Cuba had taken and to defend the rights of the underdeveloped countries. He declared:
Cuba is not an isolated case.. . . Cuba is like all the underdeveloped peoples. . . . The problems that we have described concerning Cuba can be applied easily to all of Latin America. The great corporations control the economic resources of Latin America, . . . . as is the case of copper in Chile, Peru, and Mexico; zinc in Peru and Mexico, petroleum in Venezuela. . . . The problems of Latin America are like the problems of the rest of the world, of Africa and Asia. The world is divided among the large corporations. These same corporations that we see in Latin America we see also in the Middle East. There petroleum is in the hands of large companies that are controlled by the financial interests of the United States, England, Holland, and France. . . in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and in any corner of the earth. . . . The problems that the people of Cuba have had with the imperialist government of the United States are the same problems that Saudi Arabia would have if it were to nationalize petroleum, or Iran or Iraq. The same problems that Egypt had when it nationalized the Suez Canal. . . . We want to express here another right, a right that has been proclaimed by our people in a recent mass assembly of several days: the right of the underdeveloped countries to nationalize without compensation the natural resources and the foreign-owned companies in their respective countries. That is to say, we propose the nationalization of natural resources and foreign companies in the underdeveloped countries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc, combined with efforts to strengthen the U.S. blockade, created a difficult international context for the Cuban Revolution. These conditions have led to a reformulation of the Cuban socioeconomic model, in which economic productivity is given high priority, utilizing both state-owned and private enterprises—Cuban and foreign—operating under state direction in accordance with a national plan approved by the National Assembly of People’s Power. The turn in Cuba to a new social and economic model is prompted by national conditions. It is not inconsistent with certain practical policies and proposals in the earliest days of the Cuban Revolution; and it is consistent with similar adjustments in China and Vietnam since the 1980s.
In accordance with these dynamics, Cuba in 2019 approved a new Constitution, adapting to economic and cultural changes in Cuban society and the world since 1976. The Constitution of 2019 preserves and reaffirms the structures of people’s democracy, established in the 1960s, and institutionalized in the Cuban Constitution of 1976.
There has emerged in Cuba in recent years what the Cuban scholar Antonio Barreiro calls a pseudo-culture, which exists alongside the prevailing integral political culture that has been forged by the Cuban educational system and Cuban leadership. One today sees in Cuba styles of life that were repudiated in previous eras, including manifestations of the vulgar, the banal, and the frivolous as well as emphasis on individual success and indifference to the needs of others. This erosion of Cuban revolutionary culture is a consequence of the difficult international political-economic-ideological situation in which the Cuban Revolution must make its way.
Nevertheless, the Cuban Revolutionary Government continues to enjoy a high level legitimacy and popular support by global standards, as a consequence of its evident commitment to the sovereignty of the nation and the needs of the people, and its political intelligence in responding to global challenges. With hope for the future of humanity, the Cuban Revolution allies with the anti-imperialist governments and movements of the world in a persistent effort to construct an alternative, more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
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