Cuban Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Before Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba, the island nation was an economic appendage of the United States. The Castro- and Che Guevara-led Cuban Revolution ended this dependent relationship and thrust Cuba into massive social change. The Castro regime continued into the twenty-first century.

Summary of Event

Fidel Castro’s meteoric rise as a worldwide symbol of social revolution originated in the economic and political imbalances of his native Cuba and in his own unusual personal qualities. Born into a nation dominated by foreign-owned corporations, young Fidel became politically active while in college and law school. He admired the struggles of Latin American nationalists, such as Argentina’s Juan Perón, against external economic domination. The United States dominated the Cuban economy with heavy investments in land, sugar mills, and mining. Cuban society was divided into a prosperous wealthy elite connected with U.S. interests, a hardworking but insecure middle class of urban professionals, and an impoverished majority of laborers, most of whom depended on the sugar industry for employment. Cuban Revolution (1956-1959) Revolutions and coups;Cuba Nationalism;Cuba July 26 Movement (Cuba)[July twenty sixth movement] [kw]Cuban Revolution (July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959) [kw]Revolution, Cuban (July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959) Cuban Revolution (1956-1959) Revolutions and coups;Cuba Nationalism;Cuba July 26 Movement (Cuba)[July twenty sixth movement] [g]Caribbean;July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959: Cuban Revolution[05240] [g]West Indies;July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959: Cuban Revolution[05240] [g]Cuba;July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959: Cuban Revolution[05240] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959: Cuban Revolution[05240] [c]Government and politics;July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959: Cuban Revolution[05240] [c]Cold War;July 26, 1956-Jan. 8, 1959: Cuban Revolution[05240] Castro, Fidel Castro, Raúl Batista y Zaldívar, Fulgencio Guevara, Che Martí, José Matos, Huber

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Castro threw himself into an attempt to overthrow Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (a strong ally of the wealthy elite and the United States), who had seized control of the Cuban government by unconstitutional means in 1952. Castro’s failure to take the Cuban army’s Moncada barracks in the city of Santiago on July 26, 1953, resulted in his arrest and trial. Speaking in his own defense, the tall, articulate rebel summoned the revolutionary heritage of the Cuban patriot José Martí in his speech called “History Will Absolve Me.” "History Will Absolve Me" (Castro)[History Will Absolve Me] This speech did not prevent his conviction but did establish him as a champion of the poor and of many members of the middle class. Released in a general amnesty in 1955, Castro went to Mexico, where for the next seventeen months he studied that nation’s revolutionary experience and planned the overthrow of Batista with his brother Raúl and a new acquaintance, Che Guevara.

The seven years after Batista’s seizure of power seemed prosperous on the surface, but the underlying frustrations associated with endemic poverty and political repression soon erupted. Nearly one Cuban worker in four had no job or only seasonal employment. While luxury hotels and gaudy casinos stimulated Havana’s prosperity, Cuban cane cutters endured low wages for backbreaking work during the sugar harvest and then faced a longer season of minimal or zero income. Cuba’s main sugar market, the United States, was saturated by the late 1950’s. As a result, the island’s sugar industry stagnated. The prospects of cane workers and other agricultural laborers were dim. Labor unions had made some progress in the organization of the rural working class, but their powerful adversaries—large multinational corporations backed by the Batista government—allowed them very few gains at the bargaining table.

Batista’s government became increasingly dictatorial as the decade wore on. It faced no serious organized opposition within the island’s political system because the traditional parties had become factionalized and ineffective. Therefore, the frustrations of lower- and middle-class Cubans had no outlet in the political system at a time when the growing anger of Cuban workers was matched by the disillusionment of the middle class. The Batista government subsidized the tourist industry and allowed organized crime syndicates from the United States to move into the lucrative hotel and nightclub businesses. Young Cubans were outraged by official corruption and extravagance in the middle of poverty. Some urban dissidents engaged in acts of violence, including an unsuccessful raid on the presidential palace. Batista’s brutal campaign against his opponents brought him a few moments of respite but in the long run drove more Cubans to oppose him.

Castro took advantage of this political unrest. Having joined his forces with Guevara’s and trained them in Mexico, he returned to Cuba with his revolutionaries on the small yacht Granma, landing on December 2, 1956. The movement—dubbed the July 26 Movement to commemorate the first attempt at Moncado in 1953—struggled for survival, but by 1958 he had established a revolutionary base in the rugged Sierra Maestra of southeastern Cuba. Much of Castro’s reputation came as the leader of an underdog guerrilla campaign against Batista’s much larger army. As Batista’s army advanced into the rebel-held area, its platoons and companies became isolated from each other. The rebels, concealed in heavy vegetation and the rugged terrain, attacked these small units with rifles, machine guns, and mortars. Unaccustomed to guerrilla combat, the army units retreated in disarray. This pattern of engagement, designed and perfected by Guevara, demoralized the army. Faced with the Castro-Guevara campaign in the east and unrest in Havana and central Cuba, the Batista administration collapsed. On December 31, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic.

Castro’s enthusiastic welcome in Havana on January 8, 1959, was both a celebration of the defeat of the old regime and a large step in his establishment of a personal relationship with the Cuban masses. He posed rhetorical questions for the huge crowd assembled at Camp Columbia on Havana’s outskirts and used its answers to reinforce his authority. For example, he asked if he should take control of and reform the old Batista-run military. The crowd responded overwhelmingly in the affirmative. A gifted orator, Castro laced his revolutionary pronouncements with utopian idealism, the nationalist vision of Martí, and references to precedents for social reform from the Christian tradition. His use of Cuban television even as early as 1959 brought him and his program to a large audience. Castro’s charismatic appeal to the downtrodden and marginal people elevated his yet unformed government to an unprecedented level of public acceptance. The impoverished sugarcane worker caught a glimpse of a better day and the disillusioned urban college student saw an end to corruption and repression.

Castro’s power was based on more than military prowess and personal charisma. His 1959 speeches seemed rambling to observers who attempted to determine if he had committed his revolution to communism, but, to the lower strata of Cuban society—workers, peasants, the unemployed, and the underemployed—as well as to many segments of the middle class, the energetic national leader offered a chance for a new life. The Agrarian Reform Law of May 17 was an indication that Castro intended to redistribute large quantities of property from the vast sugar estates to peasants and agricultural workers.

Castro’s actions in the area of individual rights were often controversial. The new government, as do those of most revolutionary states, conducted trials of former officials of the old regime. These highly publicized trials drew sharp criticism from observers in the United States, but the proceedings seemed to be generally respectful of the rights of the accused. The prosecution of Huber Matos was another matter. Matos was a rebel leader during the most difficult months of the movement but objected to the growing influence of communists in the government. Both Castro and Guevara spoke against him at this trial, which opened in December of 1959. The conviction and incarceration of Matos for antirevolutionary activities was based on dubious evidence introduced in a politicized court.

At the end of 1959, the long-term impact of Castro’s seizure of power remained unclear for middle- and lower-class Cubans. Both the urban schoolteacher and the rural cane worker saw Castro as a dynamic leader who had vanquished the Batista dictatorship, but the fundamental restructuring of the nation’s economy remained more a promise than a reality. Castro consolidated power in his own hands, power that could be exercised for the benefit of the Cuban masses but that also held the possibility for the formation of another dictatorship.

Significance

One purpose of Castro’s movement was to bestow political and economic benefits on previously disadvantaged peoples. Land reform resulted in the transformation of the nation’s primary economic activity: The sugar industry moved from foreign-dominated private ownership to government control under the revolutionary state. This change brought better working conditions and an increased sense of pride for laborers.

Impoverished cane cutters and other agricultural workers saw an end to unemployment and enjoyed a broadly based increase in wages. Public health campaigns and the extension of primary medical care into rural areas marked significant gains in the lives of the common people. Agricultural workers moved into small but modern houses equipped with electricity and television. All Cubans had access to education, and the Castro government developed a mass-participation sports program and an impressive training system for Olympic athletes. Baseball, a longtime favorite sport among working-class Cubans, continued to provide opportunities for exercise and popular diversion. The government set up day care centers for children, opening new opportunities for women. Women took advantage of these opportunities, making large strides in political leadership roles, medicine, and education.

From a critical perspective, however, Castro’s transformation of Cuba had adverse effects. After initial improvements in their daily lives, Cuban workers began to experience difficulties. Shortages of manufactured goods became common, and Cubans improvised to keep automobiles and other essential equipment operational. Food supplies, especially meat, were inadequate, and the government resorted to rationing. The bureaucracies responsible for economic planning and the distribution of resources were often inefficient.

The same Cuban government that offered opportunities for workers, teachers, and women also imposed limitations on national life. The regime’s political opponents who remained in Cuba often found it difficult to express their points of view. The eventual exodus of disappointed middle-class Cubans deprived the nation of vital technical and professional skills. Government expropriation of foreign-owned businesses widened the split between Cuba and the United States and contributed to the loss of the North American market for sugar and other exports.

Although the 1959 revolution freed Cuba from the economic control of the United States, Castro’s dependent and often subservient relationship with the Soviet Union continued the island nation’s external domination. The events of 1959 marked the end of six decades of United States preeminence in Cuba, altered the course of Cuban domestic history, and raised the living standards of the working class. Even the determined, resourceful leadership of Castro could not, however, create an independent economy that brought an enduring sense of security and material well-being to the island’s people, and when Castro in 2006 was hospitalized for supposed intestinal bleeding but remained in the hospital for months, speculation raged concerning whether he was soon to be succeeded by his brother Raúl. Although delegating his powers to Raúl, the tenacious Castro rallied and was even heard on a radio talk show in February, 2007, for a thirty-minute conversation in which he sounded strong. Nevertheless, both expatriate Cuban Americans and Cubans on the island itself began to imagine what path Cuba, and the revolution, might take after Castro’s inevitable demise. Cuban Revolution (1956-1959) Revolutions and coups;Cuba Nationalism;Cuba July 26 Movement (Cuba)[July twenty sixth movement]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove Press, 1997. An exhaustively researched and thoroughly detailed biography. Makes use of previously unknown sources from Guevara’s friends and family, as well as government documents from the United States and Cuba. Dispels many of the myths about Guevara. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Benjamin, Jules R. The United States and the Origins of the Cuban Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. A succinct interpretation of Cuba’s history from the 1890’s. Benjamin emphasizes that the imbalances in the relationship between Cuba and the United States created an environment in which Castro’s nationalist-populist revolution triumphed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonachea, Ramón, and Marta San Martín. The Cuban Insurrection, 1952-1959. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1974. A detailed military and political history of the rise to power of the Cuban revolutionaries. The authors use interviews with participants on both sides of the struggle to broaden their coverage beyond the customary focus on Fidel Castro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. A comprehensive history of Cuba from 1511 through 2003. Includes the chapters “The Cuban Republic, 1902-1952,” “Castro’s Revolution Takes Shape, 1953-1961,” and “The Revolution in Power, 1961-1968.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leonard, Thomas M. Fidel Castro: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Monograph on Castro that devotes significant space to his relationship with the Soviets and their role in his rise to power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mesa-Lago, Carmelo. The Economy of Socialist Cuba: A Two-Decade Appraisal. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981. A careful study of the first two decades under Castro. While the distribution of income and public services broadened, the productivity of the economy lagged in spite of subsidies from the Soviet Union. Castro’s policies have not ended the island’s dependence on sugar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morley, Morris H. Imperial State and Revolution: The United States and Cuba, 1952-1986. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An analysis of the complex relationship between Cuba and the United States during and after Castro’s rise to power. Morley emphasizes the importance of politics and ideology in the formulation of United States policy toward Cuba but concludes that multinational corporations had a powerful, often decisive, influence
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paterson, Thomas J. Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Discusses how the Eisenhower administration’s early embrace of Batista legitimized Castro’s violent anti-Americanism. Presents a strong case that the rift between Cuba and the United States was not inevitable.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pérez, Louis A. Army Politics in Cuba, 1898-1958. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976. A crucial study for understanding the victory of the revolutionaries. The Cuban army lacked popular support because of its origins under the tutelage of the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century and lacked professionalism because of political influences in the officer corps. One of several valuable historical studies of Cuba by Pérez.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruíz, Ramón Eduardo. Cuba: The Making of a Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. A well-written account of the political, social, and economic background of the revolution. Readable style makes this book suitable for introductory students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Szulc, Tad. Fidel: A Critical Portrait. New York: William Morrow, 1986. A biography that includes much on Castro’s early years and his personal life. Emphasizes the military and political battles from 1952 to 1963 and provides a narrative of the crucial year of 1959. Also claims that Castro was a Marxist before the 1953 Moncada revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. 1971. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. A massive volume of more than seventeen hundred pages that combines factual depth and insightful analysis. Covers Cuban history from the Spanish colonial past to the solidification of the Castro regime in the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welch, Richard. Response to Revolution: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, 1959-1961. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. A survey of the responses of United States government officials, politicians, journalists, and academics to the revolution. Welch analyzes many of their books and articles written in the 1960’s and lists them in a useful bibliography of more than three hundred entries.

Cuba Begins Expropriating Foreign Property

Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance

Bay of Pigs Invasion

Dominican Dictator Rafael Trujillo Is Assassinated

Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuba Signs a Commercial Agreement with the Soviet Union

Execution of Che Guevara

Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations

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