Reform and Resistance: The Cuban Revolution Part II

“They talk about the failure of socialism, but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia, and Latin America?” – Fidel Castro

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

A) Reform and Repression Debate the US response to the Cuban Revolution
B) The Bay of Pigs Invasion Create an infographic on human rights
C) The Cuban Missile Crisis
D) The On-Going Embargo

A) Reform and Repression in Cuba

  1. Define “socialism” and “capitalism.”  Which system is more fair, and why?
  2. What reforms did the revolution bring to Cuba?  What rights did Cubans surrender in order to achieve greater equality in economic status, education, and healthcare?  Would you make a similar trade?
  3. What criticisms might be made of Castro’s government and its policies?  What do you think of his argument that “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction?”
  4. Which of Castro’s actions most upset the United States?
As I have said before, the ever more sophisticated weapons piling up in the arsenals of the wealthiest and the mightiest can kill the illiterate, the ill, the poor, and the hungry, but they cannot kill ignorance, illnesses, poverty, or hunger.
— Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro

During its first decade in power, the Castro government introduced a wide range of progressive social reforms. Laws were introduced to provide equality for black Cubans and greater rights for women, while there were attempts to improve communications, medical facilities, health, housing, and education. In addition, there were touring cinemas, art exhibitions, concerts, and theatres. By the end of the 1960s, all Cuban children were receiving some education (compared with less than half before 1959), unemployment and corruption were reduced, and great improvements were made in hygiene and sanitation.

In May 1959, Castro signed into law the First Agrarian Reform, setting a cap for landholdings to 993 acres (402 ha) per owner and prohibiting foreigners from obtaining Cuban land ownership. Around 200,000 peasants received title deeds as large land holdings were broken up; popular among the working class, it alienated the richer landowners.  Within a year, Castro and his government had effectively redistributed 15 percent of the nation’s wealth, declaring that “the revolution is the dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters.”

Judges and politicians had their pay reduced while low-level civil servants saw theirs raised, and in March 1959, Castro declared rents for those who paid less than $100 a month halved.  

Castro’s government emphasized social projects to improve Cuba’s standard of living, often to the detriment of economic development.  Major emphasis was placed on education, and during the first 30 months of Castro’s government, more classrooms were opened than in the previous 30 years. The Cuban primary education system offered a work-study program, with half of the time spent in the classroom, and the other half in a productive activity. Health care was nationalized and expanded, with rural health centers and urban polyclinics opening up across the island to offer free medical aid. Universal vaccination against childhood diseases was implemented, and infant mortality rates were reduced dramatically. A third part of this social program was the improvement of infrastructure. Within the first six months of Castro’s government, 600 miles of roads were built across the island, while $300 million was spent on water and sanitation projects. Over 800 houses were constructed every month in the early years of the administration in an effort to cut homelessness, while nurseries and day-care centers were opened for children and other centers opened for the disabled and elderly.

Castro used radio and television to develop a “dialogue with the people”, posing questions and making provocative statements. His regime remained popular with workers, peasants, and students, who constituted the majority of the country’s population, while opposition came primarily from the middle class; thousands of doctors, engineers and other professionals emigrated to Florida in the U.S., causing an economic brain drain. Productivity decreased and the country’s financial reserves were drained within two years. After conservative press expressed hostility towards the government, the pro-Castro printers’ trade union disrupted editorial staff, and in January 1960 the government ordered them to publish a “clarification” written by the printers’ union at the end of articles critical of the government. Castro’s government arrested hundreds of counter-revolutionaries, many of whom were subjected to solitary confinement, rough treatment, and threatening behavior. Militant anti-Castro groups, funded by exiles, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Dominican government, undertook armed attacks and set up guerrilla bases in Cuba’s mountains, leading to the six-year Escambray Rebellion.

Castro feared a U.S.-backed coup; in 1959 his regime spent $120 million on Soviet, French, and Belgian weaponry and by early 1960 had doubled the size of Cuba’s armed forces. Fearing counter-revolutionary elements in the army, the government created a People’s Militia to arm citizens favorable to the revolution, training at least 50,000 civilians in combat techniques. In September 1960, they created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a nationwide civilian organization which implemented neighborhood spying to detect counter-revolutionary activities.

Under Castro, the Cuban government ordered the country’s oil refineries – then controlled by US corporations Esso and Standard Oil and Anglo-Dutch Shell – to process crude oil purchased from the Soviet Union, but under pressure from the US government, these companies refused. Castro responded by expropriating the refineries and nationalizing them under state control. In retaliation, the US canceled its import of Cuban sugar, provoking Castro to nationalize most US-owned assets on the island, including banks and sugar mills.

Our revolution is endangering all American possessions in Latin America. We are telling these countries to make their own revolution.
—  Che Guevara, October 1962

Relations between Cuba and the US were further strained following the explosion and sinking of a French vessel, the Le Coubre, in Havana harbor in March 1960. Carrying weapons purchased from Belgium, the cause of the explosion was never determined, but Castro publicly insinuated that the US government were guilty of sabotage.

This cruise ship is docked in Havana Harbor, not far from where the Le Coubre exploded. (Havana, Cuba, 2017.)
La Coubre March
Che Guevara (center) and Fidel Castro (far left) marching to Colón Cemetery, March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba, as part of a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre explosion.
Infographic Cuba Education
(Click to enlarge.)

On October 13, 1960, the US government then prohibited the majority of exports to Cuba – the exceptions being medicines and certain foodstuffs – marking the start of an economic embargo. In retaliation, the Cuban National Institute for Agrarian Reform took control of 383 private-run businesses and a further 166 US companies operating in Cuba had their premises seized and nationalized, including Coca-Cola and Sears Roebuck. In December, the US then ended its import quota of Cuban sugar, the country’s primary export.

Castro’s government began a crackdown on any opposition to its revolutionary movement, arresting hundreds of dissidents. Though it rejected the physical torture Batista’s regime had used, Castro’s government sanctioned psychological torture, subjecting some prisoners to solitary confinement, rough treatment, hunger, and threatening behavior.  After conservative editors and journalists began expressing hostility towards the government following its left-ward turn, the pro-Castro printers’ trade union began to harass and disrupt editorial staff. In January 1960, the government proclaimed that each newspaper was obliged to publish a “clarification” by the printers’ union to the end of any article that criticized the government. This was the start of press censorship in Castro’s Cuba.

Popular uproar across Cuba demanded that those figures who had been complicit in the widespread torture and killing of civilians be brought to justice. Although he remained a moderating force and tried to prevent the mass reprisal killings of Batistanos advocated by many Cubans, Castro helped to set up trials of many figures involved in the old regime across the country, resulting in hundreds of executions. Although widely popular in Cuba, critics, in particular from the U.S. press, argued that many of these did not meet the standards of a fair trial, and condemned Cuba’s new government as being more interested in vengeance than justice.

Castro responded strongly against such accusations, proclaiming that “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction.” In a show of support for this “revolutionary justice,” he organized the first Havana trial to take place before a mass audience of 17,000 at the Sports Palace stadium; when a group of aviators accused of bombing a village were found not guilty, he ordered a retrial, in which they were instead found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Cuban AchievementsThe US government became increasingly critical of Castro’s revolutionary government. At an August 1960 meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) held in Costa Rica, the US Secretary of State Christian Herter publicly proclaimed that Castro’s administration was  instituting a single-party political system, taking governmental control of trade unions, suppressing civil liberties, and removing both the freedom of speech and freedom of the press.  

According to Human Rights Watch in the twenty-first century, “The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and deter public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include public acts of shaming and the arbitrary termination of employment.”

According to the US government, some 1,200,000 Cubans (about 10% of the current population) left the island for the United States between 1959 and 1993, often by sea in small boats and fragile rafts.

In turn, Castro lambasted the treatment of black people and the working classes he had witnessed in New York, which he lampooned as that “superfree, superdemocratic, superhumane, and supercivilized city.” Proclaiming that the American poor were living “in the bowels of the imperialist monster,” he attacked the mainstream US media and accused it of being controlled by big business.

Castro’s defensive rhetoric did little to convince his own critics, however.  In 1968 Castro proclaimed a Great Revolutionary Offensive, closed all remaining privately owned shops and businesses and denounced their owners as capitalist counter-revolutionaries.  

Castro in New York, 1959
Fidel Castro with schoolchildren in New York, 1959.

B) The Bay of Pigs Invasion

  1. Define “Cold War.”  How does the Cuban Revolution fit into this conflict?
  2. Does the United States have the right to pick its neighbors, removing by force those with which it disagrees?  Does any nation have this right?  If so, under what circumstances?

In April 1961, less than four months into the Kennedy administration, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) executed a plan that had been developed under the Eisenhower administration. This military campaign to topple Cuba’s revolutionary government is now known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion (or La Batalla de Girón in Cuba).  The aim of the invasion was to empower existing opposition militant groups to “overthrow the Communist regime” and establish “a new government with which the United States can live in peace.”

The invasion was carried out by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group of over 1,400 Cuban exiles called Brigade 2506. Arriving in Cuba by boat from Guatemala on the 15th of April, the brigade landed on the beach Playa Girón and initially overwhelmed Cuba’s counter-offensive. But by 20 April, the brigade surrendered and was publicly interrogated before being sent back to the US. Recently inaugurated president John F. Kennedy assumed full responsibility for the operation, even though he had vetoed the reinforcements requested during the battle.

Bay of Pigs Infographic
(Click to enlarge.)

The invasion helped further build popular support for the new Cuban government. The Kennedy administration thereafter began Operation Mongoose, a covert CIA campaign of sabotage against Cuba, including the arming of militant groups, sabotage of Cuban infrastructure, and plots to assassinate Castro.

After weathering the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba observed as U.S. armed forces staged a mock invasion of a Caribbean island in 1962 named Operation Ortsac. The purpose of the invasion was to overthrow a leader whose name, Ortsac, was Castro spelled backwards.

All of this reinforced Castro’s distrust of the US, and set the stage for the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 – arguably the closest the world has ever come to all out nuclear war.

C) The Missile Crisis

  1. Why does Cuba feel justified in welcoming Soviet missiles on its territory?  What historical precedents might support this position?
  2. On all sides, there were criticisms that leaders were too quick to concede and compromise during the Cuban Missile Crisis – that stronger, more militarized responses might have meant greater gains for the side making them.  When is it best to dig in your heels, yielding nothing, and when is it better to compromise?
  3. Who won the Cuban Missile Crisis?

The United States had a much larger arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union.  What is more, in 1961, the United States had installed medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Turkey, within easy striking distance of the USSR.  The Soviet Union had a large stockpile of medium-range nuclear weapons which were primarily located in Europe – well outside of range of the U.S.

In light of ongoing U.S. attempts to overthrow the revolutionary government – and historical success of U.S. efforts to forcefully install friendly governments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean – Cuba agreed to let the Soviets secretly place SS-4 Sandal and SS-5 Skean MRBMs on their territory.

The missiles in Cuba allowed the Soviets to effectively target the majority of the continental U.S. The planned arsenal was forty launchers. The Cuban populace readily noticed the arrival and deployment of the missiles and hundreds of reports reached Miami. U.S. intelligence received countless reports, many of dubious quality or even laughable, and most of which could be dismissed as describing defensive missiles. Only five reports bothered the analysts. They described large trucks passing through towns at night carrying very long canvas-covered cylindrical objects that could not make turns through towns without backing up and maneuvering. Defensive missiles could make these turns. These reports could not be satisfactorily dismissed.

Aerial photography from a U-2 spy plane, revealing Soviet missile installations in rural Cuba, 1962.

This was an era before spy satellites and drones.  The United States had been sending high altitude U-2 surveillance planes over Cuba since the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.  The U.S. first obtained U-2 photographic evidence of the missiles on October 14, 1962.  The United States responded by establishing a cordon in international waters to stop Soviet ships from bringing in more missiles (designated a quarantine rather than a blockade to avoid issues with international law).

At the last moment the Soviets called back their ships. In addition, they agreed to remove the missiles already there in exchange for an agreement that the United States would not invade Cuba.  Secretly, President Kennedy also promised to remove the U.S. missiles from Italy and Turkey, but only the on the condition that the Soviets did not mention this part of the deal publicly.

Cuba perceived the outcome as a betrayal by the Soviets, given that decisions on how to resolve the crisis had been made exclusively by Kennedy and Khrushchev. Castro was especially upset that certain issues of interest to Cuba, such as the status of the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, were not addressed.  On the other hand, Cuba continued to be protected from invasion.

Cuban Missile Crisis Infographic
October 22, 2012 — Fifty years ago, in October 1962, the world hovered on the brink of nuclear war with the United States and the Soviet Union locked in a standoff at the height of the Cold War. The crisis lasted 13 days before the Soviet Union backed down and withdrew missiles from Cuba in return for a U.S. pledge not to invade the Caribbean island and a secret deal to dismantle American missiles in Turkey. Graphic shows timeline of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

D) The On-Going Embargo

  1. Who gains and loses from the US-Cuban embargo?
  2. As of this writing, in 2017, the embargo is still in place.  Is this policy justified?

The United States embargo against Cuba (in Cuba called el bloqueo, “the blockade”) is a commercial, economic, and financial embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba.  The U.S. placed an embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine after Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without compensation. On February 7, 1962 the embargo was extended to include almost all imports.  The stated purpose of the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 is to maintain sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights.”

Beyond criticisms of human rights in Cuba, the United States holds $6 billion worth of financial claims against the Cuban government. The pro-embargo position is that the U.S. embargo is, in part, an appropriate response to these unaddressed claims. The Latin America Working Group argues that pro-embargo Cuban-American exiles, whose votes are crucial in Florida, have swayed many politicians to also adopt similar views. The Cuban-American views have been opposed by some business leaders who argue that trading freely would be good for Cuba and the United States.

Despite the Spanish-language term bloqueo (blockade), there has been no physical, naval blockade of the country by the United States after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  The United States does not block Cuba’s trade with third parties: other countries are not under the jurisdiction of U.S. domestic laws.

El Bloque
“El genocidio mas largo de la historia,” which means “The longest genocide in history.” Propaganda billboard criticizing the U.S. blockade against Cuba, near Havana University. (Havana, Cuba, 2017.)

The embargo has been criticized for its effects on food, clean water, medicine, and other economic needs of the Cuban population. Criticism has come from both Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro, citizens and groups from within Cuba, and international organizations and leaders. Some academic critics, outside Cuba, have also linked the embargo to shortages of medical supplies and soap which have resulted in a series of medical crises and heightened levels of infectious diseases. It has also been linked to epidemics of specific diseases, including neurological disorders and blindness caused by poor nutrition.  Travel restrictions embedded in the embargo have also been shown to limit the amount of medical information that flows into Cuba from the United States. An article written in 1997 suggests malnutrition and disease resulting from increased food and medicine prices have affected men and the elderly, in particular, due to Cuba’s rationing system which gives preferential treatment to women and children.

Historian Jon Lee Anderson addresses Cuba’s ongoing poverty: “Who was to blame for the shortages? Were they caused by the U.S. trade embargo? In part, yes. Had the revolution’s radicalization caused the crippling exodus of technicians, managers, and traders from the island? Yes. Were the revolution’s leaders incompetent in their attempt to convert a capitalist economy to a socialist one? Yes. Although neither Che nor Fidel would acknowledge the fact, food rationing heralded the end of their illusion of making Cuba a self-sufficient socialist state.”

The UN General Assembly has, since 1992, passed a resolution every year condemning the ongoing impact of the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and international law. In 2014, out of the 193-nation assembly, 188 countries voted for the nonbinding resolution.  Human rights groups including Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also been critical of the embargo.

At present, the embargo, which limits American businesses from conducting business with Cuban interests, is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion per year in lost sales and exports, while the Cuban government estimates that the embargo has cost the island itself $753.69 billion since the 1960s.

“Future students of American history will be scratching their heads about this case for decades to come. Our embargo and refusal to normalize diplomatic relations has nothing to do with communism. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, with China since Nixon, and with Vietnam despite our bitter war there. No, Cuba was pure politics. Though it started out to be a measure of an administration’s resistance to Castro’s politics, it very soon became a straitjacket whereby first-generation Cuban-Americans wielded inordinate political power over both parties and constructed a veto over rational, mature diplomacy.”
Gary Hart, former U.S. Senator, March 2011
  1. Join the debate.  Choose (or have your teacher assign) one of the following positions.  A) “The United States has the right to ensure that other nations are friendly and aligned with its political, economic, and military interests,” or B) “All nations have the right to self-determination within their own borders, and in general, no nation has the right to tell another what to do.”  Post your take in the comments section below, or reply to the argument offered by another commentator in the same space.
  2. Read more about human rights in Cuba.  Choose one issue from that page and create infographic to educate your peers: How is what happens in Cuba different or similar to what happens in the country in which in you live?  Be sure to cite specific facts, laws, or figures where you can find them.


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Despite some of the highest rates of education in Latin America, Cuba remains mired in poverty – at least in part because of U.S. sanctions. (Havana, Cuba, 2017.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

An American in Cuba, Travel Writing:  In March 2017, founder Thomas Kenning conducted firsthand research for lessons centered on the island of Cuba.  Educational in their own right, his blog posts offer plenty of history, culture, and photos woven into a first person narrative, which attempts to present honestly and conversationally one traveler’s experience while conducting research abroad.