The Duty of the Hour: The Cuban Revolution Part I

“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.” – Che Guevara

READ: DO:
A) Imperial Masters Create trading cards for the important players in the Cuban Revolution
B) Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution Imagine a dialogue between great revolutionaries in history

A) Imperial Masters

  1. Define the word “imperialism.”  Does this describe Cuba’s relationship with the United States in the first half of the 20th century?  Use examples from the following text to support your answer.
  2. Summarize the grievances that a Cuban revolutionary might have against the Batista government.  Against the United States.
  3. Research any of the US military interventions labeled on the map below and summarize the circumstances in one paragraph.
  4. Consider the historical examples: In the 1950s, what prospects does any Cuban revolt against a US-backed regime have for success?

For centuries, Cuba was home of the Spanish Empire. In the late 19th century, Cuban nationalist revolutionaries rebelled against Spanish dominance, resulting in three liberation wars: the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878), the Little War (1879–1880) and the Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898). Interested in extending its hegemony over Cuba, the crown jewel of the Spanish colonial empire, the United States government declared war on the Spanish Empire, resulting in the Spanish–American War (1898). The US subsequently invaded Cuba and forced the Spanish army out.

The Duty of the Hour (1898)

The Duty of the Hour – to save her not only from Spain, but from a worse fate.  Political cartoons like this one published in 1898 expressed sentiment in the United States – that ruling over Cuba was actually a selfless duty – an obligation to save the unruly, unsophisticated Cuban people from themselves. In reality, over the next sixty years, US corporations and crime syndicates would come to dominate Cuban political and economic life, leaving ordinary Cubans poor and disenfranchised.

On 20 May 1902, a new independent government proclaimed the Republic of Cuba, with US military governor Leonard Wood handing over control to President Tomás Estrada Palma, a Cuban-born US citizen. Subsequently, large numbers of US settlers and businessmen arrived in Cuba, and by 1905, 60% of rural properties were owned by non-Cuban North Americans. Between 1906 and 1909, 5,000 US Marines were stationed across the island, and returned in 1912, 1917, and 1921 to intervene in internal affairs, sometimes at the behest of the Cuban government

Select US Military Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, Early 20th Century

Select US Military Interventions Against Land and Economic Reforms, Coups, and Democratically Elected Governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, Early 20th Century.

Batista following his coup on the cover of Time Magazine, April 1952.

Batista following his coup on the cover of Time Magazine, April 1952.

In the decades following Cuba’s liberation from Spain in 1898, and formal independence from the U.S. on May 20, 1902, Cuba experienced a period of significant instability, enduring a number of revolts, coups and periods of U.S. military intervention. Fulgencio Batista, a former soldier who had served as the elected president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, became president for the second time in 1952, after seizing power in a military coup and canceling the 1952 elections.  Although Batista had been relatively progressive during his first term, in the 1950s he proved far more dictatorial and indifferent to popular concerns. While Cuba remained plagued by high unemployment and limited water infrastructure, Batista antagonized the population by forming lucrative links to organized crime and allowing American companies to dominate the Cuban economy.  Havana became known as “the Latin Las Vegas.”

Brothels flourished. A major industry grew up around them; government officials received bribes, policemen collected protection money. Prostitutes could be seen standing in doorways, strolling the streets, or leaning from windows. One report estimated that 11,500 of them worked their trade in Havana. Beyond the outskirts of the capital, beyond the slot machines, was one of the poorest, and most beautiful countries in the Western world.”

— David Detzer, American journalist, after visiting Havana in the 1950s
 
Hotel Nacional de Cuba

The Hotel Nacional was a hotel-casino at the center of US Mafia involvement in Batista’s Cuba.

In a manner that antagonized the Cuban people, the U.S. government used its influence to advance the interests of and increase the profits of the private American companies, which “dominated the island’s economy”. As by the late 1950s, U.S. financial interests owned 90% of Cuban mines, 80% of its public utilities, 50% of its railways, 40% of its sugar production and 25% of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total. According to historian Louis Perez, author of the book On Becoming Cuban, “Daily life had developed into a relentless degradation, with the complicity of political leaders and public officials who operated at the behest of American interests.” 

Earl T. Smith, former U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, testified to the U.S. Senate in 1960 that, “Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.” In addition, nearly “all aid” from the U.S. to Batista’s government was in the “form of weapons assistance”, which “merely strengthened the Batista dictatorship” and “completely failed to advance the economic welfare of the Cuban people”. Such actions later “enabled Castro and the Communists to encourage the growing belief that America was indifferent to Cuban aspirations for a decent life.”

According to historian and author James S. Olson, the U.S. government essentially became a “co-conspirator” in the arrangement because of Batista’s strong opposition to communism, which, in the rhetoric of the Cold War, seemed to maintain business stability and a pro-U.S. posture on the island.

 

“We (the U.S.) have not only supported a dictatorship in Cuba – we have propped up dictators in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay and the Dominican Republic. We not only ignored poverty and distress in Cuba – we have failed in the past eight years to relieve poverty and distress throughout the hemisphere.  ”

—  President John F. Kennedy, October 6, 1960

B) Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution

  1. In your opinion, when is violent revolution justified?  Did Cuba in the 1950s meet these criteria?
  2. Why are Fidel Castro’s beard and the famous portrait of Che nearly as important as anything these men actually did?  Are they heroic or dangerous?
  3. Using details included in this text to support your argument, write a short statement agreeing or disagreeing with the quote by President John F. Kennedy included below.

I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.

— U.S. President John F. Kennedy, to Jean Daniel, October 24, 1963

On July 26, 1953, just over a year after Batista’s second coup, a small group of revolutionaries attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. Government forces easily defeated the assault and jailed its leaders, while many others fled the country. The primary leader of the attack, Fidel Castro, was a young attorney who had run for parliament in the canceled 1952 elections.

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba, smokes a cigar during his meeting with two U.S. senators, the first to visit Castro’s Cuba, in Havana, Cuba, Sept. 29, 1974. (AP Photo)

In the wake of the Moncada assault, Batista suspended constitutional guarantees and increasingly relied on police tactics in an attempt to “frighten the population through open displays of brutality.”  Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in the Presidio Modelo prison, located on Isla de Pinos. However, in 1955, under broad political pressure, the Batista government freed all political prisoners in Cuba, including the Moncada attackers.

Soon, Castro joined with other exiles in Mexico to prepare for the overthrow of Batista, receiving training from Alberto Bayo, a leader of Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In June 1955, Fidel met the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who joined his cause.  The revolutionaries named themselves the “26th of July Movement” (MR-26-7), in reference to the date of their attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.

Consisting of both a civil and a military committee, the MR-27-7 conducted political agitation through an underground newspaper while arming and training recruits to take violent action against Batista. With Castro as the MR-26-7’s head, the organization was based upon a clandestine cell system, with each cell containing ten members, none of whom knew the whereabouts or activities of the other cells.

The yacht Granma departed from Tuxpan, Veracruz, Mexico, on 25 November 1956, carrying Castro and 81 others including Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, even though the yacht was only designed to accommodate a maxiumum of 25.

Between December 1956 and 1959, Castro led a guerrilla army against the forces of Batista from his base camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Batista’s repression of revolutionaries had earned him widespread unpopularity, and by 1958 his armies were in retreat.

The Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro (Right) And Che Guevara (Center)

The Cuban Revolution was fought through strikes and protest in urban areas and guerrilla warfare in the countryside. Fidel Castro (Right) and Che Guevara (Center) grew their iconic beards during this period of rough living in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba.

On 31 December 1958, Batista resigned and fled into exile, taking with him an amassed fortune of more than US$300,000,000. The presidency fell to Castro’s chosen candidate, the lawyer Manuel Urrutia Lleó, while members of the MR-26-7 took control of most positions in the cabinet. On 16 February 1959, Castro himself took on the role of Prime Minister. Dismissing the need for elections, Castro proclaimed the new administration an example of direct democracy, in which the Cuban populace could assemble en masse at demonstrations and express their democratic will to him personally. Critics instead condemned the new regime as un-democratic.

Four Che Faces

Guerrillero Heroico (English: “Heroic Guerrilla Fighter”) is an iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara taken by Alberto Korda. It was captured on March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba. Versions of it have been painted, printed, digitized, embroidered, tattooed, silk-screened, sculpted or sketched on nearly every surface imaginable.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution, headed by Fidel Castro, was one of the first defeats of US foreign policy in Latin America.

Castro enters Havana, 1959.

A victorious Fidel Castro enters Havana, 1959.

Continued in Reform and Resistance: The Cuban Revolution Part II

Activities

  1. Fidel Castro was a competitive athlete, and especially enjoyed baseball and basketball.  Create a trading card relaying his historical stats (biographical information, historical significance, greatest achievements, notable trivia).  Go further and create a whole set featuring Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, Fulgencio Batista, and any other key players in the revolution that you might identify.  
  2. Use the internet to research memorable quotes by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.  Then do the same for Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  Imagine a dialogue between these men – some party across centuries where they could meet.  Write this dialogue down in the form of a script.  What would they agree on?  What would they argue about?

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