The Unsuspected Revolution: The Birth and Rise of Castroism
Diary of the Cuban Revolution Seaver/Viking Press book next fall)
The writer who tries to face the full reality of Cuba takes a big risk, caught as he is in the crossfire between the eulogizers and the denigrators. If he writes in Spanish, and is associated with the Latin left, he becomes a victim of the sterile logic which classifies all criticism of Cuba as “giving arms to the enemy.” The taboo in the Hispanic world concerning the Cuban revolution is reminiscent of the old left-wing taboo against criticism of the Soviet Union. Among Spanish leftists (including the militant wing of the Communist Party) it is now acceptable to make the sort of criticism of the USSR that André Gide first did in 1936.
The Soviet myth has been demolished, but about Cuba many Spanish socialists and Euro-communists maintain a prudent silence, practicing self-censorship with an apparently untroubled conscience. The German poet and critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger points out that there exists among the left “the firmly rooted habit of people lying, knowing that they are lying.” The same prejudices George Orwell experienced in 1937 for his sober account of the Barcelona uprising during the Spanish Civil War are rampant in the Latin world concerning Cuba. Because of their sharp criticisms, intellectuals such as René Dumont and K.S. Karol have grotesquely been accused of being “paid CIA agents.”
In The Crack-up, F. Scott Fitzgerald observes, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” In judging what one reads on Cuba, this sort of intelligence at work appears to be rare. Most writers emphatically deny some part of Cuban reality. Paradise or concentration camp: such crude judgments falsify the complex and contradictory experience of twenty years of revolutionary government.
Mario Llerena’s personal account, The Unsuspected Revolution, is based on diaries kept at the time of Castro’s movement during the decisive period that began with Castro’s arrival from Mexico on the small ship Granma in December 1956, and ended just before the triumph of the revolution in January 1959. Llerena was one of a group of middle-class intellectuals who were shocked by the corruption, gangsterism, and arbitrariness of Batista’s Cuba and hoped for far-reaching social and political reform under a constitutional and democratic government.
I have been talking about my personal experience, but mine was not an isolated case. Thousands upon thousands like me throughout the island and abroad—professionals, teachers, students, white-collar workers, businessmen, industrialists—had been aroused to indignation by Batista’s destruction of the country’s constitutional system and then had been filled with hope by the prospect of a decent, constructive, democratic revolution such as the one in which Castro appeared to be engaged. These were the people who made Castro a national leader and gave their time, their efforts, their money, and frequently their lives for what they thought to be that kind of revolution.
The Unsuspected Revolution is an account of political disenchantment. Llerena presents himself as a disinterested idealistic reformer who almost unknowingly found himself on the crest of a full-fledged radical revolution, as a fellow traveler to the revolutionary group. Still, a certain tone of self-justification occasionally creeps into the account. Llerena describes certain personal episodes in great detail, while other events are glossed over. Llerena’s famous rivalry with Judge Manuel Urrutia, the reformist anti-Batista politician who was appointed president of the Republic the day Castro seized power, is given scant attention.
During 1957 and 1958 Llerena acted as the official spokesman of Castro’s Twenty-sixth of July Movement in North America. Along with other moderate reformers in the group, Felipe Pazos and Léster Rodríguez, Llerena negotiated the famous Miami Pact with exiled Cuban politicians who had become disillusioned with Batista. Llerena’s manifesto, Our Cause, emphasized that the movement was open to a variety of political tendencies. But by 1958 the movement had begun to take a more radical line, causing Llerena to back away and finally to resign from his official positions several months before the revolution triumphed.
Llerena emphasizes that the revolution was almost exclusively the work of a small, well-educated group drawn from the affluent Cuban bourgeoisie, which included Castro and his brothers, sons of landowners. The communists remained on the fringes of the revolution and didn’t start official negotiations with Castro until the spring of 1958 when the defeat of Batista was inevitable. Under Batista’s first government (1934-1944) the Communist Party had been officially in favor, participating in the government and gaining power over the labor unions through its control of the Cuban Confederation of Workers. During this long period the Cuban communists operated their own radio station and newspapers with complete freedom, but like all other pro-Moscow parties in Latin America, they remained isolated, unable to recruit a significant following.
They prospered only in the shade of someone else’s power—as they did for a time when Batista welcomed them as his political allies. As soon as they were left without special government protection, they returned to their usual isolated state. Neither the existing conditions, therefore, nor the considerable efforts of radical elements were ever sufficient to ignite the radical revolution in Cuba. Communism stirred to life again only when another propitious source of power arose on the political horizon.
A group of outsiders created the revolution, and their fuzzy ideology was the key to their triumph, for this neutralized the danger of direct intervention from the United States during the critical transition period. Before 1959 most of the movement’s leaders professed democratic and anticommunist views. (For a strong statement of them, one should consult the interview with Castro by Andrew St. George in Look, April 1958.) These ideas were dropped after the key leaders took power and on December 2, 1961, Fidel publicly embraced Marxist-Leninism.
Most of the writing on this remarkable shift, including Llerena’s, concentrates more on psychological interpretations of the leaders than on analysis of their actions and documents. Faced with the abrupt political change of the Great Leader, Llerena muses: “Who is Castro? Who is he really?” He first considers whether Castro could have been a Marxist-Leninist before the revolution, professing democratic beliefs merely as tactical camouflage on the road to power—a view Castro himself endorsed in his famous speech on December 2, 1961. But, Llerena asks, could it have been that Castro’s ideas during the period between 1955-1959 still were in flux, his only serious aim being to take power? Llerena favors this second hypothesis, seeing Castro’s actions during the preceding twenty years as “the product of the ever expanding ego in relation to the prevailing circumstances…. His actions are invariably geared to keeping him at the center of the world stage.” Llerena concludes:
Castro sees revolution not as a last resort but as a channel for self-expression—an escape valve for his accumulated resentments and hates. He actually needs revolution as the addict needs his drug…. Communism offered him the kind of stage and claque best suited to the cravings of his monumental ego.
Llerena neither examines the conditions surrounding Castro’s shift to overt Marxist-Leninism nor does he analyze the discussions we now know took place in the inner revolutionary circle. As a marginal figure in the movement, he can only guess at what went on among the top leaders when, because of the sweeping success of the guerrillas, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement became the determining factor in the fight against Batista and the movement’s leaders broke their tactical ties with traditional Cuban political factions.
After 1958 the public speeches of Castro and the other leaders of the movement were often skimpy and vague. “From then, until the Movement reached power in January 1959,” Llerena writes, “there was an ideological blackout. But few people seemed to notice.” Llerena, emphasizing Castro’s personal psychology, gives no sense either of the political struggle between two opposing factions that took place in the central leadership of the Sierra Maestra or of how Fidel emerged as the undisputed victor. For that, we must read Carlos Franqui’s Diary of the Cuban Revolution.
When I visited the Soviet Union in 1965, a historian of Spanish origin described to me a special room in a Moscow library that was devoted to anticommunist literature but had no books by Trotsky or Bukharin. Officially, the historian explained, these men never existed. Carlos Franqui’s obsession to conserve and protect the historic archives of the Cuban revolution from political manipulation thus seems entirely understandable. During the 1960s, Castro had entrusted Franqui with the preservation of the historic archives of the revolution Franqui had helped start. Later Cuba adopted the same methods of historic falsification used by the Soviet Union, and when Franqui publicly broke with Castro in the late 1960s, his own picture was blotted out of the famous victory photos, so many thousands of times reproduced, of Castro’s victorious entry into Havana. Fortunately for us, when Franqui went into exile he managed to get out of Cuba photocopies of letters, documents, and reports which had been in the archives under his care. In The Diary of the Cuban Revolution, Franqui has done rescue work of great importance.
Franqui had been involved in Cuban politics since he was a teenager, first joining the youth movement of the Cuban Communist Party in 1939, then quitting it to become one of the first members of Castro’s revolutionary movement. He led the clandestine Twenty-sixth of July Movement in Havana, was imprisoned by Batista in March 1957, and then went into exile in Mexico, Latin America, and the US; later he joined the guerrillas of Sierra Maestra, and when Castro took power he became director of Radio Rebelde and of the newspaper Revolucíon—the official organ of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement. Opposing dictatorial methods and defending artistic freedom, Franqui soon was considered “questionable”; he broke with Castro when Cuba backed the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Diary of the Cuban Revolution is an extraordinary montage of letters, documents, and taped discussions of the actual statements and recorded debates of the principal figures of the revolution during the struggle against Batista which began on July 26, 1953, and which triumphantly ended on January 1, 1959. Franqui’s documents help us to follow the transformation of a group of young hopeful bourgeois rebels into the political leaders of a formidable communist power. Several of the documents are already known, such as fragments of Che Guevara’s diary and the writings of Commander Efigenio Ameijeiras, both of them surprisingly literary in tone. But most of the material is fresh, including Castro’s fascinating taped recollections of his childhood and his personal account of his much discussed intervention in the political upheavals in Bogotà in 1948. Castro’s correspondence during his imprisonment on the Isle of Pines between 1953 and 1955 is of particular value. We learn, for example, of his admiration for Robespierre:
It was necessary to be hard, inflexible, severe, to sin by excess,…several months of terror were necessary in order to finish with a terror which had lasted for centuries. In Cuba many Robespierres were needed.
Biographies of Napoleon were Castro’s favorite prison reading. He worshipped the French general.
One must take in account that Alexander received from his father, Philip, the powerful throne of Macedonia. Hannibal received his mighty army from the hands of his father Hamilcar Barca. Caesar owed much to his patriarchal inheritance, while Napoleon on the other hand owed everything to himself, to his own strengths and his own genius.
Castro seems to have become obsessed by the necessity for an authoritarian chief, He writes:
Ideology, discipline and leadership are indispensable conditions for revolutionary movements: all three qualities are essential but leadership is basic. I don’t know whether it was Napoleon who said that one bad general in battle is worth more than 20 good generals away from it.
In view of such enthusiasms, it is not difficult to see how Castro’s concept of a future revolutionary party would be far from democratic. “The propaganda apparatus,” he writes from prison on August 14, 1954, “must be powerful enough to destroy any tendency to create schisms, small groups or attempts against the Movement.” From this it is no great step to his decisive move in 1960 when he broke with his bourgeois allies, scuttled his own Twenty-sixth of July organization, and integrated the discredited “old Communists” into a new revolutionary party.
Franqui’s book shows how the perceptions of the young revolutionaries changed—how, for example, their awareness of the miserable condition of the guajiros, or rural farmers, of the Sierra Maestra stiffened their radicalism. They saw prematurely aged men and women, children with huge bellies afflicted by parasites and rickets; and they made it a central part of their political program to improve the conditions of the peasants by creating roads, hospitals, and schools, and giving the farmers legal title to land they occupied as squatters.
By 1957, the growing signs of Fidel’s “caudillismo” and the lack of a clear and organized political program within the Twenty-sixth of July Movement had begun to worry such revolutionary leaders as René Ramos Latour (“Daniel”) as well as Franqui, For Latour, who was killed in the fighting against Batista in July of 1958, the movement was merely “a group of men clustered around a caudillo more or less well intentioned, but a caudillo nonetheless, lacking a defined doctrine and program.” Franqui’s criticism of Castro was more precise. He saw that Castro’s overwhelming preoccupation was with the structure and military command of his rebel force; by 1958 Fidel showed little interest in the political organization of the movement. During the final political discussion in the Sierra Maestra, according to Franqui, “his personality dominated everything wherever he happened to be, he was uninterested and forgot those he couldn’t see or who were far from him…. He acted almost always by inspiration or reaction, conditioned by his moods.”
Castro became defensive when faced with criticism and frequently simply took over discussion. In his diary for October 1958, Franqui wrote:
I don’t believe that my function as member of the Executive Committee should consist in applauding the much repeated successes of Fidel…. [Instead of consultation] we have the prodigious conversation of Fidel in which his decisions are taken for granted, in which an accord is almost never reached through amicable discussion with the entire group. A situation for which we are all responsible by action and omission.
Well before the triumph of the revolution caudillismo had been substituted for democratic decision-making within the movement. The more lucid revolutionaries understood this but limited themselves to talking about it and writing about it in their private diaries. From the beginning, Castro’s charisma was the glue that held together the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, while Castro himself avoided taking any clear position in the intense ideological debates of those around him. One group, led by Che Guevara and Raúl Castro, was sympathetic to the communists. A second faction including Frank País, Oltuski, Ramos Latour, Faustino Peréz, and Franqui envisioned a revolutionary line wholly free of Moscow. According to Franqui, Che Guevara and Fidel already were studying Stalin’s book The Fundamentals of Leninism when they were imprisoned in Mexico in the early 1950s. Che defended the book and Franqui attacked it. Fidel’s only comment characteristically referred to himself: “A revolution in order not to be divided and vanquished needs a single leader. One bad leader is worth 20 good leaders.”
The correspondence between Che Guevara and René Ramos Latour sheds much light on these years. Guevara was infuriated in early 1958 when Felipe Pazos and Léster Rodríguez, acting in the name of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, signed the Miami Pact with exiled political leaders of the old Havana parties. Guevara saw the pact as a plot by what he regarded as the right wing of the movement and he accused Latour of leading it.
Ideologically I belong to those who believe that the solution for the problems of the world lies behind the so-called Iron Curtain, and I consider the Twenty-sixth of July Movement as an expression of the desire of the bourgeoisie to liberate itself from the economic chains of Imperialism. I have always considered Fidel an authentic leader of the left bourgeoisie, even though he personally possesses traits of extraordinary brilliance which places him way above his class.
In this spirit I joined the struggle: honorably, without hope of going much beyond the liberation of the country, willing to leave when even the future conditions of the struggle would turn the Movement toward the right (toward that which all of you represent). What I never expected is the radical change Fidel made in his statements with the Manifesto of Miami.
Latour’s reply suggests the unresolved nature of the ideological controversy among Fidel’s followers. Until the spring of 1959 Castro made no clearly stated choice between these two political tendencies. The democratic alternative to the pro-Soviet position of Che still seemed a real possibility, and the majority of the movement would have supported Latour’s position in his reply to Guevara:
Since I’ve known you I was aware of your ideological formation and I never felt impelled to refer to it. This isn’t the moment to discuss “where is the salvation of the world.” I only mean to elaborate our position which, clearly, is entirely different from yours.
I don’t believe that there is a single representative of the “right” in the National Committee of the Movement…. Our fundamental difference is that we are concerned to put in the hands of the tyrannized peoples of “our America” governments responding to their desires for liberty and progress, which means maintaining united their rights as free nations and gaining respect for them by the great world powers.
We believe in a strong America in charge of her own destiny, an America which proudly can confront the United States, Russia, China or whatever world power tries to curtail her economic and political independence.
On the other hand, those who share your ideological formation believe that the solution to our problems is to liberate ourselves from the noxious “Yankee domination” for the no less noxious “Soviet domination.”
Any chance this pro-democratic view had was badly undermined by US hostility to Fidel. But the documents in Franqui’s Diary make it clear that Fidel’s strategy was single-minded and dictatorial. He sought to create a disciplined army under his exclusive control, while manipulating different political tendencies in and outside the movement in order to strengthen his own leadership. After the victory against Batista the political organization of the Twentysixth of July Movement was a hindrance to Fidel’s future plans—its liquidation now was a matter of time. The legitimacy of the revolutionary movement increasingly depended on the charisma of its leader and Fidel exercised his domination over it without any intermediaries. The army was the spine of the revolution, and the civil power was forced to subordinate itself to the military. The inevitable consequences of these developments were predicted by Franqui as early as 1957:
The new institutions must be created before the triumph or they will be swept away afterwards. If the triumph is obtained by a minority of the vanguardia—heroic with popular support, but without popular participation as has occurred until now—a single leader of the military sort will seize power with the innumerable consequences of all power which depends on an omnipotent and popular will.
No revolution can be born in an encampment of a caudillo’s army—even a sympathetic caudillo. Free republics never have been born out of great generals’ struggles for independence. True revolutions are not conceived by a rebellious military.
Franqui’s Diary, ending in January 1959, is still the best guide we have to understanding what happened in the following decade. In the early 1960s the movement’s newspaper, Revolucíon, frequently engaged in polemics with the communist newspaper Hoy (Today), edited by Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, one of the early Moscow-line communist supporters of Fidel. But Revolucíon soon lost its position as an independent voice. In spite of Franqui’s efforts, the newspaper degenerated into an official mouthpiece for the movement’s leaders.
The movement’s Magazine Cultural, which also started out with an independent editorial policy, succumbed after two years under heavy attack by hard-line groups. In the trade unions the influence of the Twenty-sixth of July people proved equally ephemeral. Even though the movement candidates received a majority of votes during the union elections in the fall of 1959, Fidel personally intervened in the Cuban Labor Confederation, imposing his own list of communist leaders on the central committee. Those who had been formerly protected by the autonomy of the movement lost their jobs or were imprisoned.
As Fidel wanted, the army became the pillar of the new Cuba. A vanguard group drawn largely from the army and from Guevara’s faction in the Sierra Maestra as well as from the old Cuban Communist Party emerged as the new clique around the authoritarian leader, and Fidel Castro began to govern Cuba without any constitutional protections for its people.
Cuba: Order and Revolution, by Jorge I. Domínguez, is a balanced, extensively researched assessment of the social and political changes in Cuba during the last twenty years by one of the most informed experts on that country now living in exile. Domínguez, who came to the United States at fifteen, tries to approach his subject with the objectivity of a careful social scientist. He acknowledges the accomplishments of the revolution in eliminating illiteracy, fostering greater social equality, and providing public education and free medical care. He can be severely critical of the regime’s political repression. This ambitious and, I believe, essentially fair book of over 600 pages makes an excellent complement to Franqui’s Diary, though somewhat surprisingly Domínguez never mentions Franqui’s book in the thousands of documents he cites, which suggests that his work may be less scientific than he claims.
Domínguez continues Franqui’s story of Castro’s takeover of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement. He shows that Castro’s showdown in 1960 with the moderate adherents of “bourgeois democracy” actually began in the early winter of 1959. In 1960 Fidel merely enforced a plan that had been previously decided on. Apparently Castro’s visit to the US in 1959 provoked a crisis inside the Central Committee, and in the struggle that followed between the two main political factions the more radical won out. Fidel canceled his repeated promises to call a general election, and contrary to the Sierra Maestra manifesto signed by Felipe Pazos and Raúl Chibás—as well as Castro—he announced that no aid from capitalist North America would be tolerated.
Eisenhower’s harsh and heavy-handed reaction to Cuba’s first attempts to nationalize industry accelerated the process of socializing the economy, particularly the parts of it that had been under United States or Canadian control. The revolutionary government needed loyal employees for its survival no matter how incompetent—inefficiency and full employment were preferable to dangers of sabotage by pro-North American managers. The regime’s ideological direction and the reaction of the United States thus dynamically complemented each other. But Domínguez’s analysis suggests that the economic decisions of the Cuban leaders were essentially autonomous and political. They weren’t forced to socialize industry so abruptly, Domínguez argues; nor did the socialist character of the revolution require such vast economic transformations.
Domínguez stresses the charismatic nature of Castro’s authority during the early 1960s when he enjoyed remarkable popularity among the Cuban people. In a poll conducted in 1960 by Lloyd Free he had 86 percent support: most of these Cubans said that they were drawn to the revolutionary government because of Fidel’s personal qualities, including his unshakable faith in himself. Such charismatic power, Domínguez comments,
…depends on the leader’s conviction that he is not dependent on election by his followers but has been “elected” by a supernatural authority, either God or some “historical force,” and on the citizenry’s sharing that conviction.
Castro’s extraordinary series of impossible achievements—the landing of Granma, the victory against Batista, the defeat of the United States in the Bay of Pigs, a veritable triumph of David against Goliath—all these strengthened the personalism of the revolution and reinforced Castro’s conviction that programs could be dictated from the summit and carried out by the inspired voluntary efforts of those loyal to the revolution. It was, Domínguez argues, all too easy for Fidel and his fellow leaders to adopt a pattern of thinking by which
only the maximum possible effort toward the optimal goal is worth pursuing; only the (apparently) unattainable goal is an acceptable one. The revolution was an unreachable goal, and yet it was achieved. Why not, then, 10 million tons of sugar in 1970? Why not, then, transforming the people of Cuba into revolutionary citizens? The persistent belief that an activist, determined vanguard should reach for nothing short of the impossible in the service of the revolution has been expounded by the leadership for many years.
Charismatic authority and voluntarism were the two distinguishing characteristics of the revolution during the 1960s. But the deterioration of the Cuban economy forced Castro to accept more modest objectives. The radical politics he had espoused were becoming increasingly unpopular and his personal following which had been the backbone of the revolution was steadily weakening. Castro needed a new approach, and here the USSR was indispensable. “The Soviet Union’s successful reassertion of hegemony over Cuba,” Domínguez writes, “contributed powerfully to the setting aside of the experiments of the late 1960s and to the building up of the central bureaucracies.”
Under steady pressure from the USSR Castro—who had tried to avoid a strong party organization ever since the Sierra Maestra period—went ahead and developed a Communist Party on the Soviet model. From the early 1970s Fidel’s personal appeal was no longer the main source of revolutionary legitimacy. The principles of “democratic centralism” were openly proclaimed and the rising members of the bureaucratic class saw their powers and privileges legally validated. Although this helped to improve the economic situation, the more original aspects of the revolution were slowly being buried. Domíguez describes the new political line:
As it retreated from the radicalism of the late 1960s, [the regime] became more pragmatic but also less attractive to those who had hoped the revolutionary elite would shoot for the stars in the late 1970s, just as they had done in the late 1950s. Authoritarian rule by an aging elite of white males was being institutionalized through the Communist Party. The party decided; the bureaucracy implemented.
According to Domínguez’s statistics the overall growth of the Cuban economy during the first ten years was almost nil, while “the capacity of the state to redistribute the proceeds from a stagnant and, at times, even deteriorating economy was impressive.” Under Batista the Cuban economy had expanded, but his regime had aggravated the economic differences between the countryside and Havana, between rich and poor. The unemployment rate after the revolution dropped from 8.8 percent in 1962 to 1.3 percent in 1970. The old pattern by which unemployment rose and fell according to the sugar harvest, leaving many thousands stranded in off seasons, was broken. Throughout the 1960s salaries steadily increased and now nearly everyone could find work, even though at times the work was unproductive. Many of the more beneficial changes for the poorer Cubans, such as the reallocation to them of homes abandoned by the middle class and rich, were made during the revolution’s transition period between 1959 and 1961.
Castro’s failure to improve agricultural production and to produce necessary consumer goods largely canceled out the beneficial effects of higher wages—neither manual nor white collar workers could find the goods to buy with their newly accumulated income. Domínguez points out that the introduction of rationing in 1962 demonstrates the failure of the Cuban economy to expand. But rationing was also used by the government to bring about the social equality it promised. “Natural” rationing had existed before the revolution for those Cubans who had been hard pressed to obtain basic necessities. The state did little more than make this natural rationing official, revealing, as Domínguez writes, “the twin aspect of Castro’s revolutionary performance: success in redistribution, failure in growth.”
One of the most interesting chapters of Domínguez’s book is his analysis of the conflicts over both agricultural policy and industrialization during the 1960s. Castro’s ambitious program of agrarian reform mistakenly attributed to the entire Cuban countryside the special character of the Sierra Maestra, where the revolutionary leaders had been based. Domínguez writes:
When Fidel Castro’s insurrection came, it had settled in the only part of Cuba where latifundia and land-tenure insecurity were still issues, and where prerevolutionary agrarian legislation had had little protective effect. Its survival in the Sierra Maestra would have been unlikely without peasant support; providentially for Castro, this was the only area of Cuba where he could have found insecure peasants facing hostile landowners and government.
Although the guajiros of the Sierra Maestra welcomed redistribution of land they showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for the cooperative system the regime tried to install there. The situation of the rural farmers varied enormously from region to region. When the peasants of Matanzas, for example, realized that the nationalization of their land was imminent, there were mass demonstrations and the number of counterrevolutionaries increased. The government readjusted its policies, but the damage was done. Huge numbers of the agrarian workers passively resisted the state’s economic plans. Even though the medical care and public education provided by the revolution gave innumerable benefits to the guajiros many of the rural farmers still opposed other aspects of state policy.
Industrial planning was in even greater confusion. Che Guevara persuaded Cuba’s leading economists to adopt his Leninist theories; he wanted the island to become agriculturally self-sufficient and an industrial power, thus ending Cuba’s economic dependency on the fluctuations of the international sugar market. In October 1962 Castro launched a four-year plan of rapid industrial growth to produce the vital machinery for the expansion of the Cuban economy. The decision reflects the obvious defects of a regime founded on a monolithic ideology and on the prerogatives of Fidel’s caudillismo. Domínguez points out:
Once the decision was made to proceed with a policy of accelerated industrialization, other policies incompatible with this goal were not listened to…. The effects of the highly centralizing economic policy favoring industrialization were to discourage agriculture without helping industry. Production declined from 1960 to 1962 as the attempt was made to industrialize rapidly and the second land-reform act went into effect.
Then a further disaster was inflicted by the government. It ordered the destruction of 134,200 hectares of sugar cane for the sake of agricultural diversification—but the diversification did not materialize. Too many cattle were mistakenly slaughtered and their meat wasted, so that eventually the per capita beef consumption declined from between 65 and 70 pounds in 1959 to 39 pounds in 1962.
By 1964 the disastrous results of government policy caused a sharp reversal of economic direction. Che Guevara’s numerous enemies seized the opportunity to force him out of his official positions, and he left Cuba to join the guerrillas fighting in Africa and Latin America. But the failure of industrialization didn’t serve as a lesson:
The policy was changed; the method of arriving at decisions was not. The result was again a fatal overemphasis, this time favoring agriculture, particularly sugar, over industry. By the late 1960s, no policy incompatible with earlier decisions favoring sugar and agriculture was considered. Castro’s commitment to it has been unwavering.
In 1970 the disastrous miscalculation of the sugar crop revealed for a second time the inherent defects of a system that had become too dependent on the personal whims of the leader and that lacked any democratic process. Castro now felt obliged to rely more heavily on Soviet help in economic planning. And if the bureaucratic class was formally to share power, on the Soviet pattern, a constitution was needed to help secure their position.
The rough draft of the first Socialist Constitution of Cuba was finally approved in 1975. This constitution, inspired by Stalin’s 1936 Soviet constitution, guarantees, as did Stalin’s, liberty of speech, press, religion, etc. But none of these rights can be used against the interests of the state or the party or against the growth of communism. In brief, state and party decide in each case what freedom can be exercised. As Domínguez points out, this is a serious regression from the liberties protected by the bourgeois constitution of 1940. The 1976 Constitution gives the state and party vast powers over the people. In judicial matters the powers of the government were not only made explicit but extended to control labor unions. Preventive detention has also been legalized, subjecting the lazy or rebellious worker to the threat of a possible criminal punishment. Domínguez writes:
These changes have reduced the autonomy of the courts, eliminated the possibility of constitutional restraint, and reduced procedural obstacles…. The government’s powers to punish have also increased. Individuals accused of political crimes stand stripped of rights before a powerful state with full governmental discretion in defining the crime.
The Ministry of the Interior, including regular and secret police, makes full use of this discretion. When these powers are added to the political, economic, and social powers discussed previously, it is clear that the powers of the revolutionary government are uncontestably vast by any previous Cuban standards.
The Cuban trade union is now merely an organ of the party. There are no rights of collective bargaining, no independent trade unions, no democracy within the union, work conditions and benefits are imposed by the government. In short, the workers have no voice, and are allowed less liberty and democracy than they had during the Batista years. Now the regime has also introduced a system of individual “workbooks” in which a worker’s absenteeism, laziness, or negative attitudes are permanently recorded—a sharp instrument for repression by the authorities, giving them absolute control over the workers’ lives.
During the first stage of the revolution, Castro frequently called for volunteers to help out agricultural workers—“columns” of city workers and students went to aid in planting and harvesting. After the repeated agricultural failures, popular enthusiasm for these campaigns cooled; the Revolutionary Central Committee needed to use tougher methods. Domínguez writes: “Policies of economic and political mobilization were gradually turned into policies of military mobilization for economic and political purposes.” Deprived of authentic union leaders who could defend their rights, many workers were forced to become “volunteers,” working under the army’s direction. The “vagrancy law” was also used to bring the workers under military control, causing increasingly angry reactions on the part of the workers. The apathy of the Cuban workers toward the government’s recruiting campaign to harvest the sugar crop of 1970 was a clear indication that the working class had lost patience with the government, and that a radical change in policy was necessary.
According to Domínguez,
The change in labor policies that began in the second half of 1970 was not spontaneous either. It was a reaction in part to the economic crisis and in part to the labor crisis. Cuban workers had had enough. Under the conditions of severe deprivation that had prevailed, by the Prime Minister’s count, for two years, and with the blocking of channels for grievances in unions and courts, the workers staged a “strike.”
Strikes have been illegal in Cuba since the early days of the revolution, so the leadership described the 1970 event as “large-scale absenteeism.” It was apparently uncoordinated, but it was large scale, and the leadership was plainly concerned. Prime Minister Castro noted that in August and September of 1970, 20 percent of the work force, around 400,000 workers, were absent on any given day.
In Oriente, in August of 1970, 52 percent of the agricultural workers were absent from work; by January 1971, with the sugar harvest already under way, absenteeism among agricultural workers in Oriente province was still at 23 percent.
After 1971 Castro abandoned military mobilization of workers along with the egalitarian revolutionary ethics he had promoted as part of his conception of the Cuban “new man,” uncorrupted by selfish or materialistic motives. He concentrated on improving the economy with the help of the old guard of Cuban communists and the Soviet Union. Television sets, refrigerators, and electric appliances were distributed through party channels to workers who performed well. Union officials, doctors, and technocrats were given special privileges to buy automobiles imported from Argentina.
The rationing system, which had once been an instrument for equality, now became a method to benefit the elite with the goods provided by new trading partners. Peace was achieved at the cost of social justice.
Domínguez’s documentation of current conditions shows an emerging class of the kind described by Djilas. An elite government clique has been installed, with legal authority and unchecked power, based on a strict internal hierarchy within which a number of the old habits and privileges of the bourgeoisie gradually have begun to flourish:
Restaurants for bureaucrats serve better and unrationed food. The privileged, even in the 1960s, were given preference in the purchase of cars. Vacation, resorts are more accessible to them; their housing is better, and they seem to be less affected by the housing shortage. They can go abroad, serve on diplomatic missions, be invited to diplomatic receptions.
A “pyramid” of power, copied from the USSR, clearly is discernible in Cuba today. Small factions clustering around Fidel in the Central Committee dominate the party and sometimes feud among themselves. Their absolute control of official elections on various rungs of the party is justified glowingly as “democratic centralism.” Domínguez notes:
Even though the legal authority to exercise absolute power has not been fully used, however, hierarchical decision making has left little autonomy for lower ranks when a mobilizational style [i.e., a style exerting a high pressure on people to participate] has been used to exercise power.
While careful and perceptive in his analysis of social and economic questions, Domínguez says too little about other important matters such as the conflicts between the revolution and the writers and artists and others who have tried to preserve their freedom in Cuban culture. He makes frequent references to Lourdes Casal’s work on the subject but none to the much fuller information in Carlos Alberto Montaner’s Secret Report on the Cuban Revolution.* Of the many other problems dealt with by Domínguez I would like to mention three: the racial problem the changes in the status of women and the family, and human rights.
Cuban blacks have certainly benefited from the revolution. From the beginning discrimination was barred; restrictions against blacks in private clubs and restaurants were prohibited; mixed marriage and policies of equal opportunity in work and education were promoted. Still, although race relations in Cuba are not so bitter as they have been in the United States, Domínguez suggests conflicts between the white and black communities remain potentially explosive.
The revolutionary government claims to have solved the race problem; it has therefore become subversive to speak or write about its existence. Black intellectuals who think that the revolutionary government still engages in race discrimination have gone into exile. Black-solidarity organizations have been banned. The intellectual, artistic, mutual-aid, and labor societies of and for blacks that existed in prerevolutionary Cuba have been forced to disband. Afro-Cuban writers, conscious of blackness as a distinctive characteristic of contemporary, not just historical, social life, have fallen into disfavor.
Few blacks or mulattoes have become high-ranking officials, as Domínguez’s analysis of black mobility makes clear:
Only 9 percent of the hundred members appointed to the Central Committee of the Communist party of Cuba in 1965 were black or mulatto. In 1945, 9.3 percent of the Senate and 9.4 percent of the House of Representatives were black. Then, as now, this is about one-third what would be expected from the number of blacks in the population; it suggests that the revolution has had little impact in increasing the black share of the elite. In the armed forces, scattered evidence suggests black overrepresentation at the troop level and underrepresentation at the officer level in the early 1970s.
This discrepancy may have resulted from amendments to the selective-service legislation in 1973, which had the effect of freezing social stratification and institutionalizing the prevalent pattern of inequality because those with less education (disproportionately black) are the ones most frequently drafted into the military, as opposed to the accepted forms of alternate service.
The impact of the revolution on family life and on the position of women is harder to assess. Vilma Espín, president of the Cuban Women’s Federation, defines her movement as feminine, not feminista. Women often run the “committees for the defense of the revolution”—the local organizations which both look after the daily lives of many Cubans and keep watch on them—as well as other mass organizations. Cuban women today have greater independence than most women in Latin America and the old “machista” attitudes have diminished.
The structure of the traditional family has been drastically altered. During the last twenty years the divorce rate has climbed from 8.3 percent to 38.1 percent. But few women hold jobs at the top. In 1977 there were no women in the Central Executive Committee of ministerial advisers. The government promoted the hiring of women mostly in the middle ranks of the provincial bureaucracy or as deputies in the National Assembly, but real power remains almost exclusively held by males.
Domínguez gives little information about human rights. We have no reliable figures on political prisoners. Castro acknowledges 3,000 and the exile groups claim 100,000; according to the most reliable estimates the number is roughly about 10,000. The figure of 4,000 or 5,000 used by Amnesty International in their 1976 report lists only prisoners the Cuban authorities admit were condemned to prison for political reasons. To this list one must add a sizable number of people who have been arrested under the vagrancy law or accused of homosexuality. In the mid 1960s tens of thousands of homosexuals were detained in work camps; more recently that number has sharply dropped.
From the work of Franqui and Domínguez the reader can now measure knowledgably the distance between the revolutionary aims of the combatants of the Sierra Maestra and the complex and contradictory reality that has emerged during the twenty years of Castro’s government. The revolution had spectacular successes, especially in the early years, in providing such basic necessities as housing and education and medical care to the poorest Cubans. The Cuban record here is much better than that of the other Latin American governments, including prosperous Venezuela. Nonetheless, Cuba’s debased political ideology, and its economic and geographical situation, have led to a paradoxical and tragic result.
The social and political situation of many Central American and Caribbean countries both before the revolution and today can be summed up in four points: they have been agriculturally dependent on one crop; crippled by caudillismo; by military government and dictatorship; and, finally, by economic and political dependency on the United States. As Franqui’s book shows, the Twenty-sixth of July Movement’s leaders wanted to break out of this trap. The Cuban revolutionaries sought to escape the sugar monoculture and fell back into it. They fought against the Batista dictatorship and ended by substituting for it first the charismatic caudillismo of Fidel and later a constitutional façade for single-party dictatorship. As the power behind the party, the military continues to be the fundamental institution of the island. And when Cuba broke the chains of its dependence on the United States, it did so only at the cost of falling immediately into the Soviet orbit.
—translated by Barbara Probst Solomon
El caso Padilla: literatura y revolucíon en Cuba edited by Lourdes Casal (Ediciones Universal, Miami, 1971); Informe Secreto sobre la revolucíon cubano (Ediciones Sedmay, Madrid, 1976). Casal’s book contains documents by writers and intellectuals, most of them pertaining to the Padilla affair. Montaner’s narrative history of the Cuban revolution and its aftermath gives detailed accounts of Castro’s struggles with Cuban and foreign intellectuals. ↩