Jose Goitia/The New York Times/Redux

Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raúl Castro, during a meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, Havana, April 2011

The history taught in Cuban schools exalts the redeeming function of the Cuban Revolution but it also, for the most part, reduces that revolution to a biography of Fidel Castro. Someday perhaps Cuban schoolchildren will have access to other versions of their history. If that day comes, Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959–1971 by Lillian Guerra, an American historian of Cuban descent, should be a required (and saddening) assignment. It tells the story of the construction of the longest dictatorship in Latin American history (and now the longest-lasting continuous regime on earth).

The book is not a conventional political history but rather a social history of the Cuban people subjugated, by choice or by force, to the new system put into place during the 1960s and 1970s. Based on almost twenty years of research in Cuban and American archives like the Cuban Exile Collection and the Cuban Revolution Collection at Yale University, Guerra reconstructs how Fidel Castro went about narrowing the range of civil liberties, autonomous institutions, and finally the society itself, until he completely dominated them.

The revolutionaries came to power on an island where one in six Cubans owned a radio, one in twenty-five a television set. There were 120 newspapers and magazines, like the political journal Bohemia, which in the first three weeks of 1959 sold a million copies celebrating the triumph of the revolution. With this impressive island-wide coverage—most of it favoring the revolution—Castro could multiply the effect of his very long speeches, many of them to an audience of a million people acclaiming him with upraised hands. He was the first revolutionary to use television with wide effect.

One of Guerra’s revelations is the use Fidel made of religious symbols. As a steady leitmotif he would say things like: “They speak ill of me because I have spoken the truth. They crucified Christ for speaking the truth” or “Whoever condemns a revolution like this one betrays Christ and declares himself capable of crucifying that very Christ once again.” Although he had been educated by the Jesuits, Castro had no belief in religious dogmas. Nevertheless he affirmed and imposed his beliefs as if they were in themselves religious dogmas. A new faith, Fidelismo, began to form around his person. Drawings were published with Fidel inserted into scenes from the Bible; pilgrimages were conducted to sacralized sites in the former guerrilla haven of the Sierra Maestra or to the Turquino mountain, which Fidel had once climbed. In a conversation with a journalist from the magazine Carteles, an old peasant succinctly expressed his reverence:

Question: What do you think of the Agrarian Reform?

Blanco: That is a blessing of God.

Question: You mean from Fidel, from the Revolution?

Blanco: I mean from God, through Fidel.

The new faith created its own ample vocabulary. Among its simplest epithets were “traitors” and vendepatrias (“sell-outs of the nation”), first applied to those accused of torture and murder in the service of the defeated Batista regime. The executions of such people during Castro’s first months in power, under the banner of “Revolutionary justice,” had vast popular support. But then Fidel instituted, in his own words, “Revolutionary terror.” One of its early victims was the popular revolutionary comandante Huber Matos, who was arrested in October 1959 for criticizing the clearly increasing influence of the Cuban Communist Party within the regime. He was sentenced to—and served—twenty years’ imprisonment.

Fidel carried out his political moves with the same rapidity. He made himself prime minister, dismissed the idea of elections or the democratic division of powers, installed “true democracy” (voting by a show of hands in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana), and carried out the first purges among those who had fought for the revolution. As early as March 1959, Raúl Castro contacted Moscow to arrange a Soviet-run training program for the Cuban army and for an organized secret police force, later to be known as G2.

Nonetheless, into the year 1960, Cuba seemed to be (at least in its publicly cited objectives) a radical version of the Mexican Revolution: nationalist, egalitarian, “humanist,” and focused on social justice. In February 1960, a visit to the island by Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan marked the beginning of a close economic relationship with the Soviet Union, centering around the exchange of sugar for oil, on terms very favorable to Cuba. The economic connection rapidly impelled the spread of Soviet-style state controls over the society and a severe erosion of the market.

All independent newspapers and journals disappeared. One of the saddest episodes was the termination of the once staunchly pro-revolutionary Bohemia and the self-imposed exile to Venezuela of its director, Miguel Angel Quevedo. (Some years later he would kill himself, leaving behind a dramatic description of how he had been forced out.) Only the newspaper Revolución remained, later to be merged in 1965 into a new publication called Granma.


The university was stripped of its traditional and politically important autonomy and student organizations would expel members for having anti-regime or anti-Soviet opinions. Television and radio stations were confiscated. Unions were transformed from advocates of the rights of workers to instruments of support for the maintenance of productivity in the increasing number of state-owned enterprises. In the latter part of 1960, around 550 businesses (Cuban or American-owned) were expropriated—amounting to 80 percent of the broad and diversified industries of the country. The Catholic Church opposed the turn toward communism but was neutralized.

Fidel was trying to create a kind of new militant church of regime loyalists, intent on defending the “purity” of the regime by armed force. Guerra gives a detailed description of how the responsibility for such purification was assigned to the numerous militant organizations created, early in the 1960s, by Fidel’s fiat. The purpose was to integrate the society vertically, from the masses leading up to the Comandante. Organizations were formed for women, students, farmers, workers, bureaucrats, writers, artists, down to children who marched with rifles.

Among those numerous groups, perhaps the most disturbing and intimidating entities were the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDR). The CDRs recruited volunteers, city block by block, to oversee the revolutionary purity of their neighbors and denounce any deviations. Fidel defined them as “the civil rear guard for the vanguard of the militias and Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) in the struggle against the internal and external enemy,” and he added, “it is impossible that the worms and parasites can make their moves if, on their own, the people…keep an eye on them.”

In the early 1960s, Cuban cities witnessed an early surge of dissidence in the confrontations between these Cederistas and groups or individuals the regime stigmatized as gusanos (“worms”). Guerra, using newly discovered material from various archives, vividly reconstructs much of this unrest. The gusanos refused to integrate themselves into revolutionary institutions. Yet most of them criticized the CIA-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, and considered the Miami-based exiles to be “servants of the gringos.” Nevertheless the CDRs could send them to jail and even (following the Soviet model) to incarceration in psychiatric hospitals where they could be subjected to such measures as electric shock treatments. For their efficiency at forestalling criticism of the revolution, Castro called the Cederistas “one million gags,” emphasizing that their major effect by far was the stifling of open dissent.

Another significant (and historically obscure) event was the violent opposition of peasants to the collectivization of the land in the provinces of Escambray and Matanzas. Lillian Guerra writes that in Escambray, the CIA was actively involved in encouraging resistance. In the violence known as “la limpia [the cleaning] of Escambray,” six thousand people died (combining the losses of the Cuban army and the peasant rebels). In the summer of 1963 the government permanently moved all the male population of Escambray to Pinar del Río and the women and children to the Miramar area of Havana, a total of 35,000 people. Escambray was finally converted into a military zone and a national park. In 2005, for the first time in forty years, Raúl Castro called the Escambray events “a civil war.”

Almost simultaneously (and without any CIA intervention, according to Guerra), the peasants of Matanzas also took up arms against the collectivization policy. The guerrillas of Matanzas survived as a group until the beginning of 1963. There were widespread arrests, summary executions, and extensive campaigns of slogans and arguments in favor of the revolution. The Second Agrarian Reform (1963) then put further limits on rural private property and, says Guerra, “the historically exceptional egalitarian model of capitalist agricultural production in Matanzas was forcibly reduced to the Communist norm.”

In the mid-1960s, the worldwide youth counterculture arrived, a little belatedly, in Cuba. With their long hair and sandals, their rock music, their fondness for an anarchic way of life and sexual permissiveness, many young Cubans were culturally rebellious but not in active opposition to the regime. Guerra describes how, in the ephemeral publications associated with the counterculture (like El Sable or El Puente), critical comments were published on issues that are now—in the era of Raúl—common currency in the official media, including bureaucratic abuses and negligence and the wasting of resources.

Fidel had no patience with what he saw as the lack of revolutionary zeal among the young. The counterculture publications were closed down and many of their contributors sent off to work camps for “reeducation.” And Fidel went so far as to urge young people to report on their parents if they expressed an explicit desire to leave Cuba.


In 1965 Fidel had created the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), which were labor camps to which many of these “antisocial” young people and various gusanos were sent. (An estimated 35,000 people passed through these camps between 1965 and 1968.) Alongside other inmates were members of Protestant and Afro-Cuban religious sects whom the regime considered unreliable (especially Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists) and who were submitted to systematic tortures.

Based on a conviction that to be revolutionary one must be “macho,” gay people were sent to the camps and cruelly persecuted. Reinaldo Arenas, the brilliant homosexual writer who left Cuba in 1980, has written an account of his treatment, Before Night Falls (1993); but Guerra supplements it with firsthand personal reports. Gays were subjected not only to forced labor but also to painful Pavlovian treatments meant to “cure their illness.” This government-inspired antigay persecution lasted until the beginning of the 1980s.

In 1968—proclaimed “the Year of the Heroic Guerrilla”—58,000 small businesses were expropriated in a matter of days (including street vendors’ kiosks, shoemakers, dressmakers, laundries, beauty shops, nightclubs, etc.). Many of the owners (labeled “petty bourgeois”) were assigned to compulsory labor in agriculture or construction. Now fully in charge of what some critics have called “the island plantation of Fidel” (his father had been the owner of a large hacienda), Castro made one of his many huge economic mistakes. In 1970 he called for “the Sugar Harvest of the Ten Million.” This marked the absolute limit of Che Guevara’s idealistic push for “voluntary labor.” Castro announced that “the honor of the Revolution” was at stake. A student who had taken part remarked to Guerra that they had not harvested sugarcane “for Fidel or his honor.”


Cuban TV (top); Doug Mills/The New York Times/Redux

Raúl Castro and Barack Obama making their respective announcements about restoring diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US, December 2014

Still, the large-scale response revealed Fidel’s still-charismatic capacity to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people from all social and economic levels, but the harvest failed to meet its objectives. Faced with rising absenteeism in the fields (the only option left of the right to strike), he issued a law against vagrancy and further tightened control of the shores of Cuba. Fidel declared that no one any longer wanted to leave the country. And emigration remained illegal until the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.

The definite sign of Cuba’s incorporation into the Soviet bloc was the show trial (an echo of the Soviet trials in the 1930s) of the poet Heberto Padilla, who had dared to criticize “our miniature version of Stalinism.” Arrested in March 1971, after five weeks in prison and daily interrogations he “confessed” his crimes against the revolution. Many voices of the Latin-American and international literary community recognized a “show trial” and criticized the persecution, including some, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who, up to this moment, had always backed Fidel. Castro then gave precise orders banning the books of such authors in Cuba. In the 1960s Padilla had won the national prize for poetry awarded by an international jury. Now the message was definitive, as in Fidel’s words of 1961: “With the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing.”

The same slogan still prevails today, though certainly people have more space. The regime now tolerates a limited amount of private economic activity, though with many restrictions. There is some freedom of movement, though Cubans cannot board tourist cruise ships or buy boats. And people are not persecuted for their sexual or religious preferences. Still, limits on political life and civil liberties are essentially the same as in 1971. The government still controls the print media, radio and television, the universities, student movements, and labor unions. In these matters nothing has changed. There is no free access to the Internet and manifestations of dissidence are persecuted. Dissidents are no longer sent to labor camps but in 2014 there were 8,899 short-term politically motivated detentions. “We have a different concept of human rights,” said Josefina Vidal, a diplomat now in charge of relations with the United States, to Roberta Jacobson, the US undersecretary of state for Latin America, at their first meeting in Havana on January 22, 2015.

This is the Cuba with which President Obama, bravely and intelligently, though with considerable political risk, decided to reestablish diplomatic relations in December 2014.

In light of the economic and political history of Cuba, it becomes easier to understand its contentious relationship with the United States, the subject of Back Channel to Cuba by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, which explores the mostly secret negotiations over decades between the Cuban and US governments. It is an impressive investigation that appeared only months before the agreements between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama and reads like a fascinating and thorough intellectual introduction to the accords.

The book makes it clear that, during the long period of the Cuban–Soviet alliance, an agreement was practically impossible, though the history of attempts reads like a James Bond novel, and the tireless efforts of some figures to promote a rapprochement did have some positive results on emigration and the freeing of political prisoners. After 1971, when the alliance with Russia was solidified, Cuba adopted much of the ideology, laws, and institutions of the USSR, especially that of a single all-powerful party. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, apparently on his own, put out some feelers to Cuba, which were suddenly withdrawn after the announcement that Cuban troops had been dispatched to Angola in 1975.

In 1977, Jimmy Carter (with a cabinet divided between “doves” and “hawks”) made serious attempts to “normalize” relations with Cuba. He began by opening “interest sections” in Washington and Havana, reducing travel restrictions, and halting surveillance flights over the island. In exchange, he secured the freedom of several political prisoners and a measure of Cuban control over the tide of boat people crossing the ninety miles to Florida. But disagreement over the Cuban presence in Angola and Mozambique and the American embargo (first imposed in 1962) frustrated any positive result from the dozens of secret meetings in New York, Havana, even in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca. According to LeoGrande and Kornbluh, “Carter aspired to be the first post–Cold War president in an era when the Cold War was not quite over.”

It was quite the opposite with his successor, Ronald Reagan. In March 1981, Reagan’s secretary of state, Alexander Haig, expressed his inclination to “turn that fucking island into a parking lot.” During the eight years of his presidency, Reagan was infuriated with Cuba for its support of independence movements in Africa, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala. It was a period of renewed prestige for the Cuban socialist revolution among a new generation of young Latin Americans. Fidel resisted the increasingly active antagonism of the Reagan government, which officially listed Cuba as a terrorist state, tightened the trade embargo, and launched the propaganda station Radio Martí.

Yet even in this administration there were some open channels and some advances on emigration issues, according to LeoGrande and Kornbluh. But after the war in Angola was no longer an issue (it ended by an accord that sealed the victory of the Cuban troops and their allies) and elections were held in Nicaragua and El Salvador (both reverses for Cuban foreign policy), Cuba lost some of the chips it could use in negotiations. When George H.W. Bush became president, he explicitly demanded a change of regime in Cuba.

In 1993, the crisis hit. With 50 percent inflation, a 35 percent decline in the GDP, and a plunge of 80 percent in the resources available to meet the needs of each Cuban citizen, the country seemed on the verge of collapse. In 1993 the Torricelli Amendment, passed after the fall of the Soviet Union, seemed to herald (and exult over) the approaching end. It prohibited foreign-based subsidiaries of US companies from trading with Cuba, forbade travel to Cuba by US citizens, and no longer permitted remittances to be sent by Cuban-American families to relatives in Cuba.

President Bill Clinton decided to lower the tone of fierce opposition; he increased passenger flights between Havana and Miami. Fidel accepted the repatriation of Cubans with criminal records he had sent to America in 1980 as part of the Mariel Boatlift. And unexpectedly, he asked for direct discussions. In 1994, with the “Crisis of the Boat-People”—the attempt by thousands to emigrate by small boats and rafts—Clinton requested the intervention of President Carlos Salinas of Mexico.

The Crisis de los Balseros was resolved in a couple of intense weeks of negotiation. Fidel’s only bargaining chips were his political prisoners, to whom freedom was granted in groups at his discretion, and the threat of unleashed emigration. A Republican Congress voted to turn back the clock with the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which further strengthened the embargo. Bush the Younger returned to the intransigence of his father but Castro had by then encountered a new ideological and political acolyte and a new Maecenas in Hugo Chávez, elected president of Venezuela in 1999.

There had been one interesting possibility of rapprochement decades earlier during the presidency of John Kennedy, as reported in LeoGrande and Kornbluh’s fine book. After the Cubans had defeated the invading forces at the Bay of Pigs and Cuba had formally adopted communism in May 1961, Che Guevara sent Kennedy a box of cigars and a letter offering five surprising concessions: payment for nationalized properties, a renunciation of the Cuban alliance with Communist Eastern Europe, and free elections (but only after the revolution had consolidated itself), as well as promises never to attack Guantánamo and to reconsider Cuba’s activities in other Latin American countries.

Later, after the release of the 1,200 prisoners from the invasion force had been negotiated, Fidel expressed (to Tad Szulc of The New York Times as well as others) his desire to somehow reestablish connections. One year later, despite the missile crisis in October 1962 and the CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel, the possibility still seemed to exist. “If he kicks out Sovs we can live [with] him,” said a note from the National Security Council. And so argued Lisa Howard, the very active ABC reporter who was close to Fidel. It was a hope also supported by Jean Daniel, the editor of Le Nouvel Observateur.

This was one of those moments that might have changed history. “Maybe things are possible with this man,” Castro said to Daniel on November 20, 1963. Daniel had recently visited the White House, and he had been given to understand that relations could improve. Fidel suggested that Kennedy might possibly become “the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalist and socialists, even in the Americas.” Two days later, when he was informed by telephone that Kennedy had been assassinated, Castro turned to Daniel and said, “This is the end of your mission of peace.”

Today another possible turning point has arisen, for several reasons: the economic crisis in Venezuela, the impoverishment of the Cuban economy, the reduced influence (and changing views) of voters of Cuban origin. (Recent polls show a majority of Florida Cubans favor lifting the embargo.) And the major supporters of mutual enmity have receded from the foreground. There is no doubt that the intransigence of Fidel Castro was a continual obstacle to “normalization.” His fixation on Cuba as David confronting Goliath can be seen as justified in its time and for many years, but no longer. And his definition of Cuban identity as deeply negative (permanent opposition to the United States seen as a continual challenge) impoverishes the rich history of Cuba.

But it can be argued—as LeGrande and Kornbluth observe in their concluding chapter—that the US has been even more intransigent, often failing to act on its promises even when Cuba made significant concessions. It is worth remembering that during the Carter administration, which was perhaps the most open to the possibility of “normalization,” the government refused to open a real crack in the embargo by selling Cuba needed medicines impossible to obtain from any other country. Such an extreme (and cruel) outlook is still alive in some quarters, especially within the Republican Party.

The most sensible voices of the Cuban opposition, on the island and abroad (including some major US businessmen and a few right-wing political figures) welcomed the agreement put forward by Obama in December. They understand and have suffered from the repressive policies of the regime. They know how much effort it will take to pry any fraction of power from forces that have retained it for so long. But they have faith in what Obama has described as a means to “more effectively empower the Cuban people.”

This could result from greater contact with people from abroad whose mere presence in Cuba (not to speak of information, ideas, remittances, investments, and any newly possible business arrangements) will disrupt the long isolation of the island from much of the world. They believe that this new flow of contact will unleash and strengthen a general demand for civil liberties with which the new generations of leadership will finally have to make their compromises. A recent tweet from the blogger Yusnaby Pérez presents photographs of small American and Cuban flags appearing together in the windows of Havana. Perhaps an omen of changes to come.

But the prospects are by no means certain. The road to new relations will be rugged and the process could fail. A troubling signal was Raúl Castro’s recent address at a leadership Conference of CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), held at the end of January in Costa Rica. He asserted that the possible accord had to meet four criteria: a US return of the Guantánamo naval base, the cessation of American radio and television broadcasts to Cuba (Radio and TV Martí) , the end of the trade embargo, and “compensation to the Cuban people for the human and economic damage suffered as a result of American policies.”

The return of Guantánamo may eventually happen but it will be no easy task to achieve it. Cessation of propaganda transmissions would not be difficult but, with the present makeup of Congress, could set off a political confrontation. The end of the embargo—certainly desirable—cannot be done immediately, and the payment of “reparations” is an impossible demand.

Clinging to such requirements (without any substantial concessions on internal political liberty) would seem more appropriate to Fidel than to Raúl, if he truly wishes to move closer to the US and respect the present enthusiasm and hopes of large numbers of Cubans. Dealing with those problems is an issue for private diplomatic discussions. Using a confrontational rhetoric in public (and backing the repeatedly repressive moves by the Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro) only provides ammunition for those who want to continue the embargo. And Cuba could thus abort a golden opportunity for normalizing relations with the US.

This would be a very unfortunate turn of events, because Obama has taken a truly historic step not only in relation to Cuba but also to Latin American anti-Americanism, one of the most profound and historically justified political passions on the continent. Its contemporary form crystallized during the Spanish-American War of 1898, reached its climax in Cuba in 1959, and has begun to recede, perhaps substantially to disappear, as a result of this possible resumption of American-Cuban diplomatic relations. The next step should be the elimination of the embargo, though a Congress dominated by Republicans will do its best to block such a move.

At the next meeting of the Organization of American States (scheduled for April in Panama) Obama—as a result of this opening—will arrive with a greater moral legitimacy than any twentieth-century American president, even more in this case than FDR. He should use this new prestige to achieve Latin American consensus that Cuba should honor the agreements on human rights that were signed by Raúl at the 2008 summit meeting in Lima of Latin American, Caribbean, and European nations. Cuba must legalize the basic liberties that have been denied, including the freedom to connect to the Internet.

Only then will Cuba be able to turn the page of history. When the virtual shelf is filled with articles and books that have not been allowed to circulate on the island, the Cubans themselves, we may hope, will be able to freely decide whether to absolve or condemn the aged dictator who lives on, mostly in silence, somewhere in Havana.

—March 3, 2015;

—Translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz