From 1962, Cuba has been politically aligned with the archetypal Soviet Communist political structure. Under the singular leadership of Fidel Castro, Cuba turned from just another North American / Western European playground of excesses that so much of the Caribbean has become to a violently anti-American communist nation directly aligned with the Soviet Union and simultaneously the biggest failure and success in the political life of President John F. Kennedy. Cuba has taken on many roles over the course of the past several centuries. First, it was a stopping point prior to landing in the U.S. For slave ships, then it became the location where the U.S.S. Maine was supposedly sunk by Spanish saboteurs which led to the U.S. involvement in the Spanish American war, then it became an industrialist / capitalist haven where the raw materials of the Caribbean and the moral corruption of gambling, prostitution, drugs, and organized crime were the rule of the day. Then, with the people of Cuba increasingly disconnected from the wealth their land was generating, disenfranchised from within their own government, and led by a young and charismatic farmer, Fidel Castro, overthrew the pro-U.S. government and replaced it with a Leftist ideology that purported to be dedicated to the people. Understanding Cuba now, requires an understanding of how it turned to the left, what led to that change, and how Castro was able to win the day.
People do not generally wake up one morning and say, “let’s have a revolution.” An individual may arrive at such a decision, but not a people en-masse. For a true uprising, a provocation must be so present, so strong, as to create a feeling that there is only one relief to the suffering, only one way to gain control of their lives again. Revolution requires a people who have been so backed against the wall that they become convinced that their very survival requires fighting. This was absolutely the case in Cuba. But to understand how Cuba swung left, we have to understand in what way it was to the Right.
Before Castro, was Batista. Fulgencio Batista was the first Cuban ruler of a clearly African genetic history, came to power by leading a governmental faction that had been notable for its brutal putting down of small uprisings, led a military coup, and was elected under particularly suspicious circumstances with the official vote count. Batista was an opportunist who sought to maintain his hold on power at any costs. He was also a megalomaniac who turned Havana, in particular, into a massive den of gambling and moral corruption. Batista introduced a significant monetary infusion into the country – using it to encourage the construction of hotels, casinos, and other tourism-supporting industries. Politically, Batista remained a fundamentalist in his thought – that being that people are generally tools, ways to meet an end. Politically, he was a friend of the United States – and in Central and South America, that has traditionally meant a Rightist government that promotes dictatorial control, capitalism, and allows the U.S. And its companies nearly free-access to the resources of the nation in exchange for massive infusions of U.S. currency that is used to pay the military to keep the leader in his position. Batista was one of the most stringent supporters of the U.S. And this peculiar brand of capitalism.
To get where he was, Batista led two separate coups. His policies were considered rash, inconsistent, and unfair, even brutal. “Batista’s increasing reliance on the armed forces and corruption as his sole bases of power eventually alienated those upper-class Cubans who had originally accepted and even welcomed his rule,” (Farber 213). Batista ruled with the support of a few powerful individuals, and those individuals had no ability to prevent revolution. It was in the wake of the second, in 1958, that Fidel Castro participated in rebellion. Rebellions need a reason in order for them to be truly successful. That reason can’t be appealing to just a few people, but to nearly everyone. In order to remain in power, Batista had to exercise control over a variety of different factions within his government (it was, afterall, a “democracy”). This also meant that his government had to function in large part like an actual democracy.
People who live in a democratic nation come to expect that elections exist so that dictators cannot be possible and that a representative government would then dedicate itself to the betterment of the people. Batista’s controls, however, were exercised such that votes were tampered with, opposition candidates were jailed, and any fledgling rebellious organization seeking a redress of Batista’s violations of the Cuban constitution and denial of the people their right to choose their government, were put down quickly (Scheina). Initially, the nation tolerated Batista because he brought prosperity to the rich (who controlled the industries and the jobs that provided Cubans with their living). By promising the people that more money coming into the nation would mean more money in their pockets (an early version of Regan’s “trickle-down” economics), Batista was able to get support from a broad coalition of political parties and people. That support, however, eroded quickly after he forcibly took office in 1958 rather than seeking electoral support for such a move.
Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy toward Batista’s first regime centered on the idea that by reinforcing the economy and encouraging the political system of nations like Cuba, the interests of the United States would be secured (Paterson) (Scheina). The problem, however, is hat this gave tacit approval for any internal measure taken such that the nation remain in the bosom of friendship with the United States. American political leadership continued to turn a blind eye to how “friends” treated their own people because it was more important then, as in many ways it is now, to make sure that communists didn’t gain influence than the people actually live healthy, sustainable lives.
But, dictators have never been known for true humanitarian works – people only get services when they are able to demand them and leadership cannot refuse. While a significant number of Central and South American dictatorships were maintained by the United States, several found that even themoney of the U.S. could not keep them in power.
Leftist movements grow out of an absolute belief that the best form of government is one that is truly representative, that the people are given a virtual guarantee of a peaceful and productive life, and that their basic needs will be met by the society at large. These were the promises of Castro and those like him. What they told the people was that Batista had stolen their government and the fruits of their labor from them, sold those to the United States for a pitifully small price, and had no intention of ever providing the people with access to the economic successes of the very few major capitalists in Cuba (Joes) (Paterson). In short, Castro promised that the people would be able to regain control again and regain their democracy.
In order to convince the people to rise against Batista, the rebels led by Che Guevara, Castro and other figures initiated a campaign of bombings and murders all designed to show the Batista government as incompetent. Castro convinced the farmers that they were being exploited, and the sugarcane crops were being stolen from them without the ability to make an honest living from their labor.
Leftist movements seek to bring about a social equity among all of the people of the nation. With a minority of people holding true power and the majority living to the whim of the minority, a social imbalance is not hard to find. Anger and resentment against such a system is to be expected, but violent opposition still comes only when the provocation is truly unavoidable (Joes). Leftist leaders preach a sermon of economic equality, of providing the “little man” with the ability to live the same life as the doctor or engineer – because though he may have less education, his contribution to society in terms of labor (particularly manual labor) is more significant, challenging, and sacrificial than the practice of medicine or law. The sugar-cane farmers and rum producers, the tobacco growers and the fishermen all had seen their quality of living decrease sharply under Batista as the men who owned the markets they supplied paid less and less and sold for more and more. Ultimately, Batista could not possibly be viewed as the friend of the people he purported to be – and the nation of peasants shifted radically to the left. It was here that Castro and his compatriots found their revolution.
Cuba was pushed to the left by a dictator who could not exercise or maintain any real political power. Ironically, of course, under Castro, Cuba’s economy collapsed, he became a dictator, and any semblance of democracy was absolutely dismantled. His regime become more oppressive than Batista’s ever had been, and yet, Castro remained a very popular figure until his recent disappearance from the seat of control in Cuba. Leftist movements are reactions to massive inequities in the ec (joes)onomic, social and political structure within a nation and seek to equalize the playing field. It was Batista’s poor management, his insistence on being the leader without actually being legally elected that led to revolution.
Farber, Samuel. “Cuba: The One Party State Continues.” New Politics 5.3 (1995): 212-21.
Joes, Anthony James. From the Barrell of a Gun: Armies and Revolutions. Chicago: Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1986.
Paterson, Thomas G. Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Scheina, Robert L. Latin America’s Wars. Chicago: Brassey’s, 2003.
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