Cuba -- How the workers and peasants made the revolution

Mass rally in Havana, 1959.

July 26, 2009, marks the 56th anniversary of the guerrilla attack on the Moncada military barracks by revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro in 1953, viewed by Cubans as the start of the revolution. 2009 is also the 50th anniversary year of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.

Chris Slee, author of Cuba: How the Workers & Peasants Made the Revolution (Resistance Books, 2008), explains how the revolution was made and defended by Cuba’s working people.

[For more coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, click HERE.]

* * *

Workers, peasants and students played an active role before, during and after the insurrection that destroyed the brutal and corrupt US-backed Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in January 1959. Batista seized power in a coup in March 1952.

The coup initially met little resistance. The Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC) called a general strike in protest at the coup, but the corrupt CTC leadership soon called it off. CTC leader Eusebio Mujal became one of Batista's closest collaborators, helping to suppress opposition to the dictatorship within the unions.

Students held numerous rallies and demonstrations throughout the years of Batista's dictatorship. In January 1953, a student, Ruben Batista, was fatally wounded by police at a demonstration. His funeral became a large, militant demonstration against the regime.

Fidel Castro formed an underground revolutionary group, and led an attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, with the aim of sparking a nation-wide insurrection that would overthrow Batista's regime. But the rebels were quickly defeated. Many were murdered by the army and police, while others, including Castro, were captured and jailed.

‘History will absolve me’

Castro used his defence speech at his trial to explain the goals for which he was fighting. The speech, later published under the title History Will Absolve Me!, outlined his program, which included political democracy, land reform and the nationalisation of US-owned utilities.

While Castro was in prison, his supporters outside defied Batista's repressive laws by clandestinely distributing tens of thousands of copies of the speech. They built a mass movement demanding freedom for all political prisoners.

Fidel Castro and his comrades were freed under an amnesty in May 1955. Castro immediately set to work creating a new revolutionary organisation, the July 26 Movement. It aimed to unite those willing to carry out revolutionary struggle against the dictatorship. In July 1955, Castro went to Mexico. He and his followers carried out military training in preparation for a return to Cuba to overthrow the dictatorship.

In Cuba, the July 26 Movement was built as an underground organisation throughout the country. Armando Hart, a key leader, said by December 1956, “there was no municipality or corner of the island without its underground leadership and cell”.  The movement published an illegal newspaper.

The July 26 Movement’s perspective was to build towards a general strike and popular insurrection. Mujal’s control of the trade union movement made it difficult for the July 26 Movement to build a strong base in the unions. Nevertheless the July 26 Movement participated in strike action and strike solidarity where possible.

In September 1955, there were a series of bank strikes led by opponents of Batista, including July 26 Movement member Enrique Hart, who was arrested and kept in prison until the strikes were over. In December, there was a strike of more than 200,000 sugar workers in protest at a government move to reduce their wages. Strike leaders included members of the July 26 Movement and the Popular Socialist Party (the pro-Moscow communist party).

The strike received broad solidarity, including from students. A number of towns were taken over by the strikers and supporters. Almost all economic activity in these towns was paralysed and Batista was forced to concede to the strikers’ demands.

Fidel Castro and 81 supporters set sail for Cuba on November 24, 1956, in the yacht Granma. They reached the Cuban coast on December 2 and began a guerrilla struggle.

The July 26 Movement continued to build a strong urban underground network. This network sent supplies, money and recruits for the guerrillas; carried out propaganda in the cities; organised strikes and protests; and carried out acts of sabotage and armed attacks on Batista's police and army in urban areas.

General strike

There were two unsuccessful attempts at a nation-wide general strike before the victorious strike of January 1959. In July 1957, Frank Pais, the leader of the July 26 Movement urban underground in Santiago, was murdered by the police. This triggered a spontaneous strike in the city. All stores in Santiago closed in protest. Tens of thousands marched to the cemetery during the funeral.

That was the start of a powerful strike movement throughout Oriente province. However, attempts to spread the strikes across Cuba had only limited success.

The July 26 Movement called a general strike for August 5, 1957. The strike was largely ineffective in Havana, though electrical plant workers, telephone workers, bank employees and several bus lines did go on strike.

The July 26 Movement called another general strike in April 1958. This strike also failed in Havana. The failure of this strike showed that the July 26 Movement on its own did not have sufficient organised support in the working class to call a nation-wide strike. The July 26 Movement had called the strike without consulting other organisations, most importantly the PSP, which many July 26 Movement activists distrusted because of its Stalinist politics. The PSP opposed the strike, saying it was premature.

Following the failure of the April 1958 strike, the July 26 Movement changed its policy and began trying to work with the PSP in preparing for a new general strike. The PSP agreed to work with the July 26 Movement.

In the meantime, the guerrilla struggle continued in the countryside, where it won significant support from impoverished peasants, for whom the revolution meant land and better conditions.

For Castro and Che Guevara, the Argentinean-born revolutionary who had joined the Cuban struggle, guerrilla warfare was not counter-posed to urban mass struggle. Rather the guerrilla struggle, by weakening Batista’s army, would help prepare the conditions for a successful general strike.

The insurrection

By the end of 1958, the guerrilla forces controlled much of the country and were advancing on Havana.

The US, realising that Batista could no longer control the situation, organised his replacement by a new government comprising people less discredited than Batista, but still favourable to US interests. Batista flew into exile on January 1, 1959, handing over power to General Eulogio Cantillo.

Castro ordered guerrillas to advance on Havana, and called a general strike to coincide the arrival of the guerrillas in the cities. Historian Hugh Thomas said “in Havana and most cities [the strike] was fairly complete. In Havana the rebel trade union FONU ... called for mass demonstrations ... The rebel committees in all unions came out into the open ... The old CTC leaders compromised with Batista, Mujal at their head, had fled into hiding.”

The general strike is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant because Batista had already left the country. But General Cantillo was attempting to create a new military-dominated government that would preserve the institutions of the capitalist state. The strike, which was effective throughout Cuba, developed into an insurrection that helped destroy the old state apparatus. Batista’s army and police disintegrated.

Historians Ramon Bonachea and Marta San Martin said: “The people answered Castro’s call for a general strike with jubilation. The country's paralysis was universal, and nothing indicated that Cantillo’s orders to go back to work would be obeyed, or the streets would be cleared of throngs of elated Cubans.”

After the insurrection, the old army and police were disbanded and replaced by new forces initially drawn from the Rebel Army and the urban underground. Over the next two years, a peoples’ militia was created and grassroots Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were organised. This placed the instruments of force into the hands of the majority.

Fidel Castro and his supporters encouraged workers and peasants to mobilise through their mass organisations (such as unions) to demand and carry out radical social changes. In the course of 1959, four more general strikes occurred in support of Castro’s radical reform program.

After the insurrection, Manuel Urrutia became provisional president and Fidel Castro became prime minister in February. Although Urrutia had opposed Batista, he was conservative and came into conflict with Castro over issues such as land reform.

During July, the conflict between Castro and Urrutia led to huge mass mobilisations. On July 16, Castro resigned as prime minister. Next day, he went on TV and accused Urrutia of using the supposed communist threat to create a pretext for US intervention in Cuba. In response, crowds gathered outside the presidential palace demanding that Urrutia resign, which he soon did.

On July 23, 1959, a strike called by the CTC demanded Castro’s return to the government. On July 26, as many as 1 million people attended a mass meeting in the civic plaza and cheered the announcement of Castro’s return as prime minister. This reflected mass support for Castro’s revolutionary policies.

New government, new measures

During 1959, the government introduced a range of measures that benefited the poor. Wages were increased, with the lower paid workers receiving the highest raise. Rents were cut, as were electricity and phone charges. Tax changes benefited the poor. Protection against unfair dismissal was extended to all workers and the social security system was expanded. Land reform took land from big land owners, including US companies, and gave it to poor peasants or created state farms.

The US government responded to the confiscation of US-owned sugar plantations by cutting the quota for Cuban sugar imports into the US. Eventually all Cuban trade with the US was banned.

Cuba responded by signing a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, which supplied Cuba with cheap oil. But the US-owned refineries in Cuba refused to process Soviet crude oil. The Cuban government responded by taking over the refineries.

As the revolution deepened, more capitalist property was taken over. By October 1960, all capitalist enterprises employing more than 25 people had been expropriated. Workers and peasants led this process. Peasants took over the land and workers — organised in the revolutionary militia — took over the factories.

Joaquin Bustelo, a US socialist from a Cuban exile family, explained the role of the workers and peasants:

Who actually took over the land and drove out the landlord or his caretakers? The peasants themselves, organised and led by the agrarian reform delegates. Who actually took over the more than 1000 enterprises that were expropriated on one day in October of 1960? The National Revolutionary Militias.

Years later in Miami (former) Cuban capitalists were still complaining about how fundamentally unfair it was to have your OWN workers show up with guns and a nationalization order from the state.

Without the active, conscious and direct participation of the workers and peasants themselves in the transformation, what happened in Cuba was not possible.

Who was to run the factory, warehouse or other business the morning after the expropriation? Who could organise and reactivate production?

Tens of thousands of armed, disciplined workers took part in the takeover of factories, plants and warehouses simultaneously in October of 1960 through THEIR militia units and hundreds of thousands of workers took part in reactivating the workplaces over the next several days through their unions.

Social gains

The expropriation of capitalist property enabled further social gains, including the elimination of unemployment. As production for profit was increasingly replaced by production for human need, jobs were created for the unemployed. Education and health care became free and available to all. A literacy campaign was launched. Illiteracy, which a 1953 census indicated affected around one in four people, was eradicated in a year.

For five decades, Cuba has been attempting to carry out a transition to socialism in a world dominated by capitalism.

It is a poor and militarily weak country with a rich and powerful neighbour (the United States) that has attempted to overthrow the Cuban revolution using a variety of tactics, including an invasion attempt (at the Bay of Pigs in 1961), numerous terrorist attacks, chemical and biological warfare, economic blockade and the funding of “dissidents” within Cuba.

Given this, it is not surprising that Cuba falls short of being an ideal model of a socialist society.

Nevertheless, Cuba has achieved a lot. It has made big gains for its own people in areas such as health and education. It has also shown a tremendous internationalist spirit in helping the people of other countries. It has more doctors working around the world to help the poor than the United Nations.

Cuba is a society in transition between capitalism and socialism. It cannot complete this transition if it remains isolated in a capitalist world.

Cuba’s future is bound up with the worldwide struggle for socialism. The forefront of this struggle is in Latin America, where Cuba is playing a central role in the revolutionary movement challenging US domination. The governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, backed by mass movements, have raised socialism as their goal.

In the meantime, the Cuban Revolution needs our solidarity.

[Cris Slee is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance. He is author of Cuba: How the Workers & Peasants Made the Revolution, Resistance Books, 2008, 55 pages, $6 (pb). Available from This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, issue #804, July 29, 2009.]


May 16, 1891. From The Detroit Free Press: "Cuba would make one of the finest states in the Union, and if American wealth, enterprise and genius once invaded the superb island, it would become a veritable hive of industry in addition to being one of the most fertile gardens of the world. There is a strong party growing up in the island in favor of reciprocity with and annexation to the United States. We should act at once and make this possible."
Cuba is nice and beautiful country! Should have more sites like this.