The Cuban revolution at 50
Heroic myth and prosaic failure
Dec 30th 2008
From The Economist print edition
All the Castro brothers have to celebrate this week is survival. But
that in itself is a remarkable achievement
IN THE early hours of January 1st 1959, as New Year parties were in full
swing in an otherwise unnaturally quiet Havana, Fulgencio Batista stole
away. He flew from Camp Columbia, the city's main military base, to
exile in the Dominican Republic with an entourage of relatives and
cronies. The dictator's flight meant that just 25 months after landing
with 81 men, all but a dozen of whom were immediately killed or
captured, Fidel Castro, a lawyer and former student leader, had led his
guerrilla force to an improbable triumph against Batista's
American-backed army. The next day Mr Castro spoke to a jubilant
multitude, many dressed in the red and black colours of his July 26th
Movement, in the main square of Santiago de Cuba, the island's second
city. "The revolution begins now," he proclaimed, adding: "This time,
luckily for Cuba, the revolution will truly come into being. It will not
be like 1895, when the North Americans came and took over…For the first
time the republic will really be entirely free."
As they descended from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and entered
Santiago, the columns of bearded rebels "were literally swept off their
feet by the overjoyed people", as one of them, Carlos Franqui, recorded
in his diary. "It was the hour of freedom after a long tyranny and a
very tough fight." Such scenes were repeated across the island as Mr
Castro embarked on a week-long triumphal march to Havana. They were
echoed in the rest of Latin America, and beyond it. The dictatorship of
Batista, a former army sergeant, had become notorious for its corrupt
brutality. To many people, Mr Castro and his similarly handsome
lieutenants, including Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentine doctor,
seemed to be romantic heroes. To others, they represented a renewal of
socialism. Jean-Paul Sartre hailed Mr Castro's revolution as "the most
original I have known".
Just as he had pledged, Mr Castro prevented the Americans from derailing
his victory. But he did so at the cost of the freedom he had promised.
Less than two years after his speech in Santiago—and before the United
States imposed its economic embargo against the island—he had taken
decisive steps to turn Cuba into the first, and still the only,
communist country in the Americas.
Half a century on, the euphoria is long gone. Everyday life in Cuba is a
dreary affair of queues and shortages, even if nobody starves and
violent crime is rare. It is the only country in the Americas whose
government denies its citizens freedom of expression and assembly.
Cuba's jails contain 58 "prisoners of conscience" detained purely for
their beliefs, according to Amnesty International, a human-rights group.
But to the chagrin of the United States, and in defiance of its futile
embargo, Mr Castro and Cuban communism stubbornly cling on just 90 miles
(145km) across the Florida Straits. He and it have outlasted the fall of
the Berlin Wall and the collapse of his Soviet patron, and lived to see
new allies emerge in Latin America and elsewhere.
Fidel himself has not appeared in public since he underwent abdominal
surgery in July 2006. But his views, expressed in a column entitled
"Reflections of the Commander" that is published every few days in the
state newspapers, still dominate Cuba. His slightly younger brother
Raúl, who succeeded him as president last February, may be more
pragmatic and more open to capitalism (though not to liberal democracy).
But Raúl's plans for economic reform, already cautious, have been
further stalled by two devastating hurricanes that hit Cuba this year
(see article). What will be officially celebrated in Havana this week is
not the prospect of change. It is the stubborn survival of a revolution
that has had profound consequences for the Americas—though rarely those
that Mr Castro wanted.
Outwitting the CIA
On the face of things, Cuba was an unlikely candidate for communism. The
largest island in the Caribbean, it was also the wealthiest, thanks to
sugar. Its insular status had allowed Spain to hold on to its
"ever-faithful isle" for seven decades after it lost its colonies on the
American mainland. As Mr Castro noted in his victory speech, a long
struggle for independence was hijacked when the United States
intervened: the Spanish-American war of 1898 marked the end of Spain's
presence in the Americas and turned Cuba into an American neo-colony.
Some 60% of farmland and much of the sugar industry came to be owned by
Americans. A third of the workforce, most of them black rural labourers,
lived in severe poverty.
Nevertheless, in 1958 Cuba was among the five most developed countries
in Latin America: life expectancy was close to that in the United
States, and there were more doctors per head than in Britain or France.
Although Havana had its darker side as a mafia bolthole, it was also a
glittering cultural and commercial centre. It is the music from that
era—the son, revived under the label of the Buena Vista Social Club—that
has once again in recent years got the world singing and dancing, rather
than the nueva trova ("new song") of the revolution. As Bertrand de la
Grange and Maite Rico note in the latest issue of Letras Libres, a
Mexican magazine, Havana boasted 135 cinemas in 1958—more than New York
City. Today only a score remain open, although the city's population has
As Rafael Rojas, a Cuban historian who lives in exile in Mexico, has
pointed out, most Cubans wanted and expected Mr Castro to restore the
democratic constitution of 1940, repudiated by Batista's coup of 1952.
That, after all, was what he had promised in the manifesto of the July
26th Movement, along with agrarian reform and the nationalisation of the
American-owned public utilities (though not of the rest of the economy).
But Mr Castro had other ideas. He was determined that his revolution
should not suffer the fate of Jacobo Arbenz, a democratic social
reformer in Guatemala, who was overthrown by an invasion misguidedly
organised by the Eisenhower administration in 1954 in the name of
anti-communism. Guevara had witnessed that event, and learned from it.
Guatemala was the first skirmish of the cold war in Latin America. But
it was the Cuban revolution that turned the region into an important
theatre in that ideological and military conflict. Installing moderate
civilian politicians in government, Mr Castro named himself head of the
armed forces. He quickly dismantled Batista's army. Some 550 people more
or less closely linked to Batista's regime were executed after show
trials, a bloodbath in which Guevara played a particularly prominent
role. Mr Castro deepened his alliance with the Popular Socialist Party
(as Cuba's old-established communist party called itself), and set up a
parallel government at a newly created National Agrarian Reform
Institute headed by Guevara. Within seven months of victory he had
shelved his promise of elections. The July 26th Movement splintered,
with many of its non-communists (including Mr Franqui) going into exile,
jail or quiet opposition. In October 1959, just nine months after
entering Havana, Mr Castro began the contacts with the Soviet Union that
swiftly led to a full-scale economic and military alliance.
The CIA quickly concluded that Mr Castro was a closet communist and set
out to overthrow him. But it was not until October 1960 that the United
States began to impose the embargo. By the time a CIA-organised invasion
of anti-Castro Cubans landed at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, Mr Castro
was ready for them, as Arbenz had not been in Guatemala. In 1962 the
Soviet Union's decision to station missiles on Cuban soil brought the
world the closest it has ever come to nuclear war. In return for their
withdrawal, the Kennedy administration guaranteed that it would not
again invade Cuba. Mr Castro had consolidated his victory. His triumph
would prompt an exodus of hundreds of thousands of the more
entrepreneurial Cubans. It thus had the unintended effect of turning
Miami from a sleepy beach town into a throbbing regional entrepôt.
Precisely when Mr Castro became a communist is a matter of conjecture
(though Raúl was a member of the Communist Youth and Guevara's
experience in Guatemala strengthened his previous embrace of Marxism).
The evidence suggests that Mr Castro imposed communism in Cuba of his
own volition, not in reaction to American hostility. Certainly that
hostility (which included endless CIA attempts to kill him) made his
task easier. But it was not inevitable that the Cuban revolution should
become a communist one. Mexico's revolution earlier in the 20th century
installed a nationalist but non-communist regime. In Venezuela in 1959 a
popular uprising against a dictatorship led to a democracy under Rómulo
Betancourt, a social-democrat, though this would be corroded by the
collapse in the price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s.
Even as Cuba turned into a Soviet client and a police state, Mr Castro's
communism was always rather different from the drab variety imposed on
eastern Europe by the Red Army after the second world war. That was
partly because of its easier-going tropical ambience. It was more
because Mr Castro presented himself as a nationalist first and a
communist second: the "intellectual author" of the revolution, he always
insisted, was not Marx but José Martí, a writer and political activist
who perished fighting for independence in 1895. It was also because Mr
Castro's rule relied on his own charisma, his oratorical machismo and
the regular mobilisation of vast crowds, as much as on the Communist
Party machine or on repression.
There were also genuine achievements. Mr Castro funnelled a chunk of
Soviet subsidies into creating the best education and health systems in
Latin America, as well as a fairly advanced biotechnology industry. What
connects the Cuba of today with the ideals of the revolution is a
commitment to "social justice, equity [and] national independence",
argues Rafael Hernández, a Havana-based political scientist, in an
article in Foreign Policy en Español.
But the impact of the Cuban example on Latin America was largely
negative. It bewitched the region's left, detaching large parts of it
from a path of social democracy for a generation. Cuba seemed to suggest
that revolution was possible even in countries where the industrial
proletariat was small. The countryside could be the focus of a
peasant-based revolution. All that was missing was political will: "The
duty of the revolutionary is to make the revolution," as Régis Debray, a
disciple of Guevara, put it. To many of Latin America's growing number
of middle-class students, appalled by the injustices of their societies,
this simplistic slogan was a call to arms.
Guevara misreads history
Contrary to official myth, however, the Cuban revolution was not
primarily a peasant rebellion. Mr Castro's guerrilla army relied for its
survival and eventual success on a range of allies, including trade
unions and other urban groups. Even more important, many of the
governments in mainland Latin America commanded greater legitimacy, and
their armies were more effective, than Batista's tinpot dictatorship.
The result was tragedy. Thousands of idealistic young Latin Americans,
and many more innocent bystanders, were slaughtered in failed attempts
to mimic Mr Castro's Rebel Army. (Guevara himself was defeated and shot
in Bolivia in 1967.) Their efforts contributed greatly to the advent of
a new generation of ruthless military dictatorships across the region in
the 1970s. Only in Nicaragua would the Sandinista guerrillas be
successful, against a dictatorship not unlike Batista's. But they were
voted out in 1990 after a decade, undermined partly by the United States
but also by their own arrogant mistakes.
By then Mr Castro's own survival was in question. The collapse of the
Soviet Union deprived Cuba of net subsidies of around $2 billion a year,
and caused its economy to shrink by a third. In response, Mr Castro
reluctantly nodded in the direction of the market economy, allowing
foreign investment (especially to develop a mass tourist industry) and
family-run small businesses, and legalising remittances from Cubans abroad.
These measures allowed partial recovery. Then, unexpectedly, Mr Castro
found new patrons in the form of a rising China and, especially,
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, an elected strongman armed with oil. Cuba now
receives Venezuelan largesse on a scale similar to that once supplied by
the Soviet Union. Mr Chávez in turn benefits from the services of Cuban
doctors and political and security advice (Cuba's famously effective
intelligence service has created a new division whose sole purpose is to
keep the Venezuelan president in power). In Mr Chávez's wake, a handful
of other radical left-wingers who have achieved office through the
ballot box, such as Bolivia's Evo Morales, also seek inspiration in Mr
Castro. He is treated with respect by social democrats such as Brazil's
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In many cases that is because he offered them
friendship in the past, when they were persecuted by dictatorships that
had American backing.
Mr Castro's Cuba is a sad place. Although the population is now mainly
black or mulatto and young, its rulers form a mainly white gerontocracy.
The failure of collective farming means that it imports up to 80% of its
food. The health and education systems struggle to maintain standards.
Inequalities have risen. What matters for Cuban livelihoods is access to
hard currency, through remittances or a widespread informal economy,
rather than derisory wages or the threadbare official ration system. The
best hope for the economy is the possibility that foreign investors may
find commercial deepwater oilfields offshore when they drill this year.
For all its new-found friends, Cuba remains an exception in the
Americas. But Mr Castro's lasting success has been as a masterful
propagandist. Communism in Cuba has had a better press than anywhere
else. He has exploited the cult of Che in particular. Guevara's myth—of
the romantic rebel, not the murderous, militaristic Marxist of real
life—burns as brightly as ever, recreated in hagiographical books and in
a new Hollywood movie hitting American and British screens this month.
In all this, Mr Castro has often been unwittingly helped by the United
States, and rarely more than when George Bush set up a prison camp on
Cuban soil at Guantánamo in defiance of American and international law.
But Mr Castro is in the late evening of his life. And what happens after
him remains unclear.