Many factors joined up to trigger the 1959 insurrection in Cuba. But through most of them, a common theme ran: a feeling of inequality amongst the citizens, and the need to rectify this inequality. For decades before this mass action in 1959, this inevitability had been steaming beneath the calm visage presented to the rest of the world. Thus in 1959, what was observed was actually the result of years of oppression of the majority by an unflinching elite minority. The Batista dictatorship was forcefully overthrown through a violent mass movement (Jatar, Ann 1999:31). Afterward, an epoch of revolution started during which Cuba strived to form a just and fair society. This revolution is still ongoing, half a century later.
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This paper trails the events that culminated in the 1959 insurrection in Cuba, and that overthrew a system that was both politically and economically wrong. Although Cubans are still working on bettering their systems, the 1959 insurgence was a drastic mass action that started and ended within the space of one year. The preparations for this insurgence took much longer, with the government resisting its very possibility at every turn. There were false starts and mid-stream abortions of plans. There were international interests at stake. There was a century-old legend to topple. And there was a whole local populace to convince of the need for the insurgence. Thus the leaders behind the insurgence had a formidable task at hand. But they wrestled against these odds and came out shining: Cuban history was rewritten (Lambie 1996).
Before the 1959 insurrection, Cuba used to operate like a third-world capitalism regime (Navarro 1998:77). Now capitalism, by its very definition, can only work well where the society is well integrated, and where every citizen can hold his or her own against the forces of the economy. This was not the case in Cuba. Many individuals there were still vulnerable to the merciless machinery that capitalism develops. The gap between the rich and the poor was actually a gulf, and of course, capitalism only matters worse. Thus with time, it became clear that a different economic system was needed if the situation was to be rescued. Socialism proved an attractive option, and people began to work towards it. At least, with socialism, there would be a better movement of wealth between the endowed and the impoverished, and the poor would stand a chance of improving their fortunes.
The prevailing capitalist regime was so polarized that the poor in the society had virtually no hope of ever improving their conditions. In fact, as the market forces continued, it was becoming clear that the impoverished would end up being culled by the economic forces. The endowed, who happened to be the minority, would meanwhile improve their conditions in leaps and bounds. But while the total national GDP might improve in the short run, in the long run, it would suffer. This was because it was the middle class and the lower class people who provided the labor that run the economy. Thus, while the upper class of people living in the lavishes of their wealth, they were actually stabbing themselves by letting the rich-poor gap widen (Samuel 2003:152). The leaders of the insurgence could see this, and they sought to rectify things before they got out of hand.
Capitalism divided the Cubans. Socialism was seen as a way of uniting them again. This is because, in a socialist system, everybody has to cooperate just to be a member. Uncooperative individuals simply get culled by the system. The cooperation required would be on all fronts: social, economic, and political. Thus it was believed that with socialism in place, Cubans could move together into the future, forming a sort of national synergy with each other, and generally beating the odds currently piled against them (Jatar, Ann 1999:43).
Because of its unique history, Cuba had developed one major export product: sugar. This product governed the development of all major industries within the country since it was virtually the mainstay of the economy. However, being an export commodity, it was also dependent on international market forces and whims. Cuba had no way of controlling the prices of sugar for export. Thus, while being the backbone of the economy, sugar was also a gigantic, unreliable risk in which every Cuban citizen partook, with the fervent hope that favorable market conditions would hold. Sometimes, the market forces swayed not only negatively, but also unpredictably. Such unheralded dips would leave many people frustrated (Zaneti 1998:30). Thus it slowly became clear that Cubans would have to free themselves of this reliance on sugar.
The Cuban dependence on sugar was ironic since the climate there was favorable to many other agricultural products. For example, fruits would have done better in Cuba than in the US. But Cuba used to import fruits from the US. Cubans were aware of this irony but were helpless about it (Cub N.D.). This is because, in order for any agricultural or, for that matter, an industry initiative to take hold and remain sustainable, it would have to receive approval from foreign interests in the country. This strange arrangement was a direct product of capitalism being rife within a developing country. The rich minority determined what was financially feasible, and what would go belly-up in due time. The poor majority had either to put up with such irony or initiate action against it.
Years later, the enormity of the reliance on sugar exports by Cuba became apparent. It was just as well that the country had focused on reducing this reliance, for by now, Cuba would be totally hopeless, in the throes of a national financial crisis. This is because immediately after the insurgence, the US withdrew all collaborative activities with Cuba. It stopped buying their dearest export – sugar, and created embargoes for Cubans that made international trade difficult for them. Cuba responded by contacting the Soviet Union, which became a sympathetic client, due to its communist leanings. However, the Soviet Union later collapsed, and with this, it ceased buying Cuban Sugar (Morris 2002:203). Cuba was left with nowhere to export its sugar too. If its reliance on sugar was just as great as it had been before the insurgence, it would have been brought to its knees by this development. Thus history justified the insurgence, albeit years later.
Foreign powers dominated the economy of Cuba. Most infrastructure and machinery were owned by foreigners (Cub N.D.). Thus, at the whim of these foreigners, the Cuban economy could radically change, and these changes were rarely in the best interests of the Cuban natives. In fact, even with colonialism officially deemed a thing of the past, the influence of the former colonialists was still so strong that the average life of the native was a sorry one indeed. Most natives were casual laborers, dependent on a fragile system that offered seasonal jobs, with no hope for prosperity in the foreseeable future. For all practical intents and purposes, the foreign investors within Cuba were the actual government – the powers that be – and they were slowly sapping the collective fortune of native Cubans.
Amongst the foreign powers in force within Cuba, the USA had the biggest share. When the Spanish colonizers left Cuba, the ailing country had turned to the US and struck a business relationship. At first, this relationship made sense all around, since the USS giant economy could feasibly lift Cuba out of its economic abyss. But with time, the relationship soured, with the US subtly but surely changing Cuban mechanism to suit its needs and maintain its supremacy. In Cuba, the US found an easy and cheap source of resources. And the more that Cuba traded with the US, the more dependent it became dependent on this bigger economy. Ultimately, this dependence grew to such a state that Cuba was a slave to US policies (Franklin 1997:24-27). Breaking away from this would require decisive and massive action.
Part of the reason for the US’s influence in Cuba was historical. In 1898, Cuba was amongst the countries ceded by Spain to the US after a long war. In effect, the US became the new colonizers of Cuba under a treaty signed between Spain and the US. However, when Theodore Roosevelt rose to power in the US, he decided to thwart this treaty, and essentially gave Cuba its official independence in 1902 (Ada 1999:62). A clause created around then granted the US some power over some assets within Cuba, but for most issues, Cuba was supposed to be on its own. This particular clause later became a major, as subsequent US presidents exploited it to implement large-scale reforms in Cuba to favor their interests. Although this insidious re-colonization happened gradually, with time and hindsight, Cubans realized that they had been blind-sighted. The US’s control of their resources was clearly at the Cuban inconvenience and expense (Hernandez 1993:149). Yet breaking away from increasing oppression would also mean breaking diplomatic ties with the US, which had become the Cuban mentor. It was a quandary, and Cubans took time to build up enough resolve to break away from this dependence.
In the run-up to the 1959 insurgence, a few facts became plain. For one, the capitalist system instilled within Cuba by the US was clearly working against Cuban interests. Any improvement on the system would either need the system to be improved or done away with completely. However, as long as Cuba continued to partner with the US, changing the economic system within Cuba was proving hard. US interests within Cuba depended on the system not changing. Thus, at every turn, the US exerted pressure that, effectively, curtailed efforts by Cubans to change their situation. It soon became clear that the US would have to be done away with completely (Bonachea 1974:110). Thus when the insurgence was initiated, it was clear to every Cuban that Cuba was breaking away from any ties with the US. Cuba would have to work out its prosperity plans alone. A rough patch before Cuba stood completely was foreseeable. But as Fidel Castro said around that time, “history will absolve me”.
Fidel Castro himself came from a middle class of people who were better placed to see the economic injustices within the country. This middle class of people could observe how lope-sided the economy was, and how, in the long run, it was bound to implode, unless something was done about it (Cub N.D.). From the leveraged perspective of the middle class, Fidel could see what the low-class citizens could not see: that the present unjust situation was man-made, and that with effort, the situation could be changed. He could see the rampant corruption, the massive unemployment, and the illegitimacy of the economic system. What the lower class may have accepted as fate was simply abhorrent to the middle class. Thus, with his ideological followers, Fidel Castro initiated a movement that triggered the final run to insurgence (Coltman 2003:46).
Fidel Castro had to overcome some hurdles before his influence could be felt and respected on the national scale. For one, he had to prove to the despairing majority that his intentions were noble, and not selfish. This particular requisite was in view of the fact that most people in power ended up riding the gravy train that came with the position (Coltman 2003:48). Corruption had become so entrenched in the Cuban economy that it was no longer distinguishable from the legit business. Havana traders, in particular, faced the blunt side of this corrupted machinery. In their business dealings, they had to bribe their way through every policeman or policewoman along the way. To makes matters worse, the US-supported this rampant corruption, for in it, it saw a safety valve. Cuba could never stand on its own with its corruption levels. Fidel thus had to overcome perceptions that his radical passions would be extinguished out once he got into power.
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Fidel Castro also had to convince his followers of the need for a revolution. As already said, the lower class were not only financially disadvantaged, but they also lacked the leverage to see the big picture. Fidel had to enlighten the natives about their pathetic situation. One of the areas that he concentrated on was giving information about the injustices of the legal system. The 1940 constitution was a sham. It was full of loopholes through which anybody in power could manipulate national resources to fit his selfish interests. The systems in the Supreme Court and Congress were equally useless (Jules 1959:56). With these in place, Batista’s reign, as loathed as it was, could always make a fraudulent come back during elections.
Another issue that was a hurdle for Fidel before he could command a wide following was the public’s perception of leaders. In a country whose major economic activities were sugar-related, there was limited scope for job opportunities. Most people were either casual workers in the sugar plantations and industries, or they were owners of these premises. There were very few other job descriptions besides these. Politics provided a break away from this monotonous livelihood, and some people joined politics purely for economic gains (LC6 N.D.). The people who were involved in politics belonged to a special social subgroup that was perceived by the rest of the society with suspicion. History had built up a low image for politicians in general. The period between 1902 and 1950 had been wrought with the political and civil uprising, with the general consensus being that the present administration was not satisfactory, and needed to be done away with. Most of the power exchanges during these uprisings were violent, and they sapped at the general spirit of the Cubans (Jules 1959:55). Hence Fidel Castro had to overcome a public perception that viewed politicians in general as wasteful figureheads of power.
With time, Fidel’s radical approach to the national crisis got wide acceptance. Part of the reason for this was that he offered exactly what the country needed the most at the time – a chance to regroup and charter a new development route. His leading policies promised justice and equality. But another reason was that at that time, the entire country was just plain tired of Batista’s regime, and any chance for a change was worth a shot. Fidel’s credibility rose up a notch whenever Batista’s atrocities were proclaimed in public (Robert 2001:46). By the time the insurgence was officially underway, Fidel commanded wide support from the citizens, and his revolutionary thrust was solid.
Fulgencio Batista had a bad history, and it read like a bad nightmare for both the natives and the international community. For one, he had been inactive in politics since 1933. His political history was nothing to write home about. It was full of hasty decisions, most of them myopic, engineered to overcome short-term difficulties at the expense of long-term solutions. Batista used to have quick-fix solutions – any challenge that could be swept under the carpet, even for a week, would be dismissed until it became unavoidable. Obviously, with time, this trend only made problems fester more as they accumulated. But Batista was undaunted, and in 1953, he seized power illegally. Once on the power seat, he quickly reorganized the government and the systems around to ensure that he wouldn’t be easily overthrown (Purcel 2002:61). Then he started a reign of dictatorship and stark terror. His reign runs on corruption and was governed by conceited notions. Any uprising against it was quickly and brutally squashed.
Very early in his presidential term, Batista had already received a controversial letter from Fidel Castro. The letter reportedly informed Batista that his reign, put in power through a coup, would soon become compromised and filled with corruption. The letter in effect told Batista that his reign was doomed to fail. Apparently, Batista ignored Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro then proceeded to field a brief with the Court of Constitutional Guarantees in Havana. In the brief, he requested for a court ruling that Batista’s rise to power was illegal. He also sought imprisonment for Batista. However, the court threw out Castro’s brief, claiming that Batista’s revolutionary rise to power had also created the constitution; hence there was no way that he could be unconstitutional (Bonachea 1974:111). Fidel realized that only force could remove Batista from power.
Together with another 200 supporters, Fidel started to create a support base amongst the citizens. His activities soon got the attention of Batista, and in 1953, he was arrested and faced with a trial. During the trial, Fidel wrote the famous “History will absolve speech”. The speech was later distributed to the public in pamphlet form. Its gist was about some radical social reforms that needed to be accomplished if the country was to recover from its current appalling state. The trial saw Fidel sentenced to 15 years for his heroism. He was offered amnesty on the condition of abandoning his activities, but he refused to sacrifice his vision. This decision made the public become even fonder of him. When in 1955 he was granted the amnesty anyway, he came out of jail a hero, and the public welcomed him with wild celebrations (Bonachea 1974:109). Fidel had just built a support base that might have taken years to build in other circumstances.
The fact that Fidel quickly gained the support of the public was also a reflection of the main mindsets of the populace. Cubans generally have a nationalist outlook, as exemplified by their numerous attempts in the past to right the wrongs in society. From their wars against the Spanish colonization to the struggles against US policies to the ongoing friction with Batista’s dictatorship, the national spirit of Cubans shined through. Even when prospects looked grim, Cubans held on to a vision of eventual emancipation from the oppressive conditions. Fidel took this national spirit, fed it with his inspirational visions, and rode the generous support that he got in turn.
Batista’s dictatorship was gaining contempt by the day. Not only was his leadership style poor, but it was wrought with massive resource mismanagement. The military itself was not well catered for, yet they were his protection against the uprising opposition. In 1958, Batista’s army, suffering from disillusion under his dictatorship, underwent a humiliating defeat from a Fidel Castro attack. This brought the collective morale down. The US, out of embarrassment, withdrew all of its arms supplies. Batista was cornered. Instead of finding a heroic way out of the situation, he fled from Cuba on January 1st, 1959, and a new liberal government was formed under Castro (Lambie 1996).
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Cub-Econ “The Cuban Economy” since 1959, Provided as an attachment.
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