Lessons from Fidel Castro and Cuba’s Revolution

Editor’s note: this article references Spiral Theory, which is a strategic approach adopted by some revolutionary movements in which violent acts are undertaken against state targets with the intention of provoking an indiscriminate repressive response against an associated social group that is relatively uninvolved with the action itself. This repressive response is sought for its ability to radicalize a population that is currently apolitical or unsupportive of violent revolution.

by Liam Campbell

Cuba’s revolution is a testament to how powerful a small number of dedicated, intelligent, and organised people can be. Despite seemingly impossible odds, a few dozen people managed to overthrow a despotic government which was supported by the might of the United States government. Many figures played key roles in Cuba’s Movimiento 26 de Julio (July 26th Movement), but Fidel Castro was unquestionably the central leader and architect. How did a boy raised in a rural setting, by a mostly illiterate family, manage to outsmart and outmanoeuvre a sophisticated and well connected government? Let’s explore this question.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Cuba was essentially a corporatocracy owned by a handful of American monopolies. It was a playground for wealthy Americans, only a short distance from Florida, where the priveleged could consume voraciously. All of this glitz and glamour was supported by a dark underbelly of corruption, poverty, and the near slavery conditions of Cuba’s working classes. Castro famously wrote that it was a nation were teachers had no classrooms and where peasants had no land, but where imperialists were able to siphon millions of dollars of public funds into private coffers.

It was in this climate of extreme corruption and inequity that Castro first became involved in politics. His Mother, who could not read or write, insisted that he should have the best education; despite being thrown out of his first boarding school for unruly behaviour, Castro was eventually invited to attend Cuba’s most prestigious university, in Havana. Crime and violence were commonplace, even in the universities, and people often commented that “if you are to be politically effective, you need to be willing to wield a gun.” It was in this extreme climate that Castro began organising marches and other protest actions, primarily against corruption. For protection, Castro pragmatically joined a gang that supported his political activism. Havana had become a heavily disenfranchised city, having seen successive, failed independence movements; leaders of these movements were either bought out or killed. Few people had faith in the institutions of the government and there was a growing sentiment that revolution would be necessary.

Upon graduating, Castro opened a small law firm in Havana, which meagerly supported his true passion: political organising. He had become a talented orator and was an increasingly recognised figure among the political circles of the city. He eventually decided to run for political office as a member of the Orthodox Party, which was influenced by Jesuit Nationalists from the Spanish Civil War. Castro ran on an anti-corruption platform and openly opposed American imperialism and influence over Cuba. Before the start of the election, on March 10th, General Batista led a coup and took over the government as dictator; this coup destroyed any remaining faith in political processes and was deeply unpopular among the public. In this changing climate, people sought out audacious leaders rather than run-of-the-mill politicians, and Castro prepared himself for this role.

The period after Batista’s coup was difficult for many Cubans, including Castro who began to experience extreme economic hardship. It was at his lowest point that Castro decided “I have to deliver a blow, I have to spark a revolution.” He organised a group of fellow revolutionaries and planned an audacious assault on the Mancada Army Barracks. It was understood that their odds of success were low, but they believed that “even if it fails, it will be heroic and have symbolic value.” In total, nearly 80 revolutionaries agreed to the assault — it resulted in a massacre.

In the end, 8 revolutionaries were killed outright, 12 were wounded, and 60 were captured, tortured, and eventually executed. Batista made a critical mistake by organising mass retaliations and engaging in a national crackdown, which was deeply unpopular and turned Castro and the other revolutionaries into public heroes; they had dared to defy a violent, unpopular, authoritarian regime. This was a very famous example of Spiral Theory working in favour of a revolutionary movement, and it was a mistake that Batista would repeat throughout his brief career. After Castro was captured, he was saved from execution by an Archbishop who intervened on his behalf, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Castro used his trial as a public platform to make impassioned calls for revolution, it was during this spectacle that he made the famous remark “condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me.”

While in prison, Castro was strongly influenced by the writings of Marxist authors who proposed that the workers should own the fruits of production, and that one state should be ruled by one party. Castro claimed that “prison [was] a terrific school.” He wrote his seminal book History Will Asbolve Me, which was snuck out, a few pages at a time, by his wife. This book had a profound impact on Cuban readers because it spoke of unemployment, empty schools for lack of teachers, farmers who did not own the land, and the extreme inequity between those who worked and those who ruled; it was a book about social justice. His writing fit within norms of 1950s Cuba, which was leaning toward centre left.

After 22 months of confinement, Castro was released from prison after Batista issued amnesty orders — I speculate that he did so in order to inhibit Castro from continuing his state-sponsored writing. Castro was only 29 years old, but he had become a recnogised political figure in Cuba. After release, he began the 26th of July Movement, in memory of the Macada Barracks assault. He traveled abroad, organised likeminded revolutionaries, and trained extensively. When his rebels were ready, in 1956, he set sail on a 65′ yatch for Cuba. In total, there were 82 people aboard and they were prepared to die for Cuban independence. They were spotted before landing and were met with overwhelming military force at the beach. Most of were killed, but Castro and 17 others survived the ambush and fled into the mountains to organise a guerilla insurgency. The struggle was wildly asymetrical, so they focused on building strong relationships with local communities and developing an international reputation. Within 3 months they reappeared on the front page of the New York Times in a series of 3 articles written by Herbert Matthew; this started the legend of Fidel Castro. Castro and his rebels began developing regional trust by providing aid to peasant communities throughout the mountains. They focused on healthcare, food, and security. These efforts were successful and support grew rapidly among the disenfranchised and neglected communities of the region.

The story was different in Cuba’s cities. Batista began brutal crackdowns on anyone who was thought to be affiliated with anti-government activism, including members of the July 26th Movement. A group called the Student Revolutionary Directorate stormed the Presidential Palace in 1957 in an attempt to assassinate Batista, but their leader was gunned down and they failed in the attempt. Batista launched a series of extreme crackdowns, which accidentally targeted innocent people and resulted in widespread backlash, another example of Spiral Theory in action. In Santiago, the July 26th underground faction engaged in fierce urban warfare and bore the brunt of repression; their leader was eventually ambushed and killed. These martyrs became the focus of peaceful public protests and Batista’s harsh, sweeping reprisals generated increasingly intense public backlash.

It was around this time that political forces in Cuba recognised that Castro was the leading contender for national leadership, and they traveled into the Sierra Maestro mountains to meet him. Both opposition leaders and members of the July 26th Movement formed an assembly in the mountains and they produced The Manifesto of the Sierra Maestro, which worked out the details of a future coalition government. The document called for a democratic republic, free elections, and returning to the constitution of 1940. Castro signed the document but realised early on that he had the unequivocal support of both his rebels and the people, and so he didn’t need politics anymore.  According to his worldview, the purpose of revolution is to subvert society, to take people from the bottom, and everyone else, and create something entirely new.

In 1958, Batista decided to engage in all-out warfare again Castro by deploying 10,000 troops against Castro’s 300 rebels. Within a month, they had fully encircled the revolutionaries, but they had been drawn deep into the territory of Castro’s loyalists. Although they were profoundly outnumbered and outgunned, Castro issued a simple order: “hit them where they least expect it.” The revolutionaries engaged in hit-and-run tactics, used their agility, and leveraged their community support to devastate Batista’s large, but wavering, army. In response, Batista ordered inreasingly brutal reprisals against both revolutionaries and the communities of the Sierra Maestro mountains; these horrific actions were documented and resulted in the United States withdrawing military support in order to avoid international scrutiny.  This was the beginning of the end for Batista.

In August of 1958, Castro’s rebels left the mountains and fanned out across Cuba, finally going on the offensive. They recognised that Batista had lost international support, was despised by the public, and that his troops were wavering after demoralising attacks. This offensive involved extensive sabotage and culminated in Che Guevara derailing an armoured train and taking Santa Clara. This was the last straw and Batista’s forces began to break ranks. In the beginning of 1959, Batista fled Cuba with his friends and a stolen fortune of over $100 million. On January 2nd, Fidel Castro and his army staged a 200 mile victory march to Havana, where he spoke at every stop. His use of media energised the public and created a sense of victory, unity, and possibility. The rest is history.

This is how a tiny number of people overthrew a repressive government which was backed by the might of the American empire.

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