Cuba: The Plight of a Nation and its Revolution
While the isle of Cuba was initially discovered on October 27, 1492 during one of
Columbus’ first voyages, it wasn’t actually claimed by Spain until the sixteenth century.
However, it’s tumultuous beginnings as a Spanish sugar colony provides an insightful backdrop
into the very essence of the country’s political and economic unrest. From it’s early
revolutionary days to the insurrectional challenge of the Marxist-Leninist theories emerged the
totalitarian regime under Fidel Castro in present day Cuba.
Cuban colonial society was distinguished by the characteristics of colonial societies in
general, namely a stratified, inegalitarian class system; a poorly differentiated agricultural
economy; a dominant political class made up of colonial officers, the clergy, and the military; an
exclusionary and elitist education system controlled by the clergy; and a pervasive religious
system.1 Cuba’s agrarian monocultural character, economically dependant upon sugar
cultivation, production and export severely restricted its potential for growth as a nation, thereby
firmly implanting its newly sprouted roots firmly in the trenches of poverty from the very
beginning of the country’s existence.
In 1868, Cuba entered in to The Ten Years’ War against Spain in a struggle for
independence, but to no avail. Ten years of bitter and destructive conflict ensued, but the goal of
independence was not achieved. Political divisions among patriot forces, personal quarrels
among rebel military leaders, and the failure of the rebels to gain the backing of the United
States, coupled with stiff resistance from Spain and the Cubans’ inability to carry the war in
earnest to the western provinces, produced a military stalemate in the final stages.2 The war had
a devastating effect on an already weak economic and political infrastructure.
The defeat, however, did not hinder the resolution of the Cuban proletariat for an
independent nation. In the words of one author,
The Cubans’ ability to wage a costly, protracted struggle against
Spain demonstrated that proindependence sentiment was strong
and could be manifested militarily. On the other hand, before any
effort to terminate Spanish control could succeed, differences over
slavery, political organization, leadership, and military strategy had
to be resolved. In short, the very inconclusiveness of the war left a
feeling that the Cubans could and would resume their struggle
until their legitimate political objectives of independence and
sovereignty were attained.3
The years following the Ten Years’ War were harsh and austere. The countryside,
ravaged and desolate, bankrupted Spanish sugar interests in Cuba, virtually destroying the
industry. The Spanish owners sold out to North American interests, a process accelerated by the
final abolition of slavery in Cuba in 1886.4 The end of slavery, naturally, meant the end of free
labor. The sugar growers, therefore, began to import machinery from the United States.
Essentially, Cuba deferred its economic dependence from Spain directly to the U.S. What
became known as the American Sugar Refining Company supplied from seventy to ninety
percent of all sugar consumed by the United States, thus mandating the direction of the Cuban
agricultural industry and thereby controlling its economy.
Moreover, the United States’ interventionism in the Cuban-Spanish war in 1898,
motivated primarily by interests in the Cuban market, led the surrender of the Spanish army
directly to the United States, not Cuba. This war later became known as the Spanish-American
War. The leader and organizer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, Jose Marti’s, goal of true
independence was buried without honor in 1898.5
In the years from 1902 to 1959, following the institution of the Platt Amendment, which
was an amendment to the Cuban constitution, that stated that the United States had the right to
intervene in Cuba at any time, a period which came to be termed the ?Pseudo Republic? ensued.
In the words of General Wood:
Of course, Cuba has been left with little or no independence by the
Platt Amendment…The Cuban Government cannot enter into
certain treaties without our consent, nor secure loans above certain
limits, and it must maintain the sanitary conditions that have been
indicated. With the control that we have over Cuba, a control
which, without doubt, will soon turn her into our possession, soon
we will practically control the sugar market in the world. I believe
that it is a very desirable acquisition for the United States. The
island will gradually be ?Americanized,? and in the due course we
will have one of the most rich and desirable possessions existing in
the entire world…6
The Great Depression however, had a immense impact on United States’ holdings of the
Cuban sugar industry. In the summer and fall of 1920 when the price of sugar fell from
twenty-two cents a pound to three cents a pound, Cubans were left poverty stricken and starving,
as their sugar market was totally dependent upon the United States. Additionally, America
began to disengage itself from the strangling hold it had over the Cuban economy by vastly
diminishing the amount of its imports from forty percent in previous years to eighteen percent. In
the wake of this massive monetary pull-out, a vacuum formed in which a basically leaderless
Cuba (its current leader, President Machado, had lost the ability to govern after his promise of
?tranquility of the government and the country? had not been delivered) became ripe for radical
student uprisings and the introduction of Marxist ideas. Thus was formed the Cuban Communist
Party, led by Julio Mella and Carlos Balino, the former an eighteen year old university basketball
player and the latter, a veteran socialist and comrade of Jose Marti.
In 1933, President Roosevelt sent Cuban ambassador, Sumner Wells, to Havana in an
attempt to stop the ?political whirlpool in which an estimated $1,500,000,000 in U.S.
investments was likely to drown?.7 Welles proposed the appointment of Carlos Manuel de
Cespedes, former Cuban ambassador to Washington, as president. Shortly thereafter, leaders of
a radical student organization ?transformed their rebellion into a revolt?, and informed President
Cespedes that he had been deposed. Cespedes abandoned the presidential palace as
inconspicuously as he had arrived.8
From 1930 to 1935, Antonio Guiteras led the island on a ?revolutionary path? and formed
a government that was ?for the people, but not by the people or of the people?9, which the U.S.
refused to recognize. In 1935 Guiteras was assassinated by Fulgencio Batista who proceeded to
run Cuban affairs for the next decade. It was a government that the United States recognized as
the ?only legitimate authority on the island?.10 Then in 1944, Batista, the ?American darling?,
lost the presidential election to Grau San Martin, who had recently returned from exile. The
Grau presidency has been described as such:
The Autentico administrations of Grau (1944-1948) and Prio
(1948-52) had failed to curb the political corruption and the
associated gangster violence; more importantly they had failed to
satisfy popular aspirations for independence and social progress.
here were still disruptive protests against U.S. control and
exploitation of the Cuban economy; and when Prio agreed to send
Cuban troops to support the U.S. invasion of Korea in 1950, the
offer was backed by a successful campaign around the slogan, ?No
cannon fodder for Yankee imperialists’. The general political
instability, the growing unpopularity of the Autenticos, the
rampant corruption and violence – all were again setting the scene
for political upheaval.11
On January 1, 1959 unable to withstand the burden of both a politically and economically
failing nation, and under pressure from the Cuban Communist Party led by Fidel Castro and his
Marxist-Leninist revolutionary followers, Batista fled Cuba. Paradoxically, the breakdown of
the authoritarian regime in Cuba illustrates the fragility of presumably reliable clientelistic
arrangements, insofar as these cannot substitute for strong central authority.12 Foreign
investment in the economy was substantial once again in the late 1950s, with U.S. capital
dominant in the agricultural sectors.13
Having gained a substantial amount of support from the Cuban people, Fidel Castro was
quick to move into power as the country’s most prominent leader. Shortly thereafter, Castro
allied his nation with the Soviet Union and denounced the United States as an imperialistic and
capitalist aggression. In essence, the U.S.S.R. became Cuba’s new ?lifeline?. Naturally, the
Cuban relationship with the Soviet Union made for inevitable tensions with its neighbor.14 The
United States’ belief that the ?Cuban leader had allowed his country to become a Soviet satellite,
and that Castro’s regime might produce a spate of revolutions throughout Latin America?15 led
directly to the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, a failed attempt to overthrow Castro. The Bay of
Pigs invasion combined with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 sufficiently set the stage for the
present day political tensions between the United States and Cuba.
Due to the isolationist mood in the United States in the years following the failed Cuban
Missile Crisis and then the Vietnam War, Fidel Castro was free to rise to power and create the
communist island he so desperately endeavored to achieve. Without the U.S. to interfere, Castro
could be likened to a ?kid in a candy store?. Because Cuba had historically always been in
political turmoil, it was not difficult for Castro, for all his charm and charisma, to win the
popular vote of the people. Traditionally, in a nation as oppressed as Cuba had been, citizens
tend to fall easy prey to totalitarian or authoritarian rule due to their need to be led by a
government, any government, that may possibly facilitate any kind of economic growth. The end
of the Cold War, however, left Cuba isolated when it lost its Soviet Patron.16 It has been argued
that there are two schools of thought on how to deal with Castro in the post Cold War era:
One school, championed primarily by the exiled Cuban community
and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, wanted a full
court press to bring Castro down. They assumed further economic
deprivation would push the Cuban people to rise up and rid
themselves of the Castro dictatorship at last. The United States,
with new laws penalizing countries, corporations, or persons doing
business with Cuba, would compel the international community to
join in the strangulation. This strategy received no international
The second school wanted to coax Cuba out of its shell without
trying to overthrow Castro. For all his brutality and repression,
Castro provided education, jobs, health care, and equality for
Cuban’s large lower class, many of whom are of African descent.
They appreciated it then, and some still support Castro now. With
the sudden end of Soviet subsidies (estimated at $5 billion a year),
Cuban living conditions went from bad to worse. From 1990 to
1993, Cuba’s GDP declined by forty percent. Many Cubans went
hungry. Castro, reading the desperate mood of the masses,
discovered his approaching obsolescence and gave indications that
he might reform. The Cuban people, yearning for reform, began to
hope for a new day.17
It is evident that the political disposition of the country, as in most countries, has been
influenced by its economic status which, for Cuba, dates back to the sixteenth century. Cuba’s
plight as a third world nation is directly akin to its historical inability to break away from its
dependence on a single export economy. This fact, confounded by that of other, larger nations
serving only their own national interests by encouraging this type of economy, has held Cuba in
chains of indigence for decades.
Cuba does, however, despite its low domestic living standards, have extensive overseas
commitments. The question has been raised then, as to why Cuba, with such a limited domestic
resource base, would expand its overseas civilian and military commitments.18 A particularly
viable explanation could be viewed as the following:
The Cuban government asserts that it aids other Third World
countries because it is committed to internationalist solidarity.
While official views may conceal underlying motives, if the island
primarily supports overseas activities for moral and ideological
reasons, Cuban should receive no regular quid pro for its
assistance, and it should limit its aid to ideologically sympathetic
countries. If Cuba gains materially from its involvement, the
benefits should be minor and they should have been unanticipated
at the time the aid was extended. The island should risk receiving
no economic pay-offs…
The Castro regime has a long history of assisting revolutionary and
national liberation movements, and the governments to which they
have given rise, possibly because its own social transformation
depended on the assistance of other socialist countries. yet its
identity with progressive, anti-imperialist states has not been
contingent on the adoption of a Marxist-Leninist model or
membership in the socialist camp.19
Why would Castro go to all the trouble then, when his own people were starving in the
streets? Perhaps it was simply due to the fact that Third World countries viewed Cuba as helpful
and influential and that overseas activities have enhanced the island’s stature in the less
developed world. Seemingly, this theory would lend support to the hackneyed images of
?strength in numbers? or the ?big fish in a little pond? cliches. This is, of course, theory
however, and not fact.
Despite these and many other questions which could be asked of Castro’s governing
style, there are, in fact, many positive transformations that the socialist leader has brought about
for his country. Though unlike most other socialist countries, Cuba has been noted for its
far-reaching social and economic equality that has resulted from the Cuban Revolution.
Additionally, Cuba, by no means a wealthy nation, has achieved a certain amount of significant
success in the areas of education, health care and its economy in comparison to the Cuba of
However, even a very favorable interpretation of these structures would have to point out
their limitations (and one should not ignore the significance of their formal similarity to Soviet
structures). Organized opposition is not allowed….the Cuban government would not tolerate
efforts to establish an independent union movement, and there is no question of compromise on
the political hegemony of the Cuban Communist Party.20
Presently, tensions between Cuba and the United States, however, are still high as the
U.S. continues to maintain its policy of diplomatic and economic isolation. It has been noted
….years after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the
Cold War, Cuba continues to command the attention of U.S.
policymakers. Although Russia and the former eastern bloc
countries have undergone widespread democratic and free-market
economic reform, Cuba remains one of the only communist
dictatorships in the world. Removing Castro from power and
implementing reform in Cuba are top U.S. foreign policy priorities,
but lawmakers disagree on the best course of action. While some
argue that the U.S. trade embargo has proved ineffective and
inhumane, others respond that the United States should continue to
apply pressure on Castro until he is toppled from power. As the
lawmakers debate, the misery in Cuba is worsening, and some
countries are now beginning to blame U.S. policy. Time will tell
whether the United States continues its present course or revises a
policy that is increasingly unpopular with even its most loyal
Every now and again Castro allows a thaw in relations, but when the United States gets
overly friendly he arranges a provocation, such as the drowning of two small planes piloted by
Cuban exiles in 1996, which led to the passage by the United States congress of the
Helms-Burton Act a month later.22
Presently, Cuba is in the process of developing an advanced telecommunications system
with the help of communist ally China. Cuba was visited recently by Chinese delegate Wu
Jichuan and Fidel Castro claims that relations between Cuba and China have never been better.
Additionally, Cuba is seeking to end the 40-year United States trade embargo against the island.
Should this occur, it would greatly enhance the country’s currently sagging economy. There is
increasing pressure from United States business and agricultural communities to begin brisk
trade with Cuba and take advantage of a new and potentially highly profitable market.23 If Cuba
is successful at expanding its monocultural economy the country should experience remarkably
auspicious results in the event of a lifting of the U.S. embargo. More importantly, Castro would
no longer have an excuse for the deficiencies in the Cuban economy.
Additionally, housing for Cubans, which is guaranteed in the constitution, or the recent
lack thereof, has reached epidemic proportions in Havana, the island’s capital. Reportedly, the
government admits the country does not have nearly enough building materials or manpower to
give everyone the home they have been promised.24 For a socialist society dedicated to taking
care of its people, the country seems to have fallen short in this arena, as well.
Another recent political Cuban event overshadowing most other important Cuban
political events, if only due to the extensive media coverage than the actual quality of
newsworthy content, is the ?tragicomedy? of the custody battle of near Cuban defector, Elian
Gonzalez. In what should have been nothing more than an international custody battle over the
six year old Cuban child, an all out political battle between the United States and Cuba ensued.
In my opinion, the incident had been seemingly spawned mainly from harbored resentment by
Cuban-Americans over the failed Bay of Pigs event, in addition to their hatred of the
authoritarian leader. Again, they fought and lost to Castro. This time, however, Fidel Castro
was legitimate in his reproach and used the situation to portray the United States in an extremely
unfavorable light. He succeeded, as the rest of the world looked on wondering what all the hype
What is extraordinary about Fidel Castro, however, is that he is still here at all. More
than 40 years after coming to power, he survives. He survives in the face of the unremitting
hostility of a superpower only 90 miles away. He survives in spite of the fact that his main
patron, the Soviet Union, has disappeared, his ideology, Marxist-Leninism, is discredited, and his
economy is less than perfect. Despite the fact that an inordinate number of common citizens
prefer to chance death at sea rather than remain in his nation, Fidel survives.25
1 Juan M. del Aguila, Cuba: Dilemmas of a Revolution (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.,
1984), p. 9.
2 Juan M. del Aguila, Cuba: Dilemmas of a Revolution (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.,
1984), p. 12.
3 Juan M. del Aguila, Cuba: Dilemmas of a Revolution (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.,
1984), p. 13.
4 Terrance Cannon, Revolutionary Cuba (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1981),
5 Terrance Cannon, Revolutionary Cuba (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1981),
6 Terrance Cannon, Revolutionary Cuba (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1981),
7 Terrance Cannon, Revolutionary Cuba (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1981),
8 Terrance Cannon, Revolutionary Cuba (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1981),
9 Terrance Cannon, Revolutionary Cuba (Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1981),
10 Geoff Simons, Cuba: From Conquistador to Castro (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1996), p. 254.
11 Geoff Simons, Cuba: From Conquistador to Castro (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
1996), p. 257.
12 Juan M. del Aguila, Cuba: Dilemmas of a Revolution (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.,
1984), p. 38.
13 Juan M. del Aguila, Cuba: Dilemmas of a Revolution (Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.,
1984), p. 40.
14 Sandor Halebsky and John M. Kirk, Cuba: Twenty-Five Years of Revolution, 1959 to
1984 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), p. 358.
15 Mark J. White, Missles in Cuba: Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro and the 1962 Crisis
(Chicago: Mark J. White, 1977), p. 12.
16 Michael G. Roskin and Nicholas O. Berry, The New World of International Relations
(New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1999), p. 190.
17 Michael G. Roskin and Nicholas O. Berry, The New World of International Relations
(New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1999), p. 190.
18 Sandor Halebsky and John M. Kirk, Cuba: Twenty-Five Years of Revolution, 1959 to
1984 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), p. 375.
19 Sandor Halebsky and John M. Kirk, Cuba: Twenty-Five Years of Revolution, 1959 to
1984 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), p. 375.
20 Sandor Halebsky and John M. Kirk, Cuba: Twenty-Five Years of Revolution, 1959 to
1984 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), p. 421.
21 World Wide Web, U.S. Policy Towards Cuba, (www.closeup.org/cuba, 1997).
22 World Wide Web, Boston Globe – CubaNet News, Inc., (www.cubanetnews.com, 2000).
23 World Wide Web, China Helps Cuba Get Current on Communications Technology,
24 World Wide Web, Despite Guarantess, Homelessnes Creeps Into Cuba,
25 World Wide Web, Government and Politics of Cuba, (www.cubapolidata.com, 2000).