Cuban Revolution Research Paper

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The term Cuban Revolution applies to two phases of Cuban history since the mid-1950s. The first regards the actual military campaign that began in December 1956 with the landing by Fidel Castro and close to one hundred men in Oriente Province, which triumphed in January 1959 with the victory of his rebel army. The second, based on political alliances and ideologies, started immediately after Fidel Castro’s entry into Havana.

Despite its retroactive symbolic and political importance, the actual military struggle of the Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in the 1950s was quite limited. Following Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’etat of 10 March 1952, Fidel Castro emerged as one of the leaders of the opposition to the dictatorship; that status was confirmed with the attack he led on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953, despite its disastrous results. The romantic failure of this attempt and his subsequent trial (during which he made his famous speech, “History Will Absolve Me”) made the twenty-seven-year-old Castro a political star. Following his pardon and subsequent exile to Mexico, Castro organized a group of men (Movimiento 26 de Julio, named after the Moncada Barracks attack) to lead a guerrilla war on the island. The group (including his brother Raul and the Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom Castro had met in Mexico) was practically destroyed by regime forces upon landing in Oriente Province. Thanks to a great deal of luck, some favorable media coverage, Castro’s considerable charisma, and the ineptness of the dictatorship’s army and police, the small band was able to survive 1957 in the Sierra Maestra range in Cuba.

Beginning in 1958, the rebel army began more ambitious, but still quite limited, military offensives culminating in the battle of Santa Clara of 17 December 1958. Partly due to the appeal of the rebels and the venality and atrocities of the regime, popular sentiment and even that of the American embassy had overwhelmingly gone against Batista by midyear. On New Year’s Eve Batista resigned and the government fell into Castro’s lap. From the beginning, the limited nature of the conflict produced debates on the relative contribution made by the rebels in the sierra (mountains) and more middle-class opponents in the llano (city). (Despite later attempts to emphasize its role, labor was either a fairly passive actor or actually on Batista’s side.) Due to later ideological splits this historiographical debate came to be imbued with considerable fervor and importance. Despite these arguments, the important lesson to be taken from this first part of the Cuban revolution was that authoritarian regimes such as Batista’s were not so much defeated as they collapsed from their own contradictions and inadequacies. A similar pattern would follow in Nicaragua and Iran in 1979.

The Second Revolution

The second stage of the Cuban Revolution began with the traditional dynamics of postrevolutionary politics: the breaking of alliances, divisions between moderates and radicals, postponement of elections, and the tightening of power by those with the best access to violence. While large parts of the opposition to Batista had been motivated by hatred of the dictatorship, many among Castro’s group also sought to address the social inequities rampant in Cuba. While the island did possess a large (by Latin American standards) middle class and Havana appeared to be a first world city, the gulfs between white and black, rich and poor, and town and country were massive. The revolutionary regime faced the classic quandary of wishing to initiate dramatic social changes while respecting the constraints imposed by electoral democracy. Led by the Castro brothers, the regime chose to privilege the former.

By 1961, indications of a more socialist policy had produced the exile of large parts of the middle class and the active opposition of the United States. Having established his control over the armed forces, Castro was able to openly express his alliance with the USSR and defeat an invasion by U.S.-backed exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. The agreement between the United States and the USSR following the October 1962 missile crisis guaranteed the regime’s longevity.

The next four decades saw the revolution proceed through a series of stages. In the first, political authority was further consolidated by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party. Until 1970, Cuba resisted the “Sovietization” of many aspects of the economy and the society, but following the disastrous “ten million ton” sugar harvest of that year, the regime’s autonomy appears to have declined. Over the next twenty years, Cuba behaved fairly much like the standard Soviet satellite with two critical exceptions: it had a much more acrimonious relationship with the United States, and it also followed an adventurous foreign policy, with Cuban military involvement in Angola and Ethiopia and considerable aid presence in many parts of Latin America and Africa. The policies of the regime remained fairly stable and the population enjoyed an increasing standard of living (at least as measured in education, health, and basic nutrition, if not consumer goods). Certainly by the mid-1980s, the revolution was widely admired as a social success (if a political and economic disappointment). The one major crisis involved the departure of over 100,000 Cubans from the port of Mariel in the spring of 1980.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the island entered the euphemistically named “Special Period.” This saw declines in production and consumption by nearly half and a real social crisis with hunger not uncommon by 1993–1994. The regime adopted a limited opening to global capital (but not capital from the United States), which produced a significant improvement in living conditions. Reliance on tourism and remittances (now the two biggest economic sectors), however, brought with it social difficulties. Cuba, for example, has not experienced a civil rights movement or even an oppositional racial discourse. In many ways, racial relations on the island remain frozen in the 1950s, with a significant decline in the black–white gap in living standards but a clearly racist culture and a continued monopoly by whites in high government positions. This also means that whites predominate in the sought-after jobs in the tourist sector. Since the exile population is overwhelmingly white, remittances are also distributed in a racially nonsymmetrical way. This has created something of a “dollar apartheid” in Havana.


Whether the revolution, as a political regime or as a social system, can survive the inevitable death of Fidel Castro is not clear. (On 18 February 2008, in failing health, Castro declined to seek reelection; on 24 February 2008 the National Assembly of People’s Power voted Raul Castro as his successor; the assembly voted unanimously in response to Raul’s request allowing Fidel to be consulted on defense, foreign policy, and the economy. As of early 2010, Fidel was still alive.) But the level of institutionalization of power is relatively low. Given the proximity of the now-wealthy exile community and U.S. interests, it is likely that the revolution will not survive in its current state. Perhaps the most significant disappointment of the revolution is that it was unable to escape the historical tendency toward “sultanistic regimes” led by caudillos (military dictators). In at least this way, the Cuban Revolution did not represent a new stage of history, but merely a slightly different variant of an old theme in Latin America.


  1. Centeno, M., & Font, M. (1997). Toward a new Cuba? Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  2. Eckstein, S. (2003). Back from the future. New York: Routledge.
  3. Fernandez, D. (2000). Cuba and the politics of passion. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  4. Perez, L. (1995). Cuba: Between reform and revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Thomas, H. (1977). Cuba: The pursuit of freedom. New York: Harper & Row.

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