Cuba's resilient working class

Killing Communists in Havana (The Start of the Cold War in Latin America) By Steve Cushion

Published by the Socialist History Society

Review By Gina Nicholson

Cocooned as we still are – just – in one of the citadels of imperialism, where the stability of the system made it necessary to buy off the workers, and imperialist super-profits made it possible, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what class war can be like.  Incidents like Orgreave are the exception, not the rule.

In contrast Steve Cushion demonstrates, in his short account ‘Killing Communists in Havana’, the savagery that the ruling class can descend to; but that it can also make mistakes; and that the Cuban working class was very resilient despite a long murderous campaign against it. He also shows the anti-communist AFL acting as the frontrunner for the American State Department in Latin America.

Published by the Socialist History Society and subtitled ‘The Start of the Cold War in Latin America’, this booklet covers in detail about fifteen years from the beginning of the Second World War, and describes the battles between the organised working class and the big US firms invested in Cuba and represented by the Cuban government.

Having quickly shown how American capital, in particular sugar capital in the name of the United Fruit Company, came to dominate and constrain the Cuban economy, Cushion describes the development of the Cuban trade union movement, which, with over one sixth of the population organised in the CTC (Workers’ Confederation of Cuba), had, by the late nineteen-forties, ‘the highest percentage of trade unionised workers in Latin America.’ The CTC was dominated by the Cuban Communist Party, founded in 1925, later known as the PSP (Partido Socialisto Popular).

In consequence of the perceived need to defend the Soviet Union by helping the war effort, during the Second World War the Cuban Communist Party, like many other communist parties in Allied countries, had temporarily come to terms with the government and big employers, in return gaining certain reforms. However with the defeat of the Axis powers, the Soviet Union once again became, to the capitalist class and America in particular, the enemy, along with the communist parties in the countries hitherto allied with it. Thus in Cuba the aim of the employers was, of course, to remove the gains made by the workers during the war, to diminish the power of the working class, and to remove the influence of the PSP.


In the United States the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an anti-socialist organisation which placed ‘the interest of the union bureaucracy over any notion of workers’ solidarity’, during the Second World War offered its services to the US government in combating communism in Latin America. An Italian anti-communist, Serafino Romualdi, under its auspices toured Latin America towards the end of the war and in February 1946 he was appointed AFL special representative to Latin America. Philip Agee described him as, “The principle CIA agent for Labor relations in Latin America.” His task was to destroy the CTAL (Confederacion de Trabajadores de America Latina), set up in 1938 to unite all the workers of Latin America. It contained communists and its leader was regarded as a fellow-traveller. Romualdi saw the Cuban CTC as crucial to the CTAL, and set about destabilising the CTC.

In the CTC at that time the important political parties were the PSP and the Partido Autentico, the ruling party in Cuba, known as the Autenticos. Because the latter party had little working class support it was convenient for it to co-operate with the PSP. These two groups plus other independent trade unionists willing to work with them referred to themselves as the unitarios – probably what we would call the broad left. The overtly anti-communist Autenticos formed the Comision Obrera Nacional (Autentica) (CON(A)).

During the war the US State Department had reined in the CON(A) in its attempts to take over the CTC, but in 1946 the Cuban President Grau won a majority in the mid-term parliamentary elections, which meant he no longer needed the support of the communists. He encouraged the CON(A) thenceforth in its anti-communist crusade.

Around the 1947 Congress of the CTC a battle was waged which started with arguments about delegates’ credentials and ended with a member of the CON(A) killed and a PSP member wounded. The Minister of Labour, Carlos Prio, suspended the Congress. The CTC offices were then raided and several people including Aracelio Iglesias, a leading docker, were arrested on trumped-up charges of possession of arms. The new government-appointed credentials committee then dragged its feet and had not reported a month later, so, following a successful May Day rally, the General Secretary of the CTC, Lazaro Pena, ‘decided not to wait for the credentials report and the CTC executive convened the fifth congress on the 4th May.’ Despite a call from the CON(A) to boycott the congress, three quarters of the labour movement sent delegates.

The CON(A) and the independents then held their own Congress on July 6th, and elected Angel Cofino, an ‘independent’ and leader of the electrical workers’ federation, as General Secretary. This congress was financed by the Ministry of Education with $40,000 intended for primary education.

Carlos Prio, the Minister of Labour, had been working with Eusebio Mujal, who soon became the effective leader of the CON(A). Cushion describes him: ‘Mujal had never been a worker, but was an ex-Communist, ex-Trotskyist, now Autentico parliamentary representative from Guantanamo . . .  He did not allow this to stand in his way; his political connections, personal corruption, and murderous ruthlessness amply compensated for his lack of a base in the trade union movement.’

The Ministry of Labour recognised the CON(A) congress and held the unitarios’ congress to be null and void, expelled the unitarios from the CTC HQ and handed over the keys to Angel Cofino. The consequent protest strikes were put down with ‘considerable brutality’ and hundreds of arrests. The PSP radio station was closed down.

Then the CON(A) moved against the unitarios in the constituent unions. In some this presented no problem; in others there was a more entrenched tradition of struggle and this demanded stronger methods. The government turned to armed gangsters.


Cuba had a history of gangsterism. President Machado had used police and army against the street protests aroused by the 1929 slump, and had also set up unofficial death squads to murder his opponents. Inevitably counter-death squads arose, with little politics but a hatred of Machado. Under President Grau (1944-48) two of these gangs became embedded in the police force, leading to an armed battle between two factions of the police, known as the Orfino affair.

Under President Carlos Prio (1948-52) gangsterism was raised to a method of government.  Cushion explains: ‘[Prio] had particularly close links with a gang called Accion Revolucionaria Guiteras (ARG) who did much of the dirty work of removing those unitario CTC leaders who would not go quietly and could not be bought; a task facilitated by Prio giving ARG leader Eufemio Fernandez a job as head of the Policia Secreta Nacional . . . and appointing Jesus Gonzalez Cartas (aka El Extrano), another prominent ARG hoodlum, as Chief of the Policia Maritima del Puerto de la Habana’.

Public transport was well unionised and the union was dominated by the PSP. A leading member of the ARG, Marco Hirigoyen, ‘gained control of the transport workers’ union in a particularly ruthless manner.’

A peaceful deputation of bus workers was ambushed and shot at by police and three workers wounded, one of whom, Anton Lezcano, later died of his injuries. The police with Ministry of Labour officials then ejected the elected leadership from the Autobuses Modernos union offices and installed the ‘official’ CTC. There followed a wave of assassinations, and shooting attacks (for example three train drivers were wounded in a shooting attack) which Hirigoyen used to gain control of the transport union.

In the tobacco industry mechanisation was accepted by the tobacco workers’ union (Federacion Tabacalero Nacional (FTN)) for the export market but resisted for the domestic market. When at the end of January 1948 Aguirre, the new Minister of Labour, annulled the FTN elections, the union ‘took scant notice and on 28th February 1948 launched a campaign to defend hand rolling of cigars for domestic consumption’. The Minister of Labour then appointed one Manuel Campaneria Rojas as the new head of the FTN. Campaneria on April 1st attacked the headquarters of the Sindicato de Torcedores (Cigar Rollers’ Union) where the ‘displaced unitarios leadership of the CTC had taken refuge’, but the building was successfully defended by a large crowd of workers. The next day Campanerio with ten others attacked a cigar factory and killed a popular leader of the Havana cigar makers, Miguel Fernandez Roig. ‘The gunmen escaped with the aid of the police’.

Later that year the FTN held further elections which the unitario candidates won; the government then seized the building of the Cigar Rollers’ Union; the Havana tobacco workers responded with a general strike during which nearly 1,000 pickets were arrested. Attempts by the ‘official’ CTC to get scab labour failed, and the strike continued until all those arrested had been released. The campaign of violence continued for some time but the PSP was able to maintain a significant presence in the industry.

In the sugar industry the union – the FNTA – was controlled by the unitarios.  During the late 1940s the sugar industry was suffering through the fall in sugar prices worldwide.

An alternative – very small – FNTA was set up and recognised by the government. The unitario FNTA ignored this and began a campaign of strikes and demonstrations against wage cuts at the end of 1947. The government sent soldiers to attack union meetings in the localities.  Jesus Menendez Larrondo, General Secretary of the FNTA, toured the localities and at Matanzas station an army officer shot him in the back, an assassination ordered by the Chief of the Army General Staff. The funeral of Menendez was a huge protest in itself and there were many protest strikes.

In the Havana docks rampant inflation had been partly met with wage rises, due to the militancy of the dock workers and the inspired leadership of Aracelio Iglesias, who was on the national executive of the National Maritime Workers’ Federation (FOMN). Cushion writes: ‘In February 1948, the Ministry of Labour imposed Gilberto Goliath and Juan Arevalo as leaders of the FOMN and the communist daily, Hoy, reminded its readers of Arevalo’s links with Serafino Romualdi and the AFL, whose hand they saw behind this particular move.’  When Iglesias was re-elected FOMN secretary for the port of Havana the government annulled the election and gave control of the union to supporters of the CON(A).  Strikes and demonstrations followed, and two days after a mass meeting Iglesias was shot in the back and murdered by two gunmen.

Notes of a US Embassy meeting in Havana the following year make it clear that a gangster named Soler had ‘deliberately killed Iglesias at the instance of the Suri Castillo faction’ and that there were ‘about 12 more Communist leaders that must be eliminated as soon as possible.’

In 1949 Eusebio Mujal, by a series of manoeuvres, took over as General Secretary of the CTC. In this year the headquarters of the anti-communist CIT, which had been set up in opposition to the CTAL in Latin America, was moved to Havana. In 1951 the CIT changed its name to Organizacion Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores (ORIT). In the mid-fifties ORIT out-manoeuvred and replaced the CTAL in Latin America, thus achieving a more complete victory for anti-communism in the region than was possible in Cuba itself.

While the assassinations of a number of workers’ leaders had been setbacks and it took some time for the workers’ movement to recover, that recovery was well under way in the early fifties.  The corrupt Mujalista leadership of the CTC and some constituent unions proved incapable of completely reining in the workers’ demands, and on the ground the unitarios network remained and was able to organise quite effectively.


In July 1951 an outbreak of strikes in the tobacco industry (against mechanisation) culminated in a wave of ‘dead cities’ (ciudades muertes) a form of action in which a general strike is accompanied by the voluntary closing of businesses and shops in an entire town. During one such action, a protestor, Alfredo Lopez Brito, was shot dead by police in Cabaiguan and the townsfolk began taking up arms. Seeing that it was losing control of the situation, the government capitulated.

The previous year had seen considerable turbulence in the sugar industry, in which the ‘official’ leadership was marginalised by the still-existing unitarios organisation in the localities. Cushion points out that the strikes, which broke out simultaneously in a number of provinces, could not have happened without ‘an effective network of militants able to generalise and plan such action.’ There were also strikes in a number of docks which the government finally settled at some cost.

The mujalista control of the unions had destroyed the official organisation which collected subscriptions, and it became important despite a government subsidy for the ‘official’ unions to recover the union subscriptions. The solution was a compulsory check-off of union dues. This proved unpopular and in many cases unworkable, with the employers in the sugar industry forced to pay one percent of their wage bill to the FNTA and the CTC and the workers threatening to strike if the deduction was made to their wages – thus the payment was made out of company profits and greatly resented by the employers.

This was not the only debacle which increased the unpopularity of the government, already widely despised because of rampant corruption and criminality. The chaotic state of Havana’s public transport system was due to William Pawley, owner of Autobuses Modernos, and the gangsters of the ARG who ran the transport unions. (For further fascinating details of William Pawley, fraudster and incompetent spy, the reader must refer to the book itself.) In this situation the government chose to increase fares, which caused a public outcry and gave the PSP newspaper Hoy, which had just won a legal battle and restarted publication, a popular cause. After massive protests the increase was dropped in September 1951.

The magazine Bohemia in January 1952 ran an opinion poll in which the Ortodoxos came out 12 points ahead of the ruling party, the Autenticos. President Prio feared an Ortodoxos victory because they had promised to investigate him, so he ignored all warnings of Batista’s projected coup and intervened to prevent the ARG from murdering him.  When Batista finally staged his coup the business community were his most enthusiastic supporters.

Cushion concludes that the brevity of Batista’s hold on power was partly due to the resilience of the working class whose organisation had been forced to develop new structures due to the attacks of the post-war years, and had survived them.


"Steve Cushion demonstrates...the savagery to which the ruling class can descend; but that it can make mistakes; and that the Cuban working class was very resilient despite a long murderous campaign against it."
"When Batista finally staged his coup the business community were his most enthusiastic supporters."