Hidden History of Cuban Revolution

Review by Gina Nicholson

A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution

By Steve Cushion, Published by Monthly Review Press, NY.

“The Cuban Revolution (1953–59) was an armed revolt conducted by Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement and its allies against the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.” - Wikipedia

The above is one view of the Cuban revolution which Steve Cushion has sought in his book A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution to supplement.  He writes of ‘two divergent views of the Cuban insurrection: that of the heroic guerrilla struggle . . . and that of the urban middle class underground resistance . . .’

The story he tells is different in emphasis from both.  He recounts the events leading up to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 with particular attention to the struggle of the working class.  He has examined thousands of documents, largely leaflets and newspaper reports produced during the years 1952-9, and interviewed people who had been involved in the struggles of that time.  His conclusion is that a revolutionary working class developed and supplied an essential dimension to the struggle to overthrow Batista’s government.

The crisis in Cuba in the early 1950s arose essentially because of the fall in the price of sugar worldwide. Sugar was not simply Cuba’s main product (Cuba produced 18% of the world’s sugar at that time); many other parts of the economy depended upon it. Attempts were made to control the price but they failed; added to this the demand for Cuban sugar was reduced because the United States and other countries produced more of their own. Therefore the Cuban sugar-producing firms, faced with falling profits, set about laying off workers and reducing the wages of those who were left; and increasing productivity. Cushion shows that the resulting industrial battles produced a sharp learning curve among the working class.

The Cuban trade union movement was well organised, but when Batista came to power he helped to deepen the corruption already existing in the CTC (Cuban TUC).   The CTC General Secretary, Mujal, rapidly became ‘one of Batista’s most loyal collaborators.’  

In 1954 the sugar employers proposed a reduction in wages to keep pace with the fall in the price of sugar; the sugar workers’ union in Oriente Province proposed a strike. In January 1955 the government  ‘decreed . . . a 7.31% wage cut . . .[and] bulk sugar loading, which would have led to thousands of job losses. There was uproar in the FNTA [sugar workers union] conference, but Mujal persuaded the delegates to refer the strike call to a joint CTC/FNTA meeting.’

At this meeting of the union executive committee and the CTC, the vote was 53 to 19 against strike action. Cushion remarks: ‘this conference was the first sign of a developing schism in the CTC bureaucracy and the emergence of a left-wing opposition . . .’

The same conference ‘was also the first report at national level of an intervention by David Salvador, a shop steward from a plantation sugar refinery . . . He would soon become a founder member of the MR-26-7 and would lead the revolutionary CTC after the revolution.’ Mass layoffs followed the formal acceptance of the government decree, and there followed many strikes in the sugar industry.

While details of much of the industrial activity at this time are scarce, a considerable amount is known about a strike at Delicias y Chaparra, beginning in October 1954, which followed an announcement of forthcoming job cuts.

This strike attracted support from all over Cuba, partly because the sugar company was American and the presence of American companies was loathed by many Cubans. Thus a nationalist theme appears strongly in this and subsequent struggles.  The dockworkers refused to load sugar produced by the striking workers; the women from sugar workers’ and dockers’ families ‘intimidated the Rural Guard’, prevented the police from taking away arrested strikers and ‘stopped would-be strikebreakers from entering the workplace.’ At the time women had an advantage because of the reluctance of soldiers and police physically to attack them.

This strike lasted 104 days and was finally successful, Cushion believes largely because of ‘patriotic solidarity’.

However the full-scale attack on sugar workers’ conditions and wages continued through 1956 and was met with widespread militant activity from the workers, despite the lack of any lead from their ‘mujalista’ trade union officials. There were running battles between strikers and the police and the army, striking workers occupied a yacht club, a church, and a town hall. There was extensive solidarity action by many different sections including dockers, bus workers, garment workers, even night club staff. On several occasions the workers shut down a complete town – all shops closed, electricity cut off, transport ceased.  Students figured largely in supporting actions.  ‘The support they showed in the sugar strike gave the FEU [students’ union] enormous credibility among workers. . .’

The dockworkers were also under attack. The employers’ and the government’s attempts to force through mechanisation were fiercely resisted by the dockworkers, and since employers were reluctant to invest largely in machinery which might not be able to be used due to the workers’ resistance, this attack was less successful than the attack on the sugar workers. For similar reasons, attempts to mechanise the cigar industry failed, but the government used increasingly violent methods to support other employers including bus companies and banks in their attacks on wages and conditions, leading in the end to torture, ‘disappearances’, and death squads.

An important theme in the book is the convergence of the PSP (Cuban Communist Party) and the MR-26-7 (July 26 Revolutionary Movement).

The failed attack on the Moncado barracks in 1953 was denounced by the Cuban Communist Party (PSP) as terrorism.  Fidel Castro was imprisoned and, on his release in 1955, founded the MR-26-7. As a target of government death squads, Castro went to Mexico, leaving Frank Pais in charge of preparing for his return. In the course of organising support, Pais visited the town of Guantanamo (less well known than the neighbouring US base), a town with a strong working class centred on the railway yards. These workers struck in 1954-5, but were met with serious violence and defeated. Some among them concluded that their wages and conditions could not be defended or improved by peaceful means, due to the violently repressive nature of the Batista regime, and they turned to the MR-26-7, offering their ‘considerable industrial experience’. Thus the MR-26-7 with its ‘seccion obrera’ (workers’ section) in Guantanamo grew and became strong. As well as organising considerable industrial disruption, they began to prepare for the armed struggle, for example purchasing arms illegally from U.S. personnel at the base.

In its propaganda during this insurrectionary period the MR-26-7 ‘was very strong in its denunciation . . . of the regime . . .but much less specific about the proposed solutions,’ in contrast with the material produced by the PSP. Cushion explains this vagueness on the part of the MR-26-7 as due to its seeing itself ‘not as a political party, but as a movement that could unite all patriotic Cubans who believed in democracy and social justice.’ In this situation, specific demands could cause disunity.

The PSP (Communist Party), on the other hand, was concerned with ‘la lucha de masas’, with putting forward precise economic demands and avoiding overtly political statements. Cushion contends that ‘although it has become customary to belittle the part played by PSP members in the insurrectionary phase of the Cuban Revolution . . . this ignores the immense contribution they made to sustaining levels of working class discontent . . .’

Although Cushion asserts that the Communist Party was the only consistently honest force in Cuban politics during the 1940s’ he also says that it lost credibility because of its class-collaborationist policies which received theoretical support from Browderism in the United States.

During the early fifties, the PSP concentrated on attempting to create a cross-class united front against Batista, but when it became obvious that Batista would not allow himself to lose an election, the PSP turned to developing the demands of the working class, largely through CDDOs (Comites de Defensa de los Demandas Obreras), of which there were 61 in Havana alone. These put forward immediate demands (such as for a 20% wage rise). However through a combination of trade union corruption and government violence, it became increasingly obvious that unarmed workers would not be able to succeed, and, necessarily, the policies and actions of the PSP and the MR-26-7 gradually converged.

Cushion shows how two strikes, one successful and the second a chaotic failure, illustrate this process of convergence and its difficulties.

On July 30, 1957 Frank Pais was caught in a police roundup and shot dead on the spot. This murder resulted in the city of Santiago shutting down completely for five days. The strike spread quickly in Oriente Province and in Camaguey, aggravated by the random violence of the police and army. In Guantanamo the city and surrounding countryside including the railway, the electrical plant, the aerodrome and most shops and businesses closed down, while strikers bombed some bridges and power lines.  It proved impossible, however, to spread the strike to Havana.

The extraordinary speed and success of this spontaneous response impressed everyone. It was clear that the strike had succeeded in the east, where there was de facto cooperation between the MR-26-7 and the communists, but not in Havana, where the two organisations were hostile to each other.

Cushion remarks that unfortunately the MR-26-7 and the PSP drew different conclusions. The MR-26-7 thought that with the extent of popular discontent, one more (military) push was needed to overthrow the government; the PSP concluded that its ‘lucha de masas’ was working, and could lead to a peaceful change of government. Both organisations committed themselves to a general strike, albeit with a different understanding of the term’, and discussions were held between Fidel Castro and the veteran communist sugar workers’ leader, Ursinio Rojas, in October 1957.

That there was to be a general strike became widely known, and the government prepared for it. However the MR-26-7, which assumed leadership, kept the date secret, irritating the PSP, who thought the strike would be called for May Day. In fact it was called with virtually no notice on April 9, 1958. In Havana, where cooperation between the MR-26-7 and the communists was almost non-existent, due mainly to the anti-communism persisting among members of the MR-26-7, police and army rampaged up and down the streets, shooting at random; in this situation, with very little armed protection and at half an hour’s notice, the workers did not strike except in the docks.

In the east the strike was relatively successful, but the failure of Havana was crucial. Intense debate followed this disaster and it was realised that serious cooperation between the PSP and MR-26-7 was essential.

The failed strike gave Batista renewed confidence and he threw the whole might of his army of 10,000 against the 300 rebels in the Sierra Maestra. The rebels had fought off this offensive by August of 1958 and this gave the MR-26-7 recognition as the real leader of the anti-Batista struggle’, while Batista’s standing ebbed, as did the authority of Mujal, who became increasingly irrelevant among the workers.

Sometime in late October or early November 1958 it was agreed [between the MR-26-7 and the PSP] to form a joint organisation to be known as Frente Obrero Nacional Unido (FONU).’

This organisation held two congresses, in Oriente ‘and in the recently liberated area of northern Las Villas’. These and further meetings of workers including a plenary meeting of sugar workers which numbered about 700 delegates, were held under the armed protection of the MR-26-7. Cushion gives great credit to the PSP for the organisation of the two congresses, which was difficult and dangerous ‘in opposition to the official trade union bureaucracy . . . [and] in the middle of a civil war’.

The Cuban economy at this time was in dire straits, and, due to the failure to defeat the rebels in the east, the morale of Batista’s army was low, suffering mass desertions. When on New Year’s Day, 1959, Batista fled, the mass of the population were inclined to celebrate; however the likely victory of the MR-26-7 prompted the U.S. Embassy to try to arrange a coup.The columns led by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were swiftly deployed to the capital but were not sufficiently strong by themselves to overcome the enemy forces in the capital.’

Then Fidel Castro in Santiago put out a radio call for a revolutionary general strike, which was immediately and entirely successful. Cushion notes: ‘Without this strike, it is unlikely that the rebel victory would have been so swift or so complete. Such general strikes do not materialize out of thin air; they have to be organised.’ He shows that the convergence of the MR-26-7 and the PSP organisationally and tactically was instrumental in ensuring the necessary support of the revolution among the working class.

However, the struggle did not end in January 1959: the PSP described what had happened as ‘popular, patriotic, democratic, agrarian and for national liberation’ but not as socialist – that was to come later. Right wing elements persisted after January 1959 and, among working class organisations, a tendency similar to the mujalistas managed to exclude the PSP, for a time, from the leadership of the CTC. David Salvador was installed as general secretary and spoke dismissively of the communists. Eventually he joined the right wing guerrillas in the mountains, was arrested and charged with treason.

Steve Cushion has attempted to correct the record and to put the contribution of the Cuban working class, and its communist party, in their correct place as essential to the success of the revolution. In this attempt he has produced a finely detailed, very readable and totally fascinating account. This reviewer cannot hope to do justice to the story which unfolds of the ingenuity and courage of individuals and groups, and of the swirling currents and cross-currents of political movement which finally came together to oust the Batista dictatorship; and strongly recommends the book to the reader.