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11.6: Cuban Revolution- 1959

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    How Did Fidel Castro Gain Power?

    During the 1950s, Cuba had one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. Women gained suffrage in the 1930s and Havana had hosted more than one Pan-American conference promoting women’s rights. Cuban universities were among the oldest and most prestigious in the Americas. Havana was a major cosmopolitan center that attracted mainstream tourists, intellectuals, and artists, as well as those seeking disreputable entertainment. What made Cuba ripe for revolution was a combination of grievances: uneven income distribution, political corruption, and privileges for foreigners and their companies. Fidel Castro’s famous speech at the UN noted that 85 percent of Cuba’s small farmers paid rent to foreign-owned corporations, including the infamous United Fruit Company and the West India Company. Most of the land remained uncultivated, and the small number of factories engaged in processing food, tobacco, textiles, lumber, and sugar sent those goods abroad, forcing Cuba to import even many basic foodstuffs. Cuba did not control fishing rights off its shores and Cubans were hungry because seafood was controlled by foreign-owned companies. The people who contributed to Cuba’s wealth lacked basic human services. Infant mortality, due to many preventable maladies such as tapeworms, parasites, influenza, and dysentery, was high. It is important to note that the Afro-Cuban population was disproportionately poor and marginalized because they did not have sufficient access to medical care, social services, or education. 

    Headshot of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro from the 1950s. Details in text.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Fidel Castro, Mondadori Publishers, in the Public Domain.

    Figure 11.6.1 is a headshot of Fidel Castro taken in the 1950s. He has a moustache and beard, and is wearing a military uniform. Fidel Castro is one of the most controversial political leaders of the twentieth century. His fans admire him for leading a successful revolution that overthrew a brutal dictator and remember him an advocate for social justice, but his critics remember him as a liar and repressive dictator. Fidel Castro's political career in Cuba spans over 60 years.

    On January 8, 1959, revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, ousted the corrupt president Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro, Che Guevarra, and the guerilla fighters triumphantly drove through the streets of Havana. The United States, which had long supported Batista, immediately expressed sympathy for Castro’s new government and granted diplomatic recognition. But President Dwight Eisenhower and members of his administration were wary. The revolutionary government soon instituted leftist economic policies centered on agrarian reform, land redistribution, and the nationalization of private enterprises. The majority of Cubans who fled were white and wealthy and many settled in Miami, Florida, and other American cities.

    The relationship between Cuba and the United States deteriorated rapidly after Fidel Castro became Marxist-Leninism’s poster boy. On October 19, 1960, the United States instituted a near-total trade embargo to economically isolate the Cuban regime, and in January 1961, the two nations broke off formal diplomatic relations. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), wrongly assumed that the Castro government lacked popular support and that Cuban citizens would revolt if given the opportunity, began to recruit members of the exile community to participate in an invasion of the island. On April 16, 1961, an amateur invasion force consisting primarily of Cuban émigrés landed on Giron Beach at the Bay of Pigs. Cuban soldiers and civilians quickly overwhelmed the exiles, many of whom were taken prisoner. The Cuban government’s success at thwarting the Bay of Pigs invasion legitimized the new regime and was a tremendous embarrassment for the Kennedy administration.

    As the political relationship between Cuba and the United States disintegrated, the Castro government became more closely aligned with the Soviet Union. Cuba and the Soviet Union signed a secret agreement in July 1962 to place Soviet missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles from US shores. This strengthening of ties set the stage for the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the most dramatic foreign policy crisis in the history of the United States. Figure 11.6.2 is a CIA map of Cuba with stars, dots, and circles drawn to show the locations of both confirmed and possible sites for Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) that were detected by US Intelligence. The Soviets decided to place missiles in Cuba partly in response to the United States’ longtime maintenance of a nuclear arsenal in Turkey and at the invitation of the Cuban government, the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba. As shown in Figure 11.6.2, American spy planes detected the construction of missile launch sites. The US Senate authorized military exercises in the Caribbean, and on October 22, President Kennedy addressed the American people to alert them to this threat. Over the course of the next several days, the world watched in horror as the United States and the Soviet Union hovered on the brink of nuclear war. Finally, on October 28, the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba in exchange for a U.S. agreement to remove its missiles from Turkey and a formal pledge that the United States would not invade Cuba, and the crisis was resolved peacefully.

    CIA map of Cuba with stars and circles drawn reveal data gathered by US Intelligence about Soviet missiles in Cuba. Details in text.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Surface to Air Missile Activity in Cuba in 1962, The CIA via Flickr, in the Public Domain.

    Cuba joined COMECON in 1972 and implemented its first five-year plan in 1975. The US maintained its economic blockade, but Cuba joined the International Sugar Organization and the Latin American & Caribbean Sugar Exporters’ Association and sold about 41% of its sugar to western capitalist nations. Towards the end of the 1970s, the Cuban government encouraged foreign investment from capitalist nations.

    Revolutionary Reforms

    Cuban revolutionaries enacted anti-discriminatory legislation and redistributive reforms that especially benefited women and Afro-Cubans. The government provided free healthcare, education up to university level, complete freedom of choice in abortion and birth control, social security, childcare, maternity leave, rent, parity in pay scales, etc. Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionaries championed social and racial justice at a time when Jim Crow segregationist laws were just starting to be dismantled in the US. The abolition of racial inequalities was a central goal of the revolution and institutionalized racism was banned in Cuba. By 1980 Cuba was able to offer world-class healthcare and Afro-Cubans were among the longest living and healthiest. This was a remarkable achievement considering that Cuba was the last country in Latin America to abolish slavery (1886) and a society so hung up on whiteness that even President Batista was denied membership in the Havana Yacht Club because he was a mulatto. After World War II, South Africa and the US were the only independent countries with de jure racial segregation. The Cuban revolutionary government consistently criticized the US for failing to address institutionalized racism. Cuba famously provided refuge to several high-profile African Americans sought by the FBI. Women were mobilized from the earliest days of the Revolution and obtained rights, such as the 1975 Cuban Family Code, which outlawed discrimination against women and girls, even within the family structure. These are remarkable achievements considering that Fidel Castro and the revolutionary government endured great obstacles, such as the US blockade and demise of the USSR, which was Cuba’s lifeline to fuel and resources. 

    Although the revolutionary government implemented several reforms to alleviate institutionalized racism, the socioeconomic reforms had their shortcomings. Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership were never without flaws or free from mistakes. Fidel and the revolutionaries inherited widespread racism and sexism. The revolutionary government strongly condemned, and outlawed both racism and sexism, but did not fully eliminate discrimination. Their analyses of social issues focused on either race or gender rather than intersectionality. Fidel Castro also prematurely declared that institutional racism had been eliminated during the 1960s and prohibited discussions about race. In 2000, Fidel Castro acknowledged the mistakes of the revolutionary government and officially reopened the issue of race as a subject for public discussion and improvement. More recently the Cuban government acknowledged the prevailing legacies of racism and has launched programs to combat discrimination.

    During the "Special Period," Cubans, especially Afro-Cubans, struggled due to regular power outages that shut down factories and supply shortages became part of daily living. Remittances primarily benefited white Cubans because the majority who emigrated were white. Castro’s internationalism and contributions to anti-colonialist movements significantly impacted the lives of millions of people throughout the world. He focused largely on medical and educational collaborations in the fight against imperialism. While many white Americans associate Fidel Castro with communism and dictatorship, many African Americans associate Castro with liberation citing Castro’s meeting with Malcolm X and granting political asylum to Assata Shakur as examples. Afro-Cubans are among the healthiest and longest living Blacks. Within the Black community globally, Castro’s contributions to anti-imperialist struggles are praised. In this context, it is important to acknowledge that American heroes don’t exactly match the superstars of the non-European world or marginalized peoples in the US.

    In Latin America and the Caribbean, Castro is regarded as a reliable friend and partner. Since the early 1960s, Cuba has offered thousands of educational scholarships to students from Angola and the Caribbean. Cuba’s educational internationalism was extended to American students as well. Nearly 2,400 American students, mostly non-white and from low-income households, were enrolled in Cuban universities during the 2014–2015 academic year. Castro was especially known for his responses to international crises: the Henry Reeve Brigade, which included more than 1,200 Cuban doctors and nurses, were among the first responders during the earthquake Haiti (2010) and West African Ebola outbreak (2014). The US turned down Cuba’s offer of medical assistance following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast (2005). One of the biggest flaws of the revolutionary government was that Cuba had only one head of state, Fidel Castro, from 1959 until 2006, when his brother Raul Castro assumed power after Fidel fell ill. In February 2008 Fidel Castro surrendered his position and Raul was elected president the following week. Fidel Castro died in November 2016 at the age of 90. 

    Review Questions

    • What were the principal achievements of the Cuban Revolution?
    • Why was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion an important turning point in US-Cuban relations?  
    • How was the Cuban Missile Crisis resolved?
    • What impact did the revolution have on social issues such as racism and sexism in Cuba

    11.6: Cuban Revolution- 1959 is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.