In December 1956, a group of 82 revolutionaries landed on the Cuban coast with the intention of overthrowing the corrupt, brutal, US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
They called themselves ‘the 26 July Movement’ in honour of a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks in 1953. The principal leader of the expedition was Fidel Castro. Among the other leaders were Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, and an asthmatic Argentinian doctor called Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
Only 12 of them survived long enough to launch a guerrilla war in the remote Sierra Maestra mountains. Despite this, the group endured and attracted fresh recruits. By the summer of 1958, they had 200 members. Six months later, in January 1959, they entered Havana, the Cuban capital, as victors in the revolutionary war.
It was a stunning achievement. At the moment of victory, there were still only 800 guerrillas, yet they had defeated Batista’s armed forces and taken control of a Caribbean island of seven million people.
The US regarded Central America and the Caribbean as its ‘backyard’. Nominally independent states were run by US client regimes formed of assorted generals, landowners, industrialists, and gangsters.
The system, designed to protect US business interests in the region, was policed by the US intelligence agencies. When a mildly reformist regime had taken power in Guatemala in 1954, for instance, it had been overthrown in a CIA-organised coup.
As it happened, Batista had become so unpopular that the US decided to dump him at the last minute. They figured they could cut a deal with Castro.
Why not? The Russian Revolution had been carried out by workers. The Chinese Revolution had been carried out by peasants. The Cuban Revolution had been carried out by neither: it was a movement of middle-class intellectuals.
Castro had issued a series of statements indicating support for liberal reforms but little more. As late as May 1959, he declared: ‘We are not opposed to private investment… We believe in the usefulness, in the experience, and in the enthusiasm of private investors… Companies with international investments will have the same guarantees and the same rights as national firms.’
The revolutionary guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara
The revolutionaries were naïve. What had made victory possible was the support of Cuba’s peasants and rural labourers. These were US capital’s beasts of burden. Their lives could not be improved without confronting the interests of big business.
The contradictions of Cuba’s economic underdevelopment confronted Castro with a simple choice: either he ended up running a client regime like that of Batista; or he carried out land reform and used the wealth of the island to fund schools, hospitals, and welfare.
Castro moved cautiously at first, but he faced fierce retaliation against any perceived threat to US interests. An increasingly tense stand-off culminated in wholesale nationalisation of US businesses on the island, the development of strong commercial links with Russia, and a belated declaration that Cuba’s revolution had been ‘socialist’.
The CIA then backed an armed attack on the island by rich Cuban exiles in April 1961. Just as ordinary Cubans had abandoned Batista to his fate, now they rallied in defense of the Castro regime. The Bay of Pigs invasion turned into a fiasco.
The Cuban Missile Crisis in October the following year – when Castro’s Russian ally (temporarily) installed nuclear weapons on the island and almost triggered nuclear war – sealed the rift between the US and Cuba.
What are we to make of Cuban ‘socialism’?
The urban workers had played no part in the revolution, and exercised no power after it. The rural labourers had cheered the revolution from the sidelines, but hardly any had become guerrillas. The revolution was almost entirely the work of middle-class idealists and the small numbers of peasant farmers they succeeded in recruiting along the way.
The Cuban Revolution was not, therefore, an example of ‘the self-emancipation of the working class’. And in consequence, Cuban ‘socialism’ was the impoverished state capitalism and economic dependency of a Caribbean sugar island subject to US boycott. The reforms were real, but they were bestowed from above and straitjacketed by poverty.
Che Guevara generalized the Cuban experience into a theory of revolutionary guerrilla warfare applicable world-wide. He identified three key lessons:
1) Popular guerrilla armies could defeat regular government forces.
2) The countryside, not the town, was the natural terrain of struggle in the underdeveloped world.
3) The revolutionaries did not need to wait until conditions had ripened; they could themselves create the revolution by forming a guerrilla group and acting as the catalyst.
Small, mobile, hard-hitting bands of dedicated revolutionaries, Che argued, could provide insurrectionary focos (foci), kick-starting revolutionary guerrilla wars and toppling US-backed dictators across Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Che was as good as his word. He could have remained a comfortable, popular, high-ranking official in Cuba. But he was soon disillusioned with the Soviet-style economics and diplomacy embraced by the rest of the Cuban leadership. He remained at heart what he had always been: a brave, idealistic, and dedicated revolutionary fighter.
So he disappeared from public view and travelled secretly, first to the Congo in 1965, then to Bolivia in 1966, in an attempt to make a reality of his foco theory of revolution.
But the theory turned out to be false. Revolution could not be replicated by mere acts of will-power and dynamism. History could not be forced by voluntarism.
Subjective factors – leadership, organisation, ideas – were decisive in revolutionary situations. But the objective conditions had to be right. Whether or not revolution was possible also depended upon the balance of class forces, the coherence of the state, and the consciousness and confidence of the masses.
And there had to be a proper relationship between the two: revolutionary organisation had to be embedded in society, in its class struggles and mass movements, so that the revolutionaries were sensitive to popular moods and could match demands and calls to action to what was possible.
In Cuba, all social forces had been weak: the social elites, the Batista regime, the middle class, the labour movement, the peasantry, the rural labourers. Corruption and exploitation were endemic. Life was bitter. But alienation and lethargy were pervasive. Entering this hollowed-out society, the guerrillas were the grit in the void.
Things were different elsewhere. Che was defeated in the Congo by the corruption and factionalism of rival warlords – and by his own miserable health.
But he faced far worse in Bolivia. His guerrilla force of about 50 men, inserted into a remote mountain region, found itself isolated amid the indifference and fear of the local population.
The guerrillas stumbled from disaster to disaster, and then, in early October 1967, the remaining handful was surrounded and overwhelmed by 1,800 Bolivian soldiers. Che was captured and summarily executed.
He became an icon of revolutionary resistance because of his heroism and idealism in a world soured by suffering. His has since become perhaps the most famous face on the planet. But we do the poor to whom he devoted his life no favours by failing to learn the lessons of his mistakes.