The Cuban Revolution marked the birth of one of the world’s most famous Communist regimes, led by two of the 20th century’s most charismatic revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Over 6 years, Cuba was transformed from one of the United States’ biggest assets to a nation that would be one of the greatest thorns in their side throughout the second half of the 20th century.
But what brought the people to a revolution in the first place? Why did Communism seem so appealing to the people of Cuba? Why did Cuba turn against its former ally, the United States?
Corruption had been an issue in Cuba since the establishment of the Republic of Cuba in 1902. Politics and power were seen as means for the elites to further enrich themselves and accumulate personal wealth whilst in office.
Pervasive corruption scandals within government persisted: even those elected on platforms of honesty and integrity simply cracked down on the overt nature of low-level, petty corruption, whilst failing to tackle the much larger scale issues. Worsened by nepotism, people grew to accept and work within the system, acknowledging they needed networks and bribes in order to achieve certain ends.
When President Fulgencio Batista took power in 1940, corruption reached new heights: reports suggested that it was totally endemic and the US, which still had a strong presence in the country, was increasingly worried about it.
During Batista’s dictatorship, the previous subtle toleration of corruption disappeared. Batista fuelled resentment by instating links between the government and organized crime, as well as allowing the Americans to dominate across the Cuban economy once more. Also, people felt betrayed and frustrated by the violence and brutality that accompanied his power.
Ongoing political instability
After gaining independence from Spain, Cuba was invaded, occupied and governed by the US military between 1898 and 1902 before finally becoming a republic. Several years of regime changes had left Cuba politically unstable, and those who thought they had a chance at gaining power instigated a series of revolts and coups in order to try and seize it.
Batista gained his second term in power in 1952 after colluding with the US to lead a coup against the then President, Prío Socarras, installing himself in a military dictatorship. Once Batista had seized power through violence, it seemed to undermine the notions of democracy and freedom that had previously been fought for. Many dissatisfied with his regime believed that violence and power-grabbing were now a possibility in their quest to overthrow him.
Cuba’s sugar-based economy had revolved around slavery for centuries: even post-independence, sugar remained a vital export for Cuba, particularly to the United States. A one-crop economy proved crippling in many respects.
The country was divided sharply between those who worked in the countryside (often farming sugar), who lived in dire poverty, and those who lived in prosperous cities like Havana who enjoyed high literacy rates, access to new technologies and excellent healthcare.
Racism, one of slavery’s most toxic legacies, also remained a problem. White and black citizens were largely segregated, and even President Batista was denied entry to some of Havana’s most exclusive, whites-only clubs.
A booming tourism economy also caused certain issues. Cuba, for example, gained a reputation in the United States as a place of hedonism: brothels, casinos, hotels, beaches, luxury and sunshine. Whilst by no means was Cuba’s economy centred around these things, gambling, illicit drugs and the sex trade were all money-makers and fuelled corruption.
Some historians have likened urban Cuban society to being similar to life in Western Europe, whilst rural Cuba mirrored less developed Latin American societies.
Although Cuba had technically become a republic in 1902, the United States had passed the Platt Amendment in 1901, which allowed it to maintain a major presence in Cuba. The Amendment also limited Cuba’s ability to make foreign policy or trade deals without first consulting the United States.
It was technically passed by the Cuban Assembly (with a tiny majority), but many consider this to have been of dubious legality as there was immense political pressure to agree to the amendment so that Cuba could become a republic.
As such, the United States continued to act as an imperial power in Cuba, curtailing freedoms and exploiting the economy and political situation wherever possible.
Cuba’s revolution did not materialise overnight. In 1953, the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl led an attack against military barracks in an attempt to stir up a nationwide revolt against Batista’s dictatorship. It failed miserably, and they were swiftly captured.
After less than 2 years in prison, they were released and headed into exile in Mexico where they met other revolutionaries, returning to Cuba better organised and with better contacts in 1957.
It took years of ongoing rebellion and guerrilla warfare to enact the change Castro and his new ally, Che Guevara, sought: the United States offered financial assistance to the rebels on the rationale that if they won, it would be beneficial if the rebels had some sympathies with the United States.