During the early years of the neocolonial republic, workers organized in defense of their rights. In 1906, a trade union of construction workers was formed, and it initiated a strike demanding an eight-hour workday and wage increase. In 1907, tobacco workers in Havana went on strike, demanding wage payments in US dollars, as against Spanish currency (Cuba not yet having its own currency). The Cuban scholar Teresita Yslesia Martínez attributes the success of these early strikes to the unity and persistence of the workers and to the support that they received from other popular sectors (Instituto de Cuba 1998:79).
In 1906, the Socialist Party of Manzanillo was formed. Agustín Martín Veloz (Martinillo), a Spanish tobacco worker with an anarchist-unionist orientation, was elected president. The party organized cells in the eastern cities of Manzanillo, Bayamo, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, and Guantánamo, and it played an important role in supporting the successful tobacco workers strike of 1907 in Havana (Instituto de Cuba 1998:79).
But the Cuban workers’ movement prior to 1917 was limited by prevailing tendencies toward apolitical anarchism (which disdains efforts to take power), trade unionism (which organizes workers separately in each trade), and reformism (which seeks concessions from the bourgeoisie rather than the taking of power by the working class). However, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 provided a stimulus to its evolution to a more advanced stage. In 1918 and 1919 in Cuba, as elsewhere in the world, there occurred a significant increase in strikes and mass action by railroad, construction, tobacco, and dock workers and truck drivers, with an increased tendency toward class unity, putting forth demands such as wage increases, recognition of labor unions, and an eight-hour workday (Instituto de Cuba 1998:124-26).
During the 1920s, the proletarian struggle in Cuba increasingly recognized that the protection of the rights of workers would require the liberation of the nation from US neocolonial domination. Thus, the workers’ movement became tied to an emerging and evolving anti-imperialist popular movement. The Worker Congress of 1920 adopted radical positions, distinct from the Worker Congress of 1914, which had been dominated by reformism and opportunism. The 1920 Congress rejected a proposal for the participation of a Cuban delegation in the pro-imperialist Pan-American Worker Confederation; sent a message of solidarity to the Socialist Soviet Republic of Russia; and approved a motion by Alfredo López Arencibia for the creation of a national worker confederation unifying workers of all trades and regions (Instituto de Cuba 1998: 223-24).
In 1921, the Worker Federation of Havana (FOH for its initials in Spanish) was formed, and it attained government recognition in the same year. It was founded by Alfredo López, a leader in the typographic workers union and the most outstanding proletarian leader of the period. The FOH sought to promote the ideological and cultural formation of the workers, and to this end, it developed schools with night classes, a newspaper, and a library (Instituto de Cuba 1998:128, 223-24; Vitier 2006:133).
Another outstanding leader from the working-class was Enrique Varona González, railroad worker and union president, who organized workers connected to sugar production in the eastern provinces, including workers in the sugar fields, the sugar processing plants, the railroads, and the docks. He organized a strike with national repercussions of sugar agricultural and industrial workers in the eastern region in 1924. He was a major force in the forging of a national confederation of workers. Enrique Varona was assassinated on August 19, 1925 (Instituto de Cuba 1998:226).
On December 14, 1924, a National Worker Congress was held, in which industrial and agricultural workers from different regions of the country participated. This would lead to the formation, on August 7, 1925, of the Worker National Confederation of Cuba (CNOC for its initials in Spanish). It was the first nationwide confederation of workers’ organizations representing agricultural and industrial workers; and it included workers of various ideological tendencies, including anarchist-unionists, socialists, communists, and reformists. Its leading force was Alfredo López, who was assassinated in 1926 (Instituto de Cuba 1998:226).
In the societies of the North, the capitalist class was able to channel the labor movement in a reformist as against revolutionary direction through concessions to workers’ demands, which were made possible by profits generated though the super-exploitation of the colonies and neocolonies of the world-system. And the labor movement in the North developed in a context of ideological justifications of colonial domination, an ideology of racial superiority, and a social custom of racial segregation.
But the workers’ movement in Cuba developed in a different context that would channel it toward revolution. When it emerged during the first two decades of the neocolonial republic, popular consciousness in Cuba already had taken significant steps to overcome social divisions among whites, blacks, and mulattos, as a result of the legacy of Martí. As the contradictions of the neocolonial republic became evident, popular consciousness of the neocolonial situation would continue to develop. Thus, in the 1920s, the labor movement in Cuba began to evolve in a form integrally tied to a popular struggle for national liberation, which saw the resolution of the problems confronted by each sector as necessarily tied to the national problem of foreign domination. As a result, the Cuban proletarian movement would evolve as part of an integral movement that addressed interrelated issues of race, class, gender, and imperialism; and that included diverse actors, such as industrial workers, agricultural workers, small farmers, students, women, small merchants, professionals, and intellectuals. An inclusive popular movement was emerging in practice, and it would lift up charismatic leaders who would formulate an integral popular revolutionary understanding.
We will be looking at the unfolding of this integral popular movement in subsequent posts.
Instituto de Historia de Cuba. 1998. La neocolonia. La Habana: Editora Política.
Vitier, Cintio. 2006. Ese Sol del Mundo Moral. La Habana: Editorial Félix Varela.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Cuban Revolution, neocolonial republic, workers, labor movement