They took power on January 1, 1959 amidst enormous popular acclaim, on the basis of a guerrilla struggle that moved from the mountains to the cities, forcing the dictator to flee the country. In their first two years in power, the young leaders of the revolution took decisive steps that would demonstrate its anti-neocolonial intention, culminating in a declaration of its socialist character. For more than six decades, they guided the people through various stages, but with constancy in commitment to basic principles: the commitment of resources to the social and economic needs of the people on a basis of full equality, regardless of class, race, or gender; and an international projection of commercial relations, political alliance, and solidarity with the socialist governments and neocolonized nations and peoples. In order to ensure that political power remained in the hands of the delegates of the people, they developed alternative structures of popular democracy, characterized by mass assemblies, mass organizations, assemblies of popular power, a vanguard political party, and a public media attentive to the political education of the people.
There are many subjective and objective factors that create possibilities for an advanced generation of leaders to emerge in a particular time and place. In observing advanced and sustained revolutionary processes, a common characteristic is the phenomenon of a generalized popular identification with the nation and a self-sacrificing commitment to its defense. In the case of Cuba, nationalist consciousness emerged during the nineteenth century, forged by Cuban intellectuals of the Seminary of San Carlos in Havana. They synthesized religious concepts of social justice with modern republican notions in standing against colonial Spain and the Spanish monarchy. They initiated an awakening of consciousness among the Cuban privileged class that represented an alternative to subordination to Spain and envisioned a secular and progressive republic, with modern systems of production, moving beyond economic dependence on slavery. Formed by these progressive notions, the Cuban landholders that declared independence in 1868 were able to discern the necessity of forging not only the independence of the nation, but also a national social transformation that would eliminate the social inequalities rooted in colonialism. However, as a result of class, regional, civilian/military, and ideological differences and divisions, the war of independence of 1868-1878 ended without attaining independence or the abolition of slavery.
The vision of the 1868 revolution of a sovereign and socially transformed nation has guided Cuban revolutionary practice since that date, but continually evolving. Reflecting on the failure of the War of Independence of 1868-1878, José Martí was able to see the importance of politically unifying all the popular sectors, on the basis of a promise to establish a republic of all and for all, regardless of race or class, and implicitly, gender. The outstanding writer, poet, journalist, and diplomat politically implemented his vision, forming in 1892 the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which launched a war of independence in 1895. However, the 1898 U.S. military intervention prevented the taking of power by the militarily victorious Cuban Army of Liberation. The revolutionary army, party, and congress were dismantled, and the 1901 constitution had a “Made in the USA” character. The republic of all and for all, as envisioned by Martí, was eclipsed by the neocolonial republic, and U.S. economic, commercial, and financial penetration was unleashed.
Twenty years later, reflecting on the neocolonial situation, and influenced by the examples of the Russian and Mexican revolutions, a new generation of revolutionaries emerged to struggle against the Machado dictatorship of the 1920s and early 1930s, synthesizing revolutionary currents of thought from other lands with the thought of Martí, and making more explicit the inclusion of women in the revolutionary process. Sustained popular protests against the Machado dictatorship combined with urban sabotage and armed struggle in the countryside brought down the Machado government and led to the formation in 1933 of the “government of 100 days,” which included a revolutionary wing and was established without U.S. approval. However, the short-lived independent government was brought to an end by U.S. mediation, leading to the first Batista dictatorship of 1934-1937.
In the twenty years following the fall of the Revolution of 1933, disillusionment and fatalism prevailed among the people, but the soul of the nation hope was kept alive by intellectuals, social scientists, poets, and artists, who studied Cuban culture and the multifaceted work of Martí, and who reminded the people of the revolutionary ideal that was central to the Cuban sense of nationality. The revolutionaries who came of age in the 1950s were made of the stuff that inclined them toward the dreams of the poets, rather than the seemingly more practical conclusion that the republic of Martí was impossible. Martí himself had said that the task was to make possible what appeared impossible. To the radical Cuban youth of the 1950s, the republic of Martí did not seem so impractical. They were aware of the enormous reserve of revolutionary spirit among the people, who were the heirs to an advanced political thought and a history of political/military resistance. They discerned the possibility of galvanizing the popular revolutionary spirit through decisive, bold, and courageous action, calling the people to the defense of national honor and dignity. Theirs was an idealism guided by an intimate knowledge of the people and a practical political intelligence.
The neocolonial situation is defined by a pattern of betrayal of the nation through subordination to the interests of a foreign neocolonial power, and in this national debasement of the soul, the national bourgeoisie and the dominant political class are the most culpable. Political leaders and government officials become habituated to using their positions to enrich themselves, having abandoned a dignified and purposeful road at the outset of their careers. In Cuba in the 1950s, the indignity of the neocolonial situation never had been more evident. Corrupt politicians invoked the ideals of Martí, thus corrupting the revolutionary vision itself. To this national pattern of corruption, the Batista dictatorship added the disgrace of political repression, torture, and brutality. And the visible presence of the Italian-American mafia, with its gambling and prostitution, compounded the national shame.
In popular revolutions, the middle class is disproportionately represented in the revolution as well as in the counterrevolution that it unleashes. Therefore, the possibilities for revolution are influenced by the conditions that the middle class confronts. In the case of Cuba, the neocolonial situation, with political control by a figurehead bourgeoisie, created conditions unfavorable for the middle class. As a result of the subordination of Cuban industry and commerce to U.S. capital, middle-class aspirations for advancement required an undignified accommodation to a foreign nation and culture. As a result of generalized corruption, small business persons were overburdened with debt and harassed by corrupt government officials. Reflecting the disconnection of education from economic development, young people with professional degrees found their opportunities for employment limited.
Accordingly, university students took a central role in the leadership of the revitalized revolution in the 1950s. University students had the privileged opportunity to reflect on the conditions of the neocolonial republic; and those informed by the Cuban tradition of revolutionary and political thought could envision the republic of Martí. The most politically astute among them could discern that, on the basis of a platform that would seek to address the desperate economic and social conditions of the countryside, an effective political-military alliance could be forged with the great mass of tenant farmers and agricultural workers. This radicalized sector of the petit bourgeoisie played a central leadership role in the revolutionary process, and it is impossible to imagine the triumph of the revolution without them.
It is equally impossible to imagine the triumph and persistence of the Cuban Revolution without the presence of Fidel. To understand the successes of the revolution, we have to appreciate the exceptional capacity of Fidel to understand the correct course of action in pivotal moments: the creation of an anti-Batista coalition that included reformist sectors in 1958; the inclusion of representatives of the national bourgeoisie in the initial revolutionary government, creating the possibility for the inclusion of an independent national bourgeoisie in the revolutionary project; the necessity for the nationalization of U.S. properties in Cuba in order to break the core-peripheral neocolonial relation with the USA; the breaking with the national bourgeoisie through the nationalization of Cuban big industry, once the Cuban figurehead bourgeoisie demonstrated its incapacity to remake itself as an independent national bourgeoisie, not tutored by U.S. capital; the development of alternatives to representative democracy in the form of structures of popular democracy, including mass assemblies, a vanguard political party, mass organizations, and popular power; the seeking of Third World unity in working toward the establishment of a New International Economic Order, providing exceptional analyses of the contradictions of the unsustainable capitalist world-economy; the making of the necessary adjustments of the Special Period, redefining the revolutionary road in the context of new conditions; and at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the participation of Cuba in the process of Latin American unity and integration. However, as the history of Cuban revolutionary movement makes evident, Fidel was not nurtured in a political vacuum; he was formed in a historical and social context shaped by revolutionary thought and political praxis.
The emergence of charismatic leaders is a general pattern in revolutionary processes. One cannot imagine the Haitian Revolution without Toussaint, the Russian Revolution without Lenin, the Chinese Revolution without Mao, the Vietnamese Revolution without Ho Chi Minh, and the Bolivarian Revolution with Chávez. The emergence of charismatic leaders is indispensable in revolutionary processes, not only because their exceptional capacity to understand is itself an important resource for the revolution, but also because the leaders and the people discern these exceptional gifts, thus empowering the charismatic leader with the capacity to unify the various and sometimes contradictory tendencies within the revolutionary process. At the same time, we also should appreciate that charismatic leadership emerged in a social and historic context, and it is formed and shaped by this context, as the case of Cuba makes evident. In general, charismatic leaders have the capacity to lead the revolutionary process to a move advanced stage, even as they affirm and identify with the previous revolutionary achievements.
The Cuban Revolution is presently in a process of transition from charismatic individual leadership to vanguard party leadership. For more than five decades, Raúl Castro served as a second-in-command to the charismatic leader, substituting for Fidel when, for one reason or another, Fidel could not be present. Raúl has assumed this substitute role on a relatively permanent basis in 2009, when Fidel step down as head of state for reasons of health. In 2018, a further step in the transition was taken, when Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected President of the Council of State and Ministers by the National Assembly of Popular Power, while Raúl continues as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. Since his election, Díaz-Canel has been the more visible of the two, as he carries out his duties as head of state.
As the transition proceeds, many of the generation of the revolution continue to be present, fulfilling various duties in the state, the party, or various institutions. Among the tasks that they have assigned themselves in recent years has been the development of a new constitution, so that the people and the nation will have a guide for the future. It is their final will and testament, as we will discuss further in the next post.