During the Cuban revolutionary war of 1957 and 1958, there were organizational, tactical and ideological divisions. The revolution was able to triumph and sustain itself by virtue of its capacity to overcome these divisions.
When the 26th of July Movement (M-26/7) was established on June 12, 1955, a national leadership consisting of a small group of trustworthy and capable leaders was formed, under the direction of Fidel Castro. When Fidel went to Mexico to organize the armed struggle, and later, when Fidel was directing the armed struggle in the Sierra Maestra, the national direction of M-26/7, located in Havana, was responsible for organizing all its activities throughout the country. Two types of activities emerged: a clandestine struggle in the cities, characterized by sabotage and the formation of secret cells among workers and the radicalized sector of the petit bourgeoisie; and the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra, which as it evolved would increasingly have peasant participation. Many of the urban leaders of M-26/7 saw the guerrilla struggle in the mountains as of secondary importance. Using the Revolution of 1930 as their guide, they believed that a combination of mass action and sabotage in the cities would bring down Batista. But the leaders and soldiers of the rebel army believed that they would acquire the military capacity to defeat Batista’s army and force the surrender or flight of the dictator. At the same time, there was an ideological division within M-26/7: some were Marxist-Leninists who favored an alliance with the communist party, whereas others were anti-communist, an ideological division that existed both in the urban front and among the guerrillas (Castro 1985:229-31; Arboleya 2008:123-25).
Although the 26th of July Movement was by far the organization with the most popular support, as a result of its heroic action on July 26, 1953, it was not the only revolutionary organization. The second most important was the Popular Socialist Party (PSP, the communist party), which was strong particularly among urban workers, and it possessed a significant capacity to organize urban workers. In general, the PSP membership had far more experience and political consciousness than the members of the M-26/7. Many of the PSP had a distrustful attitude toward M-26/7, due to its diversity of ideological viewpoints, including an element of anti-communism, and its relative political immaturity. Another important revolutionary organization was the Revolutionary Directorate, a student organization led by José Antonio Eceheverría. The Revolutionary Directorate experienced the same tactical and ideological divisions that were found in the M-26/7 (Arboleya 2008:125; Castro 1985:235-38)
Events during 1958 would demonstrate the greater viability of the guerrilla struggle as against the urban front, and they would solidify the dominance of the 26th of July Movement within the revolution and would strengthen the authority of Fidel within the M-26/7. The leaders of the urban front of M-26/7 called for a general strike and actions of sabotage for April 9, with the intention of provoking the fall of Batista. But as a result of the lack of cooperation between the communist party and the urban M-26/7, the general strike failed. The PSP, with its network among urban workers, had the capacity to mobilize workers, but the PSP was not participating in the mass action. Although the M-26/7 had enormous prestige among the people, it lacked organizational structures to mobilize the people. The leaders of the urban M-26/7 had mistakenly believed that a general call would bring the people to strike and acts of sabotage, in spite of its lack of organizational strength, because of its high prestige (Arboleya 2008:126).
The failure of the general strike had two consequences. First, priority was given to the guerrilla struggle. At a meeting of the national leadership of M-26/7 on May 3-4, it was decided to transfer headquarters to the Sierra and to place the organization under the direct control of Fidel. Henceforth, all resources and arms were to be sent to the guerrilla forces. Secondly, Batista was emboldened, and on May 24, he launched an offensive against the rebel army, seeking to totally annihilate it. Ten thousand soldiers were sent against the guerrilla forces, which at the time consisted of no more than 300. There were 30 battles in 76 days during the offensive, and the rebels were forced to retreat to an area of twenty kilometers from the highest point of the Sierra Maestra. But the rebel retreat to some extent was strategic. As the Batista army advanced, it was more vulnerable to guerrilla attacks and more isolated from its bases of support. By the end of the offensive, the Army had suffered one thousand casualties, and the guerrillas had taken 400 prisoners, turning them over to the Red Cross with great publicity. They captured arms from Batista’s forces, and they increased their numbers threefold. The Batista army was exhausted and demoralized. On August 18, Fidel announced on Radio Rebelde that the offensive had failed and that the guerrillas would soon begin a counteroffensive. The rebel army expanded from its base, and battles began to acquire characteristics of conventional war. Che Guevara and Camilio Cienfuegos commanded columns that marched to the West, supplementing the front to the east that Raul Castro had established prior to the army offensive. Fidel moved M-26/7 headquarters from the mountains to the plains. The tide had turned; the guerrillas were occupying towns at a dizzying pace, and Batista’s army was in disarray (Arboleya 2008:126-28; Buch and Suarez 2009:17-18, 25-26; Castro 1985:232).
The spectacular march toward victory by the guerrilla forces during the second half of 1958 brought to an end all tactical debates within the revolutionary movement. Clearly, the guerrilla army, expanding in numbers and moving west and east, was the force that was bringing down the dictatorship. As often occurs in revolutionary movements, differences within the movement are resolved in practice as the revolution evolves.
Batista fled Cuba just past midnight on January 1, 1959, and the revolutionary army occupied Santiago de Cuba and Havana, with an enthusiastic and celebratory popular reception. The complete ascendency of the 26th of July Movement within the revolution was established. Fidel has estimated that the M-26/7 had the support of 85% or 90% of the people, with 10% or 15% supporting other parties and organizations, including both other revolutionary parties as well as counterrevolutionary parties. In these political conditions, it would have been possible to establish the M-26/7 as the party to lead the revolution. But Fidel considered it important to establish the organizational unity of the revolution, to establish a single organization that would function as a party leading the revolution, including the various factions within the revolution. He spoke with leaders of all of the organizations and parties, including those of the old and discredited political parties of the “democratic” period of 1940-52. He was able to bring on board the Popular Socialist Party (the communist party) and the Student Directory, which were the two principal revolutionary organizations other than the M-26/7. He considered the participation of the communist party to be important, because of the greater experience and the greater political consciousness of its members. The three organizations thus dissolved themselves and formed a single organization, Integrated Revolutionary Organizations, which after some difficulties in its evolution, later would become the reconstituted Communist Party of Cuba (Castro 1985:233-39).
In addition, Fidel also sought to overcome a prejudice within the triumphant revolution in favor of the guerrillas, diminishing the contribution of those who had participated in the urban clandestine struggle. He taught that there were different roads of struggle against the dictatorship; not all were in the guerrilla struggle, but those in the urban clandestine struggle also took great risks. This teaching was a dimension of his effort to overcome divisions within the revolution and to forge unity, to include all who are committed to the basic principles of the revolution, to prevent the emergence of resentments and disappointments as the revolution unfolds (Castro 1985:234).
In forging an organizational unity that included the communist party, the revolution took the ideological decision to reject anti-communism and to overrule the exclusion of the communist party from the revolution. This caused some who had an anti-communist orientation to break with the revolution and to join the counterrevolution. However, to exclude communists would have caused division among the most active of the popular sectors, given the significant influence of the communist party among urban workers and the important role that it had played in the Cuban revolution since the 1920s.
The forging of organizational unity among the principal organizations that had struggled against Batista was an important step in unifying the revolution and preparing it to do battle with powerful national and international forces whose interests could not permit the taking of power by a popular organization that gives first priority to the needs of the people and that places the sovereignty of the nation above international corporate interests. Fidel’s awareness of this need for unity, and his capacity to persuade the principal actors to strive for unity, is another one of his charismatic gifts, another indication of his exceptional capacities for understanding and leadership.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Buch Rodríguez, Luis M. and Reinald Suárez Suárez. 2009. Gobierno Revolucionario Cubano: Primeros pasos. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Castro, Fidel. 1985. Fidel y La Religión: Conversaciones con Frei Betto. La Habana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado. [English translation: Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto on Marxism and Liberation Theology. Melbourne: Ocean Press].
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, Fidel, 26th of July Movement, Communist Party of Cuba