During 1938, the Batista government initiated a series of reforms that involved the restitution of political and civil rights that are central to the functioning of representative democracy. The process began in December 1937, when a government decree of amnesty resulted in the release of 3,000 political prisoners. In 1938, the government ratified the autonomy of the University of Havana, a long-standing demand of the student movement; announced the postponement of the Plan for Social-Economic Reconstruction, which had been rejected as demagoguery by the popular movement (see “Batista takes control” 8/18/2014); and announced its decision to convoke a Constitutional Assembly, another long-standing demand of the popular movement. In addition, Batista met with Ramón Grau San Martín, the head of the Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party, and Grau agreed that his party would abandon its persistent policy of abstaining from elections. And on September 13, 1938, the Communist Party of Cuba and other organizations were legalized, so that the PCC could now conduct its work of organization and popular education openly and without fear of repression (Chang 1998:372).
Various factors pushed Batista toward a democratic opening. First, the usurpation of power by Batista and the military had generated opposition from the Cuban oligarchy, on whom he was dependent for support. He therefore needed to make concessions to the civilian political actors that represented the interests of the bourgeoisie. Secondly, during 1936 and 1937, Batista had been developing fascist structures. But this move toward fascism could not reach its culmination, as a result of the changing world situation. The emergence of fascism in Europe was giving rise to a global conflict between fascism and democracy. Cuba, totally dependent on the United States, had to ally itself with the democratic camp and participate in the emerging global anti-fascist front. Thirdly, on August 17, 1937, Jefferson Caffery was replaced by J. Butler Wright as US ambassador to Cuba. Whereas Caffery had close ties with Batista, Wright was more attentive to the interests of other sectors in the development of US policy. Fourthly, the popular movement was growing in strength, in spite of the repression and demagoguery of the regime. The opening of political space for the popular movement was necessary for political stabilization (Chang 1998:371-72).
Elections for the Constitutional Assembly were held on November 15, 1939. The elections were complicated by the continuing divisions among the opposition parties. Eleven parties nominated candidates. They were grouped in two electoral blocs: the Democratic Socialist Coalition, headed by Batista; and the opposition bloc, led by the Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC-A) of Grau. The Communist Party, then known as the Communist Revolutionary Union, proposed to incorporate itself into the PRC-A, but this proposal for the fusion of the parties was rejected, with Grau maintaining that the communist party candidates ought to be presented in the elections as members of the Communist Revolutionary Union. At the same time, the bourgeois political parties that belonged to the Batista coalition proposed the inclusion of a popular program in its platform and an alliance with the Communist Revolutionary Union. Thus, the voters were presented with a confusing scenario. There was, on the one hand, the opposition bloc headed by the well-known reformer but anti-communist Grau; and the bloc headed by the dictator Batista, who had been cultivating a democratic image and who was now allied with the communist party. In the end, of the seventy-six delegates elected, forty-one belonged to the four parties of the opposition bloc; and thirty-five pertained to five parties of the Batista bloc, including the Communist Revolutionary Union (Chang 1998:376-77).
The Constitutional Convention was convened on February 9, 1940. With delegates of nine parties participating in the debates, and with all delegates free to express their personal views, a wide variety of positions were expressed. Juan Marinello, Blas Roca, and Salvador García Aguero, three of the six delegates of the Communist Revolutionary Union, provided important defenses of the rights of workers, peasants, and other popular sectors. The new constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention on June 8, 1940, and it was signed on July 1, 1940, in a ceremony held in Guáimaro, in the place of the signing of the first Constitution of an independent Cuba, establishing the Republic of Cuba in Arms, on April 10, 1869 (Chang 1998:378-81).
A product of the advances in theory and in practice of the Cuban popular movement, the Constitution of 1940 was advanced for its time. It recognized the full equality of all, regardless of race, color, sex, class, or similar social condition, and it affirmed the rights of women to vote and hold public office. It included articles on the regulation of work, including the obligation of the Cuban state to provide employment, the establishment of a maximum work day of eight hours and a maximum work week of forty-four hours, and the recognition of the right of workers to form unions. It recognized the principle of state intervention in the economy, and it declared natural resources to be state property. It proscribed large-scale landholdings, and it established restrictions on the possession of land by foreigners. It established protections for small rural landholders, and it obligated taxes on sugar companies (Chang 1940:379-80).
With respect to the restrictions of foreign ownership of land, it should be noted that the US government and its Cuban allies had attempted to limit the scope of the Constitutional Convention, concerned that it could establish restrictions on foreign ownership. But these interventionist maneuvers were denounced and repudiated by the popular sectors (Chang 1998:376). At the insistence of the people, the story of the Platt Amendment would not be repeated (see “The ‘democratic’ constitution of 1901” 6/30/2014).
In accordance with the democratic opening, general elections were convoked in 1940. Batista and Grau were the contenders for the presidency. With the support of the alliance of the bourgeois parties and the communist party, Batista attained a solid victory, with 800,000 votes, as against 300,000 for Grau. (The population of Cuba at the time was four million and one-quarter). The election was accepted by all as clean and fair (Arboleya 2008:111-12).
With the re-establishment of representative democracy in Cuba, and with a deepening of the core-peripheral relation with the United States (see “The US-Cuba neocolonial relation deepens” 8/19/2014), Cuba arrived to be a “perfect neocolonial system” (Arboleya 2008:112). During the Cold War, the global powers would establish the Cuban neocolonial system as the general model for world capitalist domination (Arobleya 2008:114). Today, as in Cuba three-quarters of a century ago, the neocolonial world-system seeks to develop structures that promote “representative democracy,” “human rights,” “free trade” and “the free market.” These political-economic structures and ideologically-rooted terminology obscure the true character of the world-system as colonialism in a different form. But the peoples of the Third World today are seeing through the fictions of neocolonialism, for they experience the poverty that is deepened by free trade agreements and other components of neoliberal packages, and they see that representative government responds not to their concrete needs but to the interests of national and international elites. They are forming movements that seek to transform their neocolonial reality and establish a more just and democratic world-system.
In Cuba, the conditions that made possible the emergence of a perfect neocolonial system in 1940 never would be repeated in the history of Cuba (Arboleya 2008:112). The Cuban system would again fall into crisis, giving rise to a renewal of the Cuban revolution and its triumph, establishing the island nation as a symbol of dignity for the peoples of the world who today struggle against global structures of neocolonial domination. We will pursue these themes in subsequent posts.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Chang Pon, Federico. 1998. “Reajustes para la estabilización del sistema neocolonial” in Instituto de Historia de Cuba. 1998. La neocolonia. La Habana: Editora Política.
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, Batista, Constitution of 1940