To recall certain facts: in March 1960 the CIA sabotaged a French boat, La Coubre, in Havana Bay, killing more than 100 people and destroying the Belgian arms in its hold. From 1959, and more frequently in 1960, aircraft took off from the United States — occasionally piloted by US citizens — to attack the sugar industry, destroy sugarcane plantations, wipe out communities and, additionally, to supply weapons, munitions, and other provisions to the counterrevolutionaries. In June 1960 the US president suspended Cuba’s sugar quota and in early 1961, broke off diplomatic relations, banned US citizens from traveling to a country now considered its enemy, and initiated an economic blockade. At the same time, it demonstrated its military might by conducting military exercises in the island’s vicinity involving 40,000 troops, naval ships, and submarines equipped with atomic weapons. On April 16 it bombed Cuban military airports and on April 17, mercenary forces trained, equipped, financed, and directed by the CIA, landed at the Bay of Pigs.
This aggression did not impede the revolution’s impetus. On the contrary, it facilitated, made legitimate, and accelerated the transformations. Audacity, tactical imagination, conviction, and a growing radicalization were all part of the meteoric process changing Cuba forever.
Two stellar moments in that blow-by-blow confrontation come to mind. When, in June 1960, the United States threatened to suspend Cuba’s preferential sugar quota, Fidel declared: “They’re going to take away the sugar quota pound by pound and we’re going to take the sugar mills off them one by one.” In November 1960, when the United States announced that Fidel would be confined to the island of Manhattan during his visit to the United Nations, the Cuban government decided to restrict the movements of the US ambassador in Cuba to the Vedado neighborhood. Che subsequently summarized this policy with the sharp, brief comment: “One can’t take anything about imperialism seriously, that’s all there is to it!”]
The revolution had no alternative: it could either go to the source of the country’s ills, or perish. It had to undertake serious social change and attain national liberation, or the United States would crush it and impose a more ominous and dependent regime than [Batista’s in] 1958. Fidel understood the alternatives most clearly, and on March 15, 1960, affirmed at the funeral of the victims of La Coubre: “Now freedom means something more altogether: freedom means homeland. Therefore our dilemma is “Patria o Muerte” (Homeland or Death).” The anger and conviction of that after-noon gave rise to this emblematic slogan. On June 7, 1960, Fidel developed the concept: “For each one of us, the catch-cry is “Patria o Muerte”, but for the people, who in the long term will emerge victorious, the catch-cry is “Venceremos” (We Shall Overcome).” Faced with the myth of the fatal flaw of the island’s geography, and the power and arrogance of its giant enemy, the Cuban people and their leaders were not daunted. On the contrary, the confrontation gave them strength and resolution. When the United States utilized the Organization of American States (OAS) to support the blockade, isolation, and aggression against Cuba, our country denounced the governments that allowed themselves to be subjugated in this way. Those countries subsequently had to face rebellion and pressure from their own peoples.
Those 18 months represented an irreversible historical shift that could never be repeated. Under Fidel’s leadership, the revolutionary directorate took admirable advantage of this. Taking the initiative time and again, the fighting people let loose their irrepressible energy, until victory was consolidated. As the majority of the poor and many from the middle class gradually discovered, this was the only way they could fulfill their dreams, and no obstacle could prevent the ongoing deepening of the process.
To recall elements of the transformation:
In January 1959 the pro-Batista executive of the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC) was dismissed and a new executive selected. In March, the revolutionary government nationalized the Cuban Telephone Company — after lowering call rates — and the metropolitan bus corporation. Housing rents were reduced by 50 percent and the price of medicines by 30 percent. In May it approved the Agrarian Reform Act, which abolished the large estates of landowners in less than 12 months and redistributed the land either among peasants who had worked it without ownership, or converted it into state-run agricultural enterprises, thereby initiating an agrarian revolution. In July the cost of school books was cut by 25 percent and in August electricity rates went down by 30 percent; while October saw the formation of the National Revolutionary Militias — comprised of workers, peasants, students, employees, and professionals — who had begun to organize in March.
In early January 1960 the Ministry for the Recovery of Embezzled Goods — founded by the revolution — confiscated the Fosforero Trust and further reduced the price of 122 medicines. In February, the ministry nationalized an oil consortium (RECA), which had two refineries, and confiscated properties owned by the infamous José López Villaboy, including the Cuban Aviation Company, the Rancho Boyeros Airport (Havana), and other businesses. The ministry also nationalized 14 sugar mills and in April announced it had recovered more than $400 million for the people. On June 29, in response to the continued economic, subversive, and terrorist aggression of the United States, it took over Texaco and on July 1, Esso and Shell. In August all US companies in the oil, sugar, communications, and electricity sectors were nationalized. In September, battalions of militia troops were organized under the direction of the Rebel Army to fight and eradicate armed counterrevolutionary bands in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba. On September 28, speaking before millions of Cubans in Revolution Square, Fidel called for the organization of Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) in every neighborhood block, so that as an organized people Cubans could fight their enemies more effectively. In October all the domestic and foreign banks, and 382 large enterprises, including 105 sugar mills, 50 textile factories, and eight railroad companies were nationalized. The Urban Reform Act was passed, conceding property rights to all rent-paying tenants, and finally, the remaining US companies were nationalized.
Other relevant events took place throughout 1960, such as the amalgamation of revolutionary women’s and youth groups into two parallel organizations: the Federation of Cuban Women and the Association of Young Rebels. Peasants likewise grouped themselves into the National Association of Small Farmers and the island’s intellectuals formed the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). In April 1961 the revolutionary organizations merged into one political body: the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI).
This is barely a synthesis of the principal actions of the revolution, which fundamentally changed the way of life of the Cuban people.
Many others could be added. For example, journalists and media professionals took control of the media, placing it at the political, cultural, recreational, and educational service of the people. Casa de las Américas was founded, as was the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC), and the National Cultural Council. Within such a dazzling, iconoclastic landscape, these three cultural institutions represented a formidable structure for writers and artists. The first stage of the educational revolution was launched and succeeded in eliminating illiteracy in less than one year — by 1961 — while from 1959 onwards thousands of voluntary teachers took the light of knowledge to remote areas of the island. At the same time Cuba’s beaches were opened up to everyone, private clubs became recreational centers, and the barracks of Batista’s army were transformed into student facilities.
In summary, during that brief period, the neocolonial military state was destroyed, and a new popular, democratic, and nationalist government was installed. The repressive agencies of the former regime were eliminated and new defense organizations, based on revolutionary vigilance, were established, with the essential involvement of ordinary people.
Even in the context of such colossal change, the period was also characterized by humanism and careful respect for the integrity of human beings. Due process was respected and followed with regard to violations of law by enemies of the people.
The revolutionary courts punished murderers, traitors, and other servants of the dictatorship, and confiscated all the assets of officials who worked under it; senators, representatives, mayors, and party and trade union leaders who supported the dictatorship were deprived of their political rights. Democratic rights were granted to all the people, criminalizing discrimination against people of color and women, and in effect creating an economic, ethical, and political base for undertaking the construction of a new, free, and more egalitarian society.
Fidel’s confidence in the nation’s history and the attributes of his people, and the people’s confidence in their leader, were determining factors in completing the transformation.
In January 1959, the young comandante initiated his pedagogical crusade in relation to the principles that should guide all revolutionaries and patriots:
• Fortunately for Cuba, this time the revolution will really reach its conclusion . No thieves, no traitors, no interventionists; this time it is a revolution! (January 2, 1959)
• The people of Cuba know how to defend themselves! (January 9, 1959)
• We are a small but worthy people! (January 9, 1959)
• If they want friendly relations, they should not threaten us! (January 9, 1959)
• The revolution is not turning tail in the face of attack, it is not weakening in the face of attack, but it is growing! (January 11, 1959)
• We are a people prepared for every sacrifice! (February 3, 1959)
• The government of Cuba does not want to be an enemy of the government of the United States, or an enemy of any government in the world. but we cannot allow politics to be imposed upon us. Historically we have been victims of the powerful influence of the United States over our country’s des-tiny! (February 19, 1959)
• We can only say to the powerful oligarchy: you have done what could be expected of you, but we will do what can be expected of us. Your power does not frighten us, but gives us courage! (July 6, 1960)
The courage of the overwhelming majority of Cuban men and women was decisive in confronting the serious consequences challenging US domination, consequences that included the sacrifice of lives.
Given the underdevelopment to which Cuba was condemned, if the revolution had failed, we would have suffered greater human losses and sacrifice. If anyone should be in any doubt of that, it is worth casting a glance at certain realities.
In 1958, average life expectancy was 61 and infant mortality was in excess of 60 per 1,000 live births. For many years now, our people have had an average life expectancy of over 75 and an infant mortality rate of less than seven per 1,000 live births. How many hundreds of thousands of Cuban people — adults and children — would have died if the 1958 indexes of health, nutrition, education, etc. had evolved with a trend similar to the Latin American average?
For a number of years Cuba has possessed the highest ratio per capita of doctors, teachers, and sports and arts instructors in the world, and from 1962 its health, education, and sports programs have been totally free for the entire population. Illiteracy disappeared in 1961 and today the average education level is 10th grade, the highest in the region.
Unemployment, which was over 30 percent in 1958, is now at three percent. More than 85 percent of families own their own homes and from 1959 to 1989, close to two million homes were built, more than were built in the 60 years of the neocolonial republic. In Cuba there are no children or beggars on the streets, or unprotected elderly or mentally disabled people. Citizens are far safer than in other Latin American countries, with a very low incidence of social violence.
Cuban people have genuine access to culture. No one’s talent is frustrated by a lack of material conditions or encouragement. The revolution created and developed a national film industry that enjoys international prestige, and the fields of visual arts, dance, theater, and literature have flourished. In 1989, 100 times more books were published than in 1958.
Sports and physical education are widely enjoyed. Cuba has the highest number per capita of Olympic gold medals in the world: one for every one million inhabitants. Despite the difficulties of the last decade, utrition is superior to the average in the underdeveloped countries. One out of every 10 Latin American scientists is Cuban and the island has a highly developed scientific research industry, which means it can take maximum advantage of its scientific potential. Its developments and discoveries rate far above other Latin American and Caribbean nations, including many cutting-edge developments in biotechnology and genetics.
Further statistics could be mentioned, but the above are sufficient. I only wish to highlight how the Cuban Revolution has presented its people with material and spiritual happiness far greater than the sacrifices we have made. Our people are no longer sucked dry by neocolonial capitalism, or manipulated and oppressed by dictatorship — whether in the Batista years or under the mantle of a corrupt multiparty democracy. We are a genuinely independent nation — a united, organized people with an advanced political understanding and weapons at our disposal to defend our conquests. And, in free elections with a secret vote, people elect their state representatives and depose them if they fail to fulfill their role.
In the early years of their searching and effort, Cubans never expected that their heroic actions, or the course of the revolution, would receive external help. The premise of the revolution was that it would defend itself with the support of the Cuban people alone. It should be recalled that from 1959, long before the revolution turned toward socialism, the United States attempted to destroy it and restore the country to its former neocolonial status. It was acting to that end before the revolutionary government entered into relations with the Soviet Union. When Cuba gained allies and began to seek solidarity, it was guided by José Martí’s principle that “homeland is humanity.” It never, however, accepted threats or impositions of any kind and the Missile Crisis of October 1962 proved the ultimate willingness of Cubans to be defeated rather than hand over sovereignty and the right to self-determination.
Decisions were never conditioned by an opportunistic measuring of the correlation of world forces. Far less were they based on the calculation that the Soviet Union might become the important ally it subsequently proved to be, and it was undoubtedly significant for the economic progress and military consolidation of Cuban socialism. But our revolution did not exist, and far less act, thanks to the support of that power. When the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, Cuba stayed on its feet. Despite the brutal impact the event had on Cuban people, they continued forward with their ideals, making necessary adjustments, and confirming that socialism in Cuba is irrevocable. More than 40 years of creatively constructing benefits for the great majority have confirmed for Cubans that this social system was the best choice in those early, defining years.
The Cuban Revolution always advanced on the basis of the nation’s supreme right to be free and independent. The nature of the political and social system was always decided by democratic consensus. The legislation of those early years expressed an overwhelming sovereign force; it was never passed with less than 90 percent of its citizens’ support. Two reasons explain this: within a very short period the revolution gave people the victories they most desired. It did so ensuring people were genuine protagonists in those victories and the direct defenders of them, thus converting themselves into a collective capable of attaining ever more complex goals.
In “History Will Absolve Me“, Fidel explained the plan of the Moncada assailants in 1953; this was made real during 1959-61:
“We weren’t going to say to the people, `We’re going to give you everything,’ but rather, `Here you are, now fight with all your strength so that independence and happiness is yours’.”
Many other events occurred after April 1961 that consolidated the pillars of the socialist transition, or this shift from a defeated neocolonial regime to a more just, democratic, and autonomous society. The new human collective, aware of its political and moral force, its cohesion, and the fact that it was armed, lost its respect for capitalist private property and its fear of domination. It transformed these into social property and revolutionary power at the service of all the people. During the clamor, this made it possible for the island to stand as a bulwark against US aggression and its siege, the longest in modern history.
In those years, Che Guevara published an essay titled, “Cuba: Historical exception or vanguard in the anticolonial struggle?” Today, 40 years after his reflections, it is clear that Cuba is neither an exception nor a temporary hemispheric accident. Cuba’s persistent search for new roads after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc, its unequivocal demonstration that authentic socialism does exist in José Martí’s homeland — in spite of particular mistakes and enormous difficulties — confirms that this historical alternative is a sound and, ultimately, promising way to overcome underdevelopment and obtain genuine independence.