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The untold story of the Cuban revolution

For many, the Cuban Revolution remains a bit of a mystery. How could 80 guerillas led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra seize power? How were a small band of revolutionaries able to land on a deserted beach in the south of the island at the end of 1956, re-group in the Sierra Maestra mountains and march eventually on Havana to overthrow the detested US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Review by Peter Arkell

This romantic tale of individuals, seized on by the media and by several films glorifying the guerrillas, completely ignores the towns and the role played by the powerful working class that lived in them. The organised workers — over 1.25 million of them out of a population of just 6 million at the time were in unions — are commonly seen as being, for the most part, politically inactive throughout the period of the insurrection. Nothing, in fact could be further from the truth, as Steve Cushion demonstrates in his new book, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution; How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory.

The gist of the book is that without the struggles of organised labour from 1952-1959, the revolution could not have succeeded. The book describes in great detail the series of major strikes by workers in the sugar industry, the tobacco industry, by workers on the buses and trains, in the communications, textiles and electricity industries and others, often undertaken in the midst of brutal repression by the police and army.

These actions not only weakened the dictatorship, but more importantly led to the building under fire of a new kind of leadership, one that went beyond reformist demands for wages and conditions, towards a political programme for the restoration of union rights, for democracy and for a revolutionary challenge to the general brutality of the regime.

This culminated in a paralysing and complete general strike throughout the country just after the military victory of the guerrillas and the flight of Batista on New Year's Day 1959, when army plotters, encouraged by the US, were attempting to organise a military coup which could have plunged the country into a general civil war.

The book is the product of detailed research into the unions and their leadership over the period, which is then placed into the political context in which they operated.  The research was carried out under the auspices of the Institute of Cuban History in Havana. The clandestine nature of many of the workers’ actions meant that in most cases few traces of them have survived.

The records that have survived, however, such as leaflets, pamphlets, underground newspapers and other agitational material are enough, together with interviews with the participants themselves, to build up a convincing picture of a combative and courageous workers’ movement which often worked in tandem with the guerrillas operating in the mountains.

It is with good reason that the book is called a “hidden history”, for up until now, this relationship between the working class and the armed rebels has remained largely hidden. Cushion places the working class at the centre of the revolution.  

The book focuses on the story of how the unofficial leadership in the unions evolved, through its actions, the necessary knowledge and understanding to be able to defy the corrupt pro-regime CTC (Confederacion de Trabajadares de Cuba), the equivalent of the TUC in Britain, and to lend the armed forces of Castro the necessary support, both logistical and political.

The memorial to Che Guevarra at Santa Clara, the scene of one of the crucial actions of the revolutionary war, when a troop train was de-railed by the guerrillas at the end of 1958. Many of the soldiers in the train changed sides and fought with the rebels.

When the rebels landed in Cuba, for instance, at the end of 1956, workers in the eastern province of Oriente took supporting action. In Santiago there was an armed uprising led by the unions, and a political strike in the docks was organised to draw attention away from the rebel landings nearby in Manzanilla and to tie the troops up in putting down the local insurrection. There was a similar co-ordinated political strike by the railway workers in Guantanamo which disrupted the plans to send government troops to intercept Castro and the rebels. The strike spread and the whole town was shut down completely for a time, while the railways workers stayed on strike for five days.

Throughout the 1950s the price of Cuba’s main export, sugar, was falling on the world markets. This adversely affected the overall economy in Cuba. The employers needed to drive up the productivity of the workforce in all sectors, and to reduce the numbers employed, so the scene was set for a confrontation. The employers looked to Batista to discipline the working class.

A series of strikes was provoked by the government in 1955, first on the railways, then against the bank workers, then in the textile industry and finally, the big one against the sugar workers with over half a million in the union. The sugar strike was total and national. Repression by the state was answered by occupations, road blocks, the burning of sugar cane fields, the derailment of trains, the burning of bridges and general sabotage by the workers. Hundreds were arrested and wounded and several killed. The strike was nonetheless lost, sold out by the CTC trade union bureaucracy.

But it was these strikes, most of them lost and brutally repressed by the state, that led to a “profound change in the balance of forces within the working-class movement”,  Cushion writes. The CTC, led by Eusebio Mujal, had been thoroughly exposed as Batista’s agents in the working class. Increasingly the official trade union leadership was unable to prevent strikes or to influence the workers who turned to unofficial leaders on the shop floor. This often led to the Ministry of Labour having to intervene directly and brutally in disputes, with police and troops.

The Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), that is the Communist Party, with its policy of peaceful co-existence, of compromise, of united fronts with the more “progressive” bourgeois parties, of limited economic demands at the workplace and its opposition to the armed struggle, did little or nothing to attract the more conscious workers, who understood that the mass united action that the PSP continuously called for was entirely inadequate in the context of mass repression by the Batista dictatorship. Although it had a large membership within the unions, the PSP too was in the process of becoming discredited in the eyes of militant workers. 

So when a new party arrived  on the scene in June 1955, the Movimiento Revolucionario 26 de Julio (MR-26-7), led by Fidel Castro (who was still in Mexico at the time of the launch), which called for armed insurrection and a general strike, the balance changed. The founding meeting of the party resolved to set up a workers’ section in every local group that was formed.

With this kind of plan, it quickly found itself in competition with the PSP for influence within organised labour. It grew and was able to recruit new members from the series of strikes that broke out in 1955. It became especially strong in Oriente province in the East of the country around Guantanamo and Santiago, but its influence was transformational everywhere because it called for a general strike supported by an armed struggle to overthrow the dictatorship.

The author concludes that most of the workers who were in strikes that were defeated in 1955 tended to look for a revolutionary solution by joining the MR-26-7, while those who had won their strikes, in the docks, in the tobacco industry and parts of the textile industry tended to stay loyal to the more conservative leadership of the Communist Party.

Much of the book is concerned with the way in which the PSP, at least at the grass-roots level, was forced to adapt and then follow the lead of the MR-26-7. “Many rank-and-file PSP members,” Cushion writes, “were coming to recognise the inadequacy of the tactic that the party referred to as `la lucha de maas’ (mass struggle). The year 1957 saw the increasing popularity of the MR-26-7 among rank-and-file PSP members and a willingness to engage in joint action.” He cites many instances where members of the two parties co-operated at the local level, despite the hostility of the PSP leadership in Havana to the armed struggle.

In a climate of brutal repression, including the use of army death squads, torture, tit-for-tat killings, targeted assassinations, and other manifestations of state terror against the workers, collaboration between different opposition organisations becomes an urgent necessity, the author writes. The PSP, which considered itself, and indeed was, the dominant party within the working class, was finding that its members were attracted to the ideas and tactics of MR-26-7 because the abstract and general calls for strikes and united mass action from the PSP, without the support of an armed militia, simply invited repression. The police and army had guns; the workers did not. Who would protect them? Workers joined the MR-26-7 because the old tried and tested method of securing their class interests – the strike with demonstrations – was found to be suicidal on its own.

Cushion’s argument is that once the leaders of the Communist Party realised the extent of the increasing support for the MR-26-7 amongst the workers, they began to listen to the ordinary members and to tolerate, if not encourage, joint action. They were, in other words, forced to the left. The MR-26-7 was essentially, in its origins, a middle-class party, with the aim of bringing down Batista.

But it didn’t have a well-formulated plan for the next stage, and it had a strong nationalist and anti-communist streak within it. The PSP was a working-class party with a big influence on the shop floor, but very conservative and imbued with the Stalinist line of peacefully co-existing with capitalism, and most importantly hostile to armed resistance.

One of the many new insights from the book into the making of the revolution is the description of the workers’ organisations in the east of the country, the most militant area, around the town of Guantanamo.  Here several of the leaders of the labour movement were from the Revolutionary Workers Party (POR), a Trotskyist party. Their group around Nico Torres Chedebaux, a railway worker, was one of the first, with his colleagues, to join the newly-formed  MR-26-7, and he became later a national coordinator for the party of the policy of setting up worker branches. He was one of the organisers of the strikes in Guantanamo at the time of landing of Castro and his guerrillas in the Granma, and was one of the leaders of the general strike in Oriente Province following the murder of Frank Pais, an MR-26-7 leader. 

While many instances of joint action are detailed in the book, derived or deduced from the surviving literature and from interviews, there are also instances of groups of workers from both parties refusing to collaborate. A united front between the two organisations was eventually agreed, but by that time, two months before the regime fell, this alliance meant little, as the MR-26-7 line of general strike + armed struggle was gaining general acceptance amongst the workers.

What is absolutely clear is that the PSP at no time, at least until well after the revolution, mapped out a socialist path for the future, to include nationalisation of the large mainly US-owned companies. Nor of course did the MR-26-7, but that is less surprising because it didn’t claim to be a socialist party. That would come later, after the revolution, when Castro was forced into the arms of Moscow and the Stalinist bureaucracy to avoid the complete isolation of Cuba under US blockade.

The key to the success of the revolution was the MR-26-7 influence within the organised labour movement which was able to neutralise the hostility of the leadership of the PSP to armed resistance and to the idea of the revolutionary overthrow of the Batista regime.

Cushion makes a lot of the success of the PSP in “maintaining and building a level of working class discontent that responded so overwhelmingly to Castro’s call for a general strike in January 1959”. And he is keen to point out the support for Castro and the armed struggle that was eventually given by the PSP, but it was the revolutionary ideology of the armed struggle in combination with the strike, coming from Castro’s party, that provided the decisive ingredient in the mix. The militancy was already there.  

The alliance between the MR-26-7 and the PSP proved fragile. There was mass working class and peasant support for the agrarian reforms that immediately followed the revolution, and a little later, for the nationalisation without compensation of most of industry including foreign-owned industry. The old CTC was purged, with most of its new officers coming from the MR-26-7 while the PSP was largely excluded to start with. The PSP was careful to give unconditional support to Castro and the more radical wing of the revolution for the period before the merging of the MR-26-7 with the PSP into the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution in 1962 and finally in 1965 the Communist Party of Cuba.

The book provides an extremely valuable and detailed analysis of the nature and the politics of the workers movement in Cuba in the years leading up to the revolution of 1959. Cushion puts the many struggles, strikes and actions of the organised labour movement into a coherent whole to demonstrate its vital role to the revolution; and he demonstrates how the working class seized on the revolutionary ideas of Castro and the rebels once these ideas became relevant to their situation. This mass of information and detail, together with the author’s analysis, provides the context for a deeper understanding of how a social revolution was made in Cuba under conditions where the political movements and parties involved did not originally set out along that road.

15 April 2016

A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory, by Steve Cushion. Monthly Review Press. £19 online.

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