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Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution

Updated on February 2, 2015
Fidel Castro 1959
Fidel Castro 1959 | Source


In December 2014, it was reported that U.S. and Cuban diplomats were meeting to begin the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. The move came as a surprise to many since the two countries have not had any diplomatic relations for over 50 years. Most people in North America associate Cuba with Fidel Castro and the infamous Cuban Missile Crisis. This Hub looks back even further to where it all began: the Cuban revolution and the heritage of Cuban nationalism that led to it. Most people living today weren’t even alive back then and therefore have no memory of who the players were, what ideas guided the Cuban revolution, and what led the U.S. and Cuba to sever diplomatic ties.

Castro's Revolution: The Role of Nationalism

What is nationalism? Entire books have been written on the subject. Nationalism is an identity marker that includes the belief that a state or certain ethnic groups within a state have the right to self-determination.

Nationalism was a significant theme throughout the twentieth-century and continues to be a major political force to this day. During the Cold War the role played by nationalism in a variety of small wars and low-intensity conflicts was often obscured by the polarization of the world between East and West. National liberation movements were viewed as communist plots that were designed to destroy the West. Western policy makers were more concerned with viewing the world through Cold War lenses than with trying to understand the myriad of forces that drove a wave of nationalist fervor that swept through much of Latin America, Africa and Asia. It is in that context that the Cuban revolution must be understood.

A significant driving force behind the Cuban revolution was Cuban nationalism. When people think of Cuba they tend to associate it with communism first and foremost, so it’s no surprise that Cuban nationalism has taken on a subordinated role. Yet when we look back on Castro’s speeches and letters at the time, the central ideas that formed the revolutionary rhetoric were ideas of freedom and national liberation. So the question before us is what was the nature of Cuban nationalism that guided the Cuban revolution and how did it subsequently influence U.S.-Cuban relations.

History of Cuban Nationalism

Soon after seizing power in 1959 Castro gave a speech at the presidential palace where he proclaimed that: “The people of Cuba will no longer follow any orders but those of their own government. For the first time, there is a president and a council of ministers and an army not taking orders from abroad…for the first time there is a people united under the banner of justice and liberty.” The two central ideas behind Cuban nationalism were a desire for social justice on the one hand and national sovereignty on the other. These ideas were not new. In fact, as discussed below, they can be traced back to the 1890s to the father of Cuban nationalism, a man named Jose Marti.

The heritage of Cuban nationalism can be found in a series of failed revolutions from the 1890s to the 1950s. A major reason those revolutions failed had to do with American intervention. It was the failure of those previous revolutions that motivated Castro to proclaim that:

“It will not be like 1895 when the Americans came and took over, intervening at the last moment…Nor will it be like 1933, when the people began to believe that the revolution was going to triumph, and Mr. Batista came in to betray the revolution…Nor will it be like 1944, when the people took courage, believing that they had finally reached a position where they could take over the power, while those who did assume power proved to be thieves…This time it is truly the revolution.”

Jose Marti, the Father of Cuban Nationalism, 1895.
Jose Marti, the Father of Cuban Nationalism, 1895. | Source

Jose Marti and the Origins of Cuban Nationalism

The origins of Cuban nationalism can be traced back to the years of Spanish rule. The revolution that began in 1895 was driven by the ideas of Jose Marti who promoted Cuban independence through a program of social justice. Jose Marti was viewed by many Cubans to be a messiah like figure. After Marti’s death in the revolution of 1895, most Cubans recognized him as a martyr of Cuban freedom and independence. Castro and his revolutionary 26th of July Movement claimed to be disciples or Marti.

The revolution of 1895 devastated the sugar industry and commerce with the United States ground to a halt. Spain’s inability to contain and defeat the revolution prompted the U.S. Government to intervene and restore order and government to Cuba.

Newspaper depicting the explosion of the USS Maine
Newspaper depicting the explosion of the USS Maine | Source

Spanish American War 1898

The revolution of 1895 devastated the sugar industry and commerce with the United States ground to a halt. Spain’s inability to contain and defeat the revolution prompted the U.S. Government to intervene and restore order and government to Cuba. This led to the Spanish-American war of 1898.

In early 1898 the situation in Cuba was unstable. As a measure to protect and reassure American living in Cuba, the USS Maine was sent to Havana Harbor. On the night of February 15, 1898 a massive explosion sunk the USS Maine. At the time, accounts differed as to what caused the explosion. Some thought it occurred internally in the magazine of the ship, while others accused the Spain of planting a mine or torpedoeing the ship. American newspapers, eager to sell copies, quickly seized on the sinking of the Maine and blamed the Spanish garrison.

In April 1898 President William McKinley delivered his War Message to Congress:

“The present revolution is but the successor of other similar insurrections which have occurred in Cuba against the dominion of Spain, extending over a period of nearly half a century…its progress has subjected the United States to great effort and expense in enforcing its neutrality laws, caused enormous losses to American trade and commerce…it appeared to be my duty…to seek to bring about an immediate termination of the war…the grounds for such intervention may be summarized as follows…In the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities…the right to intervene may be justified by the very serious injury to commerce, trade, and business of our people…The only hope for relief and repose from a condition which can no longer be endured is the enforced pacification of Cuba…and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes.”

After its defeat, Spain no longer had control over Cuba and, essentially, Cuba became an American colony. Spanish rule was replaced with American rule. From McKinley’s War Message two important themes emerge that shaped U.S. policy toward Cuba: (1) the need to maintain commerce and (2) the necessity of intervention to achieve goal No. 1. This policy galvanized the revolutionary ethos of Cuban nationalism so that part of it was associated with an intense anti-Americanism.

The Platt Amendment

The Cubans never achieved the liberation and social justice that they desired. Although Spain was no longer a player, the United States became increasingly involved in the affairs of Cuba. The Platt Amendment of 1901 solidified American dominance over Cuba. Among other things, it allowed the U.S. to intervene militarily in Cuban affairs. Most of the provisions of the Platt Amendment were repealed in the 1930s by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt under the “Good Neighbor” policy. Nonetheless, the Platt Amendment had a profound impact on the development of Cuban nationalism in that it symbolized American domination over Cuba.

In his speech at the presidential palace, Castro referenced the Platt Amendment when he stated “this is no longer 1901, when they (the United States) interfered here and imposed upon us an amendment which was a shame and a humiliation for the country.” The Platt Amendment was, therefore, a major source of anti-American sentiment and was widely viewed as the architecture of American imperialism. That document was the reason that throughout the revolution, Castro constantly feared American intervention.

Depression Era Crises

In the midst of the Great Depression, Cuba experienced a period of civil unrest. Although the economic situation played a significant role, the oppression under President Gerardo Machado also played an important role in the crisis. In was in that context that the Cuban Army, under General Batista, forced Machado into exile. Following this episode the civil unrest continued until Batista became president.

Fulgencio Batista, Dictator of Cuba 1952-1959
Fulgencio Batista, Dictator of Cuba 1952-1959 | Source

The Batista Dictatorship

In 1952, Fulgencio Batista led a military coup that effectively overthrew the government of Cuba under Grau San Martin. By all accounts Batista led a repressive military dictatorship that was characterized by corruption, bribery and outright brutality. Batista’s tyranny led a young lawyer named Fidel Castro and a number of his followers to attack an army barracks on the centenary of Jose Marti’s birth. Most of Castro’s followers were either killed in the attack or executed later. Castro stood trial and was exiled from Cuba.

Che Guevara, the iconic revolutionary
Che Guevara, the iconic revolutionary | Source

Castro and the Cuban Revolution

While in exile in Mexico, Castro managed to build his 26th of July Movement in memory of the attack on the Moncada army barracks. This force was dedicated to the liberation of Cuba from the repressive Batista regime. Among some of the most prominent members of this movement were Castro’s brother, Raul, and a young doctor from Argentina named Che Guevara. While in exile, Castro toured other Latin American countries and met with the nationalist leaders in those countries. Upon his return to Mexico, Castro and his followers were thrown in prison by Mexican authorities that were tipped off by Batista’s representatives. Castro and his followers were eventually set free and they returned to Cuba to wage a guerrilla war against the Batista regime.

Castro and his 26th of July Movement quickly gained popular support from the masses and that support sustained their revolutionary guerrilla war for nearly 2 years. On the other hand, Batista’s forces were, initially, supplied by the U.S. Government. However, once the situation escalated into a civil war the U.S. halted all arms shipments to Cuba. Nonetheless, American support for the Batista regime in the early days of the revolution led Castro and others to believe that U.S. chose to side with an oppressive dictator rather than the Cuban people.

Television News Coverage of Castro's Revolution

Conclusion: the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis

On New Year’s Day 1959 the Batista regime was defeated and Castro became Cuba’s new leader. Fearful of an American invasion, Castro became increasingly antagonistic towards the U.S. Castro’s fears of an American supported invasion were well founded. In April 1961, a Cuban expeditionary force, trained by the CIA, landed at the Bay of Pigs. Although Castro’s army destroyed the landing force, Castro was concerned that the Americans would invade Cuba. This fear was well founded because the U.S. had a tradition of intervening in Cuban affairs for over half a century.

The threat of a U.S. invasion prompted Castro to announce that the revolution was in reality a socialist revolution to gain support from the Soviet Union. The Soviet’s were only too happy to offer support. They were looking for new military bases where they could position medium range missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads. These moves brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in October 1963.

Aerial reconnaissance photo of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Aerial reconnaissance photo of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. | Source

Nationalism in the Twentieth Century

What impact did nationalism have on the twentieth-century?

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