Cuba II: Overcoming systemic discrimination, confronting imperialism

When considering Cuba today—and thinking beyond what you think you learned from Godfather II—it’s useful to consider what Cuba was like before Jan. 1, 1959. To do so, I went back to one of my venerable university text books, Modern Ideologies, by Max Mark (New York: St. Martin’s, 1973. p. 172):

  • U.S. interests owned 40 per cent of the sugar land, including seven of the ten largest plantations. Much of this land was acquired after the Spanish-American War. 
  • U.S. interests owned 54 per cent of the sugar mills and 90 per cent in the telephone companies, electric power supply and railways. 
  • The most depressed group was made up of people who lived in rural areas. In 1946, eight per cent of the farmers owned 71.1 per cent of the land that was owned by Cubans, while 39 per cent owned only 3.3 per cent.
  • The typical Cuban agriculturist was a landless day-labourer who worked for wages in supervised groups, employed for only a few months of the year.
  • Their lives were in sharp contrast with life in more cosmopolitan Havana, where 87 per cent of homes had electricity. In rural areas, only 7 per cent of dwellings were so equipped. 

I would add that before the 1959 revolution, 85 per cent of Cuba’s trade was with the United States.

Let’s go more deeply into the history of Cuba at the hands of the imperial powers: Spain and the United States. Despite losing most of its other Latin American and Caribbean colonies early in the 19thcentury, Spain had managed to hold onto Cuba until the Spanish-American War near the end of the century. A rebellion by African slaves in 1812 had been crushed. An independence struggle launched in 1868 failed after 10 years of fighting. Spain finally abolished slavery in Cuba in 1886. Another revolt, this one led by the writer José Martí, broke out in 1895.

The U.S. newspaper empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed against each other with sensationalistic stories of Spanish oppression in its remaining colonies, especially Cuba. In what is widely believed to have been an “inside job” to provide a pretext for war, the U.S. battleship Maine was blown up in the Havana harbour on Feb. 15, 1898. U.S. ships blockaded Cuba and land forces were deployed. By August, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were all occupied by the United States. In a treaty at the end of the year, Spain conceded Cuba’s independence. Fierce resistance continued in Philippines for years afterwards, and the other former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Guam remain in U.S. hands to this day. 

At first, the U.S. established a military government in Cuba. A new constitution in 1901 contained the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuban internal affairs. It also gave the U.S. a naval base at Guantánamo. 

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy, the United States abrogated the amendment in 1934, but kept Guantánamo. For almost 20 years, the United States has operated an illegal prison camp for alleged terrorists at its Guantánamo base.

The stories of the struggle in the 1950s to rid Cuba of the dictator Fulgencio Batista—Fidel Castro’s raid on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and subsequent trial (“History will absolve me”); his return from exile in Mexico aboard the Granma in 1956 in the company of his brother Raúl and Ernesto “Che” Guevara; the guerrilla war waged from the Sierra Maestra mountains; the eventual triumph—are better known and well-told elsewhere, as are the tales of clashes with the United States (the “Bay of Pigs” invasion, the missile crisis).

What’s not as well-known are the early steps toward transformation, especially those that placed previously impoverished people—especially women and people of colour—at the centre of attention, a sharp break from “the discrimination inherent in patriarchal and segregationist societies.”

Key here was creation in 1960 of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) under the leadership of Vilma Espín as a space to drive and achieve many goals of the women’s movement (“the revolution within the revolution,” as Fidel called it): participation, pay equity, universal day care, reproductive rights, and paid maternity leave. For more than 60 years, Cuba has made consistent gains in health care and education, and shared its accomplishments with people in other developing countries around the world.

Across Latin America, impoverished people saw the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1, 1959, as a sign of hope. Across the region, protests against poverty and oppression grew in the 1960s, and armed rebellions began in many countries. On July 19, 1979, came the triumph of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) in Nicaragua. In most places, however, military force (with training and funding from the United States) crushed the revolts.

Latin American churches, meanwhile, were changing too. The old strategy of training elites in hope that they might show mercy to the poor was an obvious failure. Building from the methods of popular education, churches encouraged lay people to come together in “base Christian communities” (comunidades eclesiales de base—CEBs).

Theologians came to describe the reflection carried out by oppressed people on their processes of social and political change as liberation theology. When you talk with people in Mexico or El Salvador or Argentina about their inspiration for involvement in struggles for social change, many say it was through participation in the CEBs—or their parents’ participation.

In my next post, I will share more about the role of churches in contemporary Cuba.

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