The Peasantry and the Urban Underground In the Cuban Revolution
The idea that the Cuban Revolution of 1959 was a "peasant" revolution or had a "peasant" character is a widely held misconception, one which has been propagated by the rebels' post-revolutionary rhetoric and the wealth of sympathetic scholarship which based its interpretation of the revolution upon this propaganda. To assign an event as complex as the Cuban Revolution any particular "nature" is a drastic oversimplification and confounds the multitude of factors which led to the revolution and its victory. Being the protagonists in the insurrection, the revolutionaries themselves understood very clearly that their revolution was not the result of merely the peasants' support, so they must have had particular reasons for reconstructing the revolution in the manner they did. The first element to examine is the reconstruction itself through the post-revolutionary propaganda, and to determine precisely what kind of a vision the rebels wished to promote as the revolution. Next, ! the actual revolution will be analyzed and compared to the rebels' imagined revolution. Finally, some of the possible explanations for the rebels' deviation will be posited, and the revolution itself will be re-examined in light of these theories. When Castro and his band reached Cuba aboard the Granma December 2, 1956, their strategy, as they stated at the time and admitted later, was to take Santiago with the help of Frank Pais' urban insurrectionary organization, and then attack the rest of Cuba from there in coordination with a massive general strike.(Bonachea78) This part anarcho-syndicalist, part Blanquist strategy was quickly put on hold, however, as the attack upon Santiago failed bilaterally and the guerrillas were forced to flee to the Sierra Maestra. The rebels in the mountains quickly came in contact with the peasant population there, and a cooperative relationship began to develop between the two after initial apprehensions on the part of the peasants. "The peasants who had to endure the persecution of Batista's military units gradually began to change their attitude towards us. They fled to us for refuge to participate in our guerrilla units. In this way our rank and file changed from city people to p! easants."(Guevara10) Out of this practical relationship which Guevara explained in April 1959 grew the mythology which became the revolution's legacy. Guevara later proclaimed "the guerrilla and the peasant became joined into a single mass, so that...we became part of the peasants."(Thomas154) It was this mystical bond, later described even more romantically by Jean-Paul Sartre, which was what gave the revolution as a whole its peasant nature. By living with the peasants, the rebels explained, they had come to empathize with their needs, the principal "need" being land reform. Thus, as Guevara explained, the rebels put forth their "land reform slogan" which "mobilized the oppressed Cuban masses to come forward to fight and seize the land. From this time on the first great social plan was determined, and it later became the banner and primary spearhead of our movement."(Guevara11) The post-revolutionary vision was one in which land reform was the spearhead, and the intel! ligentsia was necessarily the spearbearer, for, as Castro explained in February 1962, "the peasantry is a class which , because of the uncultured state in which it is kept...needs the revolutionary and political leadership of...the revolutionary intellectuals, for without them it would not by itself be able to plunge into the struggle and achieve victory,"(Castro113) The peasantry was the massive army following the vanguard's lead. From the mountains, this united peasant-rebel force would sweep down into the plain; as Guevara said, "a peasant army...will capture the cities from the countryside."(Guevara33) That the entire revolution had only succeeded through "vast campesino participation"(Guevara21) the rebels wanted the world to believe. The other revolutionary element which the rebels aggressively reconstructed after they took power was the role of the urban resistance. As theirs was a peasant revolution, the cities obviously had to play a minor part, so much time was spent polemicizing against the cities' revolutionary role and influence. The rebels' anti-city propaganda took two forms, theoretical and practical. Theoretically, Castro stated in 1966, "It is absurd and almost criminal...to try to direct guerrillas from the city."(Castro132) The urban insurrectionists, Castro stated, were too ready to compromise and make truces, they could not fully understand the psychology of the guerrilla and thus would almost consistently work to cross-purposes. As a practical fulfillment of this theoretical consideration, the rebels cited events in the Cuban revolution which necessitated their disavowal of the urban movement. It was after the failure of the general strike of April 9, 1958, Guevara claimed, that the! rebels realized that the urban movement could not succeed.(Guevara11) The urban insurrection "can all too easily be smothered" by the government, Guevara said, and thus the countryside was the necessary locale for the revolution.(AlRoy9) The revolution which these men have constructed is one with a massive radical peasant base and character, led by a small vanguard intelligentsia which had gained the peasant class-consciousness through sympathetic contact, and which sweeps over the counterrevolutionary cities on its way to establishing a government which would be the "best friend of the peasants."(Castro58) The verity of this image is obviously doubtful. Although it has its proponents, the earliest perhaps being Huberman and Sweezy in their book, Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution, most of the facts upon which they base their analysis are dubious, in this case, gleaned from a short visit to Cuba and interviews with high ranking cadres. What is important, however, is to elicit what of the rebels' post-facto vision is grounded in fact and what is deliberate misinformation, for from there a conclusion can be reached as to the reason for their historical distortion. The best way to analyze the revolution is chronologically, beginning with the inauspicious landing of the Granma and tracing the development of the insurrection from there. This brings up the very first distortion of history, that because the rebel party consisted of merely 82 guerrillas, quickly cut down to eighteen before they reached the Sierra Maestra, it is assumed that it was through the extraordinary heroism of this tiny group that the government was ultimately defeated. This ignores that fact that there was already a well-founded urban insurrection movement, upon which the guerrilla band would depend entirely. The urban M-26-7 group, under the direction of Frank Pais, was, as mentioned before, awaiting Castro's arrival to take Santiago. In addition, there also existed the Directorio Revolucionario, led by Echevarria, dedicated to violent urban insurrection. These two groups, along with a multitude of other organizations and individuals, would for the next few yea! rs provide support, both financial and corporal, which Castro desperately needed and would have perished very quickly without.(Bonachea139) Quickly after the Granma disaster, Fidel and his compatriots regrouped in the Sierra Maestra, the area to which they were to retreat in case of failure.(Bonachea78) They did so with the assistance of the local peasantry, who led them through the densely forested mountains to find each other.(Bonachea89) The rebels set up a base from which their operations stemmed. Their operations, however, soon came to involve much more than isolated military encounters with rural guard barracks; as they lived in the midst of peasants, they depended on them, not only for guides or purchasing supplies, but on their loyalty. The peasants had no sympathy for the rural guard, but neither did they for the rebels; thus, they would often turn informer on Castro and his men.(Bonachea90) In order to counteract this, Castro instituted a system of extremely brutal, yet just, revolutionary justice. All informers were executed immediately, and the executions were advertised widely throughout the pe! asantry. At the same time, however, the rebels were extremely fair in their commercial dealings with the peasants, and Castro established a strict revolutionary code to keep his guerrillas in line, including provisions defining rape and other crimes against the peasantry as capital offenses. Although the revolutionary law was harsh, at least it was not arbitrary, and the peasants gradually came to see the revolutionaries as the law of the Sierra. The "Sierras' peasants were aware that their survival and security depended mainly on whether they helped the guerrillas or not,"(Bonachea91) wrote one scholar. Thus the peasants were half-terrorized, half encouraged to support the guerrillas over the batistianos. The role of the peasants within the movement was not as heroic as it was later made out to be. Of the troops themselves, figures differ as to the proportion of peasants to urban recruits. Bonachea, for example, states that the majority of the rebel forces were city people, mostly young, educated, and male. To support this is the March third, 1957, movement of 52 armed and supplied men from Santiago to the Sierra. According to him, the number of guerrillas continued to grow due to these regular urban influxes, despite regular desertions of the peasants, who would rather return to their "small, unproductive plots of land."(Bonachea95) Huberman and Sweezy, on the other hand, claim that from three-quarters to four-fifths of the rebel forces were peasants.(Huberman78) However, the idea that peasant participation in the forces, at whatever level, would give the revolution a "peasant character" is put into doubt due to two facts. First, the peasants were not promoted to offic! ers, in fact, most of them were not even soldiers; their main duties were transportation and communication. Since there were no peasants in the leadership, it is hard to imagine that the movement had any kind of a peasant nature. Second, as late as May 1958, even the most sympathetic writers put the total number of guerrillas at around 300.(Huberman63) Even if they were all peasants, three hundred peasants hardly seems to be a massive, popular movement. As Castro's movement in the hills began to consolidate his hold on the land and the people, Pais began planning seriously for the general strike which was to coincide with Castro's emergence from the Sierra and attack upon urban centers.(Bonachea142) Bonachea makes the point here that Pais was still the real leader of the M-26-7, and that Castro was still subordinate to him. The general strike was the real weapon, Castro was just there to take over once the strike had immobilized Cuba. However, Echevarria, who had been also involved in planning the strike, was killed in March, and Pais was killed in July, so the only insurrectionary leader left was Castro. Desiring to make his base even firmer before the strike was to proceed, Castro directed all the urban insurrectionary movements to dedicate their activities to keeping him well supplied in the Sierra.(Bonachea146) As he was the only popular rebel leader remaining, Castro's power, support and resources grew immensely. In September, there was an uprising at the Cayo Loco Naval Base in Cienfuegos which involved coordination between M-26-7 and naval officers. Being primarily a plot initiated by the military, it did not need Castro's help. The revolt ended in all-out urban warfare between the M-26-7 forces and the sailors against Batista's army troops. The lack of coordination between cities prevented the movement from growing, and the revolt was eventually put down by Batista and followed by extremely brutal repression.(Bonachea147) But what this event shows, despite its failure, is that there was dissension already in the military due purely to disgust with Batista . At this time also, the Directorio Revolucionario sent 800 guerrillas to the Sierra Escambray in order to establish an "urban and rural" guerrilla struggle.(Bonachea184) A few months later, Raul Castro was sent to the Sierra Cristal to establish the second front "Frank Pais". Once again, the development of "the Second Front in Oriente was largely the result of the urban underground efforts of Mayari, Guantanamo, and Santiago de Cuba."(Bonachea191) It is interesting to compare Raul Castro's treatment of the peasantry with that of his brother. Raul had a much more egalitarian attitude, he permitted peasants to rise as far up in the rebel officer ranks as their skill would take them, whereas Fidel had no peasants in the officer corps. However, this egalitarianism was not exclusively for the peasantry: he also equally encouraged the agricultural workers and miners in the area to join his forces. This resulted in massive popular support for Raul in the surrounding area.(Bonac! hea196) Thus during this period from the summer of 1957 until April 1958, the insurrection was growing, in the Sierra Maestra, in the armed forces, and on two new fronts. However, as Che stated in November 1957, they were all still awaiting the general strike. "The Sierra Maestra is arriving at the end of its fortress commitment," he wrote, "[and is] getting ready to launch its legions of combatants across the plains." Victory was predicated on two things, he said: the "burning of canefields and the general revolutionary strike which will be the final blow. The revolutionary general strike is the definitive weapon."(Bonachea202) At this point the insurrection was still no more of a peasant revolution that it was when the Granma went ashore. The insurrection still consisted of rural guerrillas dependent on the urban underground for troops, supplies and, ultimately, a massive general strike among the workers, organized by the urban underground, to make possible their movement from! the hills. The peasantry had influence only in the lesser of the two fronts, and even there, it was shared with the proletariat. The general strike was finally planned by Castro for April 1958. The reasons for its spectacular failure are controversial, but a couple of facts which emerge point towards a reasonable explanation. Fidel called the strike and, against the advice of the urban M-26-7 who said that they were not yet ready, forced the insurrectionist leaders to comply. Then, he did not deliver the arms he had promised them and without which, the strike was impossible.(Bonachea214) It thus turned into a massacre. It was such a disaster that any plan for a future strike became hopeless. It appears that Castro intended for the strike to be a failure in order to completely consolidate his power at the head of the insurrection. His power had grown to the point where he believed that he could defeat Batista, and he wanted to eliminate the chance that the urban insurrectionists might steal his revolution. This was further confirmed at the meeting of May 3, which Guevara characterized as the off! icial shifting of all power to the countryside, that is, to Castro.(Bonachea215) The other strategic benefit which Castro derived from the failure of the strike was to force Batista into confrontation. Castro had firm control over the Sierra Maestra, but he could not venture down into the plain to fight the regular army there. He wanted Batista to send troops up into the Sierra, where his guerrilla tactics would prove superior. Castro would destroy Batista's army then move out of the hills. Castro's plan worked, as Batista's officers, encouraged by the defeat of the strike, pushed him to attack the Sierra and end the entire insurrection right then. Batista complied, and on June 28, after heavy recruiting, Batista's summer offensive began. The ironic element was that the great majority of Batista's recruits were peasants, many from Oriente province.(Bonachea229) However, the Sierra was not the sole stage upon which the battle was taking place; on April 16, Batista had declared a state of emergency and began the most brutal crack-down of his regime. ! Partly in protest and partly in support of Castro, the urban insurrection escalated, turning the cities into veritable battlegrounds.(Bonachea223) Another result of the increased urban activity was a new, highly effective drive to supply Castro with men and arms. Due to the extremely efficient organization which he had developed, Castro was victorious against Batista's campaign. This was a morale boost to the insurrection everywhere. Cells grew up in all industries, the five to six thousand urban terrorists operating during the summer grew even more numerous, and opposition in the armed forces escalated.(Bonachea263) The rebels left the Sierra and marched west, capturing town after town, culminating in the capture of Santa Clara. During this time, the urban underground was essential to the rebel victories. The rebels numbered no more than 250, and Batista's army was still in the tens of thousands.(Huberman69) However, in each town, the army's morale had been so decimated by the constant terrorization of the urban insurrectionaries that the guerrillas very rarely had to fire a shot to achieve victory.(Bonachea297) Another probable cause of the troops' lack of morale is simply the excesses of Batista. The army had no more desire to keep fighting for a man who was so brutally persecuting their families and friends. Finally, there was the reputation of Castro and his guerrillas to be reckoned with: their massive, bloody victory over the regular army was well-known, and few of Batista's mostly badly-trained troops had any desire to challenge them. Although the guerrillas succeeded witho! ut the strike itself, through the urban underground and the troops' lack of morale, the same situation was effected in which they could take over urban Cuba despite their extreme numerical inferiority. So the guerrillas took Cuba and declared it a peasant revolution. However, it seems clear that, no matter by what standard we judge it by, the revolution was certainly not characterized by the peasantry. The guerrilla-peasant marriage was one of convenience, the peasantry was simply the medium in which the guerrillas were forced to operate. They never spoke of any special connection with the peasants until well afterwards, let alone assist them or trust the peasants any further than they had to to achieve their own ends. And in return, the guerrillas never enjoyed any kind of mass support from the peasants; they would still join Batista's army with just as much enthusiasm as before. Even the "spearhead" of the revolution, agrarian reform, was initiated by the guerrillas, and there is great controversy as to whether the peasants really cared about getting land that much at all. The preamble of the Land Reform Law stated that its purpose was to "diversify the Cuban econom! y and help the industrialization of the country." (Goldenberg218) Beyond their excellent service as porters, the peasants had almost no role in the revolution. The urban underground, however, did play a major, though forgotten, role. At every step of the revolution, their assistance was essential to the guerrillas, and at the time, until April 1958, the guerrillas recognized it. Afterwards, the assistance was just as necessary, perhaps even more so during the march westward, but it was subsumed under Castro's revolution. The question can now be posed: why did the revolutionaries, after their victory, try so hard to establish their revolution as a peasant revolution? The answer is rooted in Cuba's peculiar class structure at the time of the revolution. Cuba was not a typical Latin American nation: first off, its population was 57% urban and 43% rural, as opposed to the general rural nature of the rest of Latin America.(Draper21) It had one of the highest standards of living in Latin America, and it was also one of the most middle-class: figures range from 22 to 33 percent of the population as belonging to the middle class.(Thomas328) This middle class was also peculiar because it was a frustrated class, frustrated by the economic stagnation which was hindering their professional and financial advancement. This feeling was especially prevalent among the recent university graduates.(Thomas330) Although Huberman and Sweezy claim that the peasantry was the most revolutionary of the classes, a! s it was the most marginalized,(Huberman80) by other standards it would seem that this middle class was the most revolutionary, as it was a clear candidate for a revolution of rising expectations. This seems to be the case, as the people who made up most of the urban underground, and who contributed the most troops to the guerrillas, were precisely these young, well-educated men. Batista's power was founded in the middle class, he could have handled a true peasant revolt because the peasantry was not strong enough; a middle class revolt, however, could cause his downfall. The constituency of the Cuban Revolution was made up of the middle-class. It derived its support from the middle class by promising the institution of the constitution of 1940 with its liberal reforms,(Draper20) and it succeeded without significant worker or peasant support. However, after the strike of April 1958, the revolution, previously a revolution of the middle-class intelligentsia, became Castro's own revolution. He made the strike fail so as to consolidate his power, regardless of the bloodshed it caused among his fellow insurrectionists. This would appear to be one of the reasons why he termed it a peasant revolution. He reversed cause and effect so as to justify what had happened: he claimed that the victory was the victory of a peasants' revolution, of which he was merely the vanguard, swept into the class consciousness of the peasantry; instead, he had swept the urban leaders off stage, and in order to hide the fact that it was merely he and his own cadres wh! o ultimately seized the government, he fabricated the peasant nature of the revolution. Then, following up on this lead, once he was in power, he radicalized the agrarian reform law by adding socialist co-operatives to it right before it was signed, thus driving away liberal middle class in the name of the peasant revolution.(Draper24) His charisma was such at that point that he could pull such a maneuver without much struggle, thus, he consolidated his power and based it, unlike his revolution, in the peasantry and the workers. The final reason why it seems that he constructed the peasant nature of the revolution was to give the revolution the popular character it needed to be accepted in the rest of Latin America. "Our revolution has set an example for every other country in Latin America," said Che Guevara.(Guevara13) However, a universal middle class revolution was not quite what Guevara had in mind. As mentioned earlier, Cuba was far ahead of most of Latin America e! conomically, and so most of the rest of the continent had the potential for a genuine peasant revolution. The success of this strategy is evident in the massive popularity of Castro among peasant movements in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru.(Goldenberg313) When he finally took power, Castro did effect many radical social changes to improve the peasant's condition. Indeed, it does not seem that he went through so many permutations just to achieve total personal power, but that he was looking ultimately to effect radical social change as well. That the means to these two goals, along with the exigencies of foreign policy, all coincided was propitious. That his fellow middle-class urban revolutionaries had to be removed was merely a Machiavellian necessity. But no matter what the country may look like now, or what the cadres have said concerning the roots of the revolution, it still remains, as Hugh Thomas pointed out, that while the urban resistance probably could not have defeated Batista without Castro, it is certain that Castro could not have defeated Batista without the urban resistance. Works Cited AlRoy, Gil Carl. "The Peasantry in the Cuban Revolution." Cuba in Revolution. Ed. Rolando E. Bonachea and Nelson P. Valdes. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1972. 3-17. Bonachea, Ramon L., and Marta San Martin. The Cuban Insurrection 1952-1959. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 1974. Draper, Theodore. Castro's Revolution: Myths and Realities. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962. Goldenberg, Joseph. The Cuban Revolution and Latin America. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966. Huberman, Leo, and Paul M. Sweezy. Cuba: Anatomy of a Revolution. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1961. Kenner, Martin, and James Petras, eds. Fidel Castro Speaks. New York: Grove Press, 1969. Lavan, George, ed. Che Guevara Speaks. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1967. Thomas, Hugh. The Cuban Revolution. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1977.