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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
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
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.


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