Communism and the 1960s

From 1960 onwards, in the face of increasing hostility from the USA, Castro led Cuba into socialism and then Communism. Officials of the Batista regime were put on trial in 'people's courts' and executed. The promised new elections were not held. The judiciary lost its independence when Castro assumed the right to appoint judges. The free press was closed or taken over. Trade unions lost their independence and became part of government. The University of Havana, a former focus of dissent, and professional associations, all lost their autonomy. The democratic constitution of 1940 was never reinstated. In 1960, the sugar centrales, the oil refineries and the foreign banks were nationalized, all US property was expropriated and the Central Planning Board (
Juceplan
) was established. The professional and property-owning middle classes began a steady exodus which drained the country of much of its skilled workers.

CIA-backed mercenaries and Cuban émigrés kept up a relentless barrage of attacks, but failed to achieve their objective. In March a French ship carrying arms to Cuba was sabotaged. At the burial of the victims, Castro first used the slogan, 'Patria o Muerte'. Diplomatic relations were re-established with the USSR, North Korea and Vietnam, while China and Cuba signed mutual benefit treaties. Meanwhile, the USA cancelled Cuba's sugar quota and put an embargo on all imports to Cuba.

At the beginning of 1961, the USA severed diplomatic relations with Cuba and encouraged Latin American countries to do likewise. This was the year of the
Bay of Pigs
invasion, a fiasco which was to harden Castro's political persuasion. On 14 April 1961, some 1400 Cuban émigrés, trained by the CIA in Miami and Guatemala, set off from Nicaragua to invade Cuba with the US Navy as escort. On 15 April, planes from Nicaragua bombed several Cuban airfields in an attempt to wipe out the air force. Seven Cuban airmen were killed in the raid, and at their funeral the next day, Fidel Castro addressed a mass rally in Havana and declared Cuba to be socialist. On 17 April the invasion flotilla landed at Playa Girón and Playa Larga in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), but the men were stranded on the beaches when the Cuban air force attacked their supply ships. Two hundred were killed and the rest surrendered within three days. The invaders' aircraft also took a beating when 11 were shot down, including all the B-26 bombers flown from Nicaragua. A total of 1197 men were captured and eventually returned to the USA in exchange for US$53 million in food and medicine. In his May Day speech, Fidel Castro, who had personally taken control of the defence of Cuba, confirmed that the Cuban Revolution was socialist.

The US reaction was to isolate Cuba, with a full trade embargo and heavy pressure on other American countries to sever diplomatic relations. Cuba was expelled from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the OAS imposed economic sanctions. Crucially, however, across the border in both Canada and Mexico, governments refused to toe the line and maintained relations (a policy which has now borne fruit for many Canadian and Mexican companies at the expense of US businesses). Nevertheless, in 1961-1962, the trade embargo hit hard, shortages soon appeared and by March 1962 rationing had to be imposed.

At this stage, Cuba became entangled in the rivalry between the two superpowers: the USA and the USSR. In April 1962, Russian President
Kruschev
decided to send medium-range missiles to Cuba, which would be capable of striking anywhere in the USA, even though all Castro wanted were short-range missiles he could point at Miami to deter invasion. In October, President JF Kennedy ordered Soviet ships heading for Cuba to be stopped and searched for missiles in international waters. This episode, which became known as the
Cuban Missile Crisis
, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, defused only by secret negotiations between JFK and Kruschev. Kennedy demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops and arms from Cuba and imposed a naval blockade. Without consulting Castro and without his knowledge, Kruschev eventually agreed to have the missiles dismantled and withdrawn on condition that the West would guarantee a policy of non-aggression towards Cuba. In November, Kennedy suspended the naval blockade but reiterated US support for political and economic aggression towards Cuba. In the following year he made a speech in Costa Rica, in which he stated, “We will build a wall around Cuba”, and Central American countries agreed to isolate the island.

Castro's decision to adopt Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology of the Revolution was followed by the fusion of the 26 July Movement with the Communist Party, at that time known as the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). The PSP had opposed the Revolution until the final stages of the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship and it took several years and two purges before the 'old' Communists were expunged and the new Communist Party was united behind the new official ideology. In October 1965, a restructured
Cuban Communist Party
(PCC) was founded and Cuba has been Communist ever since.

Economic policy during the 1960s was largely unsuccessful in achieving its aims. After a spell as head of the Central Bank, Che Guevara was appointed Minister of Industry, a key position given that the government wanted to industrialize rapidly to reduce dependence on sugar. However, the crash programme, with help from the USSR, was a failure and had to be abandoned. Sugar was king again but productivity plummeted and there were poor harvests in 1963-1964. The whole nation was called upon to achieve a target of 10 million tonnes of sugar by 1970 and everyone spent time in the fields helping towards this goal. It was never reached and never has been, but the effort revealed distortions in the Cuban economy which in effect increased the island's dependence on the Soviet Union. Castro jumped out of the frying pan into the fire: he escaped domination by the USA only to replace it with another superpower.

Social policy

Rationing is still in place and there are still shortages of consumer goods. However, the Revolution's social policies have largely been successful and it is principally these achievements that have ensured the people's support of Castro and kept him and/or his brother Raúl in power. Education, housing and health services have been greatly improved and the social inequalities of the 1940s and 1950s have been wiped out. Equality of the sexes and races has also been promoted, a major change in what was a
machista
, racially prejudiced society. Infant mortality is now on a par with many industrialized countries. In 1961 300,000 Cubans volunteered to go out into the countryside, as part of a literacy campaign, to teach their comrades how to read and write. On 22 December of the same year, Cuba was declared free of illiteracy. Considerable emphasis is now placed on combining productive agricultural work with study: there are over 400 schools and colleges in rural areas where the students divide their time between the fields and the classroom. Education is compulsory up to the age of 17, and free, while access to higher education has been granted to all.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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