And yet Americans are more ignorant of the nature of the Cuban Revolution and U.S.-Cuban relations than are the people of almost any other country in the world. Except for those few Americans with access to a handful of liberal and radical publications the people of this country have been subjected to an unrelieved campaign of distortion, or outright slander of Fidel Castro and the revolution he leads. The determined hostility of American leaders to the Cuban Revolution, the implementation of a system of economic harassment, and the threat of military intervention, not only endanger the Cuban Revolution, but increase the tempo of the cold war at home and abroad (Editors, “The Cuban Revolution: The New Crisis in Cold War Ideology,” Studies on the Left, Volume 1, Number, 1960, 1).
This statement was published in the summer of 1960! Fifty-nine years later the same assessment of the Cuban revolution is still widely believed in the United States, even by those who support the ending of United States hostility to the island nation.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 began in the nineteenth century and was driven by 400 years of nationalism, a vision of democracy, and a passion for economic justice. This vision was articulated in Fidel Castro’s famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech presented before being sentenced to prison after a failed military action against Batista in 1953. He spoke of five goals of his revolution: returning power to the people; giving land to the people who work it; providing workers a significant share of profits from corporations; granting sugar planters a quota of the value of the crop they produce; and confiscating lands acquired through fraud. Then he said, the Revolution would carry out agrarian reform, nationalize key sectors of the economy, institute educational reforms, and provide a decent livelihood for manual and intellectual labor.
“The problem of the land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing, the problem of unemployment, the problem of education and the problem of the people’s health: these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to solve, along with restoration of civil liberties and political democracy (Fidel Castro,” ‘History Will Absolve Me,’ Castro Internet Archive,
Almost immediately the revolutionaries who had seized power in January, 1959 began to implement the program envisioned by the Castro speech. Over the next fifty years, with heated debates inside Cuba, experiments--some successful, some failed--were carried out. Despite international pressures and the changing global political economy, much of the program has been institutionalized to the benefit of most Cubans.
Education and health care are free to all Cubans. Basic, but modest, nutritional needs have been met. Cubans have participated in significant political discussion about public policy. And Cuban society has been a laboratory for experimentation. In the 1960s Cubans discussed whether there was a need for monetary incentives to motivate work or whether revolutionary enthusiasm was sufficient to maintain production. Debates occurred over the years also about whether a state-directed economy, a mixed one, or some combination would best promote development; how to engage in international solidarity; and whether there was a need to affiliate with super powers such as the former Soviet Union. Central to the Cuban model is the proposition that when policies work they get institutionalized; when they fail they get changed.
The United States reaction to the Cuban Revolution has been as the Studies on the Left article warned in 1960. U.S. policy has included military invasions, sabotage, assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro, an economic blockade, subversion including beaming propaganda radio and television broadcasts to the island, efforts to isolate Cuba from the international system, restrictions on United States travelers to the island, listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, and in the long-run most importantly portraying in government statements and the mass media the image of Cuba as a totalitarian state that oppresses its people.
On December 17, 2014 President Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S./Cuban relationship would change. The United States and Cuba, President Obama said, would begin negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations, open embassies, and move to eliminate the U.S. economic blockade and restrictions on American travel to the island. This announcement was broadly celebrated by nations everywhere, the Pope who had lobbied Washington for the policy change, and Americans and Cubans alike. Of course, in both countries there were skeptics and the strong and vocal Cuban-American lobby immediately condemned the announced policy changes.
Since December, 2014 the United States and Cuba have been negotiating the announced normalization of relations and several steps have been taken by both countries including the reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations in 2016. However, since coming in office President Trump has begun to reverse the normalization of US/Cuban relations initiated in 2014, despite worldwide condemnation of US hostility to the island nation.
As we remember the historic contribution of Fidel Castro to the world, solidarity with Cuba must continue.
First, activists must continue to pressure their legislators to repeal the Helms-Burton Act and oppose any efforts by their peers to re-impose legislation that will stop the process of change. Lobbying should be complemented by rallies and marches. Support should be given to those organizations which have been in the front lines of Cuba Solidarity for years such as Pastors for Peace. In addition, people to people exchanges, community to community outreach, and high school and university study abroad programs should be encouraged.
Second, those in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution should support economic reforms being introduced on the island that reflect the best principles of the Cuban Revolution: independence, democracy, and human well-being. The clearest manifestation of these principles is reflected in the development of work place cooperatives in both cities and the countryside. Cubans are being encouraged to engage in work that produces goods and services for their communities in ways that empower workers and decentralize production and decision-making. Educating the American public to the fact that Cuba is embarking on new economic arrangements that encourage work place democracy contradict the media image that the people are embracing entrepreneurial capitalism.
Third, the solidarity movement should continue the process of public education about Cuba, explaining the realities of Cuban history, celebrating Cuban accomplishments in health care and education, and recognizing the richness and diversity of Cuban culture. Ironically, despite the long and often painful relationship the Cuban people have had with the United States, the diversity of the two nation’s cultures are inextricably connected. That shared experience should be celebrated.
Finally, solidarity with the Cuban people provides an opportunity to educate Americans to the reality that the United States is not “the indispensable nation,” but one among many with virtues and flaws. Cubans have celebrated their own history and culture but have done so without disrespecting the experiences of other nations and peoples. We in the United States could learn from that perspective.