After participating in History Acts’ workshop on International Solidarity earlier this year, Secretary of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign Bernard Regan gives an activist’s perspective on the history of the Cuban Revolution and explains why the Campaign continues to fight today.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution was a major historic event of the twentieth century. Overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the Revolution constituted the first defeat for American imperialism in the western hemisphere, and fulfilment of the Cuban people’s aspirations towards independence, commenced by Jose Martí’s battles against Spanish imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century.
The United States of America invaded Cuba in 1898, and while the country won formal independence from the United States in 1902, Cuba’s neighbours ninety miles to the north sought to dominate the island economically and politically throughout the following decades. The 1901 Platt Amendment, establishing the US terms of withdrawal and subsequently adopted into the constitution of the new Republic of Cuba, included provisions allowing the US to unilaterally intervene in Cuban affairs, and forcing the new government to sell or lease land to the US for coaling or naval stations. From the 1920s, the American-based Mafia also exercised a strong influence in Cuba, running casinos, brothels and hotels in the country with the connivance of paid politicians, including Batista.
On 26 July 1953 a group led by Fidel Castro and including his brother Raul, stormed the Moncada Barracks near Santiago and a barracks in the city of Bayamo. The attacks were driven back by the Batista troops and around sixty of those involved were killed, the majority after being captured alive. Despite being handed a fifteen-year sentence, Fidel was released in an amnesty in 1955 and went to Mexico, where he, Camilo Cienfuegos and others were trained by Alberto Bayo, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. The group was joined by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentinian doctor who took up the Cuban cause. On 2 December 1956, a group of eighty revolutionaries set sail in the yacht Granma, designed to hold a maximum of twenty-five. Their arrival on the island of Cuba was set to coincide with mass actions by workers and others in the southern city of Santiago.
Over the next two years, the revolutionaries were in constant contact with the cities and built links with workers and farmers, working to develop a programme to address the chronic issues caused by the subjugation of the economy to imperatives dictated by corporations based in the United States. Following the success of the revolution on 1 January 1959, these issues were swiftly addressed. A major component of the programme was the launching of the Literacy Campaign, which in a matter of less than two years eradicated illiteracy on the island. It is estimated that more than a million Cubans participated in the project as students and teachers.
The White House, however, was not content to leave Cuba to its own devices, and from the very first days of the Revolution, American military and intelligence services were developing plans to reverse or usurp it. The most significant attack against the Revolution took place on 17 April 1961 when American-trained mercenaries invaded the island at the “Bay of Pigs” with the logistical support of Washington. The attempt to engineer a coup was routed however and American attempts to overthrow the Revolution suffered a major defeat.
Over the years, the Revolution has faced a number of challenges. With the US cutting all economic ties after 1959, Cuba was nonetheless able to cultivate favourable economic relationships with Russia and other Comecon countries. With the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union however, these relationships suddenly collapsed. Economically, the country faced a massive challenge, having lost by far the most significant export market for Cuban sugar, tobacco and other products. The challenging times which followed – from the early 1990s to the early 2000s – are known as the “Special Period”. Cuba was forced to restructure its economy to replace its lost income, for example by developing its tourism industry, with GDP and other economic indicators returning to pre-1989 levels in 2004.
Recognising a chance to defeat the Cuban anti-capitalist Revolution, successive US Presidents had imposed a variety of sanctions designed to undermine the government by creating economic discontent and alienation amongst the people. While a US trade embargo had been in place since 1960, the Torricelli Act (1992) and the Helms-Burton Act (1996) went much further by imposing restrictions on the rights of other countries to trade with the island, effectively forcing individuals and companies of other nations to participate in the blockade. These Acts, specifically designed to strangle the Cuban economy, remain in place to this day, requiring a decision of Congress to be repealed.
Washington’s inability to recognise Cuban sovereignty is not confined to economic legislation. To this day, the US continues to occupy a part of Cuba against the wishes of the people of the island. Originally annexed under the Platt Amendment, the occupation of Guantánamo Bay is regarded as illegal by the Cuban government, and US forces have refused to leave the island despite a standing request to do so. Originally established as a naval base, the forty-five square miles of land and sea now contain the infamous American detention centre, the operations of which have been repeatedly declared unlawful and in violation of human rights by international observers.
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign (CSC) has been in existence for some fifty-six years. It campaigns in defence of the rights of Cuba to determine its own future free from external interference, calling for an end to the illegal and inhumane blockade by the United States of America and for the end of the occupation of Guantánamo Bay. During this time the Campaign has sought to build a broad-based campaign around the twin demands of “Ending the Blockade” and “Defending Cuban Sovereignty”. Twenty-three national trade unions have affiliated with CSC, and the organisation has around thirty active local groups in England and Wales. CSC also works with a sister organisation in Scotland and in conjunction with groups across Europe.
Among the many issues that CSC addresses, its primary task is to tell the public the truth about the blockade and its ongoing impact on the lives of the Cuban people. Prevented from trading with its neighbour ninety miles to the north, the blockade forces Cuba to import vital goods from countries farther afield, adding colossally to the transport and insurance costs of all imported materials. In addition, President Trump has recently approved the renewal of a $20 million annual fund to instigate internal subversion on the island.
Last year in the UK, CSC led a huge campaign against the Open University’s policy of not allowing Cuban students to enrol on courses. After a Cuban student was threatened with exclusion after being accepted for a PhD programme, the OU was forced to admit that the discriminatory policy was introduced as a direct result of the United States’ extraterritorial threats to fine organisations for trading with Cuba. The CSC campaign involved thousands of members, as well as a number of trade unions and members of parliament, finally forcing the OU to reverse its policy.
The Cuba Solidarity Campaign organises regular delegations over to Cuba and brings Cuban visitors to the UK to speak at events. These visits help people find out first-hand information about Cuba and break through the media distortions propagated from the US about the island. We invite you to join the Campaign in defence of Cuban sovereignty, in opposition to the blockade, and against the illegal occupation of Guantánamo.
Dr Bernard Regan is Secretary of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. He taught in London schools for 38 years, was a member of the National Executive of the National Union of Teachers for 25 years, and is a Trustee of the NUT Section of the National Education Union. He is the author of The Balfour Declaration: Empire, Mandate and Resistance in Palestine (Verso, 2017) and a Visiting Research Fellow at St. Mary’s University. He is on Twitter @bernardregan.