Table of Contents


Table of Contents

Half title page

Viewpoints/Puntos de Vista

Title page

Copyright page


Series Editor’s Preface



Talking about Freedom

Scholars Weigh In

Why Revolution?

Comparing Capitalism and Socialism

Latin American Attitudes

1 Cuba through 1959

Colonial History

The Colony in the Republic

Revolution: A War, or a Process?

2 Experiments with Socialism

Analyzing the Situation: Economic Backwardness

The 1960s: Experimentation and the Great Debate

The 1970s: Institutionalization and the Soviet Model

Democracy: U.S. and Cuban Style

Cuba in the 1970s: How it Worked

1986: Rectification

How Democratic was Cuban Socialism?

3 Relations with the United States

The United States and Cuba

In their Own Words: U.S. Policymakers Respond to Revolution

Covert War: Up to the Bay of Pigs

Covert War: After the Bay of Pigs

The Missile Crisis

After the Missile Crisis

The War Continues

4 Emigration and Internationalism


Cuba’s Global Reach: Beyond the Cold War

Cuba and Black Internationalism

Cuba in Africa and Latin America

Civilian Aid Missions

5 Art, Culture, and Revolution






Political Culture


6 Cuba Diversa





7 The “Special Period”: Socialism on One Island

1993–95: Rapid-Fire Reforms

Social Impact of the Market Reforms

Limits to Capitalism

Charting New Territory

Contradictions: Inequality and Jineterismo

Opting to Leave: The 1994 Exodus

Debate and its Limits during the 1990s

8 Cuba into the Twenty-First Century

From Perfeccionamiento to Recentralization

Civil Society into the New Century


Bush-Era Policies

Cuba, Venezuela, and the ALBA

Cuba after Fidel




A History of the Cuban Revolution

Viewpoints/Puntos de Vista

Themes and Interpretations in Latin American History

Series Editor: Jürgen Buchenau

The books in this series will introduce students to the most significant themes and topics in Latin American history. They represent a novel approach to designing supplementary texts for this growing market. Intended as supplementary textbooks, the books will also discuss the ways in which historians have interpreted these themes and topics, thus demonstrating to students that our understanding of our past is constantly changing, through the emergence of new sources, methodologies, and historical theories. Unlike monographs, the books in this series will be broad in scope and written in a style accessible to undergraduates.


A History of the Cuban Revolution

Aviva Chomsky

Bartolomé de las Casas and the Conquest of the Americas

Lawrence A. Clayton

Mexican Immigration to the United States

Timothy J. Henderson

In preparation

The Last Caudillo: Alvaro Obregón and the Mexican Revolution

Jürgen Buchenau

Creoles vs. Peninsulars in Colonial Spanish America

Mark Burkholder

Dictatorship in South America

Jerry Davila

Mexico Since 1940: The Unscripted Revolution

Stephen E. Lewis

The Haitian Revolution, 1791–1804

Jeremy Popkin

Title page



Map 1 Cuba with major cities

Map 2 Cuba with respect to the Caribbean and the Americas


Figure I.1 Billboard quoting José Martí: “Either Free Forever, or Forever Fighting to be Free”

Figure 1.1 Bust of Hatuey in the main plaza of Baracoa in eastern Cuba. “Hatuey: The First Rebel of America. Burned at the Stake in Yara, Baracoa.” Oriente Workers Lodge

Figure 1.2 Print by Cuban artist Sandra Ramos, “Seremos Como El Che” (We will be like Che)

Figure 2.1 Literacy Museum in Ciudad Libertad outside of Havana, 2000

Figure 3.1 Billboard near Playa Girón. “Girón: First Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America”

Figure 5.1 ICAIC headquarters, Havana, 2008

Figure 7.1 A dollar store in Havana, 2008

Figure 7.2 A farmers market in Havana, 2000

Figure 7.3 A bodega in Havana, 2009

Series Editor’s Preface

Each book in the “Viewpoints/Puntos de Vista” series introduces students to a significant theme or topic in Latin American history. In an age in which student and faculty interest in the Global South increasingly challenges the old focus on the history of Europe and North America, Latin American history has assumed an increasingly prominent position in undergraduate curricula.

Some of these books discuss the ways in which historians have interpreted these themes and topics, thus demonstrating that our understanding of our past is constantly changing, through the emergence of new sources, methodologies, and historical theories. Others offer an introduction to a particular theme by means of a case study or biography in a manner easily understood by the contemporary, non-specialist reader. Yet others give an overview of a major theme that might serve as the foundation of an upper-level course.

What is common to all of these books is their goal of historical synthesis. They draw on the insights of generations of scholarship on the most enduring and fascinating issues in Latin American history, while also making use of primary sources as appropriate. Each book is written by a specialist in Latin American history who is concerned with undergraduate teaching, yet who has also made his or her mark as a first-rate scholar.

The books in this series can be used in a variety of ways, recognizing the differences in teaching conditions at small liberal arts colleges, large public universities, and research-oriented institutions with doctoral programs. Faculty have particular needs depending on whether they teach large lectures with discussion sections, small lecture or discussion-oriented classes, or large lectures with no discussion sections, and whether they teach on a semester or trimester system. The format adopted for this series fits all of these different parameters.

This volume is one of the two inaugural books in the “Viewpoints/Puntos de Vista series. In A History of the Cuban Revolution, Avi Chomsky provides a compelling and fascinating synthesis of the Cuban Revolution – the first socialist revolution in the Americas, and significant in world history for its role in the Cold War. Drawing on historical literature and primary sources from both Cuba and the United States, the author takes the reader on a historical tour, from the beginning of the Revolution in the Sierra Maestra mountains up to the present day. Along the way she includes not only the preeminent actors in the drama – Fulgencio Batista, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Dwight Eisenhower, J.F.K., Robert Kennedy, and many others – but she also covers the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, issues of immigration and emigration, political culture, and the social and cultural legacies of the Revolution in race, gender, and sexuality as well as in literature, film, music, dance, religion, sport, and food.

Jürgen Buchenau

University of North Carolina, Charlotte


Many thanks to Peter Coveney and Jürgen Buchenau, who proposed this project to me and who have helped it along at every juncture. Several anonymous readers provided welcome suggestions for both the proposal and the manuscript. Thanks also to copyeditor Tessa Hanford, and to my sister-in-law Amy Apel for indexing the book. Above all, I must thank Alfredo Prieto and his family. Alfredo has been my guide to Cuba and socio in Cuba-related intellectual and political endeavors over the past decade. Hundreds of hours of conversations in Havana, Maine, Massachusetts, and even Miami, have helped me better understand the complexities of Cuba’s past and present. Alfredo also served as editor extraordinaire for this manuscript, catching errors, reminding me of what I’d missed, and pushing me towards new discoveries. ¡Muchísimas gracias!


Cuba with major cities


Cuba with respect to the Caribbean and the Americas


Rarely does popular opinion in the United States diverge so strikingly from scholarly analysis as in the case of the Cuban Revolution.

It’s one of the few events in Latin American history that U.S. students have heard of. When I ask my students to come up with names of important figures in Latin American history, the only one that reliably emerges is that of Fidel Castro. And students are fairly unanimous in their opinions of Castro: “Dangerous,” “evil,” “bad,” and “dictator” are the words they most commonly come up with to describe him. Survey results show that my students’ positions are widely shared among the U.S. population: 98 percent of those surveyed in the United States had heard of Fidel Castro, and 82 percent had a negative opinion of him.1

Fidel Castro has certainly inspired his share of scholarly attention, including numerous biographies. Some are by historians. Some are by journalists. One is by a doctor. There is even a graphic novel recounting Fidel’s life. In a “spoken autobiography” the Cuban revolutionary recounted his own story of his life.2

Most serious studies of the Cuban Revolution, though, focus less on the figure of Fidel Castro and more on the process, the politics, and the people of the Cuban Revolution. Here we find a giant gap between what scholars, including historians, have to say, and what U.S. political leaders and the general public seem to believe. Most historians frame the story of the Cuban Revolution with the long history of U.S. involvement in the island and in the rest of the Caribbean. But politicians and the general public have tended to see the USSR, rather than the United States, as the main factor explaining the nature of the Cuban Revolution. In this respect, U.S. scholars today have more in common with their Cuban counterparts than they do with the U.S. public.

Talking about Freedom

Both in Cuba and in the United States, the word “freedom” comes up frequently in describing Cuba’s history and current realities. It’s a word that incorporates many different meanings. U.S. policymakers tend to use it to refer to freedom for private enterprise, while for Cuban policymakers it generally means freedom from U.S. interference. This dichotomy is nothing new. “The Cuban people want to be free as much from the foreigners who abuse the flag as from the citizens who violate it and will end up burying it,” wrote a Cuban nationalist organization in the 1920s, referring to the U.S. political and economic domination of the island, and to the Cubans who collaborated with the foreigners.3 Around the same time, Cuban Communist Party founder Julio Antonio Mella published his pamphlet entitled Cuba, A Nation That Has Never Been Free.

And today, a billboard in Santa Clara proclaims “O libres para siempre o batallando siempre para ser libres,” over a painting of two giant hands, one black and one white, breaking free of a shackle (Figure I.1). “Either free forever, or forever fighting to be free.” The contemporary use of the image, and the quote by Cuban independence leader José Martí, clearly draws a parallel between Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, its struggle for the abolition of slavery and for racial equality, and its struggle for national independence in the current era in the face of U.S. threats. “Freedom,” a Cuban high school student at the “Martyrs of Kent” high school told U.S. educator Jonathan Kozol in 1976, “means when you are free of international capitalistic exploitation!”4

Figure I.1 Billboard quoting José Martí: “Either Free Forever, or Forever Fighting to be Free”

Source: Photo by Jackie McCabe


“Castro has taken no interest in international situation or in threat of international Communism,” the U.S. Ambassador complained shortly after the Revolution. “I tried to explain significance of support of all peoples of free world in great struggle between freedom and slavery but do not believe he was particularly impressed.”5 The “freedom” that U.S. policymakers worried about incessantly in the first months of the Revolution was what the new revolutionary regime would mean for private enterprise. “ ‘Real U.S. goals in Cuba’, Assistant Secretary of State Roy Rubottom reiterated, included ‘receptivity to U.S. and free world capital and increasing trade’ and ‘access by the United States to essential Cuban resources’.”6

In late 2007, President Bush echoed the importance of private enterprise, the association of what he called “economic freedom” with political freedoms – and Cuba’s failures on both counts. “One of the great success stories of the past century is the advance of economic and political freedom across Latin America,” Bush explained in a major policy speech. “In this room are officials representing nations that are embracing the blessings of democratic government and free enterprise.” However, “one country in our region still isolates its people from the hope that freedom brings, and traps them in a system that has failed them.”7 The one country, obviously, was Cuba.

In Barack Obama’s first major speech on Cuba, before an audience of Cuban Americans in Miami in May 2008, he used the words “free” or “freedom” 33 times. “Never in my lifetime,” he announced, “have the people of Cuba known freedom … My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: Libertad.” He even quoted José Martí, saying “every moment is critical in the defense of freedom.” While explicitly distancing himself from Republican policies, Obama nevertheless vowed to maintain the U.S. embargo against Cuba.8

Scholars Weigh In

Scholars of Latin America are less likely to share the U.S. adminis­trations’ infatuation with free markets. While economists are still divided on the issue, with the Chicago School holding fast to its free market principles, historians tend to be a bit more leery of automatically equating free markets with political freedom. Economic liberalism, they remind us, was implemented in much of Latin America in the late nineteenth century through “liberal dictatorships” like that of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, who maintained repressive, undemocratic governments while warmly welcoming U.S. investors. Since World War II, dictatorships in the Southern Cone and authoritarian democracies like Mexico have followed neo-liberal economic advisers from the United States. And free market “economic miracles” in Latin America have often had disastrous effects on the poor.9

Latin Americanists have frequently found themselves at odds with U.S. policymakers towards the region. The interdisciplinary field of Latin American Studies came about in part as a result of the Cuban Revolution, as the State Department sought to create cadres of experts who could guide and implement U.S. policy by funding new Latin American Studies programs at major U.S. universities. Historian Thomas Skidmore, in what Rolena Adorno called a “memorable and oft-repeated announcement,” suggested in 1961 that “we are all sons and daughters of Fidel.”10 That is, the Cuban Revolution gave rise to an upsurge of government interest in Latin America, and funding for Latin American Studies programs in major U.S. universities. (Jan Knippers Black later revised this to suggest that U.S. Latin Americanists are Fidel Castro’s “illegitimate offspring.”11) In 1995 Stanford political scientist Richard Fagen echoed Skidmore’s sentiment when, upon receiving the Latin American Studies Association’s top scholarship award, he suggested “with my tongue only half-way into my cheek” that the Cuban revolutionary leader would be the most appropriate recipient because “at least in the United States, no one did more than Fidel Castro to stimulate the study of Latin America in the 60s and 70s.”12 “Many members of my generation,” political scientist and former Latin American Studies Association (LASA) President Peter Smith reiterated in 2006, “went through graduate school with thanks to Fidel Castro.”13

“U.S. officials,” Smith continued, “expected the academic community to promote U.S. policy goals. The National Defense Education Act (note that name!) offered generous scholarships for the study of Latin America – on the mistaken assumption, of course, that newly trained area experts would figure out ways to prevent or defeat revolutionary movements.”14

As Smith and the others have suggested, the attempt largely backfired. Instead, LASA took a strong stand early on: “Scholarship must never become a clandestine arm of U.S. policy.”15 New scholars trained in Latin American Studies who spent time working in Latin America as often as not turned into opponents of U.S. policy towards the region. LASA has been particularly critical of U.S. policy towards Cuba, passing resolution after resolution condemning the trade and travel embargo and calling for free academic exchange with the island. LASA has been especially rankled that the State Department has refused to issue visas for Cuban scholars to participate in its Congresses, and in 2007 the organization moved its meeting from Boston to Montreal so that Cuban scholars could attend unim­peded, vowing to boycott the United States until the organization received a guarantee that its Cuban members would be allowed to participate.

Nevertheless, the study of Cuba in the United States has fre­quently been criticized for its ideological divides. Several essays in the Latin American Research Review – the journal of the Latin American Studies Association – have noted the weight of politics in Cuban studies. Marifeli Pérez-Stable argued in 1991 that the Cold War construct of the “Cubanologist,” modeled on monikers assigned to those who studied the Soviet bloc, should be replaced by “Cubanist,” taking Cuban studies out of the Cold War paradigm and returning it to Latin America and following the pattern of “Latin Americanist” or “Mexicanist.” Damián Fernández reiterated this stance a few years later, as did John Kirk and Peter McKenna in 1999.16

In addition to the ideological bent that it brought to the field, another drawback of the “Cubanology” approach has been an overemphasis on politics in studies of the Cuban Revolution. Historian Louis A. Pérez complained in 1992 that historians have woefully neglected the history of the post-revolutionary period. “After 1961, historians yield to political scientists, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists – to Cubanologists. The resulting anomaly is striking: for Cubanologists, there is no history before 1959; for historians, there is no history after 1959.”17 Clearly, the Revolution was a political event. But it was also social, cultural, economic, artistic, and many other things. Every revolution seeks to bring about change, and the Cuban Revolution is no exception. In some ways, people’s everyday lives were fundamentally changed by the Revolution. In other ways, the Revolution grew out of, and drew on, longstanding aspects of Cuban history and culture. A social history of the Revolution grows from the intersection of structures, policies, and the actions of ordinary people.

Why Revolution?

If historians’ main objective is to understand change over time, we tend to be especially attracted to the study of revolutions because, by definition, they offer concrete examples of a lot of change occurring in a rather limited time period. We want to know when and why revolutions occur, why they take the forms they do, and what their results are. Social historians in particular want to know how and why ordinary people mobilize for revolution, to what extent they are actors and participants in revolutionary change, and how revolutions affect their lives. Both the Cuban revolutionaries themselves, and the historians who have studied the Cuban Revolution, have utilized his­torical understandings of what they know about other revolutions.

Uprisings by oppressed people – like slave and peasant rebellions – have existed as long as civilization has existed. But revolutions are more than just uprisings – they are concerted attempts to reorganize society.

Historians often categorize revolutions into political versus social revolutions. The former focus on changing the structures of governance and the access of the population to political institutions; while the latter emphasize creating a new social and economic order.

Cuba’s revolution in 1959 drew on a long revolutionary tradition, both in Cuba and globally, at the same time that it responded to the immediate realities of Cuba in the 1950s. The revolutionary traditions included European political and social revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, American anti-colonial revolutions, and Cubans’ own attempts from the mid-nineteenth century on to achieve national independence and social change.

The global “Age of Revolution” marked by the American and French Revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century was accompanied by revolutions in thought and political philosophy known as the Enlightenment, when (primarily) European intellectuals began to argue that the social order is man-made, rather than God-given, and thus subject to human agency. Enlightenment thought invited people to question existing political and social systems and try to imagine better ones.

Out of this philosophical or intellectual movement grew a wide variety of political philosophies, and political and social movements to try to put the ideas into practice. The “Glorious Revolution” in England in 1688 established a constitutional monarchy with a bill of rights, while the American Revolution beginning in 1775 established national independence and did away with monarchy altogether. While these two were primarily political revolutions, the French Revolution in 1789 went further in challenging the social order as well as the political system. The Haitian Revolution may have begun as a political movement, but it quickly became a profound social revolution and war of national liberation in 1791, as slaves rose up and dismantled the slave plantation system and declared independence from France.

None of the Latin American wars of independence that followed the Haitian Revolution were quite as revolutionary. But it’s also notable that in the colonies most heavily reliant on slavery – Cuba and the other islands of the Caribbean, as well as Brazil – there were no wars for independence in the early nineteenth century. Instead, the elites closed ranks with the colonial powers. The example of Haiti soured them not only on social revolution, but on any challenge to the political or social order. It took another 75 years – and the abolition of the slave trade and a global repudiation of the slave system – before national liberation and republicanism found any allies among the upper echelons of the slave colonies. Men like Washington and Jefferson fought for national liberation in Britain’s northern colonies when they believed it could come about without threaten­ing their social position, which rested on the slave system. Their counterparts in Brazil and the Caribbean, chastened by the Haitian example, decided that colonial status, and monarchy, were not so bad after all. Cuba would remain a Spanish colony until 1898, and even during and after its wars of independence, the threat of becoming “another Haiti” was raised repeatedly.

Many of the social revolutions of the twentieth century drew on the ideas of the German philosopher Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto, which he authored in 1848 with Friedrich Engels, argued that the constitutional and representative political systems that were replacing Europe’s monarchies were not universal ideals, but rather the manifestation of bourgeois rule. Feudalism and monarchy represented the rule of the landed elites, who were being overthrown by a new urban, industrial class that sought political power in order to enforce its new economic order, industrial capitalism. But, they argued, “all history is the history of class struggle.” Capitalism was based on the exploitation of the working class. These working masses were politically and socially excluded, and would be the next class to rise up and overthrow the system that oppressed them, creating a new socialist state that would represent their interests rather than the interests of their bosses. Instead of protecting the private property amassed by the industrial elites, the state would use the wealth created by industrialization – and by the labor of the working classes – for the benefit of all.

The Cuban Revolution, then, was made by people who believed they could change their society and their world. By overthrowing the old, unjust social order, and challenging the legacies of colonial rule, they could make history, rather than being passive victims of their history. National independence and social justice were two fundamental goals, and they were understood as two sides of the same coin: it was colonial and neo-colonial rule that had created the poverty and inequality of the present. And just as poverty and inequality were the product of human actions, so they could be transformed by human actions.

Comparing Capitalism and Socialism

Capitalism and socialism are often assumed to be two opposing economic systems. In some ways, this is accurate. The two systems operate according to very different economic rationales. But in other ways, when we try to define the two as polar opposites we lose sight of how real economies work. In fact, almost every economic system incorporates aspects of both logics, and it might make sense to imagine the two as ideal types at different ends of a spectrum, rather than as exclusive and contained systems.

Capitalist logic is based on private ownership of the means of production – that is, the tools, the factories, the farms – everything that is used to produce goods. Capitalists invest money in the means of production, and employ labor to carry out the work. Workers get paid a wage, and the items they produce belong to the capitalist, who sells them in a market governed by supply and demand. The owner of the goods sets the price, calculating between the benefits of a high price – which means higher profit on each item sold – and a low price, which means that more items will be sold. It’s generally in the capitalist’s interest to lower the costs of production as much as possible, often by investing in improved technology that can cut the cost of labor.

It’s also in the capitalist’s interest to sell as much as possible. Increased sales mean greater profits. Because it’s in the interest of the businesses to produce and sell as much as possible, they go beyond producing what people actually need. It’s to their benefit to produce things that may be useless and even things that are harmful, as long as they can find a way to sell them.

Capitalist systems are best at increasing production and variety of goods. They are less successful at distributing the goods to those who may need them most. In pretty much every capitalist society, even the wealthiest, there are people who are hungry. Not because there isn’t enough food, but because the people who are hungry don’t have the money to buy it. They may want and need food, but in capitalist logic, they don’t represent a “demand” for food because “demand” isn’t created by human need, it’s created by the economic means to buy something. A penniless person may want a gallon of milk as much or more than a rich person, but under capitalism, only the person with money to buy the milk represents a “demand” for the product.

Every capitalist society recognizes this contradiction in the mean­ing of “demand,” which is why every capitalist society incorporates other, non-capitalist means of distributing what it produces. For example, within every capitalist society there are some people who do not work and earn a wage: children, the elderly, those who are unemployed for other reasons. But the system is organized to provide for the needs of these people, even if they can’t purchase what they need on the open, “free” market. In the United States, society collectively – through national and local governments – provides education to all children, outside of the capitalist supply-and-demand system. Some needs, society implicitly or explicitly decides, are so important to the well-being of all that they should not be left to the imperfect capitalist system of distribution – the state must step in and ensure a fair distribution that meets human needs, rather than just the ability of people to pay. Every capitalist society has some sort of public sector that is organized with human priorities, rather than profit, as its governing logic.

Socialist logic is based on the idea that human needs, rather than profit, should govern what and how much is produced. In a democratic system, the decision-making process is in the hands of the population, through various forms of democratic mechanisms like the election of representatives, or town meetings. In an autocratic system, governing elites may make the decisions about production. Either way, though, the decisions are based not on how much potential profit can be made by producing something, but rather on what needs it fills. This is why socialist governments make economic plans and production goals.

Of course governments – especially non-democratic governments – can be arbitrary and unrealistic in setting production priorities. Like Stalin in the USSR or Mao in China, they can prioritize a long-term goal of industrialization above the short-term need for the population to feed itself, leading to social and economic catastrophe. But capitalism is no guarantee against famine and economic disaster either. In twentieth-century Africa, most famines have been caused by capitalism rather than by socialism. A system of supply and demand leads countries to export food to wealthy consumers in the First World while their impoverished citizens starve.

But if the strength of the socialist logic is in distribution, its weakness is in production. Specifically, if everybody’s needs are guaranteed, what’s the incentive to work, and to push oneself to increase production? Socialist systems have come up with two answers to this. One is to mix in an element of capitalist logic. Many socialist systems guarantee certain basic needs, but leave other aspects of consumption to the free market. The other is Che Guevara’s idea of moral incentives. According to Che, humans have been shaped by capitalism to value greed and consumption. But we are also capable of being motivated by unselfish goals – by the desire to contribute to and participate in one’s society.

Most people in both capitalist and socialist societies can recognize both elements in themselves. Most of us seek both material comforts and possessions and some kind of more meaningful fulfillment in our lives. Che’s argument is that while capitalism fosters materialism, socialism should instead foster unselfish, participatory values.

Neither capitalism nor socialism exists in the world as a pure replica of a theory. Rather, every modern society incorporates capitalist and socialist elements, just as every individual is capable of both selfish materialism and of caring about the needs of others.

Likewise, it makes little sense to ask whether capitalism or socialism “works” better. In the United States capitalism seems to work remarkably well: our standard of living is higher than anywhere else in the world. But other countries, just as capitalist as our own, are not faring so well. If we use Haiti or Rwanda as our measuring stick, capitalism seems to be quite a failure as an economic system. Conversely, a heavy dose of socialism has not doomed Sweden or Norway to economic collapse, nor to authoritarian excesses.

In a world historical view, what “works” best seems to be having been a colonial power, while what “works” worst is having been colonized. The former colonial powers, with ample resources, seem to be able to make a variety of economic and political models work successfully. The former colonies, with a history of foreign ownership and the export of primary goods, social and racial inequality, and authoritarian politics, have struggled mightily to achieve a better standard of living, a measure of social equality, and some kind of participatory political system. Despite experimentation with a large variety of economic and political forms, and numerous so-called economic miracles, no formula has yet been found that could reliably and effectively overcome this colonial legacy. The Argentinean sociologist Carlos M. Vilas wrote in 1990 that “although socialism is facing profound crisis, capitalism – whether flowering or in crisis – has been unable to handle the economic, social, and cultural problems of impoverishment, oppression, and marginalization of the rapidly-growing populations of what were once called developing societies.”18

Despite his critique of capitalism’s ability to function in the Third World, Vilas also takes a critical stance towards the manner in which socialism has developed there. Marx, he reminds us, imagined socialism – i.e., a state-controlled economy – as a stage that highly industrialized countries would pass through on the way to communism – when the state would “wither away” and the means of production (i.e., industry and land) would be collectively owned and managed by their own workers. A state-controlled economy would come about, he argued, in highly industrialized societies in which most people worked in industry, and industry could produce more than enough of what people needed.

While Marx predicted that these socialist revolutions would come about in the most advanced industrialized countries, this is not exactly what happened. Instead, the “bourgeois” governments in the industrialized countries (primarily in the United States and Europe) began to gradually extend political and social rights to the dispossessed working classes. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the revolutionary option had faded into marginal status in Western Europe and the United States. In Europe, communist and socialist parties remained politically active, but they ceased to be revolutionary, choosing instead to compete in the electoral arena.

Instead, Marxist ideas came to shape movements for national liberation over the course of the twentieth century. The Chinese Revolution fused Marxism with anti-imperialism, challenging both Japanese and Western control in China. Like in Russia, the Chinese also tried to use Marxist ideas to push forward an industrial revolution. Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, national independence movements used Marxist ideas to challenge colonial masters and the ways that European imperialism had distorted, exploited, and depleted their resources. Especially in the middle of the twentieth century, as the Great Depression made capitalism seem ever less viable and the Soviet Union achieved great international legitimacy as the main challenge to Nazism, Soviet communism seemed to offer an alternative for hope in the world’s colonies.

Besides, it was the Western European countries, and the United States, that were the colonial oppressors in Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia. For all that they may have admired the standard of living in the United States and Europe, many people in these colonies found it hard to take very seriously Western claims to be promoting democracy, freedom, and human rights. For them, capitalism meant conquest, repression and exploitation, not freedom. Increasingly over the course of the twentieth century, revolutionary movements in these colonies linked national independence to some form of socialism. Cuba’s was one of them.

Socialist revolutions, then, occurred in societies with very little industry: Russia, China, Cuba, and other Third World countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “As a consequence of the economic realities of Third World societies, developing the productive forces has become the central goal of transition to socialism,” Vilas wrote. Socialism became no more than “a species of left-wing developmentalism, a method for accelerating modernization.”

In addition, the economic backwardness of Third World revolutionary countries forced them to seek economic support from outside. This “outside” became, inevitably, given the geo-political realities of the twentieth century, the USSR. Reliance on the USSR and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) became “the central element in the conceptualization of these regimes as ‘socialist,’ in an epoch in which the USSR was waging an aggressive political competition with U.S. expansion in the Third World. From this point onward, the socialist-oriented, or at least non-capitalist, road that these countries were walking was more a function of the friends they could gather abroad than of the policies they were pushing at home. Or to put it a different way, the political classification of Third World regimes become more an issue of international politics than of political economy. Not infrequently, such ‘socialist-oriented’ regimes were highly authoritarian, and their only connection to socialism was their orientation toward the foreign policies of the Soviet Union.”19

Latin American Attitudes

“Fidel Castro is a symbol,” one of my Cuban colleagues tried to explain in a talk at a college in Maine a few years ago. For many in Latin America and elsewhere, he is a symbol of speaking truth to power. When he stood up at the Group of 77 “South Summit” in 2000 and attacked neoliberal economic policies and corporate globalization – what he called “the neoliberal race to catastrophe” – for the poverty and suffering that they have created in the Third World, he was cheered for precisely those words.

In over 100 countries the per capita income is lower than 15 years ago. At the moment, 1.6 billion people are faring worse than at the beginning of the 1980s.

Over 820 million people are undernourished and 790 million of them live in the Third World. It is estimated that 507 million people living in the South today will not live to see their fortieth birthday.

In the Third World countries represented here, two out of every five children suffer from growth retardation and one out of every three is underweight; 30,000 who could be saved are dying every day; 2 million girls are forced into prostitution; 130 million children do not have access to elementary education and 250 million minors under 15 are bound to work for a living.

The world economic order works for 20 percent of the population but it leaves out, demeans and degrades the remaining 80 percent. We cannot simply accept to enter the next century as the backward, poor and exploited rearguard.20

To many in Latin America, these words ring patently true, and eloquently express their outrage at an unjust global order.

Although public opinion polls have their limitations – especially in Latin America, where they are often conducted by telephone in countries where most of the poor do not have telephones – their results often look surprising to those who have lived and been educated in the United States. In Cuba, for example, 47 percent approved of their government in a 2006 survey (based on face-to-face interviews in Cuba’s two major cities), while 40 percent disapproved. Ninety-six percent of those surveyed believed that health care was accessible to all Cubans (as opposed to only 42 percent in other Latin American urban areas, when asked the question about their own countries), and 75 percent expressed confidence in their country’s health care system (as opposed to 57 percent elsewhere in Latin America). Ninety-eight percent believed that education was available to all (as opposed to 52 percent in other Latin American cities), and 78 percent were satisfied with the educational system (as opposed to 59 percent in other Latin American cities).21 When asked to identify the biggest problem in Cuba, 42.5 percent chose “low salaries, high cost of living,” while only 18.2 percent chose “lack of freedoms, political system.” The largest proportion (42 percent) gave no answer to the question of what kind of government would best solve their country’s problems. Only 32.1 percent believed that a democratic form of government would be the best solution.22

People in Latin America tend to be more ambivalent about democracy than those in the United States. In almost every country, significant majorities view the role of the United States in the world as “mainly negative.” Overall, the majority approves of democracy, but these are often slim majorities: in Mexico 54 percent believed that democracy was the best form of government; in Colombia, 53 percent; and in Brazil, only 46 percent.23 By large majorities, Latin Americans preferred socialism to capitalism in a 2008 Gallup poll. Only in two countries, Mexico and Panama, did slightly more people prefer capitalism. “Any U.S. policy toward Latin America,” Gallup concluded, “needs to recognize that ‘socialism’ is not a dirty word in the region.”24

Clearly, a huge gap in knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes exists between the United States and Latin America. One of the keys to understanding why is the Cuban Revolution.

This book engages with multiple perspectives in writing a history of the Cuban Revolution. It looks at the positions of policymakers and the media in the United States and Cuba, as well as at popular opinion and popular movements in Cuba and beyond. It brings in the views of a variety of historians and other scholars who have approached the Cuban Revolution with a variety of assumptions and a variety of questions. Most of all, it tries to illuminate the experiences and actions of Cuban people from many different walks of life and what the Cuban Revolution meant for them.

It is also, inevitably, informed by my own perspective. As a scholar who has traveled numerous times to Cuba, including taking three groups of students there as part of a class I teach on the Cuban Revolution, I am a strong opponent of U.S.-imposed travel restrictions. As a Latin Americanist who has studied and witnessed the deleterious effects of U.S. policies and foreign investment in countries such as Nicaragua, Haiti, and Colombia, and especially on the poor in those countries, I cannot help but admire the audacity of a government, and a country, that has tried to invent a radically different path to economic development, and has openly challenged U.S. imperialism in the hemisphere.


1 Gallup, “Favorability: People in the News,” Results from August 2006.

2 Examples include historian Thomas M. Leonard, Fidel Castro: A Biography; historian Robert E. Quirk, Fidel Castro; political scientist John Gerassi, Fidel Castro: A Biography; journalists Georgie Ann Geyer, The Untold Story of Fidel Castro; Volker Skierka, Fidel Castro: A Biography; and Tad Szluc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait. In addition see British diplomat Leycester Coltman, The Real Fidel Castro; physician Peter G. Bourne, A Biography of Fidel Castro; Nestor Kohan and Nahuel Scherma, A Graphic Novel Life of Fidel Castro; and Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography.

3 Manifesto of the Junta Cubana de Renovación Nacional, cited in Pérez, Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, p. 236.

4 Kozol, Children of the Revolution, p. 171.

5 Telegram from the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State, September 4, 1959. FRUS 1958–60, VI, p. 596.

6 Rubottom, January 14, 1960, FRUS 1958–60, VI, p. 743.

7 “President Bush Discusses Cuba Policy,” October 24, 2007,

8 Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Renewing U.S. Leadership in the Americas. May 23, 2008,

9 See Winn, Victims of the Chilean Miracle and Davis, Victims of the Miracle.

10 Adorno, “Havana and Macondo,” p. 376.

11 Black, “Introduction: Understanding the Persistence of Inequity,” p. 3.

12 Fagen, “Latin America and the Cold War,” p. 6. See also Fagen, “Study­ing Latin American Politics.”

13 Smith, “Memoirs from LASA’s 14th President,” p. 20.

14 Smith, “Memoirs from LASA’s 14th President,” pp. 20, 21.

15 Smith, “Memoirs from LASA’s 14th President,” pp. 20, 21.

16 Pérez-Stable, “Review: The Field of Cuban Studies,” p. 250; Kirk and McKenna, “Trying to Address the Cuban Paradox.”

17 Pérez, “History, Historiography, and Cuban Studies,” p. 66.

18 Vilas, “Is Socialism still an Alternative for the Third World?”

19 Vilas, “Is Socialism still an Alternative for the Third World?”

20 Speech by Fidel Castro Ruz, President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Cuba, at the Opening Session of the Group of 77 South Summit Conference, Havana, April 12, 2000,

21 World Public Opinion, “Cubans Show Little Satisfaction with Opportu­nities and Individual Freedom,” January 10, 2007, See also Gallup News Service, “Just One in Four Urban Cubans Satisfied with Personal Freedoms,” December 18, 2006,

22 International Republican Institute, “Cuban Public Opinion Survey,” September 5–October 4, 2007,

23 World Public Opinion, “Latin American Publics are Skeptical about U.S. – But Not about Democracy,” March 7, 2007,

24 Steve Crabtree and Jesús Ríos, “Opinion Briefing: Latin America’s Leftists.” January 21, 2009,