On January 1, 1959, a broad-based insurrectionary movement—with Fidel Castro at its helm—overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and inaugurated the Cuban revolution, a process of social transformation that continues to the present writing.
Its ideology was at first broadly nationalist and democratic, but by 1961 the revolution was proclaimed unambiguously socialist and Marxist-Leninist. One of only a handful of social revolutions in 20th-century Latin America, the Cuban revolution had a major impact not only within Cuba but around the world.
In Latin America, the revolution encouraged the formation of leftist and neo-Marxist ideologies and movements of national liberation, sparking a florescence of guerrilla groups in the 1960s and after that hoped to duplicate the successes of the Cuban revolutionaries.
The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua (1979–90), for instance, found much of its inspiration in the events in Cuba, as did other national liberation and guerrilla movements from Mexico to Argentina.
By bringing a Marxist-Leninist regime to the historic “backyard” of the United States, the Cuban revolution was also a major event in the cold war. Its effects were felt in Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, and scores of other nation-states around the world, particularly in the two decades following Batista’s ouster.
The revolution found its long-term origins in the structural dependency of Cuba on the United States since the thwarting of Cuban independence in 1898 and the U.S.-imposed Platt Amendment of 1901, which prompted denunciations of “Yankee imperialism” across the island; and in the poverty, economic inequalities, and political disfranchisement of the Cuban people under a series of dictatorial regimes.
Most narratives of the revolution begin with the rise of the Jesuit- and university-educated lawyer Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries. On July 26, 1953, Castro—at the head of a group of 134 men— attacked the Moncada barracks in Oriente province in eastern Cuba. The assault was quickly defeated but catapulted Castro into national prominence.
At his trial in October 1953, he delivered a brilliant speech, later turned into a pamphlet and becoming one of the defining texts of the revolution, whose title repeated its closing words: “History will absolve me.” Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Castro became something of a folk hero for his eloquent denunciations of the Batista dictatorship and the island’s social injustices.
Released on May 15, 1955, in a general amnesty, Castro traveled to Mexico to form a guerrilla army of Cuban exiles. In February 1956 he announced the formation of his 26 July Movement, and on November 25, with 81 other men, departed Tuxpan, Mexico, aboard the yacht Granma, headed for eastern Cuba, which they reached on December 2.
The guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra in 1957–58 is the topic of an expansive literature. Led by Castro, his brother Raúl, and the Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the rebels gradually earned the trust of the peasants and workers who comprised the region’s majority.
It also established contacts with politically disaffected labor leaders, workers, students, intellectuals, and other activists in Cuba’s major cities, especially Havana, whose protest movements soon dovetailed with Castro’s. After a complex series of events that found the Batista regime increasingly beleaguered, Castro’s forces entered Havana in triumph on January 1, 1959.
On seizing power, the revolutionaries embarked on a program of social transformation that focused on nationalization of major industries and broad- ranging reforms in land ownership, housing, rents, food, and related spheres. Since a large proportion of Cuban land and industries were U.S.-owned, the stage was set for confrontation with the United States.
Hostile rhetoric intensified on both sides as the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, under pressure from business interests and anticommunists, interpreted events in Cuba through the prism of the cold war. In February 1960 the Castro regime signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in which the Soviets agreed to sell Cuba oil at a discount and buy Cuban sugar at a high price.
In June Standard Oil, Texaco, and Shell refused to refine Soviet oil, prompting the Castro regime to nationalize their refineries. In retaliation the Eisenhower administration cancelled its commitment to buy its annual sugar quota of 700,000 tons, which the Soviets quickly assumed.
What had begun as a national liberation movement quickly escalated into a cold war battleground, with the Castro regime, in effect, trading U.S. economic dependency for Soviet dependency. On December 2, 1961, following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and U.S. trade embargo of April, Castro proclaimed: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and will remain a Marxist-Leninist until the day I die.”
Early efforts to diversify the economy largely failed, plagued by bureaucratic micromanagement and overplanning, and over-reliance on the concept of the socialist “New Man,” in which economic incentives were to be displaced by revolutionary fervor. From 1964 the regime opted to increase the economy’s reliance on sugar, culminating in the disastrous policy goal of producing 10 million tons of sugar by 1970.
The effort failed and had negative economic effects for years. Efforts to improve the living standards of ordinary Cubans met with greater success. Government programs in housing, health care, education, and related spheres are generally considered the biggest successes of the revolution.
By the 1970s hunger, malnutrition, homelessness, and illiteracy had been all but eliminated, while the Cuban health-care system ranked among the most developed in the world. On the negative side of the ledger, political oppression increased markedly, with all organized opposition to the regime banned, thousands of dissidents jailed, and freedom of speech severely curtailed.
Beginning in 1960 and continuing in several waves thereafter, the regime’s intolerance of political dissent and socialist economic policies prompted tens of thousands of middle-class and professional Cubans to migrate to the United States, where large exile communities formed, centered in Miami.
Internationally, Cuba became a beacon of hope for revolutionaries across Latin America. To the chagrin of his more cautious Soviet patrons, Castro announced his intention to export revolution to Latin America.
The plan’s most ardent proponent was former minister of industries Che Guevara, whose “foco” theory of revolution, which held that a small group of dedicated revolutionaries could win peasant support and spark a social revolution, was put to the test in Bolivia in 1967. The expected mass uprising did not materialize, and Guevara was captured and killed by the Bolivian army.
Castro remained the head of the Cuban Communist Party through the 1970s and 1980s, as the bureaucracy expanded and the revolution grew increasingly institutionalized. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of its approximately $4 billion in annual subsidies, combined with the continuing U.S. trade embargo, the revolution entered a “Special Period” that saw a decline in living standards and in all major industries.
In the early 2000s, Cuba was one of only a handful of countries worldwide explicitly espousing communist ideology. In early 2007, with over 1 million Cubans and Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere anticipating the regime’s demise, Castro appeared on the brink of death, with speculation rife on whether the revolution could survive without him. He resigned the presidency in favor of his brother, Raoul, in February 2008.