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Cuba: Background to a Revolution


Alejandro de la Fuente

Cubans frequently think of their history as unique. The island was one of the first territories encountered by Christopher Columbus in his 1492 trip of discovery. It was also, together with Puerto Rico, the last American colony to achieve independence from Spain four centuries later. Cuba launched the first successful socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere, shattering in the process the hegemonic control that the United States and other Western nations have traditionally exercised over the region. As we enter the 21st century, Cuba remains the only surviving communist experiment in this hemisphere, the lonely exception to most regional trends. For decades, this island of 11 million people and 42,804 square miles symbolized the line separating the east from the west, the developed north from the underdeveloped south—a sort of frontier within a region that has historically been an imperial frontier: the Caribbean

For all its uniqueness, Cuba shares with the Caribbean region a common past of conquest, colonization, ecological disaster, and foreign domination. Together with the rest of the Caribbean, it faces an uncertain future, full of promises as well as formidable obstacles. Four decades of Soviet-style socialism have failed to set the island on an autonomous development path. Cuba’s fortunes remain linked to those of the surrounding islands.

Early Colonization

These links are certainly not new. They existed in pre-colonial times, when the island was inhabited by the Arawaks, the same group that occupied most of the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas at the time the Europeans arrived. As happened throughout the region, the European conquest (which began in Cuba in 1511) decimated the aboriginal population, so that by the mid-16th century there were virtually no “Indians” left on the island. By then, gold production—never too large—had already declined considerably, despite the early introduction of African slaves to replace the natives.

As in La Española (Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), an initial cycle of prosperity based on gold and indigenous labor had collapsed in just a few decades. But, whereas La Española found in sugar a valuable substitute for gold, in Cuba there was neither capital nor labor to promote sugar production. Rather, there was the real possibility that the island would be totally depopulated. The natives had died, African slaves were not numerous, and most European settlers had moved on to more promising colonies to the west and the south. In these conditions, ranching proliferated. Imported by the conquistadores and unmolested by predators, cows, horses, and pigs multiplied prodigiously, occupying the open spaces that the humans had abandoned. If the extermination of the natives was, in the words of geographer Bonham Richardson, the first of “a series of massive environmental transformations” unleashed by the events of 1492,1 the proliferation of cattle was the second.

Ranching and the export of hides sustained Cuba’s languishing economy through the late 1500s, when sugar production was initiated around Havana. By then, the city had become a major trading and shipping center in the Spanish Caribbean, the only place in the Americas where the fleets of Nueva España (Mexico) and Tierra Firme (Peru and South America) gathered to sail back to Spain. Given Havana’s prominent service role within the empire, the Crown invested heavily in the city’s defense, making it one of the best fortified in the Caribbean and, indeed, the New World.

Havana’s ascent as a maritime regional center opened some opportunities for the neighboring islands, which could access the fleets gathered there through intercolonial trade. It also coincided with the demise of other port cities in the Spanish Caribbean. With the establishment of viceroyalties in Central and South America, Spanish interest in the Caribbean declined. Santo Domingo, the prime port of the Spanish Caribbean until the 1570s, lost its primacy to Havana, better connected to the fleets and closer to the Viceroyalty of Nueva España (New Spain).

These developments affected the productive cycles of the islands. The gradual displacement of Santo Domingo from the official sea routes dealt a hard blow to its sugar production, which declined towards the end of the century, just when the first sugar mills were being established in Cuba. By the second half of the 17th century, Cuba had displaced Santo Domingo as the Caribbean’s most important supplier of sugar to Spain. In turn, Santo Domingo had become the leading supplier of hides to the mother country. Through their inverse economic cycles, the fortunes of the two Greater Antilles had changed, largely due to the imperial priorities of Madrid.

Ranching in the Greater Antilles—in Santo Domingo and to a lesser extent Cuba—received new stimulation from the development of sugar plantations in the non-Spanish Caribbean during the second half of the 17th century. Both islands exported livestock to Barbados and Jamaica, where forests, lands, water, and other natural resources were being sacrificed to slave-based plantation agriculture. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz has eloquently characterized the ecological impact of plantation agriculture:

Deforestation, the killing off of local fauna, the nutrient depletion of the soil, and the intensification of island-wide surface evaporation, all came about because of the cane plantation economy. The importance of deforestation cannot be exaggerated, as much additional environmental degradation turns on it. Destruction of forest cover deprives wildlife of food and protection, soil of retention and nutrients, and, eventually, the affected region of rainfall.2


The Advent of Plantation Agriculture

Cuba would follow a similar path a century or so later, when the productive collapse of the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti) due to a slave revolution (1791-1804) further propelled the demand for Cuban sugar in Europe. The plantation complex, which was first instituted in Brazil and spread to the entire Caribbean region, finally reached Cuba where up to that point high-quality sugars had been produced in small, craftsmanlike units. As elsewhere in the region, the sugar plantation economy transformed Cuba’s landscape, reshaped its society, and consolidated the worst features of what we now call underdevelopment: monoculture, property and wealth concentration, and dependence on foreign markets and on the earning capacity of a single leading export commodity. Cuban planters triumphantly elaborated on the idea that sugar and country were equivalent, as the sugar economy and its profits came to embody their vision of the nation.3

Not surprisingly, the planter class adamantly opposed anti-colonial movements throughout the 19th century. The concerns of plantation owners were centered on shipping lines, market fluctuations, labor supplies, and of course social stability—all preconditions for the continuing success of the slave-based plantation economy. Independence would not only disrupt production, it might even destroy the planter class itself–Haiti’s nefarious example being both close and vivid. Spain understood this reality well, and was reluctant to persecute the slave trade and to abolish slavery. Cuba was the only slave-based society left in the Caribbean by the time Spain abolished slavery there in 1886.

Even this late emancipation was won hardly. Slavery in the island had been seriously disrupted by the Ten Years War (1868-1878), an anti-colonial war that led to the emergence of a nationalist cross-racial coalition with a vision of Cuba’s future significantly different from that of the planter class.4 This popular vision, which patriot and intellectual José Martí described later as an ideal “republic with all and for all,” might have succeeded when Cubans launched a second war of independence in 1895. But on this occasion, Cubans—as well as the inhabitants of other islands in the Spanish Caribbean—faced not only the military and political might of a declining Spain, but the strength of a rising and ambitious imperial power: the United States.


The United States in the Caribbean

When the United States intervened in the so-called Spanish-American War—a misnomer that ignores the Cubans’ own military actions—it had already established a strong presence in the island. U.S. capital financed the Cuban zafras (sugar harvests); the U.S. was the main destination of Cuban sugars; and, altogether, about $50 million of U.S. capital was invested in Cuba. In a sense, Spain had ceased to be Cuba’s metropolis before 1898, when it formally surrendered to the occupying North American forces.5 The peace treaty signed in Paris the same year symbolized not only the end of Spanish colonialism in the region, but also the consolidation of U.S. supremacy in the Caribbean.

All the islands of the Spanish Caribbean, and Haiti as well, soon came to experience the effects of U.S. imperialist policies. Puerto Rico became a U.S. colonial territory, governed by presidentially-appointed officials until 1948, then becoming a Commonwealth in 1952. Cuba became formally independent in 1902, but the ominous Platt Amendment passed by Congress a year earlier legally authorized the United States to intervene in the island whenever “life, property, and individual liberty” were deemed to be in danger or inadequately protected. The Platt Amendment was not abrogated until 1934.

In the Dominican Republic, the independence it had won from Spain in 1844 was severely impaired in 1905, with the establishment of a receivership that placed customs control in U.S. hands. A decade later, the island was invaded and occupied by U.S. troops (1916-1924). At roughly the same time, Haiti—the first independent Caribbean republic—began to experience U.S. military occupation as well (1915-1934).

United States interventions in the Caribbean were frequently made in the name of stability and progress. However, they usually generated instability and consolidated the most negative features of the old order. If the colonial economies had been designed to satisfy the needs and demands of the European imperial powers, the 20th century economies were organized to meet the priorities of U.S. investors, which were in fact quite similar to those of the old planter class.

As Cuba’s sugar production increased fivefold between 1901 and 1925, about 80 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade took place with the United States. U.S. investments in the island surpassed the one billion dollar mark, with North American investors owning from 55 to 80 percent of sugar-producing capacity, and from 15 to 20 percent of the national territory, in the 1920s.6 In Puerto Rico, U.S.-owned mills produced about 60 percent of all sugar, controlled 85 percent of cigar manufacturing, and owned about 27 percent of all Puerto Rico’s wealth by the late 1920s.7

The Great Depression had devastating effects on the economies of these modern sugar islands, exposing the weaknesses of the colonial development model. In Cuba, production of sugar declined 60 percent, while exports as a whole declined 80 percent. In Puerto Rico, income per capita declined by more than one-third between 1930 and 1933. In both places, political confrontation and social conflict followed. Labor mobilization and political unrest resulted in the overthrow of the Cuban dictatorial government of Gerardo Machado in 1933, when the island seemed to be again, as it was in the 1890s, on the verge of social revolution. Puerto Rican sugar workers also organized, launching a series of partially successful strikes in the 1930s as a new anti-imperialist Nationalist Party was organized to challenge U.S. domination of the island. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, workers reacted to deteriorating living conditions with increased political mobilization, of which the famous 1938 labor “riots” in Jamaica are one example.

The United States reacted swiftly to these challenges, although avoiding old-style military interventions and Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of big-stick diplomacy in view of the anti-U.S. feelings already strong in the region. In Cuba, a new political order emerged based on the progressive Constitution of 1940 and on the government’s active mediation between capital and labor. It was, however, the failure of this system that ultimately paved the way for the revolution of 1959 led by Fidel Castro.


The Castro Revolution

The new revolution launched the country on a development path that appeared completely unprecedented in the Caribbean region. The new government nationalized most means of production, instituted agrarian reforms, and placed the poor at the very center of government action. By 1961, a massive literacy campaign had almost wiped out illiteracy, while free schooling at all levels resulted in further educational advances. A state-sponsored policy of full employment virtually eliminated, or greatly reduced, unemployment. Health care improved for all, resulting in lower infant mortality rates and higher life expectancy. Steps were also taken to eliminate the traditional imbalances between urban and rural areas, and to promote new economic activities including heavy industry.8

Despite these accomplishments, the past proved to be more resilient than
Castro and his followers anticipated. Cuba escaped its dependent position as a supplier of raw agricultural products within the capitalist international order, but performed essentially the same role within the socialist bloc. By the late 1980s, sugar still accounted for 75 percent of Cuba’s total exports. Mirroring pre-revolutionary trends, however, a single market—now the U.S.S.R.— accounted for 65 percent of the island’s foreign trade.9

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s only made more apparent Cuba’s basic similarities with the rest of the Caribbean region. Like most Caribbean nations, Cuba’s modern economy depends largely on one export crop, and is burdened by heavy foreign debt. In order to cope with the economic crisis brought on by the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Cuba’s leaders have turned to one of the burgeoning economic activities in many Caribbean states: tourism. As elsewhere, tourism is a mixed blessing: although it does create employment opportunities, it does not generate internal economic linkages, it depends heavily on imports, it is controlled by transnational corporations, and it produces undesirable social side effects.

In fact, despite the unique pattern of Cuban economic and social development in the second half of the 20th century, Cuba’s situation throughout the Cold War remained tied to other developments in the Caribbean. The very logic of the Cold War produced unexpected new relationships. While Cuba was unique in the level of subsidies it extracted from the socialist bloc, other Caribbean leaders manipulated the Cuban specter in order to extract resources from the United States. Obsession about the possibility of another Cuba in the region propelled the U.S. to intervene militarily in the Caribbean, first in the Dominican Republic (1965) and then in the small island of Grenada (1983).

Five centuries after European colonization, the superpowers of the Cold War era were still approaching the Caribbean region in terms of their own priorities and “spheres of influence.” Nor has the ghost of U. S. imperialism yet been expelled. The feelings of Caribbean peoples concerning this imperial approach were perhaps best summarized by former Grenadian Premier Maurice Bishop when, in 1979, he declared his country to be “in nobody’s backyard.”

As strange as it may seem, being in the United States’s backyard has been a boon to Fidel Castro. The U. S. hostility toward the revolution in Cuba—from the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, to countless attempts to assassinate Castro during the same decade, to a still surviving economic embargo—helped Castro legitimize his government, crush the internal opposition, and consolidate his power. The United States interventions resulted in growing nationalist feelings, which were in turn translated into unconditional support for the government. In addition to the revolution’s social accomplishments of the 1960s and 1970s, this nationalist pride is one of the reasons behind Fidel Castro’s long tenure in power.



1. Bonham C. Richardson, The Caribbean in the Wider World, 1492-1992 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

2. Sydney W. Mintz, “A Bittersweet Tale,” NACLA 25, no. 2 (September 1991): 22-25.

3. Manuel Moreno Fraginals, The Sugarmill: The Socioeconomic Complex of Sugar in Cuba, 1760-1860 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).

4. Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860-1899. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

5. Louis A. Pérez, Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990).

6. Carlos M. Trelles, “La hacienda y el desarrollo económico de la República de Cuba,” Revista Bimestre Cubana 22 (1927): 323-342.

7. James Dietz, Economic History of Puerto Rico: Institutional Change and Capitalist Development (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).

8. Marifeli Pérez-Stable, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

9. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Breve historia económica de la Cuba socialista: Poiacute;ticas, resultados y perspectivas (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1994).


Alejandro de la Fuente is assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean History at the University of South Florida, Tampa.