Thinking Past Fidel

Though often overlooked, working-class movements played a substantial role shaping the Cuban Revolution.

Cuban revolutionaries shortly after victory in 1959. Library of Congress

In the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, and with the blustery threats of the incoming Trump administration, it’s tempting to speculate about the future of Cuba. Yet this may also be an important time to rethink the origins of the revolution, so often seen as the handiwork of one man.

While Fidel Castro’s extraordinary influence and power can never be ignored, we still know far too little about how or why many thousands of ordinary Cubans participated in making the revolution. This is particularly true of the Cuban labor movement, which many observers have described as apathetic, passive, and demoralized by corrupt union bosses, and thus not particularly active in the revolutionary movement.

Steve Cushion’s new book, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory, is a useful corrective to those assumptions and provides an important shift of historical perspective as Cuba moves beyond its historic leadership. Cushion argues persuasively that the island’s working class made a vital contribution to the revolutionary movement.

Without discounting the role of the rebel army or the urban middle class, he argues that there was also “a third arm to the rebel forces, a revolutionary labor movement.” In the first deeply researched historical study on this topic, Cushion shows how organized labor contributed both directly and indirectly to the revolutionary struggle.

No sooner had the Cuban Revolution come to power in 1959 than a fierce debate over who had made the revolution began. Sympathetic foreign observers tended to stress the role of the Sierra Maestra’s disposed peasantry, who eventually made common cause with the often middle-class urbanites who formed the nucleus of the rebel army. More critical observers were skeptical of this claim.

As historian Theodore Draper argued in The New Leader in 1961, “The revolution was made and always controlled by declassed sons and daughters of the middle class, first in the name of the entire people, then of the peasants, and now of the workers and peasants.” Thus was born the influential theory of the “revolution betrayed”: an essentially middle-class, democratic, revolutionary movement had been hijacked by Fidel Castro and the Communist Party.

What of the urban working class in these debates? The assumed quiescence of the working class has been something of a troubling question, variously explained as due to a corrupt union bureaucracy in cahoots with the state, the assumption that Cuba’s development had resulted in a “labor aristocracy” devoid of a revolutionary class consciousness due to the fact that, at least in Havana, unionized workers enjoyed relatively high salaries and benefits for the region. Although historians view the revolutionary movement as a cross-class movement in which working-class individuals participated, it is generally assumed that the labor movement as such played little role.

Cushion upends this conventional wisdom. Drawing on an impressive array of new archival sources, from privately held leaflets to oral histories, Cushion offers an insightful and nuanced account of organized labor’s role in the Cuban Revolution. By reconsidering important episodes in the period, from strikes and protests to the slow building of a labor section within Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, Cushion convincingly demonstrates that workers — especially in certain industries and certain regions — were key to revolutionary victory.

One of the book’s greatest contributions is to restore the sense of labor turbulence in Cuba in the mid 1950s. There were so many strikes, protests, and labor disputes in 1955 that we can see worker unrest virtually as a parallel uprising. Historians have long known about these labor grievances. Yet they have often been downplayed as a minor sideshow to the “real” story of the rise of the rebel army or dismissed as revealing the material demands and hence reformist mentality of Cuban labor.

But Cushion gives us a detailed explanation of this mid-decade turbulence and comes away with a more nuanced analysis. Cuba’s economy in this period was still overwhelmingly based on sugar exports, thus fortunes rose and fell with the price of sugar on the global markets. Prices were driven up in the early 1950s by the stockpiling spurred by the Korean War.

When global sugar prices plummeted in 1953, Cushion shows, Cuban employers ramped up their attempts to force through efficiency measures aimed at lowering the cost of labor through mechanization, reduced wages, and eliminated benefits. In the showdown with labor that inevitably followed, employers — with the backing of Batista — usually won.

But Cushion shows that, in the aftermath of their defeat, some workers began to seek a more revolutionary alternative. He identifies a pattern: the workers who won their demands in the 1955 strikes tended to retain their political affiliations and their faith in traditional labor strategies for defending their rights. But those who lost out became open to more militant methods, and ultimately sought out an alliance with the 26th of July Movement. This tendency was further encouraged with the spike in state violence that began in early 1956.

Cushion reminds us that state security forces not only targeted insurrectionaries — they took the opportunity to kill labor organizers and Communist Party members too. He also shows the way international trade deals unfavorable to Cuban workers nurtured a growing sense of militant nationalism. Thus, unlike many previous observers who portray the labor movement as paralyzed and stagnant in this period, Cushion charts a political evolution in workers’ politics away from accommodation toward more militant tactics and goals.

Another major contribution of Cushion’s study is to get beyond Havana and explore the regional dynamics of labor militancy in the period. Although it’s commonplace to praise the revolutionary ferment of the mountains and cities of Cuba’s easternmost province, Oriente, we still lack deeper historical explanations for why the eastern provinces of the island were so much more restive.

Cushion’s book goes a long way toward answering this question, looking not just at the role of the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra and Sierra Cristal, but also the strong workers’ movement in the town of Guantánamo, adjacent to the US naval base. Here he uncovers a history of a militancy based around railroad workers, often with roots in Trotskyism, who pioneered new ideas about more belligerent forms of labor activism, including sabotage, and gravitated toward the 26th of July Movement. Cushion painstakingly reconstructs how these tactics were then spread throughout the rest of the island.

Cushion also suggests that the 26th of July Movement enjoyed much better relations with the Communist Party outside Havana, and he sees those better relations as key to explaining revolutionary ferment. He shows that the labor union bureaucracy was much weaker in the provinces, permitting more independent worker activism to blossom. He also suggests — although admittedly without many examples — that outside Havana the urban anti-Batista movement was less middle-class, and more influenced by working-class leaders. In short, Cushion suggests that in many ways Havana was the exception, not the rule.

A final major contribution of this work is to illuminate relations between the 26th of July Movement and the Communist Party. It is often argued that the Communist Party joined the revolutionary movement at the last minute, after the tide had turned in favor of the rebel army in the Sierra.

Cushion gives us the clearest picture yet of how the then-People’s Socialist Party slowly responded to the rise of arms. He uncovers some internal dynamics of the party, including workers’ increasing demand for armed protection in the face of state violence, and a youth wing that increasingly supported the 26th of July Movement. He captures the nuance and evolution of relations between the two groups, culminating in a tentative alliance that each party understood differently — and which would partially unravel in 1959 and 1960.

The immediate post-revolutionary period raised troubling questions about the role organized labor would have in the new Cuba. Throughout 1959, workers struck for back wages, reinstatements, and democratic control of their unions. They benefited from early decrees for higher wages and full employment.

But as the revolution hit economic turbulence, Fidel began to discourage strikes and to emphasize labor’s imminent sacrifices. And as the new revolutionary state consolidated, Cushion admits that “no independent workers’ democratic institutions capable of holding the government to account” emerged.

Henceforth, labor would be tightly under the control of the state, and unions would function more to channel directives to workers than to protect them. By 1960, some of the labor leaders who had once participated in the revolution now joined the counterrevolution.

In some ways this is an old-fashioned labor history. It focuses primarily on industrial workers, their struggle for living wages and more democratic unions, and how that struggle’s frustration eventually led them to embrace more radical strategies and goals.

It is not a study of Cuba’s large numbers of poor, informal laborers, rural squatters, or the chronically unemployed. Cushion briefly addresses the role of women, especially female office workers who struck in solidarity with their male coworkers and the militant female family members of striking men. He does not address the question of race — an important issue to Cuba’s multiracial working class, as the Communist Party in that period well understood.

Still, the book gives us sorely needed insight into the role of labor in this period and categorically changes our perception of how the revolution was won. One anecdote here will suffice.

In December of 1958, Che’s troops derailed an armored train bringing some seven hundred soldiers to Las Villas. This has become an iconic moment in revolutionary history, often seen as helping secure rebel victory. But here Cushion gives us the rich backstory of that incident, beginning in the Ciénaga railway workshops outside Havana:

The workers in the railway yard had considered refusing to work on the train, but following a meeting with a regional organizer of the July 26 underground, they decided to continue working . . . while keeping the rebels informed of the progress and nature of their work, sending detailed sketches of their work directly to Che Guevara.

Meanwhile, the workers engaged in political proselytizing among the soldiers already billeted to man the train, thus ensuring that a significant number of soldiers deserted before the train left, while many more deserted along the way. By the time the train was derailed outside Santa Clara in the final battle for that city, Che’s troops had already benefited from the train’s depleted forces, the soldiers’ weak morale, and intimate knowledge of the train’s reinforcements.

What better example of the way militant workers laid the groundwork for rebel victory?