In 1959, the Cuban Revolution brought the global challenge to capitalism to the Americas, joining countries like the Soviet Union and China and inspiring millions of people around the world.
More than 60 years of U.S. anti-communist aggression followed, a prime cause of the grave trouble roiling Cuba now. To understand Cuba today, including the unprecedented protests that spilled across the island on July 11, 2021, means understanding the history of U.S. involvement.
Flowering of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. took advantage of fierce rebellions against Spanish colonialism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898 by declaring war on Spain and posturing as a friend of independence. Immediately upon winning the war, however, it exerted its own rule over these long-oppressed countries.
After occupying Cuba in 1899, the U.S. passed the Platt Amendment in 1901. With this law, adopted in the Cuban constitution under pressure, the northern imperialist gave itself the right to intervene in Cuba at any time to defend its interests.
It did so many times over the next 60 years. It put down several popular insurrections and occasionally resorted to direct rule, even after official Cuban independence in 1902.
The island became a paradise for U.S. corporations and a playground for the rich and famous, drawn by Mafia-run gambling and prostitution. Large businesses like the United Fruit Company were the main owners of the land, sugar mills, mines, oil refineries, and other industries.
In the years before the revolution, under the rule of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, unemployment was sky-high, only 3% of the people had running water, the average income was six dollars a week, and racism and sexism were rife.
People in rural areas — most of the population — suffered terribly. Sugar cane cutters could work only four months of the year, and their families struggled just to survive.
And, crucially, the Spanish and U.S. overlords created a Cuban economy centered on export crops, sugar above all, while the majority of its food had to be imported.
Comes the revolution — and the backlash. The revolution that toppled Batista on January 1, 1959, massively improved Cuban lives.
One of the first steps was agrarian reform, key to lifting the rural population from poverty and developing the economy. On May 17, the new government outlawed and seized large landholdings, distributing the bounty to landless agricultural workers and farmers.
Fidel Castro’s initial goal for the country was not socialism. However, the only way to better people’s conditions involved upsetting capitalist property relations, which triggered the decades of U.S. aggression to come. To make it possible for the revolution to survive, an isolated Cuba turned to help from the Soviet Union and its allies.
The year 1960 was tumultuous. The CIA began laying plans for Castro’s overthrow. Yankee oil companies in Cuba refused to refine Soviet oil and were nationalized. The U.S. revoked its guarantee to buy a certain quota of Cuban sugar, and the USSR stepped into the breach. In August, Cuba nationalized U.S. companies, and the U.S. established a trade embargo.
The next year, Uncle Sam broke off diplomatic relations and bombed Cuban airfields in preparation for the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in April, planned by new President John F. Kennedy, and implemented by right-wing Cuban emigrés trained and financed by the CIA. Defenders of the revolution soundly defeated the takeover bid.
The Cuban missile crisis brought the globe to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962. This was a standoff between Moscow and Washington over Soviet missiles placed in Cuba — which ended because of Nikita Khrushchev’s prudence, not because of any good sense on the part of Cold War hawk JFK.
These years were the beginning of the multi-pronged attack on Cuba’s revolution and sovereignty that included economic blows, military actions, destabilizing propaganda efforts like Radio Televisión Martí, support for counterrevolutionaries in both Cuba and El Norte, manipulation of U.S. immigration policy, and assassination attempts both ludicrous and deadly serious.
The embargo was tightened time and again, most notoriously with the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. It became a blockade, a weapon to not only prevent Cuba from doing business with the U.S., but with other countries as well.
A country in crisis. Support from the Soviet Union helped to insulate Cuba from the worst effects of the U.S. onslaught. At the same time, however, it created a dangerous economic and ideological dependence on the USSR. Itself the victim of pounding by the U.S., the Soviet Union had degenerated politically under a Stalinist bureaucracy. It bequeathed to Cuba the disorienting myth that socialism could be established in one country — and from the top down, at that.
When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Cuba was plunged into dire straits. Goods became scarce and many Cubans simply did not get enough to eat. In a bid to blunt the misery of what was called the Special Period, the government began to institute capitalist-style changes designed to fire up the economy. These succeeded, to an extent, but at the cost of increased inequality.
In an already fragile situation, tightened U.S. sanctions under Trump and the global pandemic created drastic shortages of basic necessities like food, water, and healthcare. This led the government to implement new reforms in January 2021, which were followed by a wild jump in inflation and negative economic growth.
These were the conditions that impelled Cubans into las calles in July. Mostly young and largely Afro-Cuban, the protesters were mainly desperate and angry poor and working-class people demanding things like access to Covid vaccinations and an end to electrical blackouts.
The government reacted with repression, arresting hundreds, who face sentences of up to 30 years. Many international leftists uncritically support the government and instinctively condemn the protests as the work of foreign imperialism.
Other defenders of the Cuban revolution, however, call for ending the crackdown. (See “Free political prisoners in Cuba.”) They recognize that the solution for the island’s woes is not repression, but the achievement of true workers’ democracy that would free the energy and decision-making power of Cuba’s people — the only path to defeating the northern goliath.
For more on Cuba’s history and current conditions, see “Cuba: Eyewitness says the embattled revolution needs global aid and socialist democracy to survive” and “Frustration boils over in Cuba” at socialism.com.