“So – how do you feel about The Revolution?” We found ourselves asking this question more than we had expected, often accompanied with a slanted smile from the locals. Given the authoritarian Cuban government and the anti-capitalist slant of all depictions of Cuba, we were surprised to find that Cubans did not speak about The Revolution in hushed tones – or worse, not at all. Instead, most were open to discuss the changes that had resulted and how today’s Cuba is ultimately the result of the fateful movement.
In Cuba, The Revolution (capital T, capital R) needs no further qualification. Although Cuba obtained independence from the Spanish in 1902, it always lay ensnared within the grasp of its superpower neighbour through the US’s vast political and economic influence. These turbulent years peaked with the rise to power of Fulgencio Batista, when Cuba was transformed into a playground of American vice, with casinos, alcohol, drugs, and mob rule permeating the island. While the country’s economy flourished from the foreign investment during this brief period, Batista too was corrupted by financial and socio-political gain, slowly metamorphosing into an insecure authoritarian, destroying civil liberties and censoring the press. While few in Havana today lived through the Batista regime, all we had spoken to agreed that 1950s Cuba was a powder keg, ready to explode into revolution.
Enter Castro and Guevara. Fidel Castro, the past, present, and future figurehead of Cuba, was first exposed to Marxist ideals while studying law in the University of Havana. The nationalist Fidel and Raúl Castro pushed against the Batista regime, commencing with the storming of the Moncado barracks, during which most of the gathered revolutionaries were captured or killed. The Castros were captured, imprisoned, but later released under political pressure. Following various failed upheavals, the Castros retreated to Mexico City, where they would meet Che Guevara while preparing for The Revolution.
While most revolutionary guerrilla battles took place in Cuba’s luscious inland jungles, the most famous skirmish took place within Havana’s centre. In 1957, a group of students stormed the Presidential Palace, the workplace of Fulgencio Batista, hoping to depose the then-president. As the students rushed into the Presidential office, Batista escaped through a chute, and many of those involved in the skirmish were either killed during the battle or later tried and imprisoned. Today, the Presidential Palace is a museum documenting the Revolution (and, one could uncharitably interpret, a hub of socialist propaganda), its marble façade and staircase still scarred by the bullet holes of the failed scuffle.
Meanwhile, the Castro-Guevara-led Revolution began to gain momentum. Starting with small-scale offensives against army garrisons in towns across Cuba, Castro’s forces’ guerrilla tactics proved effective against the cumbersome army. The state army, slowly losing the financial support of the American neighbours, was slowly depleted. In 1958, following the defeat of Batista’s own offensive, the rebels launched a multi-pronged attack on Havana, Santa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba. The cities were quickly captured. Batista, sensing defeat, fled the country by air. Castro and Guevara marched, victorious, from Santa Clara to Havana, beginning to form the country we know today. The key revolutionary city of Santa Clara today is home to Guevara’s mausoleum following his death in Bolivia while spreading Marxist revolutionary ideals to other countries in the world.
Throughout our stay in Havana, one question was always inevitable. How did a formerly thriving, resource-rich country become a nation racked with poverty, conjuring images of desperate refugees risking life and limb to cross the sea to reach the USA? How did the buoyant post-revolution optimism devolve into desolation and malaise? Following The Revolution, sweeping reforms were implemented, leading to improved healthcare, land ownership, and infrastructure. Afro-Cubans who had long toiled in poverty and slavery were also liberated. Despite these changes, Cuban-American relations worsened, leading to the famous total embargo of Cuba and multiple attempts to undermine the Castro government. Besides the unsuccessful invasion of the Bay of Pigs, US intelligence purportedly attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro. The tense relations led the Cubans to rely heavily on the Soviets for imports and intelligence exchange, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following the collapse of the USSR and the “Comecon”, Cuba entered a period of severe economic recession and reduction in the quality of life, including severe malnutrition and loss of agricultural productivity. The poverty and large-scale structural changes in the Cuban economy are still felt today. The more honest among our tour guides would point the finger at the incumbent national and local governments. Promising to destroy the corruption which had long haunted the Batista regime, the Castros and their government were similarly corrupt, such that the growing economy from increased tourism and relaxed trade with the US never trickled down to citizens. Poor central planning and suffocating rations further exacerbated the poor economy. The result: abject poverty and reliance on agriculture, which show little sign of improvement in the near future.
Today, references to The Revolution are inescapable in Havana. Gaudy hanging portraits of Che and Fidel, formed by arrangements of wired lighting, adorn the side of Brutalist buildings flanking the aptly named Plaza de la Revolucíon. Rations and embargoes continue to force Cubans into resourcefulness, patching up broken windows and cars with makeshift parts and materials. The revolutionary machismo has evolved into commercialisation, where stencils of his likeness are ironically permeated through numerous aspects of popular culture. The success of The Revolution inspired other communist movements across the world, particularly in nations seeking their identities, shaping the world’s socio-political landscape.