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Understanding the Cuban Revolution

Review by Lance Selfa | May 5, 2006 | Page 9

Samuel Farber, The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered. University of North Carolina Press, 2006, 172 pages, $19.95.

"THE CUBAN Revolution was one of the most important events in 20th century Latin America and had a major impact well beyond the Western Hemisphere," writes Samuel Farber in his conclusion to The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered.

Hear Sam Farber speak at Socialism 2006, a political conference scheduled for June 22-25 at Columbia Univerisy in New York City. For more information, go to the Socialism 2006 Web site at
He might also have added that the Cuban Revolution has been one of the more misunderstood events in Latin America, according to both its supporters and detractors.

To many supporters of the revolution--particularly those in the U.S.-- Cuba took its singular path from "multiclass democratic political revolution into a Communist social revolution" with "a close alliance between Cuba and the Soviet bloc" because U.S. stubbornness drove Castro into the USSR's arms. To the Cuban and North American right, Cuba "went Communist" because a small band of conspirators carried out a master plan, most likely hatched in Moscow, to create a Stalinist state only 90 miles from Florida.

Farber's book refutes both of these simplistic claims. He aims to provide an explanation for the revolution's origin and for the ultimate path that it took.

Except for the first chapter that presents a brief history of Cuban politics and society in the 20th century, the bulk of the book focuses on the key period of 1959 to 1961--from the revolution's victory to its defeat of the U.S.-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion, when Castro declared the revolution "socialist."

As such, this isn't a book for readers who are looking for an introduction to the Cuban Revolution. Although clearly and sharply written, Origins assumes at least some acquaintance with the basic facts of the January 1, 1959, revolution and some of the debates that surround it.

Origins is organized around four key questions: Was Cuba ripe for revolution? How large a role did the Castro leadership of the 26th of July Movement play in the revolution's direction? Did the U.S. "alienate" the Cuban revolutionaries who really wanted a good relationship with the U.S., and, in so doing; drive Cuba into the Soviet bloc? And finally, what was the Soviet Union's role in determining the direction of the revolution?

Challenging revisionist historians who imply that Cuba would have evolved into a liberal capitalist democracy if the revolution hadn't gotten in the way, Farber shows that Cuban society faced a crisis that made a revolutionary departure conceivable for millions of Cubans. While the "objective conditions" for a revolution existed, the revolution wouldn't have taken the route it did absent the leadership of the 26th of July Movement, whose key leader was (and continues to be) Fidel Castro.

"To fully understand Fidel is necessary to see him not simply as a product of the populist political tradition, but also transcending it," Farber writes. Fidel was a brilliant tactician with a keen sense of the popular pulse. He used both of these to traits to outmaneuver his domestic opponents--both on his left and on his right--and to buy time from Washington to consolidate the revolutionary state.

At the same time, the U.S. and the USSR--the two main protagonists of the Cold War--presented cross-pressures that influenced what course Castro and other leaders charted for the revolution. In considering the U.S. response to the Cuban Revolution, Farber shows quite clearly that U.S. business was not immediately hostile to the guerrillas after they took power in 1959.

Career diplomats and military figures, Cold Warriors all, adopted a hostile posture toward the new government. Over the course of 1959 and 1961, as the Castro government moved to enact land reform and other radical measures, U.S. government agencies housed in the Eisenhower and Kennedy executive branches developed a policy of "regime change" toward Cuba. Subsequently, the government lined up business to support its anti-Castro position.

In this way, Farber debunks the liberal notion that "if only" the U.S. government had been friendly to the Cuban government, it wouldn't have "lost" Cuba to the Eastern Bloc. Finally, the Cuban government wasn't simply "pushed" into the Russian bear's hug.

International events--from Russia's lead in the space race to increasing hostility to the Western bloc of popular Third World governments--emboldened the USSR. And Fidel Castro's radical moves throughout 1960 helped to force Moscow's hand.

When the U.S. launched its embargo against Cuba, the USSR was there to provide an economic and military lifeline to Havana. By 1961, when the book ends, the "die is cast," with Cuba becoming a pillar of the Eastern Bloc and a thorn in the side of every U.S. administration since.

To many in Latin America, Cuba remains the main example that shows it is possible to stand up to the U.S. empire. We can thank Samuel Farber for providing us with an understanding of the Cuban Revolution.

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