The other day, I viewed a film of a memorial meeting for Fidel Castro that was held at the Malcolm X Center in Harlem, New York. The Malcolm X Center was formerly the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated.
At this meeting there were many powerful speeches that gave the audience an appreciation of all the contributions Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution have made over the years. While I appreciate the fact that this meeting took place, I also felt that there was something missing.
When we look at the history of the United States and Cuba, we see two seemingly contradictory stories. In the meeting commemorating Fidel, people spoke of aspects of these two stories, but I believe there is a lot more that can be said. This is the reason for this blog.
Two revolutions—the United States and Haiti
The people who lived in the thirteen colonies that became the United States had a problem that just wouldn’t go away. Europeans came to these colonies as outcasts from Europe to make a new life. Yet, they were ruled by a system where they would be considered second-class citizens, if they were not born into the so-called gentleman class.
The King of England was primarily interested in supporting his empire. Under this system the colonists routinely referred to the King as their father, and they considered themselves his children.
Thomas Paine wrote his widely read pamphlet titled Common Sense. In this pamphlet Paine argued that this same king in reality was a “sceptered savage.” Paine’s pamphlet argued many of the ideas that we would see in the founding document of this country—The Declaration of Independence written in 1776.
One of the big contradictions of history is that some of the revolutionaries of the thirteen colonies were prominent slave owners. Their objective was to free themselves from the debts they owed to British bankers. After the revolution the primary sources of wealth in the United States were agricultural products produced by slave labor.
We might consider that at the time of the revolution of the thirteen colonies, sugar production in the Caribbean islands was the most lucrative way of making money in the world. Both Britain and France viewed the Caribbean as more important than the thirteen colonies.
The wealthiest colony in the Caribbean was the French San Domingue that today is known as Haiti. About eight years after the revolution in the thirteen colonies, revolution erupted in San Domingue. A government of former slaves ruled the new nation. The governments of Britain, Spain, France, and the United States did their best in attempting to overthrow or isolate Haiti. All these nations continued to support slavery and Haiti was a clear example of how slavery needed to be abolished.
After the French were defeated in Haiti, the French government needed money and sold their colony of Louisiana to the United States. This sale doubled the size of this country. Most of that land was worked by slave labor. Another irony of history is that the Haitian Revolution abolished slavery, but also created the conditions for slavery to grow in the United States.
However, this growth of slavery only lasted until the year 1861 when the Civil War erupted. About 350,000 union soldiers died in the effort to abolish slavery in the United States. While slavery was abolished, the defeat of radical reconstruction meant that Black people lost citizenship rights. The Ku Klux Klan effectively ran the governments in the former slave states.
The first Cuban Revolution
Many of the slave owners from San Domingue left the island because of the revolution, and settled in the eastern section of Cuba known as Oriente. This is the area of Cuba that is closest to Haiti. These slave owners brought their slaves with them.
Máximo Gómez was born in the Dominican Republic that neighbors Haiti on the eastern section of the island of Hispaniola. Gómez was horrified by the living conditions he saw in Cuba and became the military commander of the Cuban revolutionary forces.
Gómez’ most important general was Antonio Maceo Grajales. Maceo was Black, but he wasn’t a slave. His entire family joined the revolution. After ten years of war, Spain came to an agreement with most of the Cuban revolutionaries. Maceo refused to surrender and he alone allowed the Cuban people to say that Cuba never surrendered to Spanish rule.
After several years the Cuban revolutionaries returned to the island. Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez led a largely Black army 800 miles crossing the entire length of the Cuban island. The Spanish had significantly more arms as well as more soldiers. However, the revolutionary Cubans terrified the colonial army.
We might consider that just about 100 miles north of Cuba in the United States, a completely different story was unfolding. As I’ve mentioned the Ku Klux Klan took power in the former slave states and Black people effectively lost their citizenship rights. This meant that literally thousands of Black people were lynched by racist mobs.
Clearly the politicians of the United States didn’t want another revolutionary government in the Caribbean. So, the United States went to war against Spain and then dominated the governments of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. About 250,000 Philippine revolutionaries died in their attempt to prevent a U.S. supported government from dominating their homeland.
The second Cuban Revolution
In the 1950s a new generation of Cuban revolutionaries organized to overthrow the corrupt and brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The first action of these revolutionaries was to attack the military garrison known as Moncada. This strategy of attacking a military garrison has a long history in this part of the world.
The battle of Lexington and Concord sparked the revolution of the thirteen colonies. This battle, like the one at Moncada, was about who would control an arms depot.
John Brown organized a small force to take control of an arms depot at Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Brown planed to take these arms to the Allegheny Mountains where his small force would launch a guerrilla war against the slave owners. Fidel Castro had a similar plan to use the weapons captured at Moncada in the neighboring mountains to carry out a war against the regime of Batista.
The battles of Lexington and Concord, Harpers Ferry, and Moncada all ended in defeats for the revolutionaries. However, after these three battles the revolutionaries eventually managed to declare independence from Britain, to end slavery in the United States, and to form a truly representative government in Cuba.
We might also think about the fact that, while the Cubans were organizing their revolution, the civil rights movement erupted in the United States. The following timeline demonstrates how the struggles in the United States and Cuba erupted during the same years.
July 26, 1953—An armed force led by Fidel Castro attacked the Moncada Barracks In Santiago, Cuba.
August 28, 1955—Emmett Till was beaten and murdered by a racist mob in Mississippi. His murderers were found not guilty in a so-called trial that made absolutely no attempt to bring Till’s murderers to justice.
December 1, 1955—Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a segregated bus and was arrested. The local chapter of the NAACP responded to this arrest by launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This boycott lasted 381 days until Black people were allowed to sit anywhere on the busses of Montgomery, Alabama.
December 2, 1956—A small force of Cuban revolutionaries landed on the shores of the Oriente province of Cuba. Most of those who landed were murdered by the forces of Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Ernesto Che Guevara were among the survivors and they retreated to the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
January 1, 1959—The victorious revolutionary army marched into Havana, Cuba. The new revolutionary government outlawed racial discrimination and organized a literacy drive to teach everyone on the island how to read. As a result, today Cuba has more teachers and doctors per capita than any other nation in the world.
April 17, 1960—An armed force created and financed by the United States government attacked Cuba at the Bay of Pigs or Playa Girón. This force is quickly defeated by the Cubans.
October 16 – 28, 1962—The United States government, headed by John F. Kennedy, threatened to use atomic weapons against Cuba. Cuba had accepted atomic bombs from the Soviet Union and the Kennedy Administration found this to be unacceptable. The United States then and now has more nuclear weapons than any other nation in the world. The U.S. is the only nation that has used atomic bombs in war and today is dropping more bombs than any other nation in the world.
March 7, 1965—Police attack a demonstration of peaceful protesters at the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Alabama. The protesters were attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery to demand the right to vote for African Americans.
March 25, 1965—President Johnson bowed to international pressure and ordered 1,000 military police as well as 2,000 army troops to defend the voting rights demonstrators on their five-day march to Montgomery, Alabama.
August 8, 1965—President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act. This law was merely a repetition of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed after the Civil War that also granted all men voting rights. Many women won the right to vote in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Starting with the Cuban Revolution, the governments of the United States and Cuba have had opposing interests on the African continent.
Cuba supported the revolutionary government of Algeria, while the United States supported the French in their colonial war against the people of that region. About one million people died in the Algerian revolutionary war that freed Algeria from French colonialism.
Ernesto Che Guevara led a Cuban volunteer force aimed at bringing about a democratic government in the nation known as the Congo. The United States government admitted that it organized the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, who was the democratically elected leader of the Congo. The U.S. government then installed the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko to rule the nation.
Today we can see the clear difference between the government of the Congo that had been installed by the United States and the Cuban reality. The Congo is one of the most minerally rich nations in the world. The Congo River has the potential to supply the entire nation with hydroelectric power. Yet, today the Congo is one of the poorest nations in Africa.
Cuba has very few natural resources. Yet today Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world. Cuba has been able to accomplish this while battling against a trade embargo from the United States.
The apartheid laws of the former South African government closely resembled the Jim Crow laws of the United States. Throughout the years of Jim Crow there had been efforts by the Black community to defend themselves from racist mobs using the force of arms.
Robert F. Williams was one of those who organized the Black community to defend itself using armed force. The U.S. government conspired to frame-up Williams, and he was able to win political asylum in Cuba. In Cuba Williams transmitted a radio program to the United States called Radio Free Havana.
However, most histories of the civil rights movement portray that movement as non-violent. This meant that those who opposed the Jim Crow laws refrained from violence, while those who supported that hateful system routinely engaged in horrendous acts of violence.
In South Africa the apartheid laws required every Black person to carry a passbook that needed to be updated every day. Hundreds of thousands of Black people served time in South African jails because of violations of these passbook laws.
The African National had advocated for non-violent resistance for most of its history. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi learned about non-violent resistance when he lived in South Africa. Then, in 1960 the South African armed forces murdered 69 peaceful protesters in Sharpeville. Faced with this reality, the African National Congress felt it had no alternative but to organize an armed resistance to the regime.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was one of the leaders of the ANC who the South African authorities arrested for carrying out an armed struggle against the regime. The United States government assisted the South African authorities in Mandela’s arrest. Mandela served 27 years in prison, but he had been sentenced to life.
On April 25, 1974, the Carnation Revolution erupted in Portugal. Portugal had been ruled by the repressive regime of Marcello Caetano. At that time many Portuguese served time in Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa. Those wars took place in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. The United States government gave Portugal massive funding to carry out these colonial wars. With the Carnation Revolution Portugal’s colonial domination of its African colonies was over.
The United States and South Africa moved quickly to make sure that this change in power would in no way make any fundamental changes. Their model was to make these former colonies resemble the Mobutu regime in the Congo.
The most popular of the anti-colonial forces in Angola was the MPLA. The South African army aided those forces opposed to the MPLA. Because of South Africa’s massive military, the forces it supported took control of most of Angola except for the capital Luanda.
Then, in November of 1975, Cuba sent it’s armed forces to Luanda and within a month there were 25,000 Cuban soldiers giving assistance to their Angolan brothers and sisters. This intervention pushed back the South African supported forces.
Cuban soldiers remained in Angola and in 1987 the battle of Cuito Cuanavale erupted. The South African supported forces were eventually routed. These events forced South Africa to end their war against Angola. The nation between South Africa and Angola is Namibia. Namibia won its independence largely because of the South African defeat in Angola.
These events, as well as an upsurge against the government in South Africa convinced the apartheid regime that it needed to make basic changes. Under these conditions South African government officials began negotiations with Nelson Mandela who was in prison at that time.
The South African government released Nelson Mandela from prison on February 11, 1990. Mandela won an election that made him President of South Africa on May 9, 1994. One of Mandela’s first trips outside the country was to Cuba where he thanked Fidel Castro for the role that nation played in the history of Africa.
The armed support Cuba gave to Angola is just one aspect of its foreign policy. Cuba has given medical assistance to some of the poorest nations in the world. Thousands of doctors from around the world have been trained in Cuba at no charge. This aid has been given regardless of whether Cuba has good or bad relations with a given country.
The foreign policy of the United States follows a completely different course. Vladimir Illiych Lenin wrote about the foreign policy of capitalist nations in his pamphlet: Imperialism—The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Lenin argued that imperialist relations are not mistakes of capitalist politicians, but the inevitable result of capitalism.
The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements all improved the standard of living for workers in this country. Corporations responded to this by making huge investments in nations where wages are about two dollars per day.
The civil rights movement forced the government to outlaw the Jim Crow laws that legalized discrimination. Corporations responded by increasing the number of immigrants in this country. Immigrant workers have no legal rights, and President Obama deported about 940 immigrants for every day he was in office.
While legalized discrimination was outlawed, today the United States has more prisoners per capita than any other nation in the world. The percentage of Black people in prison is grossly disproportionate to their percentage in the general population.
So, when we look at the histories of the United States and Cuba, we see two clearly conflicting stories. Cuba has been working to improve the lives of its people and give aid to people all over the world. The United States government claims to support democratic ideas, but has been a repressive force almost entirely throughout its history.
Understanding this history, we can see how the election of Donald Trump in no way made a basic change to the politics of this country. Only when working people organize to support our needs, and put in place our own government, will there be a basic change in the world. This is one of the lessons of history.