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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Cuban Communism

Author:  Ray Walser, Ph.D. Ray Walser, Ph.D. is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

On January 1, 1959, a combination of popular resistance and military actions forced an unpopular Cuban dictator to flee the island. Cubans were hopeful of a turn to constitutional government, prosperity and greater freedom. With terrible irony, the Cuban people opened the door to a dictatorship and the imposition of totalitarian communism few could have envisioned as they welcomed Fidel Castro and his guerrilla force as national liberators and harbingers of hope.

Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. since the 1850s has long exercised a major psychological influence on the development of Cuba’s national politics. Independence from Spain came late to Cuba and required U. S. military intervention in the Spanish-American War to break Spain’s hold on the island.

From 1898 until the 1930’s, the U.S., to the discomfort of Cuba’s independent-minded nationalists, exercised strong political and economic control over Havana. Cuba’s economy – heavily reliant on sugar, foreign companies, and tourism – was closely linked to the U.S. market. Experiments in Cuban democracy deteriorated into dictatorships such as that of Gerardo Machado (1925-1933) and Fulgencio Batista (1952-1959). Cubans tended to blame the U.S. for the failures of their democracy and for U.S. willingness to “prefer” the stability of a strong man over the disorder and uncertainty of democracy. Nevertheless, by 1959, Cuba was one of Latin America’s best educated, most prosperous nations.

Credit for the success of the revolutionary movement and building Cuban communism belongs to Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. Son of a Spanish immigrant who owned 10,000 acres and employed 500, Castro was born in 1926 and was educated in Cuba’s elite schools. As a law student in the 1940’s, Fidel demonstrated a restless intellect coupled with the instincts of a strategist and a street fighter. At an early age, he discovered radical politics and the utility of political violence.

On July 26, 1952, Fidel helped lead a bloody, unsuccessful assault on Batista’s troops garrisoned in the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. Captured after the attack, Castro converted his trial into a propaganda victory. After less than two years in prison, Castro received an amnesty and traveled to Mexico where he recruited a small revolutionary army. Founding members included brother Raúl (b. 1931) and the Argentine doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, (1928-1967). The guerrilla band landed in Cuba on the yacht Granma in December 1956. After several bloody clashes a handful of survivors disappeared into the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Like many other Communist leaders, a ruthless but pragmatic Castro set as his primary objective the overthrow of the Batista regime and the armed seizure of power. Putting aside divisions over ideology, he forged broad alliances with historic opposition parties, organized labor and radical elements in the cities.

The press often portrayed Fidel and his band as young idealists fighting a corrupt, unpopular tyranny. Castro promised a “democratic Cuba,” restoration of the Cuban constitution, free elections, and claimed to harbor “no animosity toward the U.S.” A positive image of the rebels coupled with repugnance for Batista’s strong-arm methods, led the U.S. to impose an arms embargo on the Batista regime.

By late 1958, the Batista government began to crumple. On New Year’s Eve, Batista escaped to the Dominican Republic. On January 9, 1959, Fidel Castro arrived in Havana to tumultuous acclaim. Within weeks, Castro commenced maneuvering against liberals and democrats, breaking alliances and power sharing deals to solidify personal power and set Cuba on the path to communist dictatorship.

Frictions swiftly developed between the U.S. and Fidel. The U.S. challenged the use of summary “people’s courts” proceedings and firing squads that executed hundreds of former Batista officials and soldiers. Fidel defended “revolutionary justice,” explaining that moral conviction had replaced legal precepts as a guiding rationale. A system of prisons expanded as Fidel took over Batista’s old prisons and built new ones. Thousands passed into Fidel’s “tropical Gulag.” In the coming years, millions of Cubans believed themselves to be trapped in an immense, open air prison.

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Location:  Caribbean
Capital:  Havana
Communist Rule:  January 1959-Current
Victims of Communism:
73 000