1960: The Year when History exploded (complete version)

"The aim of this panel is to return to a crucial moment in the history of the Revolution, whose transcendence endures to this day, the moment in which the radicalization process entered a spiral".

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo


Marta Pérez-Rolo González. PhD in Economics; professor of the FLACSO-Cuba program at the University of Havana

Julio V. Ruiz. Geriatric psychiatrist; ex-clinical professor of four medical schools in the United States (University of Illinois, University of Miami, New York Medical College, State University of New York). He left Santa Clara for the United States on September 23rd, 1960. Currently retired.

Carlos Alzugaray. Diplomat. Cuban educator and essayist. President of the Historical-Social literature section of the Writers Association of UNEAC [Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba – National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba].

Fabio Fernández Batista. Historian and university professor. PhD in Historical Sciences. Member of the Cuban History Department at the University of Havana. First Vice-President of the Union of Historians of Cuba.

Rafael Hernández. Political Scientist. Director of Temas.

Rafael Hernández (moderator): Good afternoon to all who are connected to this remote broadcast of Ultimo Jueves. The aim of this panel is to return to a crucial moment in the history of the Revolution, whose transcendence endures to this day, the moment in which the radicalization process entered a spiral, the result of political interactions that were not written down in any document, in any program, the result of the triggering of a social and political conflict which has its roots, of course, in the transformations that the Revolution itself initiated, but whose velocity and depth crystallized in that year, and which we can probably consider to have been the watershed in the revolutionary process. It is a moment in which the conflict between the revolutionary government, the Cuban upper class and the government of the United States openly breaks out and, at the same time, this confrontation does not just happen between certain actors, but it touches the whole of society. To be aligned with or against the process is something that happens particularly as a result of this dynamic of a real conflict that was not planned to happen in the form it did; none of the revolutionary organizations had foreseen that this could happen in such a short span of time.

These are the issues that we would like to discuss, which we have proposed to the panel and on which we have invited the participants to pose their questions and comments. We will begin by remembering the events that particularly characterized the year 1960. For this purpose we have prepared quite a detailed Chronology, in which it is clear that Cuba had entered into a situation of war, of violent confrontation, in which neither the later nationalizations nor the tension of the relations with the United States, nor the emerging ideological differences, nor even the famous communism issue, cannot be understood except within the context of a violent, armed conflict.

Marta Pérez-Rolo González: That year was decisive in the deepening and growth of the Cuban Revolution, and although there are very important events, I would single out the following three: 1) In July, the President of the United States suspended the purchase of sugar from Cuba, and the necessary nationalization of all those of the upper bourgeoisie who had emigrated was going on during that whole year. One of the great events that happened was the expropriation of the estates of the United Fruit Co., which culminated on the 8th of August with the nationalization of all North-American companies in Cuba - oil refineries, sugar plantations, and telephone and electricity companies - so that when this nationalization process was completed, all foreign properties in Cuba had been expropriated. 2) The creation of the various popular and youth organizations which allowed for the effective participation of the people in the development of the Revolution, like the Asociación de Jóvenes Rebeldes [the Association of the Young Rebels]—whose first public action occurred on January 28th—and the definitive integration of the youth movement in October, as the Asociación de Jóvenes Rebeldes; the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, created on September 28th, and the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas [Federation of Cuban Women] into which all women’s organizations were integrated on the 23rd of August. 3) The participation of Fidel Castro, the Comandante en Jefe [Commander in Chief], in the XV General Assembly of the United Nations, whose forceful speech had a great impact on the meeting, challenging the imperial enemy and shocking the world. In this speech, which he gave on September 26th—after the Cuban delegation was removed from the hotel at which they were staying and taken in by the Theresa Hotel in the district of Harlem in New York—he would say, among other important features: ”Our people are governed by the people”, and he would denounce the Yankee aggressions against Cuba and other countries in the world, like the conflict in the Congo. Upon his return, in a speech given in the midst of a rainstorm on the north terrace of the old Presidential Palace, firecrackers were set off and Fidel announced the creation of the Revolutionary Defense Committees.

Julio V. Ruiz: Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate in this virtual panel. My full name is Julio Vernon Ruiz Estela. I was born and raised in Santa Clara until my 13th birthday. I left Cuba for New York City (NYC) on October 23rd, 1960. I am a geriatric psychiatrist, ex-clinical professor of four medical schools in the United States (University of Illinois, University of Miami, New York Medical College, State University of New York), currently retired. My perspective is the distant and traumatic memories of a 13-year old adolescent whose father was a politician and functionary in the government of Fulgencio Batista, and whose mother was a language professor and teacher in the UCLV [Universidad Central ‘Marta Abreu’ de las Villas].

The memory that most stands out from 1960 was my definitive departure from the country (although at the time we thought it would only be temporary, just months). My father had left for New York towards the end of 1959, and my mother and I were left behind, alone. They tried to remove my mother as professor at UCLV only because she was married to my father, and he left the country “legally” and without any accusations of legal processes. My strongest memory, aside from family matters, was the explosion by sabotage of the French steamship La Coubre in March of 1960. My uncle, my father’s brother, lived a few blocks from that area, in Fábrica street. In August of 1960 the revolutionary government nationalized all North-American properties in Cuba; as a result, the Eisenhower government froze all Cuban assets, leading to the breaking off of relations on January 3rd, 1961. Fidel’s first visit to the United Nations was very memorable and difficult to forget. The United States cut the sugar quota. Our commercial relations with the old Soviet Union reached new heights. Urban reforms took place, cutting thousands of property owners to pieces. My family benefitted because we were not property owners. The North-American refineries stopped refining. In Guanabacoa there was sabotage at a dynamite dump—difficult to forget. But perhaps the most important thing is that 125,000 bourgeois or middle class Cubans left the country.

Carlos Alzugaray: In 1960 the conflict between the United States and the Cuban Revolution became more difficult. The key event was Eisenhower’s decision to suspend diplomatic negotiations and start the plan to overthrow the Revolutionary Government, a plan fundamentally entrusted to the CIA, but with the active collaboration of all the institutions of the imperialist state. The decision was taken by the National Security Council at a meeting on March 17th. This plan considered paramilitary actions, economic warfare, political propaganda and diplomatic isolation, and unfolded through the entire year, in different stages.

The whole first trimester was devoted to its implementation, and was directed at creating and organizing armed political opposition which would take over the country’s government once the change of regimen was achieved. But this objective could not be reached. And that it meant war to the death was demonstrated by another important event, the attack on the steamship La Coubre on March 4th.

During the second quarter the plan was centered on carrying out what had been proposed in the famous Mallory Memorandum of April 4th: apply economic sanctions that would cause hunger, desperation and the fall of the government. All the arguments regarding the sanctions were based on the recognition of the popular support the government had and the need to undermine that. The refusal of the petroleum companies to refine Russian oil bought by Cuba, and the termination of the sugar quotas, were the first measures taken in this matter.

The third trimester was marked by the strategy of using the OAS - Organization of American States to isolate Cuba diplomatically through its Consultation Meeting in San José, Costa Rica, from August 22nd to 28th. The Cuban people responded with the Primera Declaración de la Habana [First Declaration of Havana].

Finally, the fourth quarter was marked by the acceleration of the training of mercenaries in Guatemala for an invasion of Cuba, which eventually took place at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. This was an important change in strategy which would be worth discussing. At the same time, accelerated steps were taken to provoke the rupture of diplomatic relations, which finally took place on January 3rd, 1961.

One final event that we need to highlight was Fidel’s participation, speech and meetings in New York, related to the 15th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Fabio Fernández Batista: The year 1960 was transcendental in the history of the Revolution because it marked a watershed in several ways, especially in the area of the break with the Cuban capitalist dynamic, after which the models were directed towards a socialist transition which the Revolution would take as its fundamental ideological viewpoint. We could select several transcendental events and moments during that year; I will choose three.

In the first place, we should note the beginning of the Cuban-Soviet relations, starting from Anastas Mikoyan’s visit to Cuba, relations that will move into the political and economic spheres and, of course, will also have an important ideological component for the rest of the Revolution’s history.

Another key moment is the wave of nationalizations, beginning in the summer of 1960, and which expresses the convergence between the socialization of the means of production that the Revolution undertook, and the growing North-American aggression towards the Island. It should be understood that this is a dynamic that grows into a scenario of action and reaction, and which strengthened the Cuban Revolution’s radicalism.

There is a third moment, which for me is also tremendous: the First Declaration of Havana. This is a document that clearly expresses where the Revolution is heading, what it has been until then and in what direction it projects its way, as a process which aims to undermine Cuban social reality. In addition, this document openly declares its insertion in a much wider global scenario. The First Declaration of Havana is the prologue of what is to come; it announces what will become much more visible in the discourses during the year 1961.

Without any doubt, I think these three moments: the visit of Mikoyan and the Cuban-Soviet relations, the wave of nationalizations that begin in the summer of 1960 and the First Declaration of Havana are essential segments of that Year II of the Revolution, which, I repeat, is a huge watershed in the evolving dynamic of the project.

Rafael Hernández: The second question has to do with the social and political conflict in which we were living, and with the nature of the process and of the events, and why we could so quickly reach a point in which the political situation could not be turned back. How and when did we reach that point?

Marta Pérez-Rolo González: I think that that point was surpassed from the beginning of that year, with the various criminal attacks against our country, in particular the explosion of the French steamship La Coubre, which was carrying weapons from Belgium to the Rebel Army. At the burial of the victims of that sabotage, Commander Fidel Castro for the first time utters the slogan “Patria o Muerte” [Fatherland or Death]. The relevant part of this irreversible process was the nationalization of the national and foreign banks in August and October. During that year, the United States initiated the restrictions on the transport to Cuba of all kinds of merchandise.

On September 2nd, at a meeting of the General Assembly held at the Plaza de la Revolución [Revolution Square], and next to the portrait of the Apostle José Martí, the Cuban people approved the First Declaration of Havana, which was the response of the government and of the people to the document prepared by the 7th Meeting of Consultation of the Chancellors of the Organization of American States (OAS), held on August 2nd in Costa Rica. This Declaration publicly denounced the interference of the United States and proclaimed the right of Latin American and Caribbean peoples to their liberty and self-determination.

A key element in the development of the struggle in the area and against the foreign power was the organization of militia battalions, under the direction of the Rebel Army, to eradicate the counter-revolutionary groups that were present in the Sierra del Escambray, supported by the government of the United States.

It is clear that the conflicts had arrived at such a point that it would not be possible to resolve them by any means that was not confrontational and a conflict between Cuba and the United States, which tried to recover its economic and political dominance and help Cuban exiles and the supporters of Batista who had fled and who still had significant economic interests in the Island.

Julio V. Ruiz: The point of no return happened on April 16, 1961, when Fidel, on the corner of 23rd and 12th streets, proclaimed the socialist character of the Revolution, due to the continuous sabotage that cost the lives of hundreds of workers and soldiers. Already in 1960 some discontent with certain measures of the Revolution started among individuals who had belonged to the FEU [Federación Estudiantil Universitaria – University Student Federation] and had even participated in the uprising in the Escambray. The classic example was Porfirio “El Negro” Ramírez (who was not black, but mixed-race and even rode by on horseback with his pigtail and dressed in olive green to see my very pretty cousin from Cienfuegos). I think that the Catholic Church strongly influenced these young people (the majority of the priests in the towns and provinces were Spaniards and anti-communists). In those times, we were a country of six million, and people knew who was who. Apparently, people who belonged to the Partido Socialista Popular [communist party] began to take key positions in the government. My theory is the classic Cuban “step on the calluses on their toes”: little by little the revolution devoured those who had been its product but who became disenchanted for many reasons.

Carlos Alzugaray: It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a precise date in which the point of no return was reached. From the point of view of the North-American government, which in reality assumed the management of the counter-revolution, I think that the decision of rupture and no return happened in the summer of 1959, six months before 1960. I am basing that on what Livingston Merchant said, the political under-secretary of the State Department (the third position in that institution), at a meeting of the CNS [Center on National Security] on January 14th, in preparation for the meeting of March 17th, in which he said that since June 1959 they had “arrived at the decision that with Castro in power it would not be possible to achieve our objectives”, and thus started a program that the “State Department had been preparing with the CIA”, whose aim was to “adjust all our actions so as to accelerate the development of an opposition in Cuba that would produce a change in the Cuban government resulting in a new government favorable to the United States.” In addition, from the report of the Inspector General of the CIA in which the failure of the Bay of Pigs was evaluated, it can be seen that the recruitment and training of Cubans exiled in the United States in order to use them in a seditious manner in Cuban territory began in the summer of 1959. All this activity by the North-American government was known not only to the Revolutionary Government but also by counter-revolutionary individuals and groups, who joined these plans. It is important to emphasize that the Revolution had not entirely unfolded, nor was there evidence that reached North-American intelligence of a supposed agreement with the USSR. Although it is correct that in the same month of February 1960, Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and a commercial agreement with that country was signed, it is also true that the North-American Ambassador himself, Philip Bonsal, expressed the opinion that this activity was very much like the one that other Latin-American countries carried out and that they did not in themselves affect U.S. interests.

Fabio Fernández Batista: The point of no return that the question mentions appeared in the summer of 1960, with the aggravation of the contradictions between Cuba and the United States. It was a moment in which, explicitly and openly, the North-American government—Eisenhower’s administration—decided to destroy the Cuban Revolution, and drown it by every possible means, from an open economic war to the preparation of a whole combination of dynamics in the field of the promotion of an armed conflict. This point of no return was clearly expressed in the dynamic of action and reaction that animated the nationalizations of the summer and fall of 1960.

These nationalizations also have to be understood through their link with the intensity of the class struggle that was happening in Cuba. It was also the moment in which the Revolution stopped being a possible option for sectors of the Cuban bourgeoisie, especially the upper bourgeoisie which, in 1959 and in one way or another, had tried to capitalize on the Revolution for their own benefit. By that date it was evident that the process of change that the revolutionary rationale implies included a rupture with the essential beliefs of that Cuban bourgeoisie, and this was clearly expressed in the conflicts that 1960 put on the table. That year unleashed an all-out war, in which it is clear that the Revolution was a project that aimed to overthrow the structure of the country to the benefit of the oppressed, to the benefit of the majority. So, those sectors that until then had been at the top of society, obtaining the benefits of the existing structure, had no other option than to break the dynamic of change that was happening, and to take refuge in an aggressive action against the project that was destroying them.

In my opinion, that was the point of no return. It was the moment in which the social contradictions were aggravated to such an extent that joining formulas of compromise and coexistence was no longer possible. The Rubicon of the Revolution was 1960 because even in 1959 there were still attempts to reach common grounds. But in 1960 that was no longer possible.

Rafael Hernández: Who were the revolutionaries? How did they identify themselves? Did they share the same ideas? To what extent did these ideas create a revolutionary ideology, or one close to socialism? What was socialism to them?

Marta Pérez-Rolo González: The revolutionaries came from different social groups: soldiers from the Rebel Army, farmers, workers, students, intellectuals, professionals. There was a fusion between the poorest, those who had nothing, those who desired social and political changes and transformations, those who dreamed about social justice, those who knew the history of the independence struggle and its frustration, and felt the need to continue the struggle for sovereignty. The creation of popular organizations played an important role in that moment because it meant real popular participation, which had never existed before.

During the first year of the Revolution, radical measures, like the agrarian reform or the lowering of rents, had begun to prove that this was a different process of transformation, and that social policies were aimed at raising the quality of life of the population. The bourgeois class also saw that their privileges were in danger, that there was the possible loss of their properties—the majority acquired through crimes or corruption.

The continual internal actions of sabotage and opposition also defined the field of the enemies, identifying them with the United States and with the Latin American governments dependent on the U.S., demonstrating the causes of the attacks through the Organization of American States.

The revolutionaries were not a homogeneous group; many did not know about socialism, and they rejected it as being synonymous with control, but they did have in common the hope of a transformational change in society. Because of this, unity came progressively, facing the threats of the enemy and the vandalistic internal actions. In this way a force was consolidated, heterogeneous in its formation and its social origins, but sharing the desire for a more just and sovereign society.

Julio V. Ruiz: The big question is: who were the revolutionaries? I think it was those who went up to the Sierra Maestra with Fidel, those of the 26th of July movement, of the Revolutionary Directorate, of the Orthodox Party, of Chivas, and even those of the Catholic Youth at the beginning. As 85 to 90% of the Cubans supported change, on January 1st [1959] everyone declared themselves to be revolutionary. In my city of Santa Clara, you would see them with July 26 bracelets, and even dressed in olive green. Many climbed the Escambray Mountans or the hills north of Remedios in November or December of 1958. In the beginning, I think all of them had the same objective: the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, and therefore they shared the same ideas. History has shown that there were deep divisions, for example between the 26th of July and the Directorate. I don’t think that the majority had any idea what socialism was and even less what communism was, although in practice they were carrying out a radical social restructuring and change that would not allow turning back.

Carlos Alzugaray:  In 1960 the revolutionary coalition was ideologically still very wide and diverse. However, I think there was agreement on four national aspirations that had been frustrated: national independence, a government free of corruption, social justice and a prosperous economy based on the optimal and equitable use of the natural resources of the nation. The measures of cleaning up the government, the recovery of the embezzled assets and the sanctions to the corrupt politicians and criminals were the first processes that gained popular support. Then came the Urban Reform and the Agrarian Reform. All date from 1959, but in 1960 the implications of the contradictions began to deepen. We can’t say that these initial measures had a socialist content but they were all radical in nature. You can say that we were all revolutionaries except for a very small minority that began to be affected by the measures being taken. The fundamental criteria for deciding who was a revolutionary was whether the person supported the measures adopted by the government and whether the person joined in the revolutionary duties. Socialism was not considered to be the same as communism. I think that little by little, the revolutionary awareness evolved and radicalized to the extent that it became clear that the upper and middle classes joined the counter-revolution and, for sure, imperialism. I think that two factors radicalized us: one was the defense of national sovereignty, and the other was the huge charisma and authority that Fidel and the leaders of the revolution were gaining, especially Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

Fabio Fernández Batista: The year 1960 came to imply a redefinition of the meaning of “being revolutionary” in Cuba. This redefinition is totally connected to the radicalization process that the Revolution went through during this period. It was a moment in which the structure of Cuban capitalism was being destroyed, explicitly, and with that, the bases were being established for the modelling of something new which, in the context of the era in which it was happening, inevitably became the way to a transition towards socialism.

This radicalization and acceleration of the revolutionary change would dislocate a group of people who could have formed part of the broad vanguard that accepted and participated in the Revolution in 1959. But they were left out because they were not able to join the process of growing radicalization. So a polarization dynamic was generated at that point, expressed through the acute divisiveness of 1960—a year in which Cuban history creaked as it faced the tensions that were being resolved.

So, this “being revolutionary” of 1960, which meant assuming explicitly the radical changes that were happening, did not imply a uniformity of the Revolution’s participants. Plurality is what absolutely marked this scenario of radical change in full motion, and in which the exact idea of where we were going on a path that tends to be anticapitalistic was not clear. Of course, several destinies were possible in this anticapitalistic dynamic that was assumed by the Revolution, and this is where different views begin to appear regarding the definition of socialism. In that very year of 1960 we begin to see the first signs of what, in my opinion, will be the great conflict of the Cuban Revolution: to define what kind of socialism Cuba will assume. And here two fundamental perspectives become clear from the very beginning: The view that proposes a socialism that is nearer to the Euro-Soviet experience, and the tendency that endorses a socialism that is connected exclusively with the Cuban Revolution. The year 1960 expresses very clearly this polarization within the revolutionary domain.

Rafael Hernández: Who were those that were opposed to the Revolution? What ideas did they share? Did they identify with the United States? What did anti-communism mean?

Marta Pérez-Rolo González: Fundamentally, those opposed were those who had lost their assets and were exiled, thinking of a quick return, and also those who were still here and conspired to overthrow the revolutionary government. To this group another sector of the population was added, who feared communism, like a number of farmers, especially those that lived in the Sierra del Escambray, who supported the insurgents, organized around a strong bond to the United States, which financed them and directed their actions. Many farmers were confused and fearful of communism, and deceived by enemy propaganda.

But the majority had confidence in the leader, Fidel Castro. From these times comes the popular phrase: “if Fidel is communist, put me on that list, because I agree with him,” thus transcending the true meaning of the revolutionary project with the identity of the leader. That year the first Cuban-Soviet commercial agreement is signed between Anastas Micoyan, the Deputy Premier of the USSR, and Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba. Later, on the 8th of May, diplomatic relations with the USSR were reestablished.

There was a strong anti-communist campaign that intentionally distorted the nature of socialism as it existed. This distortion originated with the imperial enemy, and for many reasons it had had an impact on the people; many had a great fear of the Soviet Union and the ideology that could come from it. And, in addition, they promoted the image of the United States as the symbol of liberty and the potential for development, and this eroded the evidence of its role in the exploitation of the under-developed countries, and its effects on sovereignty.

Facing this media manipulation, was the strong role that Fidel and Che made of the mass communication media in explaining to the people the reality of the Revolution. It is important to single out the television program ‘Universidad Popular’, whose first guest was Ernesto Che Guevara with the topic “The economic freedom of Cuba.”

Julio V. Ruiz: In 1960, the opposition began with students of the Institute (high schools) and the Federation of University Students (FEU), with the bourgeoisie and middle class opposing the socialist and radical character of the changes taking place, because these nationalized or seized their businesses, because their bank accounts were frozen—however small these might have been. I don’t think there was an identification with the United States and its government on the part of those opposed, although the United States, with its intelligence services, did support certain active assets [sic] to influence their discontent, to create uncertainty in the population, especially in the middle class. Cubans, through their history and their civic education at school, have also been of a nationalistic view, never pro-American, although we never hated the American citizens then. The Catholic Church contributed strongly to the discord and put pressure on the young people, for example, those of the Catholic Youth organization. Maybe the fact that many priests were of Spanish origin and educated under Francisco Franco had an influence on this. I don’t think that the young people, first revolutionaries and then counter-revolutionaries, had any idea of what communism was. For me, the communists were the friends and comrades of my father in his youth. These were the true communists, always. Núñez Jiménez, Manuel Piñeiro, Emilio Ballagas, Gaspar Jorge García Galló, etc.—many of them also professors of my mother, and who in the difficult moments of 1960 helped my mother and me.

Carlos Alzugaray: The opposition to the Revolution began among the upper classes which, after originally sympathizing with the transformation process, began to see it as a threat to their interests, which was evident especially with the Agrarian Reform. Additionally, opposition grew among sectors that were not really dominant, but who were allied, close, or subordinate to these. Two factors were influential in this process: the fear of communism and the conviction that the United States was opposed to the Revolution. In pre-1959 Cuba there was an old fatalism in the thought that without good relations with our neighbor to the North, no government could survive, and that becoming enemies of the United States would be prejudicial to the national interests. It was also seen as very dangerous for Cuba to take expropriation measures against North-American businesses. The fear of communism was not rational. In Cuba the McCarthy ideas had seeped through. But that was not the only reason. The enormous crimes committed by Stalin were known, and that did not bestow the USSR nor the Popular Socialist Party [PSP] much sympathy. And there were also the errors of the PSP in the struggle against Machado, of having joined the government of Batista in 1940. These prejudices were present in many of those who opposed [the Revolution].

Fabio Fernández Batista: The opposition block that was established against the Cuban Revolution in 1960 was marked by its heterogeneity: a heterogeneity that should be linked to the origin of the different groups that converged in the exercise of opposing the Revolution. In this opposition block we could find a representative of the oligarchy, someone from the professional middle class, a farmer from the Escambray mountains—who did not understand well the Agrarian Reform and, through his network of clients, would also be connected to a landowner who became a leader of a group of insurgents—and an ex-combatant who, for some reason, lost his connection with the political project for which he had even risked his life. So, in the concrete political practice of 1960, this heterogeneity was limited by a fundamental fact: the convergence around a common project that was none other than to stop the revolutionary change. Here we find a dynamic and an objective that united these forces and actors of diverse origins—elements that conferred a certain organic status to its actions: “we can have diverse origins, but we are united against the Revolution.”

In this counter-revolutionary exercise there are two other issues that bring unity to the opposition block. One is the subordination to the United States, the belief that the US was a key player in the exercise of the counter-revolutionary leadership—a subordination in more than one sense to the project that the North-American circles of power promoted for Cuba. The other element is the convergence around an anti-communist ideology, which in contrast found strength in the definition of the anti-capitalism path that the Cuban Revolution assumed. The idea that the Revolution progresses along a socialist path, which in theory points to communism, will also strengthen the ideology that supported the counter-revolutionary action.

Rafael Hernández: Our last question asks to what extent the speed and the extreme polarization that the process reached during 1960 were inevitable. As an analytical tool that would allow us to go back and think what the dynamics of that moment were and why they started, I will ask: could the change have been different? Less speedy and polarized? What alternatives could have happened in this history?

Marta Pérez-Rolo González: The social and political polarization was already a fact in 1960. The attacks of the government of the United States had been intensifying, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and it was essential to accelerate the process of raising popular awareness in the defense of the victorious Revolution. The rhythm of actions was very intense, both in the internal conflict between the upper and middle bourgeoisie and the people, and in the confrontation between the Cuban desire for sovereignty vs. imperial imposition. Only a vertiginous process could establish the ideological platform that had begun to identify the Cuban Revolution. 

As the year progressed, and popular participation and its political awareness increased, the support to the Revolution by an overwhelming majority was defined. There was no time to lose, nor a possibility to postpone the more radical and audacious policies. It was a crucial moment in which to obtain permanence; the possibility of a victory over such a powerful enemy required the conscious commitment of the people. Through the participation of the people, the progressive assimilation into the identification with the process that called for its defense was being reached.

The change could not have been different, including the fact that by removing the sugar quota they left us without the possibility to compensate those that were expropriated. The fundamental objective was the people’s presence and actions, and the people were the main doers in the process, its true protagonist.

Julio V. Ruiz: I think that the change was planned to be the way it happened. I don’t think there was a plan written and prepared beforehand, although Fidel in his La historia me absolverá [History Will Absolve me] did express many of his thoughts. It was a revolution that had to change everything that needed to be changed. I don’t know to what degree sympathizing with communist ideas before January 1st, 1959, influenced everything that happened afterwards. I do think there was a deep anti-American sentiment on the part of the leaders of the Revolution. And today they are still saying that if the United States had acted differently in 1959 and 1960, the process would have been different. But I doubt that. The Americans are Americans; we know them; they do not change; they protect their interests, but in doing so they violate the sovereignty of other countries, and they do not deliver on anything they preach in their democracy.

Carlos Alzugaray: In my opinion, we can say that the Cuban Revolution became an inevitable event because of the accumulation of frustrations that Batista’s dictatorship aggravated, to the point that we arrived at an inevitable rupture. These frustrations had to do with achieving true independence, all possible social justice, a prosperous economy without the structural dependencies that had weighed it down, and a clean and democratic government, free of bribery and corruption. With the coup of March 10th, Batista frustrated any possibility of reform and opened the way to a revolutionary process, supported by numerous political forces and social movements. Within the revolutionary leadership there was discussion on the realization of the process. One group supported its immediate radicalization, as it considered that a confrontation with imperialism and its allies in Cuba was inevitable, however small the reforms might be. Another was in favor of going more gradually in order to avoid a conflict with the United States. I think that that path was tried in 1959, but in 1960 the signs were clear that the Eisenhower administration was not interested in coming to any agreement, not even with a base of minimal reforms, and because of that the group that supported radicalization was able to prove that they were right. Of course, after Girón [victory at the Bay of Pigs], in Punta del Este [Uruguay] in 1961, during the interview between Che and Richard Goodwin, an agreement along these lines was proposed. And we already know that the Kennedy administration did not accept it then. Two years later, as the October Crisis showed how serious the anti-Cuba situation could become, Kennedy did seem interested in finding some type of agreement, but he was assassinated before it could be explored. In summary, if a revolution was inevitable in Cuba in 1959, its radicalization was not inevitable. It was a decision that the revolutionary leadership reached, forced by the circumstances. Another question is whether it was not too radicalized, but that was not the issue in 1960. That year the process had to be radicalized.

Fabio Fernández Batista: The year 1960 was marked by the radicalization of the revolutionary changes, the radicalization of the Revolution in a situation of action and reaction, in which the unmasked hostility of the United States and the aggressiveness of the internal reaction were highly influential. In my view, if the politics had been more moderate and if the projection had been more open to dialogue on the part of the opposition—and I include the United States, of course—as to the leadership and some of the measures this leadership implemented, the tensions might have been less and, at least for that moment, the subversive edge to which the Revolution gave rise would have been reduced.

The big question is whether this more moderate projection was possible. Here we should remember two fundamental elements. The first is the Cold War setting with all the divisiveness it brought, with all its own extreme polarizations of that moment in history. In the second place, and especially in relation with the United States—though logically the previous point also includes them—we have to understand the hegemonic challenge that the Cuban Revolution meant to the North-American leadership on a continental level. The United States could not tolerate Fidel Castro because the challenge that had marked his triumph was unpalatable to imperialist Yankee conceptions. As related to the Revolution, it was very difficult for the North-American leadership to mold a different path. I insist that the Cold War setting created the conditions for the revolutionary changes happening in Cuba to achieve an absolute and full scope.

At the same time, I consider it a mistake to believe that the Revolution would have been radically different if it had not generated the polarization that marked the year 1960. In my opinion, the project of destabilizing the social reality that the Revolution implied in its central ideological nucleus would encounter crystallization levels: sooner rather than later, this socialization project of national wealth, of undermining the dynamic of capitalism, was going to explode. The signs of the exhaustion of the dependent Cuban capitalism showed this.


Rafael Hernández: From here on, we will turn to the questions and comments of the participants.

Luis Dumont Noa (Musician): I want to ask first if you consider that the Cuban Revolution was always planned as if it were going to follow the socialist path. I say that, taking into account that on several occasions—including during his trip to the United States—Fidel said that the Revolution was not communist, and also remembering an anecdote told by Max Lesnik, in which Fidel asked him what he would have done had he been in Fidel’s place—suggesting that it was the result of the circumstances.

Secondly, I would like to know whether the expropriations of the businesses of Cuban citizens took place within a legal framework that supported these expropriations.  I know that the nationalizations did have legal backing in an article of the Constitution of 1940, but I don’t know about this case.

And finally, I would like to ask about the irregularities that some exiled people say occurred in the compensation payments for the confiscations of properties, and in general they refer to the fact that the form in which these payments were made was unfair.

Mario Mariano: I am an investigator in Brazil and study the debate on university and socialism. I would like the panelists to comment on how the events of 1960 affected the issues of the university during the Cuban Revolution.

Hilda M. Alonso (Cuban Institute of History): I would like you to comment, if possible, on how the political situation of that year influenced the cultural sphere. And also, on how the action of the Ministry of Misappropriated Goods had an impact on the development of the social conflict.

Denia García Ronda (Director of Sensemayá Publications): I agree with the panelists regarding the events they emphasize as being characteristic of the year 1960, but I think we should add the events related to the cultural and educational policies, which were also decisive in the development of the Cuban Revolution. For example, we should remember the creation of the National Publishing House, the National Theater, the consolidation of the Ballet Alicia Alonso as the Cuban National Ballet, the creation of the ICAIC [Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos - Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry] Latin-American Newscast, etc. As far as the educational aspect is concerned, the process of transforming barracks into schools was started, the literacy campaign that would be developed in 1961 was begun, the voluntary teachers’ movement—which had its beginnings with Conrado Benítez—was created in 1960, as was the Universidad Popular on television, etc. These are just some examples of these policies.

And with regard to the speed of the process, the events of the years 1959 and 1960 forced the urgency of radical measures and the consequent start of the polarization, but I think that there was no time to prepare the people psychologically and ideologically for such a sudden change. And also, not everyone acted with intelligence in the sense of convincing people of the fairness of the jump to socialism.

I would like to ask permission to present a personal example. Towards the middle of 1960, a member of the PSP [Partido Social Popular] organized a talk in the Flogar department store, where I worked, and abruptly said: “They say this revolution is green like our palm trees, but I assure you that it is a socialist revolution”. And that’s where it all started: one employee fainted, some others shouted in alarm, others ran rapidly from the room—there was chaos. The fear of communism was too great, although no one really knew what it was, but the extensive anti-communist propaganda had created a bunch of ghosts. Only the confidence in Fidel avoided a general rejection.

Raúl Lemourt Arceo (Colonel (retired) of MININT [Ministry of the Interior]): I think the Revolution was able to grow stronger because of the determination and speed in which actions were taken. I consider that it was impossible to conciliate with those who were opposed and with the United States, and that, if it had been done, the process would have failed. Ninety miles away we had—and we have—a giant enemy determined to destroy us by any means. During the first few months, they were hopeful that with the reactionary figures that they had implanted in the Revolution, like Roberto Agramonte, José Miró Cardona, David Salvador, they could alter its objectives, but the measures that were taken for the benefit of the people, which culminated in the Agrarian Reform of May 1959, convinced them that the only way to stop the revolution was by violence. Already in October 1959, Allan Dulles, Director General of the CIA, presented Eisenhower with a plan of secret actions against the Revolution, which culminated in an armed invasion like the one of the Bay of Pigs. Afterwards, the undeclared war against Cuba grew. The Cuban bourgeoisie was totally subordinated to the plans of the United States. Their position was to abandon the country or to dedicate themselves to encouraging the counter-revolution. How could a class reconciliation be possible with 120 counter-revolutionary movements working in the country, dedicated to sabotage, assaults and every other form of destruction against the process, with insurgents in the six provinces, and violent actions in Las Villas and Matanzas? The Catholic Church, which was very powerful in Cuba at that time, was also dedicated to its work against the Revolution. Many of these most powerful counter-revolutionary organizations—like the Revolutionary Directorate, the Movimento de Recuperación Revolucionaria (MRR), the Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (MRP), etc.—grew out of the civil Catholic associations. If any errors were committed, I think the most important one was the second revolutionary offensive [in 1968], which gained us the antipathy of thousands of small-property owners who, ex-officio, were not against the revolution.

Luis Marcelo Yera (Economist, INIE - [Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Económicas]): It has been assumed that, by nationalizing the properties of the Cuban upper bourgeoisie, Law 980 of the 13th of October 1960 marked the beginning of the socialist transition in Cuba. This means that within a few days we will have reached sixty years of socialist construction in our country. It is not well-known that this law protected the private property of businesses with up to 25 workers, five more than what was established by the Lenin´s New Economic Policy (NEP). Today this bracket would only include micro-businesses and a portion of the small business enterprises. However, from the current perspective, in those days there was still a realistic conception about how to confront the socialist transition from the standpoint of property, in spite of the extraordinary activity of the external and internal counter-revolutionary forces.

At the same time we must unfortunately mention that we will also achieve sixty years without being able to master the administration of those businesses that we nationalized in 1960 and those that came after. I consider that the spirit of that year should strengthen current willpower so that a decisive Cuban business network will be effective once and for all.

Rafael Betancourt (Economist and consultant in international development): I am responding to the last question from the point of view of a family that in 1959 supported the rebels and in 1960 became opposed to the Revolution. Christmas 1959 was one of the happiest of my youth, part of a well-to-do family living in Havana, four children, the father a professional and mother a housewife. We lived in a euphoria of happiness, optimism and support of the triumphant revolution, not only in my home but in almost all my family and neighbors.

I don’t remember how the disenchantment of my parents and my family came to be, but I’m sure that it happened quickly in the first semester of 1960. I remember that on one occasion Fidel appeared on TV and I celebrated that, as we had done during 1959, but this time my father gently called attention to the fact that things were not the same. “So, Fidel is a bad guy?”, I asked him. And he said yes. I got a bit confused.

In retrospect, I think that the Catholic Church and its bourgeois Havana faithful with whom we associated as practicing Catholics greatly influenced this change in attitude. And so did the Catholic schools, especially the elitist ones like LaSalle College, where we boys studied and where Manuel Artime recruited high school students for the Rural Commandos, an anti-communist version of the Literacy Brigades organized by the revolutionary government. Another great influence surely was the attitude of the government of the United States, which was closely followed by the social and professional class to which we belonged. Anti-imperialism had not had any effect on us, but anti-communism did. Our family split up in October of 1960. I accompanied my father to Guane, in Pinar del Río, where he and my banker uncle—much more conservative and pro-Yankee—went to convince my other uncle, an agricultural engineer and a Fidel follower who worked in INRA [Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria], to encourage him to abandon the Revolution and go into exile as they were planning to do. But they were not successful.

For me, the experience was different, profound, seeing with my own eyes the misery of the Cuban countryside, from which my family had sheltered me. To see children of my own age barefoot, with their bellies swollen by parasites, their houses with earthen floors and without electricity, without schools to go to, caused such an impression that I never forgot it and in my mind it changed forever the talk of how good Cuba was before the “communists” arrived.

The next thing I remember is my brothers leaving the country in November of 1960, towards the United States, a sign of complete rupture. It was the beginning of exile, five months before we three could follow their steps, two weeks before our North-American visas would expire, and one week before the Bay of Pigs. Christmas 1960 was one of the saddest of my youth.

Rafael Hernández: Many thanks to the public who have put very interesting and very pertinent questions on the table. So now I will give the word to each of the panelists.

Marta Pérez-Rolo González: I think it’s very appropriate to take the year 1960 as being decisive for the history of the Cuban Revolution, when important positions were being defined in our country. I think that in many of the panel’s opinions we have agreed, because the elements that were to be noted were similar, but I also think that what the participants have indicated to us in relation to the topic of education and culture is worth digging a little deeper.

The year 1960 is a time when what will afterwards be the Literacy Campaign was already being prepared, because already a Council was being set up to organize it in 1961. Moreover, a large number of rural classrooms were being created and the first volunteer teachers arrived in the Sierra Maestra region. From the cultural point of view, it was the year before the Cuban Arts and Cinematographic Industry Institute (ICAIC) was established and, as Dania mentioned, also a series of cultural policies that were intended to set up an organization of institutions.

I think the question about the Ministry of Misappropriated Goods is very interesting. From February 1960 practically all the goods of those who were in exile were confiscated, and that forms part of what was mentioned as not being legally founded, but there are more that were confiscated after, during the entire year. Note that we can even suggest that there were quite a large number during an earlier phase—in the range of millions of pesos. This played an important role, not only from the economic point of view, but also in the confrontation with a class that felt totally affected.

I would also like to comment on something that has not been mentioned, and that is the role of the popular organizations. It is important to take into account that the participation of the people in these confrontations was achieved because of the creation of these organizations, because these really let people feel part of what was happening, and though this was not the same in the following years, at that moment it represented a transcendent element in all events that happened.

Julio V. Ruiz: Given that I can’t respond to everyone, I will speak in general terms. The year 1960 was very complicated, and in reality it was a progressive process. We should start by saying that the bourgeoisie and the middle class—who have always been criticized, rightly or wrongly—were in reality great collaborators in the revolution. I mean they helped materially and in other ways, including the fact that many of their children were revolutionaries and revolted in the Sierra. So not all of them were “sinners”, as history has seen it over time. In reality, the young people of the thirties, forties and fifties—I’m not a historian but a scientist—were anti-imperialists in general terms, and therefore the concept of being socialist or communist—the communist party was called the Partido Socialista Poular at the time—already existed, it was part of a process, and therefore I think that, with the triumph of the Revolution, some or many of them possibly had these socialist or communist ideas. At the same time, to mention the word communist in 1960 was like  saying “heretic,” it was part of the fear that this whole middle class had of this huge ghost that was attributed to communism—an idea indubitably driven by the propaganda and the direct or indirect policies of the United States towards Cuba.

But in addition—and I’m talking about Santa Clara, where I’m from—in the mid-sixties, and for several reasons, a group of young university students, many of whom had belonged to the Movimiento 26 de Julio and to the FEU and even to the Institute of Higher Learning [Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza], were the first to produce a kind of progressive change. Among these there was especially the influence of the Catholic Church which tried to recast its way of thinking. As I mentioned before, many priests were of Spanish origin, educated during the Franco regime, and therefore their ideas were very conservative and, of course, anti-communist.

During that same year of 1960, the middle class was affected by many measures; the freezing of bank accounts that began in 1959, there was a Ministry of Recovery of Goods that was in the Capitol, etc. I had the privilege of going with my mother to reclaim a small sum of money that my father had left in the bank, but which had automatically been seized in 1959 and of course the bureaucracy then was the same as what we have today.

When the first issues of Bohemia magazine came out after January 1st, everyone was informed through the photos and testimonies in them of the poverty that existed in Cuba, of the great inequalities that existed, of the torture and all the horrors committed during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. That radicalized many youths of that time, but in this sense the influence of the parents on adolescents was greater. I think what most frightened people was the fact of using this issue of communism. The Revolution was already in a process of radicalization; there was no way back, and everything continued.

In 1960 about 125,000 Cubans, fundamentally middle class people, left the country. Like Rafael Betancourt, I had the privilege of participating in the return to Cuba, in my case after 18 years of absence from my house, and form part of the Antonio Maceo Brigade.

Carlos Alzugaray: As those who heard me at the beginning realized, I referred fundamentally to the Cuba-United States dispute because that was my PhD research, and I looked for a lot of information on how the conflict had developed during the fifties and sixties. I don’t doubt that the decision not to negotiate anything with Cuba and move on to the policy of changing the regime, was taken by President Eisenhower, in June of 1959, and put into effect in 1960. During that time the CIA started working; of course it didn’t have everything organized, and we notice its actions taken in 1960 more than those of 1959, although in that year the local counter-revolution was already on the move, and constituted an important part of the hostilities, and the revolution had to confront an internal and an external enemy.

A short while ago I had a discussion with a friend who told me that Fidel and Raúl had everything well thought out in 1959. But that is not the feeling I have. I think that Fidel himself probably preferred a radical solution, like Raúl, and like Che. But Fidel directed a coalition, in which he could go at a certain pace, depending on the support he received. On the other hand, it seems obvious to me that there could be no immediate confrontations with the United States because we were not ready for a war like the one that happened afterwards. I think that there was a speedy process of radicalization, but not everything turned out the way it had been planned. At the beginning there were measures that had great support, like for example the recuperation of misappropriated goods. Even in 1960 the properties of Pérez Vilaboy, one of Batista’s front men, were expropriated, and they are being reclaimed today through the Helms-Burton Act, the Rancho Boyeros airport and a bunch of others. So all that had its moments and its mechanisms, and there were priorities: the first one was the agrarian reform, and then that of the rents; there was much emphasis in the measures against war criminals, but the measures against corrupt people were very important in the consolidation of the support of those sectors that, perhaps, not being socialist, communist or Marxist, agreed that these things should be so.

On what colleague Lemourt said, I don’t think that the conservative elements that were in the government were “implanted”; Fidel really invited them and they were part of the revolutionary alliance during the first few years. For example, a man like Agramonte was the one who requested the extradition of war criminals when he was Minister of State. That means that in some way these people supported the Revolution to a certain point.

And with respect to personal residences, in June of 1959 I went to Japan to live with my father, who was the Cuban ambassador there, so designated by Fidel, and I came back to Havana towards the end of 1962. The country had changed, without a doubt. It was a country that was almost on the way to a developed socialism, I mean ideologically, although we were already in the middle of the sectarian problem.

Fabio Fernández Batista: It is a pleasure for me to here sharing with you in the context of these panels, always so interesting, which the magazine Temas convenes. I think that the interventions of the public, their questions, their testimony have put on the table an essential element, and that is the complexity of the year 1960, and the magnitude of the change that happened. Especially the words of Professors Rafael Betancourt and Denia García Ronda had an effect on me, the idea of how they, from such a personal testimony, gave an account of how vast the revolutionary change was, and how it manifested itself in the most intimate moments of life. The year 1960 was not simply a structural change in its widest sense, but it also reached people’s everyday life.

We find ourselves here before a conflict that derived from the radicalization of the revolutionary change, a revolution that accelerated its projection for change in a context in which the powers that opposed it formed a tremendous alliance with the objective of finishing off this project that had been growing; and how, at the same time, this change which was being challenged found its principal way of resistance by strengthening its own projection. This is a dynamic—which I mentioned in one of my earlier responses—of action and reaction which, without any doubt, sharpens the contradictions. It is a moment in which Cuban capitalism, in its dissimilar manifestations, is dying, in a dynamic which has an effect on absolutely everything.

Two of the questions inquired into what was happening in the University and in the cultural sphere. Even starting in 1959 the University was a battlefield between the revolutionary forces, but also because of the collision between the old and the new world and, especially, the struggle that came about, largely, between an important nucleus of the student body that allied with the Revolution, and the presence of another part of the student body and the professors who represented those sectors which, in 1960, began to lose their natural living space when faced with the process of radicalization.

In the cultural sphere, there were two elements: on the one hand, the cultural policies that the Revolution generated and that had an extraordinarily subversive edge and, on the other hand, the understanding that some people in the cultural sphere—who evidently belonged to this old world in the process of being destroyed—made the decision, that year, to leave the country. For me that was a moment of fracture in the cultural sphere, especially in its artistic-literary manifestation, because this conflict is alive and permeates everything.

These are the keys. We have to understand the year 1960 as a watershed, as a telluric year that definitely broke the state of things as they were, and was the birth—always painful—of a new era which, without any doubt, would bring light, beyond the shadows that are always present at any birth.

Rafael Hernández: Many thanks to our panelists for having responded in a focused way to such a complicated and yet relatively unknown issue. Our history of those initial years is especially a history of politics and∕or of society. The social history of the Revolution is yet to be written, and without that it is difficult for us to go beyond in order to understand a revolutionary process that unsettles, because it is a social revolution of the established order and of society, including its ways of thinking and acting. For a long time we have read in history books that there was an anti-imperialist agrarian era and a socialist one, and that is a terminology of Comintern, of the way of thinking about revolutions during the era in which, starting from the Soviet Union, there was an intent to classify, divide into periods and establish phases. As we have seen, the socialist revolution, and its steps and fundamental confrontations, began long before Fidel spoke on April the 16th in his farewell at the mourning of those who had fallen, saying: “This is a socialist revolution of the humble people, with the humble people, and for the humble people.” The changes in the political culture of the people began much before.

When I ask people in the Escambray why there were farmers that collaborated with the insurgents of that area, and they tell me that it was out of fear of communism, I think that there we find ourselves before a situation that we have not completely figured out, and that this panel has contributed to clarify. These country people tell me that there was a fear of egalitarianism, which was understood to mean that everything was going to be equal, that it would be the same for everybody, and that—which of course is not the socialist idea of equality, the idea that we are going to build a country for everyone and in which everybody would have the same rights, and in which he who works more and he who works less would receive the same—even today, in the memory of some farmers this is like a ghost that was present in the rural community in the center of Cuba. I mention this only to illustrate with an example what I mean with the necessity of a social history of the Revolution. On this path, this panel has helped us to identify problems, substantive issues. Not all questions were answered, of course, because we are dealing with very complex problems, but they have helped us to see them more clearly. Many thanks to the participants, to the panelists, and to all those who, we hope, will hear this and comment on the panel.


Translation: Catharina Vallejo

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