The Classroom of Revolution: The Revolutionary Cuban Intelligentsia’s History and Legacy

A truck used by student insurgents in their attack on the presidential palace in Havana, 1957.

The Cuban Revolution is a historical singularity; a revolution, unlike its socialist counterparts, that included a vast left-center coalition that resulted in the establishment of soviet-styled socialism (Wolf). Yet, the parts that made up that coalition, so critical for revolutionary success, did not vanish from Cuban Society nor did they simply appear in 1959.  The college students and the intelligentsia at large as a part of this coalition is worth stopping upon, as Education and its ease of access in Cuba is commonly highlighted as one of the most successful aspects of the historical Cuban Revolution and the revolution of today.

When I went to Cuba I intended to find the remnants and ancestors of those first college students from the early 20th century to the mid-20th century students that stormed Batista’s palace in Havana, and appraise in what relation these remnants interact with the Cuban Revolution of today. By studying (1) the historical role of the Cuban college students and greater intelligentsia in the revolution of 1959 and earlier oppositions movements, (2) and the dynamic of the University of Havana in Cuban revolutionary society a greater understanding of the relationship between past rebellion and present reform concerning the intelligentsia emerges. I found in my trip to Cuba that the intelligentsia remains detached yet critically engaged with Cuban socio-political life in a uniquely Cuban way, one that critiques the Communist Party but rejects North American hegemony and is desirous of true Cuban autonomy. It is my contention that this is a remnant of the historical presence of a critical yet skeptical opposition movement centered in the urban intelligentsia in Havana , that saw the necessity of revolution and at the same time remained ever critical of socialist policies.

The first era that I will highlight as important in the development of the Cuban Intelligentsia’s keen desire for self-determination is the period of the Platt Amendment’s domination (subsequent to the original Cuban Revolution of Marti), and the periods of disillusionment before and after the presidency of Gerardo Machado and Ramon Grau San Martin from 1925 to 1933. The revolutionary upswing of the turn of the 20th century is still remembered in the countless statues of Jose Marti throughout Havana. These revolutionary sentiments and victories were future looking but inherently chained to the occupying North American forces who entered Cuba in 1912 and 1917, to finally leave in 1923 (Sweig 13). Before the rise of Machado, author Julia Sweig highlights in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, that, “Throughout the 1920s, public frustration and fervor grew pervasive among an ever wider swatch of Cubans. Intellectuals, labor activists, veterans of the Wars of Independence, and student movements all grew jaded by the failure of Cuba’s leaders to fulfill the idealism and potential of the independence movement itself” (Sweig 13). It is here that we see the first unique character of the Cuban intelligentsia that we see still today; a keen sense and desire for self determination. Sweig continues, “the liberal-democratic student movement remained not so much anti-American but anti-interventionist” (Sweig 14). This is a concept keenly reflected today in Cuba, were a desire for self-determination transcends any national rivalry, even in the case of the United States who has quite literally attacked Cuba from every side.

Author Eric Wolf would elucidate this point further in his chapter on Cuba in Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century; quoting the Cuban historian Herminio Portel Vila, who wrote, “The incendiary torch, the struggle the reconcentration camps, the defeat of the Spanish party, were preparing the future for a new Cuba when North American intervention re-established and consolidated the economic and social aspects of the destroyed regime, with all their political implications” (Vila 255). Wolf concludes, with the reader, “In this perspective, Cuban intellectuals long spoke of a ‘frustrated revolution,’ frustrated by the United States” (Wolf 255). Even before the disappointing presidency of Machado, the Cuban intelligentsia and student movements had developed anti-imperialism without the name – a desire to be free of the tyranny of the Platt Amendment and be at once free to self-create a state of their making. So we see that the Cuban intelligentsia and indeed the Cuban revolutionary movement had its roots in opposition to foreign occupation in the nationalist movement of Marti, made more concrete by the Platt Amendment  and Machado’s failure to free Cuba from US hegemonic control (Sweig 15). The impulse for self-determination  is one that is profoundly seen in Cuba today where reform is seen as necessary in the face of “Stalinist bureaucracy” as professor Antonio Romero Gomez (University of Havana) called it – the specter of reform is ever present but in a “Cuban way” as professor Rafael Betancourt (San Geronimo de la Havana) stressed so keenly in a lecture. This idea will be highlighted later in this article, but first we must move our historical narrative forward were disillusionment in the intelligentsia would become even more crystallized in the failed regime of San Martin and the rise of Fulgencio Batista.

Both during Machado’s reign and the short-lived regime of Grau San Martin, students at the University of Havana staged an occupation of the campus; demonstrating their power and fervent participation  in these opposition movements before the final triumph of 1959 (Wolf  267), and the fall of San Martin and the rise of Batista made concrete through synthesis the previously highlighted desire of the Cuban intelligentsia for self-determination and introduced another unique characteristic of the Cuban intelligentsia – a contentious relationship with the Cuban Communist Party before the revolution and its post-revolution reconstruction . In the “campus seizures” during Machado’s reign, the youthful communist party played a preeminent role but the CP would quickly oppose mass action in fear of an foreign intervention, oppose Grau and eventually actively support the Batista regime (Wolf 267). This tension between student unrest and CP policy mounted during the years of Grau’s fall and Batista’s rise, as the official communist party fell monumentally short of the revolutionary student’s ideals. Due to the communist party’s failure to either reconcile with student radicalism  or fully support Grau, Grau San Martin found himself attacked on all sides, by conservatives for his radicalism, by radicals for his liberalism (Sweig). It was perhaps for this reason that Grau San Martin lasted for so short a time, yet some of the socialist sources I have consulted on this period have over idealized the connection between the Communist Party and early student radicals.

Author Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada, and president of Cuba’s national assembly for many years wrote in an article “Cuba: Education and Revolution” found in the “Monthly Review” that during this period,

“Public education was a refuge for Cuban patriotism throughout the first half of the twentieth century. But during the U.S. domination of the island, either in a direct form or via repressive and corrupt U.S.-sponsored regimes, it was education that enabled the student movement and the best of Cuban intellectuals to resist. In fact, student movements and Cuban intellectuals participated decisively in the political and social struggles of the Cuban nation both during the long period of Spanish colonialism and U.S. hegemony, initiating and developing socialist and anti-imperialist thinking.”

While it is objectively true that the University of Havana did and continues to shelter opposition to the regime and offer an avenue for criticism in Cuban society, it is important to note that while socialist thought intermingled in the student radicalism of this period, as Wolf points out, there was a keen sense of separation between the radicalism of the students and the institutionalized leftist parties that self-labeled as socialist and this separation grew in the period of the fall of Grau San Martin, his ultimate return at the head of the Autenticos, the subsequent return of corruption in Havana and eventually the rise of Batista, the political “chameleon” (Swieg 19).

The emergence of violent radicalism in Cuba can be traced, as we have here, to two key problems in Cuban Society; (1) The Cuban Communist Party was a front for counterrevolutionary statesmanship and (2) elected liberal parties failed utterly to meet the expectations of the revolutionary intelligentsia in Havana. For these reasons the student movements against Batista became increasingly violent and increasingly threw their support behind the July 26th movement (not explicitly a socialist movement). Of import, the students of this period before the struggle against Batista were critical of the regime but skeptical of the Communist Party, a theme that remains today. So we see that each period beget the next, or at the very least, each period of student rebellion cast its shadow on the next; the revolutionary sentiment of  Marti leading to a desire for self-determination that ousted Machado under pressure from  the urban intelligentsia in Havana (Sweig) that intern lead to a disillusionment with institutionalized parties and leaders; leading the students of Havana to more radical means to their ends in the period of Batista – which was not unnoticed by the populist turned dictator.

The early 1950s marked the high-tide of student resistance to the Cuban regime, and much of this resistance was violent and radical in nature. Yet not all resistance was this way, as evidenced by the Orthodoxo Party, founded by Eduardo Chibas, himself a former student activist (Sweig 19) in opposition to yet another former student activist, Carlos Prio Socarres, standing President of Cuba and Autentico. Fidel Castro was originally a member of the Orthodoxos yet following Chibas suicide on public radio, the Autenticos turning the University of Havana into the capital of “political gangsterism” in Havana, and the ever present fear of the growing clout of the Orthodoxos and leftism in general, Batista launched a coup months before an election he was certain to lose (Sweig 19). This coup, as Sweig points out, made concrete the disillusionment with electoral systems in the face of such corruption and willing disrespect for the comparatively radical constitution drafted by the Batista regime but a decade earlier (in the coup of 1933). This frustration, rooted in the first failure of Grau and even the Platt Amendment of the early 20th century, came to a head in Havana when Batista subverted the electoral process. The year 1953, merely a year after Batista’s rise to power , proved violent and  radical. Fidel launched his attack on the Moncada Barracks and University of Havana professor Rafael Barcena lead a short-lived anti-Batista conspiracy (Sweig 28). Fidel and his rebels were banished, but revolutionary sparks met dry tinder in Havana in their absence. Tensions reached a fever pitch with the arrival of the Granma and the actions of the Revolutionary National Action group headed by Frank Pais, which, as Sweig points out, played a critical role in exporting Sierra socialism to the country entire in 1956.

In March of 1957, a group of clandestine students, members of the Revolutionary Directorate and future enemies of Fidel, stormed Batista’s presidential palace, the bullet-holes of the event still adorn the wall of the building. Ultimately the attack failed and its members defeated and killed, but the stunning success of the rebels in the Sierra Maestra both elevated Fidel’s power and inspired continued struggle (Wolf 271).  Keenly, the directorate’s leader, a student named Jose Echeverria was killed in a shootout at a radio station in a related assault. The directorate itself stands as a historical testament to the division of students and the intelligentsia on the subject of socialism, given the directorate’s staunch anti-communist approach that lead to their forceful dissolution and incorporation into the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba in 1961. It’s important to note, as Sweig does, that the newly formed Communist Party of Cuba was indeed a coercive attack on fractious student revolutionary movements, but it was also a move against the PSP that had backed Batista and was subservient to Moscow; as Fidel himself desired the unification of student groups under the tent of the CPC to allow for truly autonomous nation-building to begin in earnest (Sweig). So we see that ultimately the student revolutionary movements that moved in the era of Batista, notably the directorate, were indeed absorbed and dissolved, but their influence was a dialectical one, one that does not simply vanish when the institution of their ideological power vanishes. Put simply, Cuban society after the triumph of the cuban revolution retained much of the ideas that formed in the days of Marti, Machado and Grau, namely a desire to be truly autonomous, a deep skepticism of outside influence and to be skeptical of organized parties and ideologies including the PSP and future CPC. The influence of the intelligentsia, put differently, the purveying desire of the Cuban revolutionary movement to be autonomous, can be found in one final place, and that is in the very sailors of the Granma.

For socialist revolutionaries, Fidel and his fellow rebels aboard the Granma were keenly abstracted from the rural proletariat they endeavored to liberate. Eric Wolf makes note of this in his class analysis, but the fact is not lost in an analysis of the importance of the intelligentsia in the Cuban Revolution namely because Fidel was a member of the intelligentsia. Wolf remarks, “How did the rebel group galvanize the masses? The original core of the rebel force was composed primarily of what have been called “revolutionary intellectuals,” mostly middle-class origins. Some were students (Raul Castro, Faure Chomon), some lawyers, (Fidel, Dorticos), some doctors, some teachers (Frank Pais)…”(Wolf 269). Che Guevara himself went on to remark, “none of the first group who came on the Granma …had worker’s or peasant’s backgrounds” (Wolf 269). Wolf continues his analysis in saying that Fidel’s move to guerilla tactics after the catastrophe of the Granma’s original landing was keenly anti-Marxist, from a Leninist perspective. Here we see the role of the intelligentsia in action; socialist revolutionaries heeding not the words of Marx or Lenin (or his Muscovite successors) but the realities of their material conditions. So we see, not only was the revolution a conglomerate of revolutionary students, lumpen proletariat, proletariat, petty-bourgeois peasants and even bourgeois elements but also one that preserved the original revolutionary urge to attain autonomy in practice. These urges remain today, and I found that out profoundly upon visiting Havana and its university.

The University of Havana remains a center, as Ricardo Alarcon De Quesada remarked upon its historical role, of dissent and criticism for the regime. I learned about this role by simply being around it, hearing lectures from professors and talking to a few students and college-aged youths in the city of Havana. Dr. Antonio Romero Gomez of the Universities’ international economy department gave a lecture with a keen sense of both factors I have highlighted about the historical role of the intelligentsia in Cuban society.  Firstly Dr. Gomez highlighted the necessity of change in light of the special period and critiqued the lack of foresight in the planning of the Cuban Economy. When the crises occurred, Dr. Gomez and his colleagues had encouraged Fidel and the Communist Party to take immediate action (Gomez), but the CPC leadership for too long blamed the crises on external factors according to Dr. Gomez. Immediately I saw the relationship I had read about in action – the intelligentsia centered in Havana ever skeptical of party dialogue and urging for reform. Yet, this reform was not like that in Guatemala, Chile and others where national movements were crushed by foreign backed coups – the reform advocated for by Dr. Gomez was one intimately interested in Cuban sovereignty.

I found in my historical survey that such a motion was in line with over a hundred years of revolutionary development. The classroom of revolution had taught the Cuban intelligentsia much about reform, practicality and defending their autonomy. Admittedly, the perspective was historical and validated, but I remained skeptical that such reforms could occur while at the same time respecting their original tenants – mainly remaining autonomous and free from international monetary control. Indeed, a recent Reuters article declared that school enrollment had dropped 27% between 2008 and  2012 and that extensive cuts had been made to education spending (Reuters). I agreed with Dr. Gomez critique of the old system in a world without the Soviet Union, yet this point was something to stop on – had Cuba really achieved the autonomy it so desired during the period of its alliance with the Soviet Union? Dr. Gomez suggested not, given that the fact that imports decreased over 70% after the fall (Gomez) and planning had lacked the backwards and forwards linkages between industries with an over-focus on industry in the soviet-style. Perhaps, I pontificated, could this period after the special period produce a true autonomy of Cuban development devoid of a greater state’s influence? Could the reforms be the outcome of a historical process spanning back centuries, made possible by the revolution, but necessitating a new approach to reach? This idea was elucidated further by another professor.

Rafael Betancourt, himself a professor in Havana highlighted the victories of the revolution while in line with the long history of the intelligentsia in Havana critiquing the weaknesses of the bureaucratic system currently in place.  Having seen Dr. Gomez’ presentation previously, I went into Professor Betancourt’s presentation with the questions raised above in mind. Professor Betancourt highlighted in detail the Guidlines published in 2011 by the Communist Party on the new reforms, chief among them that the state will continue to own the main means of production while at the same time giving more autonomy to the private sector and also to state-run operations. Again the distrust of bureaucracy yet focus on making something of unique Cuban character was at the heart of the professor’s analysis. I remained skeptical, as the professor claimed that 7% growth for almost 30 years was necessary to stabilize the Cuban economy, and in an era of scarcity, growth every year will become impossible. That notwithstanding, Professor Betancourt stressed, as Dr. Gomez did, the necessity of change in a Cuban way. The analysis seemed universal in the Cuban Intelligentsia and Cuban society at large; change is necessary, but the Cuban people most come to it through consensus and mutual work, to come to their own synthesis of planned and private, in their own national way. I found, by surveying the historical struggle of the intelligentsia in Cuba that such a desire was an inevitable product of the political developments of the first half of the 20th century and into Cuba’s soviet-influenced, socialist transition.

Cuba was for me a place of socialist victory, my choice to go a sign of solidarity; and it is perhaps for this reason that their move away from socialist policies left me fearful for the future of the Cuban revolution’s gains. Yet by studying history and looking to the ancestors of those first professors and students who fought against the Platt Amendment a keen insight emerged about the revolution of 1958/9; its socialist character was crucial and influential, and from this base came an emergent quality of the revolution – the revolution had empowered all of the people of Cuba, the intelligentsia included. By studying the history of the student movements and their influence on the Cuban revolution at large and then offering two anecdotes on my experience with modern Cuban intellectuals at the University of Havana a greater understanding of the thread I am connecting between past revolution and current reform emerges. We should not be surprised that in the nation born out of student riots and Sierra idealists should continue to be a synthesis of these two competing yet irrevocably attached ideological threads. Cuban Socialism has, after all, been but one step in a long historical progression towards autonomy for Cuba manifested noticeably in the intelligentsia’s unending desire for it; and perhaps in time, history may “absolve” both  Fidel and his compatriots in their struggle for political autonomy and procure a future best fit for Cuba – at the decision of none other than Cubans themselves.

Works Cited:

Alarcon De Quesada, Ricardo. “Cuba: Education and Revolution.” Monthly Review. N.p., July-    Aug. 2011. Web. 25 July 2013.

Betancourt, Rafael. “Cuba in Transition: Towards a New Economic Model.” Colegio  Universitario San Gerónimo De La Habana, Havana. June  2013. Lecture.

Gomez, Antonio R. “Cuba: Economic Transformations and International Re-Insertion.”   University of Havana, Havana. June 2013. Lecture.

Sweig, Julia. Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP,   2009. Print.

“With Cuts, Free Education Is No Longer a Cuban Birthright.” New York   Times. Reuters, 3 Oct.   2012. Web.

Wolf, Eric R. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.    Print.

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Filed under Cuba, Cuban Revolution, Education, Intelligentsia, July 26th Movement, Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Movements, Revolution, Socialism, Student, Uncategorized, University of Havana

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