The Institutionalization of the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s

The Failure of the Radical Experiment



by | Jan 13, 2009

A truck is parked under a tree, a man lays in a hammock. A sign above reads (in Spanish) “Havana: Physiognomy of a Revolution.”

Sign reads “Havana: Physiognomy of a Revolution.” Photo courtesy of Marial Iglesias Utset

“This time the revolution is for real!” Fidel Castro declared upon entering Santiago de Cuba on 1 January 1959. At that time few Cubans had pondered what a real revolution was and what its consequences would be. Almost all were elated with the downfall of Fulgencio Batista. Cubans from all walks of life exuberantly embraced the young Fidel and therebeldes. Two years later no one would doubt the revolution was, indeed, for real. On 16 April 1961, Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist character of the revolution. A day later, a force of U.S.-supported Cuban exiles landed at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs). Within seventy-two hours, the invaders were routed. The revolution was not only real; it would also survive.

The new government, however, did not have a clear blueprint for the future. Nonetheless, new institutions were needed in order to govern; the question was what kind and for what purposes. Having rejected representative democracy, Cuban leaders confronted the challenges of governance. Maintaining elite unity and mobilizing popular support were their core concerns. Thus, the revolutionaries brought together the July 26th Movement, the Revolutionary Student Directorate (DRE), and the Popular Socialist Party into a vanguard party, the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), formed in 1965. The Central Organization of Cuban Trade Unions (CTC) and the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) were two of the mass organizations set up to involve ordinary Cubans in the tasks of socialism. Their role was to be “transmission belts” between the party and the people. In practice, however, things were more complicated.

Between 1966 and 1970, Cuba attempted to pursue a radical experiment to develop conciencia—revolutionary consciousness—and the economy simultaneously. Cuban leaders hoped to generate sufficient resources to allow them a more balanced relationship with the Soviet Union and to institutionalize the revolution using their own model.

After November 1959, the revolutionary government and its supporters in the Cuban Trade Unions leadership proceeded to establish tight control of the unions. Independent working-class activity—especially demands for higher wages and other economic benefits—was deemed contrary to the call for unity. Workers needed to develop conciencia of the new conditions: the imperative of pursuing policies to eliminate unemployment and satisfy the needs of the clases populares as a whole. Prior to the October 1960 nationalizations, the state had already demanded moderation from the working class; afterward, it completely disavowed the right or the need to strike. However, the new conciencia developed slowly. Cuban labor had had a long history of unions. Even while collaborating with the government, unions were demanding wage increases.

But socialism needed a show of working-class support, and nationalism required ironclad unity in the revolution. Educating the working class was the avenue to overcoming the old mentalities. The revolution had instituted radical changes, and these created the ground for a new conciencia. When these accomplishments were not persuasive enough on a daily basis, party and union cadres were supposed to convince the workers: to “educate them” so that they understood the new conditions and stopped insisting on economic demands and anti-administration stance.

Without question, under the new regime trade unions were not independent and often clashed with workers who persisted in the old ways. However, from the perspective of their fate after 1966, trade unions did not fare so badly. Worker-union-management relations were tracked on an upward spiral: union leaders and managers ultimately depended on those above them for their jobs. Nonetheless, unions existed and functioned “within their sphere.” During the late 1960s, when trade unions “withered away,” state and party relations with rank-and-file workers would be even more precarious. An organization with limited autonomy was certainly better than no organization at all.

Unlike the CTC, the Federation of Cuban Women was relatively free of conflicts. Born with and for the revolution, the FMC gave many women their first opportunity to have a life outside the home. Women constituted a reservoir of support for the revolution, and the FMC readily tapped it. More than 19.000 women who had been household servants had graduated from special schools and were now otherwise gainfully employed. The seamstress programs had trained 7.400 rural women in the use of sewing machines and now they were instructors to 29.000 young peasant women. Although they were not as serious as those of the CTC, the FMC also experienced problems as a mass organization. In 1963, the federation acknowledged that cadres were carrying out their tasks mechanically and were generally inattentive to members of the rank and file, who were themselves becoming apathetic. Cadres too frequently followed directions from above without creative adaptation to their specific chapters, and communicated the directions to their members as orders. There was thus a general loss of popular elan.

The Radical Experiment

By mid-decade, the Cuban leaders had reconsidered the early process of institutionalization. Political and economic factors—both domestic and international—convinced them that the models borrowed from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were undermining the revolution. Socialism was not summoning the popular enthusiasm that the social revolution had. Austerity—not standards of living comparable to Western Europe—marked daily routines. The revolutionary leadership sought to establish greater political and economic independence from the Soviet Union. Between 1966 and 1970, Cuba attempted to pursue the parallel construction of communism and socialism: a radical experiment to develop conciencia and the economy simultaneously. Cuban leaders hoped to generate sufficient resources to allow them a more balanced relationship with the Soviet Union and to institutionalize the revolution using their own model.

Sectarianism in the party underscored the imperative of new recruitment methods to secure “contact with the masses.” A vanguard party of the revolution deserved its name only if it maintained an organic relationship with the people. Party militants—not party structures—were the crucial link in that relationship. When Fidel Castro introduced the Central Committee of the Communist Party in October 1965, the foundations for the radical experiment were in place. The old communists did not have the preeminence they had had in the ORI. The PCC was firmly in the hands of the new communists, especially those with military or Sierra Maestra credentials, and rejected long-established dogmas of international communism.

Cuban communists declined to recognize the leadership of the Soviet Union and reserved the right to formulate their own foreign policy. The “organic consolidation” of the PCC was at the center of institutional renovation and state reorganization. Membership had grown more than threefold since 1962, and cadres had stronger links with las masas because of the new recruitment method. The party was the sole and purest expression of the popular will and had the exclusive right to educate the people.

But the Cuban spirit was dulled by another consequence of socialism during the early 1960s: an expanding state bureaucracy. Ministries, agencies, institutes, committees, and meetings proliferated. In 1961, local committees of coordination, implementation, and inspection (JUCEI) were established to regulate and supervise government offices. Party-appointed JUCEI delegates were charged with mediating between the state, the mass organizations, and the public. The committees, however, were quite hierarchical and were staffed by full-time personnel. Bureaucratic expansion was dimming the prospects of popular control. Moreover, unlike the vanguard and the workers with conciencia, functionaries were more interested in pushing the “letter” of papers than in advancing the “spirit” of national quests and socialist visions. From 1965, the anti-bureaucratic campaign was central to the radical experiment. Reducing the numbers of people employed in nonproductive activities was therefore imperative. Many bureaucrats were transferred to more productive tasks, particularly in the countryside, and about 1.500 positions were eliminated. The consequences of the reorganization, however, were not salutary. Between 1967 and 1970, budgets and plans were discarded in favor of fidelistas’ improvised miniplans. Thus, the anti-bureaucratic campaign undermined planning and contributed to the economic chaos of the late 1960s.

During the second half of the 1960s, emphasis on moral incentives and the reduction of union cadres contributed to the demise of the labor movement. After 1966, vanguardism overwhelmed the trade union movement, which in effect withered away. Unions as a mass organization ceased to exist. Unlike the congress of 1961, the 1966 congress did not provide a framework to the role of unions under socialism. Issues such as worker input in factory administration and the defense of workers’ rights were not on the agenda. Nearly 75 percent of local union officers were turned out in the pre-congress elections; CTC full-time personnel was reduced to 53 percent; the number of cadres declined from 2,227 to 968.

Union leaders tended to be party members and never lasted long in their jobs because they were transferred to other positions. That unions provided cadres for other institutions was an indication that Cuban socialism was drawing cadres from the working class. In practice, there were no institutional boundaries between the party, management, and the unions. Moreover, unions did not seem to be important. In fact, local unions became organizations of vanguard workers who constituted no more than 20 percent of the labor force. Ordinary workers with the wrong conciencia had no organization.

By comparison to the CTC, the FMC fared rather well as a mass organization during this period. In 1970, membership totaled 1.3 million. The FMC continued mobilizing women for numerous tasks. With the demise of unions, the needs of working women also went unattended. Still, the mobilization of female labor in urban Cuba to make up for male labor mobilized for agriculture became one of the FMC’s central charges.

The radical experiment sought to capitalize on the most important Cuban resource: the will, energy, and passion of el pueblo cubano, but it floundered almost from the start. After 1966, local union elections were suspended even though CTC bylaws required them every two years. Grievance procedures were virtually eliminated. The FMC lost its factory chapters in detriment to the interests of women workers. The PCC itself essentially stagnated. Until 1969, membership remained at about 50,000. By 1970, however, party members had more than doubled to more than 100,000, about one percent of the population. Rank-and-file workers, however, were not the basis of the new growth: the central ministries, the armed forces, and the Interior Ministry were. Also, on 7 October 1967, Ernesto Guevara died in Bolivia. The Andes would not become the Sierra Maestra of Latin America.

Producing 10 million tons of sugar in 1970 was more than an economic goal: it was “a point of honor for this revolution, a yardstick by which to judge the capability of the Revolution.” But it was not possible to reach that objective. The unmet 10-million-ton harvest indeed represented more than a failed economic goal. The revolution had miscarried the attempt to generate economic and political resources to imprint a Cuban face on contemporary socialism. And now, institutionalization could no longer be postponed.

The outcome of the radical experiment had underscored the importance of institutions. Without them, there had been no check on public officials, the economy had gone into chaos, and workers had become demoralized. Mobilization had been no substitute for participation; cadres with conciencia, no surrogate for organization. Drawing upon the legitimacy of Fidel Castro and the social revolution, the Communist Party pursued a process of institutionalization. As it had during the early 1960s but more thoroughly and systematically, Cuba turned to the Soviet Union for models of economic and political organization. Socialism had simple failed to develop an economy capable of sustaining the nation. There was also no option but to accept the new dependence and live with its consequences.

Winter 2009Volume VIII, Number 2

José María Aguilera-Manzano is Fulbright Postdoctoral Scholar at Florida International University, and assistant professor at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Spain. He is author of the book La formación de la identidad cubana. La polémica Saco-La Sagra (CSIC, 2006).

Related Articles

The True Impact of the Peace Corps: Returning from the Dominican Republic ’03-’05

The True Impact of the Peace Corps: Returning from the Dominican Republic ’03-’05

I am an RPCV: a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. For me the Peace Corps was an intense life experience, above anything else. As I continue to reflect on it, I am struck with the many and varied ways in which it continues to affect my life. As a PCV in the Dominican Republic from September 2003 to November 2005, I lived, worked, and learned in a small sugar cane-dependent community two hours outside of Santo Domingo…

In the Shadow of JFK: One Peace Corps Experience

In the Shadow of JFK: One Peace Corps Experience

I am often asked about the Peace Corps by students and recent graduates. The most frequent questions are, “why join?”, “what did you do?”, and “what has it meant for your career?” Here is my story. My earliest recollection of international curiosity was in the fourth grade when Sister Margaret Thomas described her experience as a recently returned missionary in Bangladesh. In high school, my sister Mary went to Peru on …

A Review of Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age

As an immigrant trying to understand urban diversity here, I come back time and again to the U.S. writer E.B. White’s often-cited passage in Here is New York (1948) in search of useful clues. “There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the …

Print Friendly, PDF & Email