By Dr. Norman Berdichevsky
For the past fifty years Fidel Castro and Che Guevara have been elevated by ignorant college students into international icons on the level of pop-stars.
The number of teenagers and would-be teenagers wearing Che or Fidel T-shirts probably exceeds those wearing any other emblem with the possible exception of the cross (probably more as a cosmetic adornment rather than a real religious symbol of faith).
Of course, all of this is a matter of simple research available in thousands of documents and first hand sources, but young people all over the world continue to sport their T-shirts in the self-induced hypnosis that opposition to the U.S. by Castro and the support given to him by the USSR and communist block as well as his fifty year long tenure in power and thousands of hours of speeches all vouchsafe that the Cuban regime deserves the support of The LEFT, if for no other reason than Castro opposed U.S. imperialism and overthrew a dictator and therefore, – as in Orwell’s book Animal Farm (Two Legs Bad; Four Legs Good!), i.e., the Communists were/are/always have been on the side of “The People.”
There were, however, many Cuban refugees in the United States before Castro came to power. They had fled the island to escape the dictatorial and corrupt rule of Fulgencio Batista and they were also fleeing the communist influence in his government and domination of many Cuban labor unions. Let today’s teenagers ask their grandparents!
Certainly, all of us who are 65 and older will remember how Desi Arnaz, the star-husband of Lucille Ball of the “I Love Lucy Show,” explained to an American audience that the shocking tabloid newspaper headlines (LUCY BALL IN RED LINK, LUCILLE BALL LISTED AS RED) accusing his wife of communist sympathies were pure libel and a foul trick of yellow-press journalists (no doubt they would be called practitioners of “McCarthyism” today).
Lucy and her brother had registered Communist at the request of their father, a long time labor activist. There was no other “red” connection to Lucy but in addition, Desi revealed in several public appearances how he had fled Cuba and been “kicked out” because of his refusal to tow the line of the Communist dominated unions. He had arrived in the U.S.A. penniless and cleaned canary cages to earn money.
As for Lucy’s alleged communist sympathies, Desi put it succinctly—-“the only thing red about Lucy is her hair and even that is fake.”
Populist, anti-American, charismatic figures with strong support among government controlled labor unions
Batista and several puppet presidents under his control had “earned” the support of Cuba’s Communist Party because they appeared as “revolutionary” and “Anti-American.” Other Latin American leaders such as Argentina’s dictator, General Juan Peron and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela today, also appealed to the same bases of support as populist, anti-American, charismatic figures with strong support among government controlled labor unions.
The historical obedience to Moscow which characterized most Latin American Communist parties since their creations in the 20’s and 30’s lay behind the difficult relationship that characterized Fidel Castro’s initial attitude toward Communism and the role played by the old Cuban Communist Party before he gained power in January, 1959.
Although many Afro-Americans were hoodwinked by Castro’s propaganda about the Cuban Revolution bringing “racial equality” to the island’s population for the first time, it was none other than dictator Fulgencio Batista, a “mixed blood,” the descendant of Italian, Spanish, Chinese and African ancestors, who had been the victim of discrimination.
He had not been allowed to join the Havana Yacht Club because of his mixed race, a factor he exploited because it focused attention on the elitist character of the Cuban government and its old colonial heritage of racial prejudices. These prejudices were shared by none other than Fidel Castro‘s father, a wealthy land owner and sugar plantation owner who had supported the Spanish government against Cuban revolutionaries in the 1890s.
THE EARLY PARTY, 1920-1954
Communists played only a very minor role in the 1933 popular revolution that deposed the Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado (1925-1931). It was during this episode that “strong man” Fulgencio Batista with Communist support emerged on the national political scene.
In September 1934, Batista issued a declaration declaring that “The Communist Party in accordance with its own statutes is a democratic party which pursues its objectives within the margin of the capitalist regime and denounces violence as a means of political action, and a consequence of this, has the right to the same treatment as any other party in Cuba.”
Batista ruled the nation through a puppet president and in 1937, gave his full agreement to the creation of the Union Revolucionaria Party. In 1938, he permitted the publication of the (still illegal) Cuban Communist party’s official newspaper Hoy, edited by Anibal Escalante. Cuban Communist leaders Blas Roca, and Joaquin Ordoquí, met with Colonel Batista and issued the resolutions to be followed that the Party had to adopt a positive attitude towards Colonel Batista “in view that Batista was a defender of democracy.”
By the late 1930s, Batista and the Communists worked hand in glove to allow “free elections” in order to continue their control of the government, form a constituent assembly to produce a new constitution and legitimize the power of a puppet president, Frederico Laredo Bru.
In the 1940 election, although the Communists dominated most unions, anti-Batista candidates won 41 of 76 seats, receiving 225,223 votes, while Batista and the Communists won 35 seats and only 97,944 votes.
In spite of this rejection of a popular mandate, the Cuban Communist Party urged continued support for Batista who, with their aid, managed to be elected president in spite of his poor parliamentary election results.
Batista resigned his military post as Chief of the Armed Forces and announced his candidacy for the 1940 Presidential elections. It was an honest one in in which he won with full Communist support, promising partial state control of the sugar, tobacco and mining industries as well as land reform. Batista also made anti-American statements to endear him to the Cuban working class which, in spite of U.S. intervention to help win Cuba’s independence from Spain, still regarded the United States with distrust and envy.
Two close associates of Batista were also later to become high ranking Communist members of Fidel Castro‘s government, Juan Marinello (later a member of Castro’s Politburo), who lost his attempt to win the post of mayor of Havana in the 1940 elections and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez (who eventually became Castro’s Vice-President).
Batista’s popularity increased during the war years of his second official presidency, 1940-1944 due to the rise in prosperity caused by the Allies’ demands for sugar, nickel and manganese. As 1944 approached, Batista played a charade by appearing to “step down” as a true democrat. In this way, he would win additional good will support from the United States that was anxious about his ties to the Communists.
As president, Batista was a strong, “democratic leader” but had to suppress an attempted coup by his chief of staff. He extended social welfare measures to workers in the countryside and declared war on the Axis Powers on December 9, 1941 followed by recognition of the Soviet Union in 1943. During the war, Cuba benefited from US aid and the high fixed price of sugar at 2.65¢ a pound. This helped moderate Batista’s anti-American tone.
Once again however, a fairly honest election set back the Batistianos and the Communists. In 1944, Dr. Ramon San Martin Grau was an ex-University professor with substantial student backing and promises of a more honest regime. He won the popular vote in the presidential election and served until 1948.
Despite his initial popularity, accusations of corruption tainted his administration’s image, and a sizable number of Cubans began to distrust him. Batista, who had garnered a fortune of twenty million dollars, the result of his being the real man in charge of Cuba since 1933, appeared to fade away yet communist leaders Carlos Rafael Rodriguez and Blas Roca wrote, in their 1945 book, En Defensa del Pueblo, that “the people’s idol (Batista), the great man of our national politics” was not gone forever.
During a period of several years, Batista relocated to Florida 1945-48, and lived in Daytona Beach where there is still a museum of Cuban art with works that he had “borrowed.”
Batista was a masterful politician who enjoyed the confidence and support of the propertied classes while he cultivated the Left, but the wealthy class in Cuba understood that they need not fear him. He had become quite conservative as he became wealthy. Moreover, Cuba on a few additional occasions demonstrated its “popular” anti-American line such as the vote against the partition of Palestine.
The Latin American headquarters of the Comintern moved from Mexico to Cuba in 1940 and the Communists had a very strong presence in the Cuban Federation of Labor. There were chronic strikes and labor disputes in 1947-48. Student rioters (including Fidel Castro), urban gangsterism, roaming armed bands in the countryside and political assassinations all produced turmoil.
The spark for Castro’s political activism was Eduardo Chibas, who, like Castro, came from a well-to-do Galician family from Guantanamo, in Oriente province. Like Castro, he was educated by Jesuits, and was a member of the Cuban elite, deeply religious, but a violent anti-Communist.
In 1948, a stooge of Batista, Carlos Prío Socarrás, was elected as a minority President but the Communists lost three seats in the Senate. Ominously, and forgetting all of his previous anti-American rhetoric, Batista ran his campaign from Florida and was elected as a Senator. Castro, at this time was a prominent figure in Havana politics and a protege of Chibas.
In response to these events, the Cuban Communist Party criticized Castro and the other student adventurers for participating in anti-government street fighting during an international conference in Bogota, Colombia.
At the same time and place as the Colombian events, Argentinian Communist Party member, Ernesto Che Guevara, who was present at the Bogota conference, never left his boarding house during the disturbances. Eddy Chibas committed suicide in 1951 during a public address to the nation to call attention to what he believed was a campaign by corrupt politicians to deny him the election, thereby creating a political vacuum in Cuba, leading to the reemergence of Batista in Cuban politics.
A few weeks after Chibas’ suicide, Castro met with then Senator Batista and spent several hours in discussions with him at Batista’s ranch. What they discussed is not known but on March 10, 1952, Batista usurped control of the government in a bloodless coup thereby fulfilling Chibas’ worst fear expressed before his death.
The next day, as proclaimed chief of state, Batista moved into the presidential palace. The most radical opposition to Batista’s seizure of power came from the wealthy racist Cuban elite who had detested Batista as a “mixed-blood.” From 1948 to 1952, the Cuban Communist Party had lost control of the unions and the party was divided on whether to support him again. Batista suppressed all opposition newspapers but allowed the Communist daily “Hoy” to remain open, an obvious ploy to win continued communist support.
When Fidel Castro founded his “Revolutionary” Movement, Communists were automatically excluded from joining it and the Party denounced Castro‘s attack on the Moncada Barracks of July 26, 1953, in Santiago de Cuba. The American Communist daily newspaper “The Daily Worker”, described the Castro led attack as “a putschist method peculiar to all bourgeois political factions.”
When Castro ultimately succeeded, he and the Communists knew they were meant for each other regardless of the past. For Fidel, it was the discipline and support of an international force directed against “American imperialism” and capable of providing massive economic, diplomatic and military support.
For the Communists, it was a simple shift to another “people’s idol.” Find the official website in Spanish of the Cuban Communist Party, and read the section marked “History”. It contains not a word about the Party from its founding until January 1, 1959. This is how internal contradictions are typically resolved by totalitarian regimes.
Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Orlando, Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004), Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004), An Introduction to Danish Culture (MacFarland, 2011) and The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011). He is the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals such as World Affairs, Journal of Cultural Geography, Ecumene, Ariel, Ethnicity, The World & I, Contemporary Review, German Life, Israel Affairs, and Midstream. He is also a professional translator from Hebrew and Danish to English and his website is here.
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