On the first of January 1959, the citizens of Cuba woke up to a new reality, there had been a revolution during the night. Why did this happen? Well, the causes of the Cuban revolution are many, and it is complicated.
During this particular night, an almost ten-year guerilla war against Fulgencio Batista had culminated in a take-over led by one of many rebel leaders Fidel Castro and all his revolutionary comrades.
The Cuban Revolution was a fact.
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The Cuban Revolution!
On the night before, Fidel Castro was in the eastern Sierra Maestra Mountains, conducting negotiations with top military commanders planning an attack on Santiago de Cuba.
Fidel’s younger brother Raul Castro was ready to take the city of Guantanamo while Ernesto ”Che” Guevara had just defeated the Cuban army in Santa Clara in central Cuba.
Batista had fled the country during the night, and in Havana, the situation was confusing on this first day of the new world. On the afternoon of January first, Fidel Castro spoke to the people on the radio taking charge of the country and naming himself the new boss.
“Revolution yes, coup no”, he said.
Cuba Before The Cuban Revolution
The revolution in Cuba was a huge international incident, and most people know a little or a lot, at least something, about it.
But there was a lot happening in Cuba also before the revolution in 1959, and this background is adamant to understand or make any sense of the incidents happening later.
Before the Bay of Pigs, before Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Before all the big incidents “everyone” remembers today.
Disclaimer: for the record, many historians will recount these events with much more detail and grace than I, just so you know. Nevertheless, here is my account of the history.
Where Do Revolutions Come From?
Well, a revolution does not just appear out of the blue. Not in general, and not in Cuba.
When someone in a population feels the urge to revolutionize something, that something probably has been complicated for a while. And in Cuba, things had been a bit of a struggle for that while, about three and a half centuries.
For 300 years the island was dealing with being a colony under the Spanish empire. Then, JUST as it seemed to take a turn for the better after the Spanish – American War at the end of the 19th Century, the US went on and approved the Platt Amendment in 1901.
If you have not heard about that yet, you will know more in a minute.
Also read: Visit Bay Of Pigs! 60 Years Since US Failed Invasion Of Cuba! (2022)
The Spanish American War (Seemingly) To The Rescue
Towards the end of the 19th century, Spain was struggling with its empire in general, one of its colonies being Cuba.
Cuba then ran into the good fortune that America also waged war on Spain in 1898, after the mysterious explosion on the USS Maine while in the dock in Havana killing 260 off the crew of 400.
Spain had recently had a hard time holding it all together. Cuba had been conducting several attempts to gain independence from Spain in the last decades of the century. They fought the 10-Year War 68-78, the Short War in 79/80, and lastly the War of Independence in 1895-98.
The war only lasted four short months, America won, and this consequently ended the whole Spanish empire. Long story, but that is the super short version of the background for what happens next.
Shutting Down An Empire Is A Lot Of Work
It all looked quite bright for Cuba for a couple of years, after the Spanish-American war that ended in 1898, and with the treaties that were formed in the early months afterward.
After a formal closure of an Empire, there of course is a lot of paperwork. Tedious peace negotiations between representatives of the United States and Spain began in Paris on October 1, 1898.
At that time, the American contingent demanded that Spain acknowledge and guarantee the independence of Cuba and that Spain would pay Cuba’s estimated $400 million national debt.
Lastly, they demanded Spain would transfer the possession of the Philippines to the US (as a little treat, I suppose).
While Spain signed the final agreement quickly, ratification was strongly opposed by the U.S. Senate by many senators. These senators viewed this as instituting an unconstitutional policy of American “imperialism” on the count of the Philippines.
After weeks of debate, the U.S. Senate finally approved, or ratified, the treaty on February 6, 1899, by one single vote only.
The Treaty of Paris took effect on April 11, 1899, and Cubans were participating only as observers of this event. Probably with no worries, as the Teller Amendment finally was supposed to ensure Cuba’s independence after the war!
The Teller Amendment
In April 1898, even before the war, the US Senate passed a bill called the Teller Amendment.
This amendment was pushed by American senator Teller with supporters who were scared that (someone in) the US would use a war victory to expand into the very “imperialistic” state people feared.
Therefore, the Teller Amendment placed a condition on the United States military‘s presence in Cuba. According to the clause, the US would not be able to annex Cuba after the war. They were bound to leave “control of the island to its people”.
The bottom line, the US would help Cuba gain independence and then withdraw all its troops from the country said the Teller Amendment.
Having been occupied since July 17, 1898, Cuba finally formed its own civil government and formally gained independence on May 20, 1902. This came with the announced end of US Military Government jurisdiction over the island.
However, the US imposed various restrictions on the new government in the process, including prohibiting alliances with other countries. Further, reservations about the right to intervene in domestic matters. The US also established a perpetual lease of Guantánamo Bay.
And how could they do that, considering the Teller Amendment provided all the independence they should need?
Well, let me introduce you to “the Platt Amendment”.
Snippets And Text Extracts From The News At The Time
“The euphoria that gripped Cubans in the last days of 1898 was almost beyond imagination. Their country had been racked by rebellion for thirty years, the last few filled with terrible suffering.
That summer, as their uprising reached a crescendo, American troops had arrived to help them deliver the death blow that ended three centuries of Spanish rule. Now, with the victory finally won, Cuban patriots and their American comrades were preparing for the biggest party in the island’s history.
Just as the celebration was to begin, however, the newly named American military governor of Cuba, General John Brooke, made a stunning announcement. He forbade the entire program.
Not only would there be no parade of Cuban soldiers, but any who tried to enter Havana would be turned back. Furthermore, the general declared, the United States did not recognize the rebel army and wished it to disband.”
The Platt Amendment
The Platt Amendment was pushed through the Senate by American imperialists who wanted to project U.S. power abroad (in contrast to the Teller Amendment which was pushed by anti-imperialists calling for a restraint on U.S. rule).
The Senate passed the Platt Amendment in 1901 by a vote of 43 to 21 as a rider to an Army appropriations bill.
Cuba at the time still under the United States Military Government and occupied had little impact on the political going-on in the US. There was no formal treaty on the table just yet supporting the Paris Treaty conclusion from 1898 (that first came in 1903).
Yet, initially, this amendment was rejected by the Cuban assembly. One can imagine what any national assembly with aspirations to be an independent state might do if another nation suggested a bill where their independence in all matters would be subject to the will of the other nation. So they said no.
However, at a later date, the amendment, for some reason, mysteriously was accepted anyways by the Cuban assembly. By a vote of 16 to 11, with four abstentions. And then – integrated into the Cuban Constitution, in 1901, although not signed until 1902. How exactly this happened is still conflicted by historians.
Senator Platt Outlining The Foreign Policy On Cuba
The content of the Platt Amendment outlined the future political room for maneuvering for the United States in Cuba.
Within the text, now formally approved by the Cuban assembly, the United States maintained extensive influence over Cuban internal affairs. These in sum differed little from the level of influence imposed on a colony, like from Spain, a few years before.
The Platt Amendment established that Cuba’s boundaries would not include the Isle of Pines (Isla de la Juventud). The title first needed to be established in a future treaty.
The amendment limited Cuba’s right to make treaties with other nations. Also restricting Cuba in the conduct of foreign policy and commercial relations. Further that Cuba must sell or lease lands to the United States necessary for coaling or the development of naval stations.
The US And Cuba
The Amendment granted the United States the right to stabilize Cuba militarily as needed, within the American definition of “as needed”.
The Amendment also permitted the United States to deploy Marines to Cuba if its freedom and independence were ever threatened. Or in any way jeopardized by an external or internal force.
The Platt Amendment provided for a permanent American naval base in Cuba, and Guantanamo Bay was established after the signing of the Cuban–American Treaty of Relations in 1903.
A treaty of commercial reciprocity was also signed in 1903. This would revive a war-torn sugar economy and facilitate a 17-fold expansion between 1900 and 1925. According to historic notes, one important reason for the Platt Amendment was the economic perspective.
Forces within the US did not have confidence that a new and independent Cuban government would grant the US the same level of freedom to own land and collect revenue as before the war when Cuba was run by the Spanish.
That is probably also a sound assumption, as most independent states often prefer to control their resources themselves.
At that time the US had extensive commercial interests and very favorable terms in Cuba.
Turmoil In Response To The Proposed Platt Amendment
You probably have noted that the wording of the Paris Treaty and the Teller Amendment sounds very different from the actual outcome. That is basically due to the approval of the later Platt Amendment. But the process, conclusion, and Cuban signing of the agreement did not happen without internal turmoil and protest.
You can read the Platt Amendment in its entirety HERE if you like, for all the details.
“Havana was in turmoil on the night of March 2. A torchlight procession delivered a petition of protest to Wood at the Governor’s Palace, and another crowd of demonstrators sought out the convention delegates and urged them to stand firm in their opposition to American demands.
Similar demonstrations occurred on the following night. Outside the capital, municipal governments throughout the island poured out a flood of protest messages and resolutions, while public meetings were epidemic.
On the night of March 5, speakers told a procession in Santiago that if the United States held to its demands, the Cubans must go to war once more”.
The Cuban Delegates’ Decision
“Cuban delegates to the constitutional convention had to decide whether to accept the Platt Amendment.
American officials assured them that the United States wished no direct influence over Cuba’s internal affairs.
They also warned them that if Cuba did not accept the Platt Amendment, Congress would impose even harsher terms.
After a long debate, much of it conducted behind closed doors, the Cuban delegates agreed. By a vote of fifteen to fourteen, they agreed to do what the United States wished.
A year later, in a Cuban election, the Americans supervised, Tomás Estrada Palma was chosen as the first president of the Republic of Cuba. He had lived for years in the town of Central Valley, New York, USA.
General Wood, the military governor, wrote in a private letter what every sentient Cuban and American knew. “There is, of course, little or no independence left Cuba under the Platt Amendment“, he wrote.
(Book: Overthrow: Americas century of regime change from Hawaii to Irak / Stephen Kinzer)
The Cuban Struggle For Independence
One of the first things Palma did in his presidency after the Platt Agreement, was to sign the Cuban-American Treaty of Relations in 1903. Agreeing to lease the Guantanamo Bay area to the United States in perpetuity for use as a naval base and coaling station.
During his presidency, Palma’s policies in Cuba were responsible for improvements in education, communications, and public health. These areas had suffered from the devastation of war.
Simultaneously he was also part of the annexation agenda and his subservience to the United States. Although re-elected in 1905, due to accusations of election fraud, there was violent opposition against his presidency.
This debacle ended with Palma and his administration stepping down from his position, leaving Cuba with no leadership – which triggered the Platt Amendment clause on intervening.
The 2nd Platt-Approved US Occupation Of Cuba
Roosevelt immediately proclaimed that the US had been compelled to intervene in Cuba. He stated their only purpose was to create the necessary conditions for a peaceful election. And so, started the second US occupation of Cuba from 1906 to 1908/9.
In 1908, self-government was restored when José Miguel Gómez was elected president. The US, however, continued intervening in Cuban affairs.
Sugar production played a very important role in Cuban politics and economics during the whole period.
During and after World War I, a shortage in the world sugar supply fueled an economic boom in Cuba. This was marked by prosperity and the conversion of more and more farmland to sugar cultivation.
Prices first peaked and then crashed in 1920. Completely ruining the country financially and allowing foreign investors to gain more power than they already had.
Cuban Sugar Trade
Cuba’s political instability and sugar-centered economy were the result of U.S. influence through the Platt Amendment and the various Sugar Acts and reciprocity treaties.
Throughout this period there was general unrest in Cuba because of internal problems.
Such as racial differences, economic problems due to international prices fluxing, changing leadership, and political instability. The wall street crash in 1929 also influenced the economic situation in Cuba.
The growing tourist industry in Cuba under President Machado facilitated the further development of American-owned enterprises such as hotels and restaurants.
Political unrest, repression, and protests turned to violence in opposition to the increasingly unpopular President Machado. A diplomatic campaign initiated by the US did nothing to strengthen Machado’s position, perceived as a mere puppet.
There was also initiated a general strike (in which the Communist Party sided with Machado), and uprisings among sugar workers. On top of that, finally, an army revolt forced Machado into exile in August 1933.
From August 1933 to 1934 there were several players and short administrations in charge in Cuba. Up until the last resigned in 1934, after which Fulgencio Batista finally arrived on the floor.
From 1934, Fulgencio Batista dominated Cuban politics for the next 25 years.
Batista’s Regime In Cuba
Batista started his career in the Army at the age of 20, rose to the rank of sergeant, and developed a large personal following.
In September 1933 he organized the “sergeants’ revolt”, toppling the provisional regime of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. The latter had stepped up when Machado had been forced to step down.
In this process, he became the country’s most powerful man, puppet master, and de facto leader. Initially, he preferred to consolidate his control through patronage rather than terror at the time.
He cultivated the support of the army, civil service, and organized labor during the first few years. All this earned him the presidential election win in 1940.
A new constitution was also adopted in 1940, which engineered at the time radical progressive ideas. These included the right to labor and health care.
Batista in his presidency expanded the educational system, sponsored huge programs for public works, and fostered the growth of the economy.
During his four years as President, Batista made himself a very rich man – while also reportedly governing the country effectively.
Ramon Grau San Martin
Complying with the 1940 constitution’s strictures preventing re-election, Batista gave up his position when Ramon Grau San Martin won in 1944.
Batista moved for a while to Florida. Here he invested parts of the huge sums of money he had acquired while being president of Cuba.
In 1944 Grau won the popular vote in the presidential election, defeating Carlos Saladrigas Zayas, Batista’s handpicked successor. Grau served until 1948.
When Grau assumed the presidency, he was forced to address many financial problems left by his predecessor, Batista. It would seem that Batista had not separated between private funds and those of the state.
Grau found there was less money for the state budget than anticipated.
Despite Grau’s initial popularity in 1933, accusations of corruption also tainted his administration’s image. After a while, a sizable number of Cubans began to distrust him.
Grau Losing Trust Corroding The Political System
In his period Grau corroded the base of the already shaky legitimacy of the political system.
In particular by undermining the seriously flawed, although not ineffectual, Cuban Congress and Supreme Court. In 1948 Carlos Prío Socarrás, a protégé of Grau, became president for the next four years. During his presidency, continued this deterioration of trust.
During the two terms of the Auténtico Party rule, there was a detectable influx of investment in Cuba. This did fuel a boom and raised living standards for all segments of society and created a prosperous middle class in most urban areas.
Cuba had Latin America’s highest per capita consumption rates of meat, vegetables, cereals, automobiles, telephones, and radios. Despite this, about one-third of the population was considered poor and enjoyed relatively little of this consumption.
In 1952, Batista returned and run unsuccessfully for the presidency. After losing, he staged a very non-violent coup against sitting president Prio Socarras that reportedly was generally viewed as positive. Then he outlawed the Cuban Communist Party.
Batista’s Return Was Welcomed – At First…
Historic reporting indicates that this was a “welcome coup”.
During the eight years he was out of politics there was a resurgence of corruption on a large scale. Also a virtual breakdown of public services.
However, it turned out Batista’s return to power was as a brutal dictator. He controlled the university, the press, and Congress. He outlawed the communist party and embezzled huge sums of money for himself from the soaring economy.
The elections in 1954 and 1958 reportedly were free. Generally, though, they are considered to have been manipulated to make Batista the sole candidate.
Although described as a brutal dictatorial leader, Batista was an American-friendly dictator. He allowed American companies to maintain ownership of the sugar and tobacco farms, mines, and other forms of businesses in Cuban territory.
This practice as shown had been going on since the end of the Spanish-American war. This was possible under the Platt Amendment and the Agreement from 1903.
Cuban Economy At The End Of Batista’s Eight Years
By 1955, Cuban real estate investments were more than $150 million.
Americans owned or dominated the majority of important manufacturing plants, the largest supermarkets, large retail stores, and most tourist facilities. About 25% of all bank deposits were held by branches of American banks.
Investors from the US had ownership of about half of the public railway system and over 90% of the telephone and power industries.
Between 1954 and 1956, new foreign investments quadrupled.
By 1957, new direct US private investments since Batista’s military coup four years earlier totaled more than $350 million.
American multinational companies were able to profitably exploit the island’s existing tax laws for their benefit. There were relatively few obstacles to the repatriation of profits.
The lack of controls on capital remittances between 1952 and 1958 enabled American capitalists to secure about $378 million in profits back into the US. In 1959 almost 80 percent of the country’s commercial transactions were with the US.
Cubans (not all) at this time enjoyed a rather high per capita income in Latin American terms. But – they also lived on America’s terms.
The whole economy was based on trade with the US. The developing system also facilitated a growing difference between the trading rich and the struggling poor of Cuba.
The Predicament Of Dictatorship
Fidel Castro and the 26th of July movement were opposed to this policy and wanted the resources of Cuba to belong to the Cuban government.
Hence, he wanted to transfer ownership of the sugar- and coffee plantations in Cuba. This involves excluding foreign billion-dollar companies.
The 26th of July Movement was formally started in 1955 when Castro went to Mexico to form a guerilla force. The name commemorated a previous attack in Santiago de Cuba in 1953.
The movement regularly conducted guerrilla warfare against Batista in the last period of Batista’s rule in Cuba. Up until the movement led by Castro successfully completed the coup and the Cuban Revolution on December 31st, 1958.
And there we are. All the different things that might or might not have happened since the turn of the century – happened the way they did.
And every action has consequences, as we know. Castro and his comrades succeeded with their coup and revolution – supported by many Cubans who were not at all happy with the Batista regime.
This was the start of an Era in Cuba, with so many unforeseeable consequences. For Cuba itself, the US, and all other nations and partners in trade and politics of the world. For the next 60 years. But who could know that?
Wrap-Up The Cuban Revolution 1959!
Castro very quickly nationalized American businesses in Cuba, including banks, oil refineries, and sugar and coffee plantations.
He did this without compensating the American companies that had had the ownership from the change of the century. This currently is still an unresolved issue, 60 years later.
Fidel also cut Cuba’s formerly indisputable intertwined relations with the United States and reached out to its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.
In response, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower secretly allocated $13.1 million to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in March 1960, for use against Castro.
With help from Cuban exile counter-revolutionaries, the CIA proceeded to organize a clandestine operation to overthrow Fidel Castro. Which failed as we now know, the dramatic attack on the Bay of Pigs that went awry.
Read about the 1961 failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs on the Southern shores of Cuba.
Do you have any questions about Cuba? Leave a comment, or send me an e-mail! Happy to help!
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