Notes on the Revolution
January 1, 2020
The triumph of the Cuban Revolution, 61 years ago
By Charles McKelvey
On January 1, 1959, the Cuban Revolution took political power, thus initiating a new stage of struggle, in which the Revolution would seek to carry out its promise to the people of developing a sovereign nation characterized by social justice, a struggle that is still unfolding.
The Revolution has endured in spite of the hostility of powerful actors, the most important being Cuba’s powerful imperialist neighbor. It has endured on the foundation of its two most significant achievements, first, the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 and the subsequent nationalization of foreign properties; and secondly, the socialist Constitution of 1976.
The Agrarian Reform Law of May 17, 1959 fulfilled a promise made by Fidel in his 1953 self-defense to the court, an address that came to be known as “History Will Absolve Me” and that functioned as the manifesto and the platform of the soon to be born July 26 Movement. As Fidel point out in that historic address, agrarian reform was necessary, inasmuch as 85% of peasants worked on land they did not own, and the great majority lived in wretched conditions. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 abolished large-scale landholdings, establishing a limit of 3331 acres for sugar and rice plantations and cattle estates. Accordingly, the revolutionary government nationalized the land of 4,443 plantations and estates, offering compensation in the form of twenty-year bonds. Of the expropriated land, 46% was distributed to 100,000 peasants, who received favorable terms of credit as well as access to a state-regulated network for the purchase of agricultural supplies and the commercialization of agricultural products. In the late 1960s, the revolution propelled the cooperative movement, which, on a voluntary basis, unified the lands and resources of the peasants, giving rise to small village communities with schools, medical institutions, markets, and offices. The remaining 54% of the expropriated land was converted into state-managed agricultural enterprises, in which state-appointed managers and the elected leaders of agricultural workers cooperated in the development of the enterprises, which in the early 1990s were converted into cooperatives with contractual relations with the state.
Inasmuch as the majority of agricultural land was in foreign hands at the time of the triumph of the Revolution, the Agrarian Reform Law was necessary to sever the neocolonial relation with the United States. The Agrarian Reform Law offered foreign and Cuban companies the same compensation for nationalized agricultural land, without distinction.
At the time of the triumph of the revolution, U.S. companies and individuals also were the owners of banks and key industries in Cuba. After the enactment of the Agrarian Reform Law, they adopted a non-cooperative and conflictive relation with the revolutionary government. This situation made clear the necessity of the nationalization of foreign properties, as a precondition for breaking the neocolonial relation and establishing the sovereignty of the nation. The nationalization of U.S. properties was initiated on July 6, 1960. The Law emitted by the revolutionary government on that date authorized the creation of a compensation fund that would be fed by deposits equal to 25% of the value of U.S. purchases of Cuban sugar in excess of the standing sugar quota, thus proposing a mutually beneficial resolution to the issue of compensation, linking payment for nationalized properties to the U.S.-Cuban sugar trade. Proposing an increasing level of U.S. purchases of Cuban sugar, and imagining Cuban use of the additional income to finance compensation and to invest in industrial development, the Cuban proposal pointed to the transformation of core-peripheral exploitation into North-South cooperation. The United States, however, rejected the proposal, without discussion. It did not possess the political will to contemplate the transformation of the neocolonial relation with its neighbor, aware that in that historic moment of global transition to neocolonialism, the Cuban Revolution was attracting far greater international attention than the economic size of Cuba ordinarily would warrant.
In addition to taking decisive steps toward the more equitable distribution agricultural land and the ending of the neocolonial relation with the United States, the Cuban Revolution began in the early 1960s to establish in practice an alternative approach to democracy. The alternative approach is different from the representative democracy of the Western democracies, which had been developed as political systems adapted to capitalist economies.
In the aftermath of the triumph of the Revolution, with overwhelming popular support for the Revolution, and with powerful internal and external enemies, the Revolution took steps to develop alternative political structures that could ensure the political power of the people. In 1960, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were formed in all neighborhoods, for the purpose of vigilance over sabotage and terrorist activities. At the same time, revolutionary leaders from the ranks took control of the Federation of Cuban Workers and the Federation of University Students, previously controlled by leaders tied to the neocolonial order, and they expanded their numbers. In 1961, small farmers were organized into the National Organization of Small Agriculturalists, and the Federation of Cuban Women was formed. These mass organization of workers, students, women, farmers, and neighbors provided structures for the active participation of the people in the forging of the revolutionary project.
Mass assemblies also emerged as an important element of popular participation in the unfolding revolutionary process. One such mass assembly was the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba, held on September 2, 1960. It emitted the Declaration of Havana, which defined the concepts and rights that would guide the revolutionary process in the subsequent stage. The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba was constituted by a mass meeting of one million persons, perhaps 20% of the Cuban adult population of the time. Fidel considered that the structures of mass organizations and mass assemblies constituted in embryo an alternative system of “direct democracy” or “real democracy,” in which the government is united to the people and seeks to provide for the social and economic needs of the people.
The revolutionary project was being led by a person with an exceptional capacity to analyze national and international affairs, to discern politically intelligent solutions to problems, and to forge the necessary unity of the people. As early as 1961, Fidel was speaking of the importance of replacing leadership by one person with the collective leadership of a vanguard political party. During that year, attempts were made to form a vanguard political party through the unification of the three principal revolutionary organizations, which were the July 26 Movement (established and led by Fidel), the March 13 Revolutionary Directory (initially a revolutionary student organization), and the Popular Socialist Party (the first Communist Party of Cuba). After some problems, these efforts eventually culminated in the formation in 1965 of a new Communist Party of Cuba. Its function was to educate and guide the people, becoming a collective teaching authority in the eyes of the people, eventually replacing the charismatic authority of Fidel.
Thus, in the early 1960s, there was emerging in practice the basic structures of an alternative political process that involved popular participation in mass organizations and mass assemblies and the formation of a vanguard political party that has the duty of educating the people. The conception is that of a united leadership that possesses a commitment to defend the rights of the majority, and as a result of this commitment, is liberated from the distorted understandings that have roots in particular interests. The leadership seeks to educate the people, freeing them from the ideological distortions that are disseminated throughout the world. At the same time, it is the people who have political power, because the people are organized in various mass organizations, and because they have ideological clarity and consensus.
The political practices of the 1960s became the foundation for alternative structures of people’s democracy, which were institutionalized in the Cuban Constitution of 1976. The 1976 Constitution concentrates political power in the hands of the elected deputies of the people. It establishes a National Assembly that is the highest authority of the nation, with the power to enact laws and designate the high members of the executive and judicial branches of government. The deputies of the National Assembly are elected by the delegates of the 169 municipal assemblies of the nation, which have been elected through direct and secret voting in 12,515 small voting districts, in which voters choose from two or more candidates. These direct elections by the people of the delegates of the municipal assemblies occur in small voting districts, in which the candidates are known by the people, because of their work in mass organizations or other institutions in the community. Accordingly, brief biographies are displayed in public places; electoral campaigns do not occur.
The mass organizations established in the early 1960s remain integral to the political process. Among other functions, they play a central role in the second-degree elections for the National Assembly and the executive branch. They constitute candidacy commissions, which propose lists of candidates to the delegates of the municipal assemblies and the deputies of the National Assembly, when these assemblies carry out their electoral functions.
In 2019, Cuba approved a new Constitution, adapting to economic and cultural changes in Cuban society and the world since 1976. The Constitution of 2019 preserves and reaffirms the structures of people’s democracy, established in the 1960s, and institutionalized in the Cuban Constitution of 1976.
Many people praise Cuba for its commitment to health, education, sport, and culture; its political stability; its solidarity with the peoples of the world; its dignified and principled foreign policy; and its safe streets. These positive characteristics are a consequence of the foundation established in the 1960s and 1970s: a breaking of the neocolonial relation in order to establish a more equitable distribution of natural resources; and the institutionalization of an alternative political process that ensures that the delegates and deputies of the people will have political power.
On the 61st anniversary of its triumph, we salute the Cuban Revolution.
This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.
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