Violence in Cuba was a political process that was resorted to in tossing out the Batista dictatorship once all legal routes to achieve that end were found blocked. An armed rebellion -organized by the July 26th Movement (along with its rural component in the Sierra Maestra mountains) and the Revolutionary Directorate (with its Llano flatlands wing)- pursued two strategies that were different but had identical ends.
That common objective, along with the forging of organizational unity, led to a pact that was cemented in Mexico between Fidel Castro and Jose Antonio Echeverria, a university student leader who died bravely after the attack on the Presidential Palace in Havana on March 13, 1957.
With the victory of the Revolution, a tradition of empathy with and assistance to similar national liberation efforts was reaffirmed. This tradition, which was keenly present in the imagery of those who had participated in the struggle against tyranny in Cuba, would be realized in armed expeditions to liberate the Haiti of Duvalier, Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, and the Nicaragua of Somoza – all between March and June of 1959.
While the Soviets were still 6,000 miles from Havana Bay, the first two of those expeditions were organized horizontally, as was another that arrived in Panama in April of that same year.
From what I know, these historical events have not been studied in depth. However, once those regional dictatorships were perceived as specific fronts of the same battleground, the provision of armed assistance appears to have been more the result of the operative political culture of that generation than of official duty. If Cuba had achieved freedom through armed struggle, others could too.
Moreover, a good number of Latin Americans (particularly Dominicans) had joined Cuba’s own struggle against Spanish colonialism in the Ten Tears War and later in the War of 1895. Likewise, several non-Cubans -among them an Argentinean, a Mexican and a Dominican- were part of the 1956 expeditionary force aboard a small fishing vessel, the Granma.
Later, armed opposition to the revolutionary process assumed specific names in specific places. In the Escambray Mountains, counter-revolutionary bands there were formed, armed and supplied by the CIA. Nonetheless, these were routed by the young revolutionary State in a cleanup action that involved not only the regular army, but also the civilian population organized into militias. Similarly, armed participants in the events of the Bay of Pigs defeated the US-backed 2506th Brigade in less than 72 hours.
In the book by writer Norberto Fuentes, which was published while he lived in Cuba, the nature of the problem was suggested: Violence here too was a course of action imposed on the actors, not a choice.
With the expulsion of Cuba from the OAS and its diplomatic isolation, in a certain sense the Cuban leadership felt unfettered and the idea of transforming the Andes into the Sierra Maestra of Latin America acquired public visibility; this would have numerous expressions during the 1960s.
However, with the fall of Che in a failed armed campaign in Bolivia, in contrast to the subsequent electoral victory of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile, the possibility was posed of a non-violent path for the taking of power by the popular and revolutionary movement, which became a well-discussed topic at that time among the left.
The debate continued without resolution as the armed victory of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua and the electoral triumph of the Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement in Granada, both in 1979, demonstrated that life is neither level nor linear; it “gives us surprises,” like in the song by Ruben Blades.
All this left an imprint on Cuban culture, and certainly not only among the revolutionary leadership, though they are usually seen from abroad as being a bell jar that isolates their own people.
But nonviolence in Cuba is not a new phenomenon: it was mentioned for the first time at the end of the 1960s by several Protestant church leaders. They broke with a tradition that had been adopted in the conservative gospel of the North, now being reformed by its Black American adherents, especially the southerners and particularly by the thought and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.
These Cuban churches began to gradually study and learn about nonviolence, celebrating commemorative theological days in its name and contextualizing it in the midst of a different cultural reality.
This fact of a different cultural reality is of great importance if one considers that attempts to duplicate and copy have caused more problems than good; as proof, we could point to everything from Soviet philosophy manuals to affirmative action policies praised by some as a form of struggle against racism.
Nonviolence was a theory and practice received with certain level of mistrust, because it broke with conventional conduct and code, and it was strange, much more so in a context in which so-called scientific atheism was at its full height.
It began with a lack of understanding and even rejection, but ended up enjoying Fidel’s presence in a Methodist church in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood during the 1984 visit to Cuba by Reverend Jesse Jackson, one of the most visible followers of Dr. King. It’s said that one worshipper exclaimed, “Damnnn, Fidel Castro in a church!”
I write this evoking a Spanish classic concerning the culture of nonviolence: “They come to be novelties / the things that are forgotten.” Once again, the roof of our historical memory suffers from numerous holes.