The Cuban revolution is now widely recognized as an event of world-historical importance. For the first time there has been a socialist revolution in the Americas. For the first time the new forms of colonialism have been unequivocally rejected. For the first time a socialist revolution has been carried through without the leadership of a Communist Party. For the first time one of the non-aligned nations has joined the Communist world. For the first time a socialist revolution has occurred in a relatively developed country. For the first time capitalism has been confronted with a major revolution realized in conditions of world peace, rather than out of a context of general war. The universal significance of the Cuban revolution makes it one of the decisive phenomena of our time. Yet this significance can only be properly understood after an exact characterization of its particular nature. And this has been almost completely absent from the great volume of debate which the revolution has given rise to outside Cuba.

To take only one example: the first phase of the Revolution —the overthrow of Batista—has been widely described as “bourgeois” or “middle-class”. Dogmatic Marxism is curiously joined by North American liberalism in this belief.footnote1 Yet between January 1959 and November 1960 the corporate wealth of the Cuban bourgeoisie was expropriated with little or no compensation and their political power was swiftly and completely annulled. Throughout that period, indeed up to the time of writing, there was no organized internal opposition to the Revolution on any serious scale whatever. Counter-revolution had to be manufactured from abroad, by a foreign power. How is one to explain the fact that the Cuban bourgeoisie, which is so often credited with having overthrown Batista, proved so impotent in the eighteen months that followed his fall? It was a bourgeoisie that was at least as large and prosperous as in other semi-developed countries of Latin America. The conglomeration of well over 200,000 refugees in Miami provides ample evidence that neither the bourgeoisie itself nor any significant part of its subaltern strata had suddenly acquired a taste for social revolution. Why did the presence of this wealthy and apparently well-entrenched class provide no sociological base for counter-revolution inside Cuba?

Crucial questions like this can only be answered by an analysis which situates the Revolution within its specific historical context. The study which follows attemps to offer a provisional model of the social structure of pre-revolutionary Cuba, and by doing so, to provide a key to an understanding of the nature and development of the Revolution. Its conclusions must be, to some extent, tentative. Critical aspects of Cuba’s past remain almost undocumented; interpretation of key periods has been rudimentary. The recent torrent of books on Cuba has, with some notable exceptions, not created much greater illumination. Nearly all of these adopt either a parochially North-Americo-centric viewpoint, which reduced Cuban history simply to its relations with the United States, or a popular-biographical approach, which absorbs the development of the Revolution in the personal trajectory of its leader.footnote2 In either case, the autonomy and creativity of the Revolution is diminished, and the real history of Cuba concealed.

Like other great revolutions, Cuba’s is a proclamation that man can make his own history. But this history can only be made within certain material and social conditions. This essay will study these. At this stage, any attempt will inevitably suffer from many limitations and failings. But with this reservation, a historical and theoretical analysis is possible. This essay will, it is hoped, contribute towards one.

Cuba is strikingly and immediately set apart from the rest of Latin America by its late independence. The whole of the Spanish American mainland was liberated by 1825. In Cuba, Spanish rule lasted a full 73 years longer, till 1898. The first and decisive question posed by the island’s history is why Cuba, alone of all the Spanish colonies in the Americas, failed to gain its independence early in the nineteenth century? Any study of Cuban society in our own time must take as its starting-point this problem.

Cuba was discovered by Columbus in 1492. The first Spanish foothold in the Americas was, however, for nearly three centuries one of the least developed. The Indian population of Cuba, the peaceful and primitive Caribs, were virtually wiped out by repression and disease within the first two decades of colonization, leaving a severe labour shortage in the island. The discovery of gold and silver on the Latin American mainland led to prolonged neglect of the immense potentialities of Cuban agriculture. The initial phase of Spanish colonization in the Americas was overwhelmingly military and mineral-oriented: it began as a bootyimperialism, sacking and plundering the specie of Mexico and Peru, and only gradually broadened and diversified its character subsequently. The lack of either men or minerals to exploit in Cuba relegated the colony to a minor, mainly military and adminitrative, role in the Spanish imperial system. Between 1720 and 1762, the economy of the island was still so undeveloped that its entire European trade was carried by an average of only five or six merchant ships each year.

The stagnation and neglect of the colony were thrown into dramatic relief by the immense changes wrought almost overnight by the British occupation of Cuba in 1762, in the course of the Seven Years’ War. In the nine months of British military rule, nearly 100 trading ships called at Havana, and 10,000 African slaves were imported into the island.footnote3 The take-off point of the plantation economy can be dated from this brief but overpowering intervention. Sugar and coffee production began to expand rapidly, assisted by the international conjuncture. During the U.S. War of Independence (1775–83), Spanish restrictions on Cuban trade were relaxed in favour of Spain’s new allies, France and the United States. Then in the 1790’s, the Haitian revolution eliminated the single largest producer of sugar and coffee from the world market. The character of the Spanish colony in Cuba was transformed as population and production swiftly rose in response to these developments.