The Cuban Revolution was an earth-shattering event with huge consequences internationally, not just in Latin America, but further afield. I felt the impact myself whilst travelling across Scandinavia in 2005. I’d run out of clean underwear and, while scanning the aisles of a Göteborg department store, I came face to face with a nice, bright pair of red socks, graced with the iconic Guerilla Heroica motive. Half a century on from the Revolution and one of Fidel Castro’s chief Comandantes is creating fashion trends on the opposite side of the planet.
What was the impact of the Cuban Revolution in the immediate temporal aftermath and across the local region? Revolutions ripple outwards and surely the focus and legacy of the fulfilled 26Julio movement will have affected Latin America?
We must first address the key facts of the revolution itself. Subsequently we can analyse the legacy of the rebel army propaganda and the images and texts that have been gifted to posterity. A critical view of the subsequent insurgency movements across Latin America will allow us to judge the true impact of the ‘Guerrilla Heroica’ myth.
The original iconic 1968 stylized ‘Guerrilla Heroico’ Che Guevara image
created by Jim Fitzpatrick, based on Alberto Korda’s Original Photograph
On 2nd December 1956, a ragtag bunch of 82 Cuban exiles, the vanguard of the 26 Julio movement, reached shore in their homeland, aboard the yacht Granma, having trained up in Mexico under the auspices of their leader, Fidel Castro. An initial assault by right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista’s government forces almost wiped out the brigade. Batista claimed to have killed Castro and fewer than 20 of the Granma’s crew made it into the depths of the Sierra Maestra, to embed and regroup so that the path to victory could unfold. The arrival of the Granma provoked other civil unrest across the island and there were various other revolutionary movements who rose up against state oppression. With the aim of raising support among the island’s population and to foster the movement’s international image, Castro and his surviving comrades began a serious propaganda mission to complement their initially defensive military guerrilla campaign. New York Times journalist, Herbert Matthews, was given unfettered access to the rebel camp and he amplified the message of 26 Julio to the world, giving Castro the legitimacy he craved both abroad and indirectly, empowering the movement among his own people at home.
“This account, among other things, will break the tightest censorship in the history of the Cuban Republic” Matthews (1957)
The mountains of the Sierra Maestra gave the Revolution a romantic edge and the key players bonded tightly amid the supportive rural peasants. Che Guevara became involved in the tide of propaganda and set up Radio Rebelde. He had realised the importance of the CIA’s clandestine radio operation in Guatemala and Radio Rebelde, with its shortwave broadcast direct from the rebel camp, was built on these foundations. After initial teething problems with the broadcast, it became powerful and reached radio sets all across the Western hemisphere.
“Propaganda has always been an important factor, but without Radio Rebelde, the struggle of the July 26th movement would undoubtedly have been protracted.” Gerrard (2009)
The tide gradually turned on the government forces and Castro’s movement gained momentum. As the rebel army grew, guerrilla skirmishes progressed to more conventional battles and the withdrawal of international support for the Batista regime, combined with ever-increasing unpopularity with the people, led him to flee into exile on January 1st 1968. On 8th January, Fidel Castro, arrived in the capital Havana after a prolonged victory march across Cuba.
“Revolutions enter the limelight, not like men on horseback, as victorious conspirators appearing in the forum, but like fearful children, exploring an empty house, not sure that it is empty.” Pettee (1938) pp100-101
Castro set out to consolidate his international position and although the first part of the Revolution had succeeded, ultimately it was how he enforced power that the legacy of 26 Julio would be ensured.
Castro and his revolutionary command chain redeveloped the conciencia of the Cuban people and indirectly affected the conscience of disaffected revolutionary-minded individuals across the world. He instilled the concept of Fidel-patria-revolution at the heart of Cuba’s newfound socialism.
‘The dynamic of Fidel-patria-revolution was a consequence of the processes of 1959 and has since remained at the heart of politics in Cuba.’ Pérez-Stable (1999:10)
The Cuban Revolution could be defined as a guerrilla insurgency, later established as communist in nature and with anti-imperial connotations. The new government built a sustainable strategy to preserve and propagate their political goals. The movement started to inspire regional copycats and the heyday of impact of the Revolution occurred in the following decade, concentrated in Latin America.
‘…the appearance and rooting of a new element in the cultural repertoire of the pan-regional, Latin American left —guerrilla-style insurgency and sometimes urban terrorism—coincides closely with the Cuban Revolution’s success of early 1959.’ Wickham-Crowley (2014: 4)
Che Guevara had been given a ministerial role in government. His real task, however, was as principal propagandist. In the post-revolution period, while Che was dealing with the aftermath of the La Coubre disaster, photographer Alberto Korda, managed to snap the iconic image ‘Guerrilla Heroico’ which would ultimately define the whole legacy of the Cuban Revolution.
Alberto Korda’s defining image of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, taken on March 5, 1960
at the ‘La Coubre’ explosion disaster’s memorial service
His rock-star like charm and Hollywood looks made him the perfect Marxist pinup, the poster boy of guerrilla warfare.
Che was no slouch, though. Castro was a well-educated man but Che’s background as a doctor put him on an intellectual par with the leader. Che was allocated the task of writing the defining literature of the movement. He kept a war diary of the Revolution itself and soon after the violence had settled down he again put pen to paper to critically assert his theories on Guerrilla tactics in warfare.
‘The import of Che’s writings was made visible when government troops that overran guerrilla encampments in various 1960s insurgent settings in Latin America regularly found copies of them’ (Wickham-Crowley 1992: 31)
The Cuban Revolution drove political thinking across Latin America and its very success threatened to undermine the entire status quo of politics across the continent:
‘It provided an explicit blueprint for successful insurrection by reducing the overthrow of governments to a simple matter of faithfully following Che Guevara’s handbook on guerrilla warfare.’ Wright (1991:xii)
Resistance to post-imperial struggles with social imbalances which marginalized the poor, indigenous, rural populations, saw in guerrilla tactics a means of achieving their own political goals and justice. Peru, Chile, Nicaragua, Colombia to an extent; all would see guerrilla uprisings directly influenced by the Cuban Revolution.
‘The armed victory of the Cuban people over the Batista dictatorship was not only the triumph of heroism as reported by the newspapers of the world; it also forced a change in the old dogmas concerning the conduct of the popular masses of Latin America.’ Guevara (2007:7)
Che could not live in the spotlight as a politician, however. His official work was failing him and he craved the spread of his revolutionary ideals. He could not tolerate Castro’s accommodation of the USSR and refused to distance himself from what he perceived as the Bolivarian duties of the movement to fan out across Latin America. How could he sit back and revel in glory if corrupt governments were oppressing neighbouring peoples? Che was hungry for action and after a military foray in Africa, he set out on a moral quest to rescue the Bolivian people. Ultimately, this proved a step too far and providence caught up with the Argentinian liberator. The Bolivian army proved too strong for his small, unsupported guerrilla band and after being surrounded and captured, with agents of the imperialist US enemy being present, Che succumbed to his fate and was executed, his blood spilling like a martyr and his infamy catapulting to realms previously unknown in history with the sole exception of perhaps Jesus Christ. Like Christ, Che was immortal. ‘Guerrilla Heroica’ took on a new dimension. In Italy, people prayed at Mass; there was a beatification movement. One million turned out in Havana for the funeral.
Yet Che’s beatification was perhaps a little premature. He was not whiter than white. His hands were as dirty as any other ‘man of the gun’. As much as he championed the cause of the oppressed in Latin America, his own human rights record had flaws: as the chief post-revolution prosecutor and judge in the show trials against Batista supporters, he had condemned many to death without proper trial or due process. In real politics he was weak, leaving behind him half-finished projects in the Ministry of Industry. In death, Che became a true icon and, had he lived, he would have most probably slipped into anonymity.
‘We say it shortly and to the point: with Che’s death in the Bolivian jungle there ended the organisational and developmental stage of the rural guerrilla movements and of guerrilla war in general.’ Robert Lamberg (1971: 32)
The Cuban Revolution, due to its whole David versus Goliath initial struggle and again in the consolidation of the revolution, took the art of propaganda to a critical new level of effectiveness. The myth of Guerrilla Heroico overwrote the actual history of the revolution. An overarching emphasis was placed on the role of the Sierra Maestra band yet without the less emphasized urban resistance, the overthrow of Batista could never have occurred. Castro and his compadres capitalised on the romance of their guerrilla struggle and used this as a means of securing their own future and of also disseminating their ideas to a wider audience. I think that the uniqueness of the Cuban revolution, its locality to the Latin American region and the fact that it was the first domino to fall in the Spanish-speaking world, meant that it had a heavy impact on Latin America insurgencies and politics for the next 50 years.
Guevara, Ernesto “Che”. 2007. Guerrilla Warfare. USA: BN Publishing
Lamberg, Robert F. 1971. Die castristiche Guerilla in Lateinamerika: Theorie und Praxis eines revolutionären Modells. Hannover, Germany: Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen.
Pérez-Stable, Marifeli. 1999. The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course and Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pettee, George S. 1938 The Process of Revolution. New York: Harper and Row
Wickham-Crowley, Timothy P. 1992. Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes since 1956. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wickham-Crowley, Timothy. 2014. Two “Waves” of Guerrilla-Movement Organizing in Latin America, 1956–1990. Comparative Studies in Society and History / Volume 56 / Issue 01 / (Jan): pp. 215-242
Wright, Thomas C. 1991. Latin America in the Era of the Cuban Revolution. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers
Matthews, Herbet L. 1957. Cuban Rebel Is Visited in Hideout: Castro Is Still Alive and Still Fighting in Mountains New York: New York Times (Feb 24th)
Gerrard, WW (2009) Radio Rebelde
[FILM / VIDEO]
Cuban Revolution (Fidel Castro Raul Castro Che Guevara) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0952Hj4fWw