257. Despatch From the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State 1

No. 941


  • Political Conditions in Cuba


Since the fall of Batista and the installation of the provisional government on January 1–2, 1959 no open opposition to the new rulers has appeared. A duality of authority had developed, with the officials and employees of the provisional government in nominal authority, and actual authority and decision frequently exercised by the local head of the “26 of July” Movement. This duality should lessen with the assumption of the Prime Ministership by Fidel Castro. Certain civil liberties are curtailed. The press is exercising voluntary censorship. Confusion at all levels of public administration is gradually lessening, but is still great. Regionalism is a principal issue in the eastern provinces. Labor is restless and demanding. Confusion, failure to solve long-standing problems, later disappointment over excessive promises, and thwarted aspirations of some revolutionary groups will [Page 411] contribute to the formation of opposition forces. The Communists are attempting to obtain positions of influence if not domination within the government and the labor movement.

This despatch is based on the experiences and observations of the writer2 in Habana since the fall of the Batista regime and the creation of the provisional government on January 1–2, 1959, reinforced by information collected on a ten-day, 1,500 mile trip through the Provinces of Habana, Matanzas, Las Villas, Camaguey and Oriente. The easternmost place visited was Santiago and the surrounding small towns. Stops were made at Contramaestre, Bayamo, Holguin, Camaguey, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Cienfuegos and Matanzas among others.

Public Support for the “26 of July” Movement, and the Provisional Government

With the flight of Batista in the early hours of January 1 1959, the “26 of July” Movement moved rapidly and effectively to seize power and consolidate its hold throughout Cuba. It was aided in this by the stand of General Eulogio Cantillo in refusing to oppose the Movement, the attitude of the armed forces in deciding to discontinue fighting and to permit the Movement to take over all armed forces installations, and the nearly universal support of the people. Armed militia of the Movement were on the streets of Habana before noon, had established a headquarters and were rapidly successful in occupying or neutralizing all military strong points throughout the city. The authority of the Movement was never seriously challenged. Considering the situation, the population was remarkably orderly and well-behaved. There was some rioting and looting in downtown Habana, directed principally at gambling casinos, but otherwise the city was surprisingly quiet and within a few days conditions were nearly normal. Comparable developments took place in all principal cities of the country, in many of which there were no disorders of any significance.

Leaders of the “26 of July” Movement credit the general strike which was called on January 1 with being the principal cause of their success in overthrowing the group represented by Cantillo and obtaining their own triumph. Actually, Cantillo seems to have been motivated entirely by a desire to arrange for an orderly assumption of power by the revolutionary groups and avoid further fratricidal strife and violence. He might have preferred to see the victory of the “26 of July” Movement be somewhat less complete, but there is nothing to show that he attempted to establish a government which would oppose the revolutionary movement. His attempts to create some sort of governmental apparatus appear to have been undertaken with a view [Page 412] to maintaining at least a semblance of governmental machinery and activity, rather than from any continuing hostility to the revolutionary movement.

The principal cause of the rapid and complete triumph of the Movement was the tremendous popular support it enjoyed. With Batista gone, the Cuban people were unwilling to accept anything short of a complete rebel victory. In the provinces, the general strike was over almost as soon as it began. It continued for several days in Habana, apparently because of a desire by the revolutionaries to “see Habana suffer”, and their wish to have the forces of Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the city before calling it off. It does not appear to have served any significant purpose, either in Habana or the provinces.

The key factor in the successful take-over by the “26 of July” Movement was the support of the people, and the self-discipline which they maintained. It is literally impossible to find anyone who will publicly criticize the Movement, or express a preference for some other government. That feeling still exists, though perhaps not as intensely as during the first days. It is responsible for the continuing quiet and order in the country. The Cubans have what they want, and are being tolerant and patient while the new rulers attempt to establish new governmental machinery. The bloom is already fading on some of the flowers but Fidel Castro and his Movement are still enjoying a wondrously prolonged honeymoon with the Cuban people.

Duality of Authority

A provisional government was established by the “26 of July” Movement beginning on January 2. The principal figures have reputations for honesty and opposition to the Batista regime. Some are of proven ability, others are of doubtful ability, and some are unknown. The same holds true in the provincial and local governments. Nearly all officers are of good reputation locally. To date, the basic requirement for a top job has been proven opposition to the former regime. Almost without exception, the new provincial and local officials are inexperienced. Many of the best look on their present assignments as temporary, and are anxious to return to their private pursuits as soon as the emergency is over. Those who intend to make a career of governmental service tend to be the less competent. There is great confusion in government, especially at the provincial and local levels. In some cities visited this reached the level of uncertainty as to who was acting as Mayor, or “Comisionado”, as this official is now designated. In theory, each municipality was to be governed by three “comisionados”, appointed by the Minister of the Interior. In practice, [Page 413] a municipality was lucky if there was one “comisionado” actually in office and working, and the system has now been abandoned in favor of a single “comisionado” appointed by the Minister of the Interior.

Actual final authority at all levels is vested in the officer in command of the “26 of July” Movement. In almost all cases, this means the uniformed officer in command of the local detachment of the armed revolutionary troops, or “barbudos” (bearded ones). In Cienfuegos, the 23 year-old Captain in command of the local troops, Armando Fleitas Diaz, was appealed to in order to resolve a labor dispute in nearby sugar centrals. His refusal to involve himself in the matter was roundly criticized, even while his critics recognized that he had no experience in such matters. The one “comisionado” then functioning in that city, Dr. José Antonio Frias, found nothing exceptional in such an attitude, though he himself is a capable lawyer with a national reputation, versed in labor controversies. In Camaguey, the provincial government slowed to a crawl when the commanding officer, Comandante Huber Matos, left to visit Santiago. One of the “comisionados”, Dr. Fernando Martinez Lamo, considered it prudent not to receive Faure Chomon, head of the Directorio Revolucionario, in the absence of instructions from Matos. Chomon is from Camaguey, and had come to the city to attend a celebration in his honor. Dr. Martinez’ qualifications for his position, incidentally, are confined to the operation of a successful medical laboratory.

This attitude of considering the local leader of the “26 of July” forces as the final, and in many cases the only real, authority is a spontaneous reaction by the people. It was fostered by the Movement by its insistence in controlling governmental appointments, and many of the leaders undoubtedly enjoy the prestige and power. Its sources probably go back to the Latin traditions of loyalty to an individual leader in politics, often referred to as “caudillismo”. It extends to the highest levels. The final loyalty of the Cuban people at present is to Fidel Castro, rather than to Provisional President Urrutia or his Government, or to any particular concept of government. Everyone speaks of democracy, but what now exists in Cuba is “Government by Castro”—a situation partly inevitable, but also thrust upon him by the people themselves. With his assumption of the Prime Ministership on February 16, the difficulties created by this duality of authority should lessen. Castro remains the unquestioned leader of the country, but he will now be directly responsible for the actions of the government.

Some Civil Liberties Curtailed; Censorship

The Constitution of 1940, with its extensive list and safeguards of civil liberties, has been replaced by a “Fundamental Law”, under which the provisional government will operate. This law weakens some of the liberties so loudly clamored for under the Batista regime, [Page 414] principally the right of habeas corpus. Some prisoners now may be, and are, held indefinitely without charge. In their zeal to eradicate all traces of the corruption and repression of the previous regime, the authorities are engaging in some of the practices they most objected to. In Camaguey on February 11, local persons estimated that there were about 1,000 persons in jail, under extremely crowded conditions, most of whom were being held without charge. This more than doubled the highest figure recorded under Batista. An American citizen has been held in prison by the “26 of July” Movement and the new government since December 26, 1958, without charge. The civilian courts are being purged, and are only partly functioning. Revolutionary Courts, operating under the “Rebel Code of Justice”, are conducting summary courts-martial of persons both civilian and military accused of a wide variety of crimes committed under the previous regime. Trials, particularly in the provinces, are often mere formalities. The accused is sometimes given the right of appeal. In Habana, appeals are heard by the same judge and prosecutor who conducted the original trial.

The press is exercising self-censorship. No paper dares to appear to criticize the Government or the leading figures of the new regime. Fidel Castro has displayed a very thin skin and deep resentment of criticism. He recently publicly objected to a cartoon in a weekly humorous publication. The staff of the publication waited on him in a body, explained in detail that no disrespect was intended, and published a deeply apologetic statement in the next issue—all this over a cartoon whose criticism was directed not at Castro, but rather at those who have been busily jumping on the revolutionary bandwagon since the first of the year. Castro also publicly objected to an article in Revolución, the official organ of his own Movement, which listed 20 points the editors felt Castro would give particular attention to. He got an immediate printed apology, but somewhat surprisingly coupled with it was a statement that the paper reserved the right of editorial independence. Castro’s resentment and irritation over criticism in the foreign press, particularly in connection with the trials of “war criminals”, and his resultant blasts at what he calls deliberate distortion by the international wire services and some foreign press, have been noted by the local periodicals as well as radio and television chains. The result has been self-censorship and extreme care to avoid anything which Castro might take exception to. As far as the international press is concerned, in Castro’s eyes there are only two categories: The “good” press, which views him and the revolution favorably; and the “evil” press, which criticizes him.

Any expression of independent or divergent views has also disappeared from the press in the provinces. Several formerly prominent papers in towns such as Cienfuegos, Camaguey and Santiago either have disappeared or are being watched closely and with a certain air [Page 415] of hostility by the local “26 of July” representatives. The plants of those that have disappeared have been taken over by groups which publish the local “official” organs of the Movement. In some cases, papers which are still publishing are required to make their plant and staff available at other times of the day for the publication of the “official” organ.


Regionalism, and the determination to realize long-standing local desires, has become a dominant issue in the provinces. This is particularly so in Oriente, where a feeling of resentment against discriminatory treatment by the central government has long existed. The demands are in general reasonable: increased local autonomy in the administration of local governmental agencies and institutions, including the expenditures of funds; and a larger share in the public works programs of the central government. The thought of further development of local resources and the formation of local industry seems to have only secondary appeal, at least at present. In Santiago, an excellent talk on that subject by Dr. Soto Tio, Acting Dean of the Faculty of Economics of the University of Oriente, fell on largely uncomprehending and disinterested ears. The burning issues were clear, and in actuality minor: local control of the Santiago water-works (but with financing still coming from the central government); independent local administration of the local public hospital; and local control of the Santiago airport. Why this last should be a matter of first importance was not clear. There was some talk of the fact that there had once been direct international flights to Santiago, which might somehow be resumed if Santiago had control of its airport and could develop its own tourist attractions. It was clear that the central government would be expected to continue to carry the financial burden of these operations. Indeed, there was strong demand for increased expenditures by the central government. The point that a significant shift in expenditures, or the installation of additional governmental offices in Santiago might cause hardship to people living in the Habana region, was regarded with indifference. In Santiago, as throughout the provinces, there is a noticeable air of vindictiveness toward the capital and its inhabitants. It is generally maintained that the people of Habana have had a disproportionate share of the good things of life in the past, and that they did not participate in the revolution to the extent they should have. Accordingly, if they now suffer in comparison with the provinces, they are only getting their just desserts.

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Restlessness of Labor

The Embassy has pointed out in a number of despatches the restlessness of labor sine the revolution and the lack of firm control and dominant influence in that field by the “26 of July” Movement. This has led to confused and often excessive demands by labor, local strikes, wildcat strikes and lockouts. The confusion becomes even clearer when travelling through the provinces. Labor problems and labor demands, and the resultant settlements, varied widely from one sugar central to another. The only basic pattern was one based on a struggle for control by rival local leaders and groups, and a generalized demand for increased wages. The union leadership during the Batista regime has been almost universally discredited, with the individual leaders either in jail, in hiding, or divested of their union rights. As I spoke with people throughout the country, I found one common thought—that only Fidel Castro could bring order out of the confused labor situation and get everybody working again. Unresolved labor demands could be settled later. The most important, and really basic, necessity was to get the economy going again as rapidly as possible, and produce a full sugar crop. The assumption that only Fidel could bring about order proved correct. He later made a public statement3 urging workers to buckle down and leave their just demands for later settlement, and rapid progress was promptly apparent.

Possible Sources of Opposition

There is no active, open opposition to the provisional government, or to the “26 of July” Movement, at present. There are several sources of potential opposition. Causes of the development of opposition, not necessarily in order of importance, are: confusion (which is apparent on all sides); failure to solve long-standing problems such as chronic unemployment and underemployment and the distortions caused by an essentially single crop economy; resentments and fears created by excessive promises of a demagogic nature; and thwarted political aspirations of some significant groups, mainly revolutionary.

The principal source of potential opposition within the revolutionary groups is the complex formed by the groups most directly associated with and supported by former President Carlos Prio, including the Organizacion Auténtica, the Directorio Revolucionario, and the Federacion Estudiantil Universitaria (FEU—Federation of University Students). These groups were largely, if not completely ignored by the “26 of July” Movement in the formation of the provisional government. There has already been one period of tension between them and the “26 of July” Movement, and it seems certain that there will be [Page 417] others in the future. Revolutionary Law Eleven, denying validity to course credits and degrees received in Cuba during the past two years, was approved principally in an effort to satisfy demands of the FEU. It is probably the most controversial action in Cuban eyes taken to date by the provisional government, and is opposed by the Catholic Church among others—at least partly because the Catholic University of Villanueva was the most reputable and prominent private center of higher learning which remained open during the last years of the Batista regime. These groups, and other peripheral groups such as the Triple A of Aureliano Sanchez Arango, can be expected to form the nucleus of a political opposition group, which will probably take definite form only when preparations for general elections finally get underway.

Another potential opposition group is found within the intellectuals and middle class people who formed the stimulus behind the revolutionary opposition throughout the struggle against the Batista regime. These people kept the revolutionary movement going during the lean, difficult years, and gave it the idealistic character and appeal which came to characterize the “26 of July” Movement. Originally separate in organizations such as the Movimiento de Resistencia Cívica (Civic Resistance Movement) and the Grupo de Instituciones Civicas (Group of Civic Institutions), they tended during the last months of the struggle to lose their identity within the framework of the “26 of July” Movement. As Castro has moved since the success of the revolution to establish a broad popular base of support by appealing to the rural class (campesinos) with promises of land reform, schools and roads, and by promises to the working classes of future rewards, the intellectuals and middle class supporters have begun to have private doubts and reservations concerning him and his Movement. The writer has been surprised at the openness with which those doubts have been expressed to him in private conversation, both in Habana and in the provinces. That feeling has not progressed to the point at which there is any possibility of an early break between those groups and Castro, but it clearly exists. If Castro shifts from the present leftist and somewhat irresponsible attitude which he is displaying in public, the feeling could disappear. But if he continues as at present, the groups which originally supported him from idealistic and reformist motivations may well seek another leader.

The Catholic Church should also be mentioned among possible oppositionist groups. Publicly, the Church has consistently maintained that there could be no doubt of the essentially moderate, Catholic and anti-Communist orientation of Castro and the “26 of July” Movement. Privately, the Church has not been so sure, and has made strong efforts, mainly through Catholic Action, Catholic Youth and the Young Catholic Workers (JOCJuventud Obrera Católica) to insure [Page 418] Church influence and an anti-Communist attitude. Many Catholic leaders are strong and undeviating supporters of the provisional government and the “26 of July” Movement. Yet within the Catholic laity sufficient uneasiness has developed so that there is already underway a project to form a Christian Democrat Party in preparation for the general elections expected in two years. The group proposing this step assumes that the “26 of July” Movement will become a political party—an assumption almost universally held—and expects to run in opposition to it.

Another source of opposition is found in the political groups which opposed Batista, but preferred to seek a peaceful solution. These include the Auténtico forces led by Ramon Grau San Martin, and the followers of Carlos Marquez Sterling. These groups, particularly the followers of Marquez Sterling, may not be capable of forming a separate party, but they will certainly look for a political home. There is no indication to date that they would be in any way welcome within the political forces supporting the provisional government, and they may well organize into an opposition political force.

The remnants of the political structure created by the Batista regime must also be considered as a potential source of opposition. The individuals who formed the membership of the Governmental Coalition were in many cases sincere in their support of Batista, and their political leaders experienced and capable. Those people are now homeless, in the political sense, and must be reckoned with when general elections are held. If the revolutionary groups still consider them political pariahs at that time, they will nevertheless endeavor in one way or another to make their weight felt politically. The revolutionary groups maintain that persons who sought or held elective office under Batista are enjoined from voting or running for office for a period of years. This is an unrealistic stand, and the political supporters of the Batista regime represent a ready-made following for the leaders or group who first indicate the possibility of altering it.

Another source of opposition, probably minor but possibly violent, is found in the relatives and friends of those who are now being punished by the Revolutionary Courts for alleged crimes committed under the previous government. Over 300 persons have been executed by sentence of those courts, as well as an indeterminate number sentenced to long imprisonment, and the trials are continuing. The relatives and friends of the condemned cannot be expected to regard the revolutionary movement with favor, and at least some of them may undertake to practise the same “eye for an eye” type of justice.

Finally, there is the Communist Party. It now has a public posture of collaboration with the revolutionary movement. It will probably not succeed in identifying itself fully with the movement, and hence will exist as a separate, opposition force.

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Position of the Communist Party

By mid–1958, the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP—Popular Socialist Party, the Cuban Communist Party) had developed a line of reasoning by which it was able to come out in support of the revolutionary activities of the “26 of July” Movement, even without the existence of a United Front. The party then followed a policy of encouraging revolutionary activities and disorders, and of claiming credit for revolutionary successes, without jeopardizing the Party apparatus. With the success of the revolution, the Party (which had been illegal and clandestine) at once came into the open, and resumed publication of Party publications and literature. It is the only group in Cuba now functioning as an organized political party. It is acting basically as though a United Front existed, complaining bitterly when rebuffed or thwarted, but persisting in its efforts. It is endeavoring to achieve positions of influence, if not dominance, within the government and in the organized labor movement. While the “26 of July” Movement is professedly anti-Communist, it has not been aggressively so and some of its leaders are perhaps receptive to Communist ideology. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who has much influence within the “26 of July” Movement, is considered an extreme leftist and has been talking and acting like a Communist since the fall of the Batista regime. In addition, Raul Castro, second to his brother in the Movement and head of the Armed Forces, is believed to have a far leftist political orientation. Nevertheless, the Communists do not appear to have achieved any appreciable success to date in infiltrating either the “26 of July” Movement or the provisional government, which the Movement controls. In the labor field the picture is far from clear, though it appears as though the Communists have achieved some degree of success in obtaining positions of influence at the lower levels. It is difficult to obtain an accurate picture because of (1) the pronounced tendency of the Batista regime to label all oppositionists as Communists, and (2) the loose manner in which the word is used locally. Management and the conservative classes tend to describe aggressive labor leaders, particularly those who are disposed to operate independently, as Communists. The picture is further confused because most of the former labor leaders have lost power or disappeared from the labor scene, and the new figures are largely unknown. Even such a person as David Salvador, the “26 of July” Movement leader in the labor field, is a subject of debate. He is generally regarded as having formerly had Communist associations, and now being anti-Communist. However, in Camaguey two reliable sources in addition to our Consular Agent said that in that Province he was definitely considered to be still a Communist. Another person, also considered reliable, said he was not a Communist, and that his behavior at Central Stewart, source of his local labor [Page 420] support, was only what should be expected from a labor leader with union elections less than three months away. All that can be said with certainty is that in Habana, and throughout the area I visited, the situation in organized labor is still greatly confused and fluid, and that the Communists have probably had some success in obtaining positions of influence, at least temporarily.

For the Ambassador:
Daniel M. Braddock
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/2–2559. Confidential. Drafted by Topping.
  2. Topping.
  3. Not further identified.