Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrilla Victory published by Monthly Review Press
With the overthrow of the Batista regime a new chapter in Cuban history began. The early period of the revolutionary government was deeply affected by the means by which it came to power, but many changes occurred in the world of organized labor over the first year of the new regime. In particular, the recently established alliance between the July 26 Movement and the Communist Party did not survive the arrival of the rebels in Havana. Given that the two organizations eventually merged, the realignment of forces within the MR-26-7 takes on considerable importance, in particular the contradictions between a new bureaucracy of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC, Cuban Workers Confederation) and elements who wished to move the revolution in a more radical direction. The future Cuban Communist Party would emerge from the victory of the radicals in this faction fight.
As soon as it was known that Batista had fled, David Salvador was appointed the new general secretary of the CTC, an action that marked the end of the united front with the Communist Party. During the January 1959 strike, the FONU called for a mass meeting in the Parque Central in Havana on January 2, 1959, and another on January 8 to support the revolutionary government. This last appeal, signed by José Maria de la Aguilera for the MR-26-7 and Carlos Fernandez Rodriguez for the Comité Nacional de Defensa de las Demandas Obreras (CNDDO, National Committee for the Defense of Workers’ Demands), is the last statement issued in the name of the FONU as a joint body, although Octavio Louit was still using the title Secretario de Organización del FONU in an interview on January 17. Meanwhile, Ñico Torres and Conrado Bécquer, the latter still in his olive green uniform as a comandante of the rebel army, took the first flight from Santiago to Havana, where they immediately supervised the seizure of the CTC headquarters. This they did in the name of the sección obrera of the MR-26-7, whose leaders took all the seats on the CTC provisional executive committee, with David Salvador as secretary general. The PSP was completely shut out, and, on January 13, the CNDDO wrote a furious letter to Salvador complaining that Torres and Bécquer had told them that the FONU was now dissolved and that they were excluded from decision making and even from entering the building. Receiving no reply, the CNDDO, this time invoking the name of Lazaro Peña, called for a demonstration on January 21, only to be outflanked by David Salvador, who called a demonstration on the same day demanding justice for the 600 workers previously victimized by the Compañía Cubana de Electricidad and to celebrate the end of the compulsory check off of union dues that the government had decreed on January 20.
With the establishment of the revolutionary government in Havana, the center of attention moved to the capital, and it was here that sentiment in the July 26 Movement was most hostile to working with the PSP. The journals Bohemia and Revolución became the mouthpieces for this approach, with frequent articles attacking communism in general and the Cuban communists in particular. In a long interview published in Bohemia in February 1959, David Salvador argues that the FONU was a good idea, but the efforts spent trying to build it were a waste of time, that the communists were not a significant factor in the labor movement, and that only the MR-26-7 had any real presence in the working class. The new leadership of the CTC set up the Frente Humanista (Humanist Front) and using this name succeeded in winning the overwhelming majority of the union elections. Whatever Fidel Castro’s personal views on relations with the communists may have been, and he was careful not to be too specific, his first priority was to keep his own organization together. Thus, when a group of angry communist railway workers knocked on the door of his apartment to denounce what they saw as undemocratic behavior by David Salvador, he listened politely, expressed his interest, but did not pursue the matter further.
As part of the attempt to reassure the more right-wing elements of the MR-26-7 and to confuse the U.S. government, the early “revolutionary government” was headed by a former judge, known for his honesty and his opposition to corruption rather than his radicalism, and many of the new ministers were equally moderate. The appointment of David Salvador to run the CTC, when his personal hostility to the PSP was well known, was the implementation of this strategy within the labor movement.
A galloping bureaucratization of the CTC took place in the first months of 1959; many of the new officials quickly made themselves comfortable and began to resent the constant mobilizations and calls for action. They gravitated toward David Salvador and his associates in the anti-communist wing of the MR-26-7, who started to use crude anti-communism to attack those who wanted to push the revolution to take more radical steps. The more radical elements became known as the “unitario” group within the MR-26-7 sección obrera, among whose most prominent members were those who had been involved in the Las Villas congress: Jesús Soto, Lila León, and José Maria de la Aguilera. These unitarios soon attracted others in the CTC leadership, mainly those with long-term clandestine revolutionary experience such as Ñico Torres and Octavio Louit, who were disturbed by the growing bureaucratization. Seeking allies, they found them in the PSP, who agreed with the need to push the revolution further and who resented being excluded from the leadership of the labor movement.
The basis of the orthodox communist political approach was the theoretical position that history moved in stages and that it was first necessary to complete the “bourgeois democratic” phase of the revolution before moving to socialism. The Cuban Revolution was therefore defined as being “popular, patriotic, democratic, agrarian and for national liberation.” In line with this analysis, the leadership group of the PSP around Blas Roca were content to engage in the revolutionary process as it unfolded and, in particular, to support the wing of the MR-26-7 that seemed most progressive. This was also the section of the leadership that was most sympathetic to their inclusion, primarily those around Raúl Castro and Che Guevara, who condemned sectarianism and spoke publicly for the unity of all revolutionary forces including the PSP. They continued working with those MR-26-7 trade unionists who had wished to carry on the united approach implied by the FONU.
What was the reaction of the rank-and-file workers to this? The first demands to be raised were for the reinstatement of those workers victimized for their militancy or made redundant as part of the old regime’s productivity drive. There was particular joy at the reinstatement of the bank workers sacked for their strike in 1955 and the hundred bus workers dismissed after the coup in 1952. Then there were wage claims, 10 or 20 percent, sometimes enforced by short strikes, more often just won by the threat of action. Some Shell refinery workers managed to double their wages. Throughout 1959, the CTC was the main mobilizing force of the revolution and all of the major demonstrations were called in its name. May Day 1959 saw a million workers on the march, and hundreds of thousands went on strike and demonstrated on the streets to protest at the October airborne attack launched by right-wing exiles from Miami. During the government crisis of July 1959, workers’ protests and a strike on July 26 were important factors in enabling Fidel Castro to remove Manuel Urrutia from the presidency and to secure the post of prime minister for himself. Thus we see a growing rift between the increasing radicalism among ordinary workers contrasting with a tendency to bureaucratization among a section of the CTC officialdom.
Within the CTC, matters came to a head at the 10th Congress of the CTC held in Havana in November 1959. The delegates were 90 percent July 26th Movement supporters, but were deeply split between the anti-communist faction lead by David Salvador and the unitarios fronted by Soto and Aguilera. Conrado Bécquer, who chaired proceedings. had some difficulty in maintaining order. Fidel Castro opened the proceedings, and spoke of the need for unity. Both sides interpreted this to suit their own entrenched position, and matters were no nearer a resolution as the closing session approached. Castro returned, upbraided the delegates for their uncomradely behavior, and it was agreed that a committee composed of Fidel Castro, David Salvador, Conrado Bécquer, José Pellon, and Jesús Soto should compose a compromise list for the executive. The posts were divided between the two factions with an anti-communist deputy to a unitario executive officer, or vice-versa in most positions. Two notable absences were Bécquer and Torres, now leaders of the FNTA and the railway federation respectively. This list was carried by acclaim, with the communist delegates abstaining, and the congress ended in relative harmony.
Che Guevara called the 10th Congress “an arduous war against the representatives of mujalismo, representative of the old CTC gang.” Modern Cuban writing tends to adopt this line, although this was not the case at the time, even in the heated atmosphere of the congress hall, with neither of the newspapers of the PSP and MR-26-7, Hoy and Revolución, using the term mujalista. On the other hand, anti-Castro writers such as Robert Alexander and Efrén Córdova discuss the 10th Congress of the CTC entirely at the level of the bureaucracy itself and see the fight as being between honest officials who respect private property and those who Robert Alexander refers to as “Melons,” green on the outside, red on the inside. The eventual triumph of the unitarios is seen as an imposition by Castro as part of his plot with the communists. Neither of these explanations are satisfactory. In January 1959, the CTC bureaucracy was effectively purged both de jure and de facto. Mujal himself, had sought refuge in the Argentine embassy, from where he was allowed to leave for Miami. The rest of his bureaucratic associates were removed from office and were well enough known by the ordinary membership to have no chance of regaining their positions. However, many of those who took their place quickly adopted bureaucratic attitudes and started using some of the old mujalista techniques such as voting irregularities and anti-communist demagogy. In a manner commonly found among opportunist trade union bureaucrats, they resented the work implied by constant mass mobilization. Aguilera and Louit were particularly vocal in criticizing this trend. The right wing of the bureaucracy, in return, used the accusation of communist influence to attack those who wanted a more radical approach to running the economy. One can say that they adopted similar bureaucratic methods to the mujalistas, but we have to be clear that they did not represent the return to office of the old mujalista bureaucrats themselves.
David Salvador did not last long as general secretary. Events outside the union forced the pace of change, and 1960 was a year in which, following the obvious popularity of the agrarian reform program of the previous year, large-scale nationalizations of foreign-owned enterprises took place. These, if the size of the demonstrations in their support are anything to go by, were very popular, and this radical economic approach, combined with the hostile reaction from the United States, seemed to launch a new wave of popular nationalism among the working class. The more radical political circumstances, combined with the threat of U.S. intervention, pushed the balance inside the CTC in the direction of the unitarios. David Salvador disappeared from view almost immediately after the 10th Congress, and for the rest of 1960 the most prominent CTC spokesman was Conrado Bécquer, with Jesús Soto and Octavio Louit also much in evidence. Salvador resigned in February 1960 and in June joined the “November 30 Movement,” which was linked to the right-wing guerrillas operating in the Escambray mountains. He was arrested in November of that year, expelled from the CTC, and charged with treason. The victory over the U.S.-supported invasion at Playa Girón in April 1961 sealed the dominance of the unitarios within the CTC, and in July 1961 Lazaro Peña, the communist tobacco worker who had been ousted in 1947, assumed leadership of the federation.
Copyright © 2016 by Steve Cushion