Sara Kozameh. Souls. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2019.
Pablo sat before me, the colorful strands of Vodou beads draped across a bright red shirt that contrasted with his dark toned skin. A framed poster of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen hung on the wall behind him, and displayed next to it, the black and red flag of the 26th of July Movement. At eighty-seven years old Pablo Milanés Fuentes, a respected Haitian-Cuban Vodou priest, veteran of the Rebel Army and the revolutionary militias, advocate and beneficiary of agrarian reform, and lifelong farmer, recounted a series of life-stories during an oral history interview I conducted in 2017, as I traveled through rural enclaves of Oriente to document black experiences in the early Cuban Revolution.
“La tuvimos que guapear,” Pablo says to me about the property title to the 65 hectares of land that his family still farms. We had to fight for it. Born in 1930, Pablo worked on coffee and sugar plantations and subsistence agriculture from a young age. Too far from any rural schools, he did not get the opportunity to learn to read or write. But he had grown up hearing stories about the Haitian Revolution from his father and grandfather who had both emigrated from Haiti in 1920 in search of work. When Fidel Castro and his band of guerrillas settled in the Sierra Maestra in 1957, Pablo and his brothers joined the revolt against Batista. They provided food and supplies to rebel soldiers, regularly butchering their own cattle to distribute meat at guerrilla campgrounds across the mountain range.
In 1959, once the rebels had taken over the government, Pablo recruited a rebel soldier to provide military training to local peasants. Together, they formed a militia to help protect the rebels’ still loose grip on power. With the passage of the 1959 land reform law that granted his family nominal ownership over the coffee fields they cultivated, agrarian reform became the site of ongoing struggle over the nature of Cuba’s revolutionary transformation. Pablo led local fights against landowner Domingo Latour. Reluctant to give up ownership of his land, Latour resisted the revolutionary land law and conspired to prevent the peasants from selling their coffee harvests to buyers. But in the face of armed resistance and organized pressure from local peasants backed by the new revolutionary government, Latour—who in a fitting irony descended from a French landowning family that fled Haiti after its 1804 independence—finally conceded the land.
Although the Cuban Revolution was multi-racial, multi-class and significantly rural, the faces of revolutionary leadership whose photographs traveled the world in the 1960s—those of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Raúl Castro, Celia Sánchez, Haydée Santamaría, to name a few—were generally light-skinned and hailed from upper middle class families. As the revolution consolidated, narratives about its origins foregrounded its visibly white leadership, reinforcing the sense that it was a white, significantly male, and middle class-led revolution. These narratives silenced not only the stories, contributions and multiple experiences of revolutionaries—women, for example—who fought to end the dictatorship, but also the experiences and contributions of hundreds and even thousands of black Cubans who participated in the insurgency and worked to shape the contours of the subsequent revolutionary moment. Despite their prevalence, the images of white-middle class youths who led the revolution remain at odds with the profiles of Cubans who also made the revolution—and moreover, who made the revolution theirs.
In 1959, Cuba’s new revolutionary government passed and implemented a sweeping agrarian reform law that forever changed the political, social and economic face of the island. This article unearths the history of a crucial group of black radical campesinos—peasants from the mountainous, coffee growing regions of eastern Cuba, like Pablo Milanés Fuentes—some of whom fought in the Cuban countryside long before the arrival of Fidel Castro and his guerrillas, and whose organizing, both before and after the insurgency, helped lay the groundwork for the agrarian agenda that materialized in 1959 and put the country on a path of drastic transformation. These peasants—many of them longtime Communists—and their contributions to the victory of the Rebel Army and later to the revolutionary agrarian program that transformed the island—have largely been forgotten.
Today, the Cuban Revolution is often remembered for its expansion of education and free universal medical care. In its first decade the revolution materialized—perhaps more than anywhere else—in the countryside, where social and economic structures were turned upside down. Indeed, reporting on his trip across the island in 1960, New York Times journalist Herbert Matthews commented that, “…the agrarian reform is the real heart of the Revolution.” The black radical peasants in this article matter because their efforts left a vital imprint on one of the revolution’s most important laws and arguably its most socially, economically, and politically transformative measure.
A series of factors converged to render these particular agents of revolutionary change invisible. After 1959, even as the revolution made important strides against discrimination and structural racism that permeated Cuban society, continued reliance on narratives of a “raceless nation”—the assertion that Cuban identity transcended racial identity—made it difficult to emphasize the particular stories of historically marginalized social groups. Debates over the merits of the use of racial categories originating during the Independence Wars continued into 1959, as speaking specifically in terms of racial differentiation after the revolution hardened into a taboo that was often equated with taking on a counterrevolutionary attitude or indeed with racism itself. Invoking ideas of a citizenry that transcended race allowed both blacks and whites to challenge racial discrimination. Yet it simultaneously negated the particular experiences of Cubans who were, in practice, not materially equal and had certainly not been prior to the 1959 revolution.
For historians, the discourse of a raceless nation poses a particular challenge: as mentions of race evaporated from popular and official spaces, they also became difficult to find in the archival sources that we rely on to reconstruct those histories. As a result, identifying the black protagonists of rural struggles in eastern Cuba—referred to as Oriente—without a clear indication of racial markers or oral corroboration can be a nearly impossible task. In the particular case of sources on the rural peasantry and the physical isolation of enclaves where state presence was scarce and illiteracy was high, the elusive written archive often bears too few fruits for researchers seeking to locate the histories of subalterns. Pablo Milanés Fuentes, for example, only learned to read and write after 1959, when he housed three literacy brigadistas in his home. His rich political and religious history is easily lost to scholars unable to visit his community high up in the Sierra Maestra—reachable only on roads that are inhospitable, even in one of Cuba’s prized 4 × 4 yipis (Jeep).
Between the geographic isolation, limited literacy, and historic negation of race, the stories of black peasants in Cuba generally remain elusive. But the black radicals in this article also face additional forms of erasure. The standard revolutionary “grand narrative” has consistently portrayed Cuba’s peasants as the stronghold of the revolution—elevating them as the heroes responsible for the success of the guerrilla insurgency. This reductive narrative flattens the experiences and aspirations that led to the collaboration of the peasantry and erases not only the race or background of protagonists, but their agency—rendering them visible only to the extent that they appear as supportive peasant collaborators. Post-1959, “grand narratives” have also made it appear as though benefits conceded after the revolution were bequeathed to Cubans from above. But across Cuba, peasants gained titles to the land they labored, not by having those rights bestowed upon them perfunctorily, but by actively fighting for them.
At the same time, Cuba’s black radicals suffer the “double erasure” of also being silenced by scholars who dismiss their history for its failure to challenge that same “grand narrative” that sees peasants in eastern Cuba as a fortress of the revolution. In other words, they are rendered invisible precisely because they act as agents of the revolution, rather than as symbol of its contradictions. This article, based primarily on oral histories and testimonial narratives, seeks to recover the voices, stories, and aspirations of some of these black radical peasants whose serious commitment to socialism and agrarian justice made an early and deep impact on the course of the Cuban Revolution.
This article also contends that its protagonists matter because they demonstrate that one of the revolution’s most important transformations descends from a lineage of radical agrarian struggles dating to the 1930s that were rooted in resistance to racial discrimination and aspirations for an egalitarian world—led to a considerable extent by black Cubans. Taken to its most logical extension, implications of this argument would suggest that, if agrarian reform was as central to the revolution as its leaders claimed—if it was indeed the heart of the revolution—then despite the primarily white cast of lead characters, the most significant transformation to occur under the Cuban Revolution derives significantly from radical black struggles.
Finally, many of the black radicals who fought for agrarian reform were also Communists. They had actively militated in Cuba’s Communist Party long before the arrival of Fidel Castro’s rebels and even when the party was illegal and functioned underground. This article challenges the interpretation that the radicalization of the Cuban Revolution emerged as an elite and urban imposition from rebels in Havana. Instead, it suggests, at least one form of communism linked particularly to anti-racist struggles developed organically and on-the-ground in rural Cuba, and indeed existed, collaborated with, and influenced the revolution’s leaders. Thus, the socialist character of the revolution—while not representative of Cuba’s entire population—was, in some form, present all along.
Locating, Translating, and Ascribing Race
It is important to point out that the Afro-Cubans profiled in this article did not overtly mobilize black identity, nor did they frame their demands for land and liberation around blackness. Considering Cuba’s particular construction around race and nationality, it is, perhaps, not too surprising that black peasants would organize in ways that did not rely on mobilizing race. After Independence, the pull of the discourse around Cuba as a “raceless nation” held significant sway across all political spectrums of Cuban society. Several events over the course of the twentieth century in Cuba created a recurrent political climate that discouraged race-based politics. In 1910, the discourse was used to suppress black political organizing. Tensions over whether to combat racism by invoking racial difference or instead suppressing it came to a head with that year’s passage of the Morúa Law, which outlawed race-based political parties in Cuba. Two years later, the government killed over 2,000 black Cubans protesting against disenfranchisement, violently targeting and destroying the Independent Party of Color, and stirring anxieties over a supposed impending “race war.” Fears generated by the 1912 massacre might explain why some black Cubans—including the black radicals in this article—opted for making political claims utilizing a discourse of national citizenship that aspired to transcend race, or at the very least a discourse that declined to highlight it.
In the 1930s, debates within the Cuban Communist Party echoed the logic of “raceless natonalism” and presaged the suppression of race as a category of analysis that would prevail after 1959. In 1933, for example, the Party’s Camagüey District Committee claimed that the establishment of a “Black Department” would itself constitute an act of discrimination. After 1961, the Marxist frameworks that became official policy coalesced around class as the permissive category of analysis. Theoretically, once class difference had successfully been eliminated under communism, some revolutionaries held, the disappearance of racial and gender disparities would logically follow. Conceivably well meaning in its aspiration to dismantle all hierarchies among Cubans, the focus on class nevertheless worked against the possibility of overt organizing across specifically racial lines.
Despite its adhesion to the dominant discourse on race in 1933, by 1934 the Cuban Communist Party had gained many followers in Oriente and among black Cubans. Like many social struggles in Cuba, the fight for agrarian reform was indeed cross-racial and multi-class. But it is also true that in Oriente, blacks were overrepresented among landless peasants and agricultural laborers. The enactment of radical land distribution would disproportionately benefit black peasants. Moreover, the Party’s explicit anti-racist platform and elevation of black labor activists sent a strong message regarding its positions on Afro-Cuban inclusion and black empowerment. Thus, although Afro-Cuban communists may have avoided framing their demands around blackness, their support for the Communist Party can be interpreted to have quietly signaled adhesion or encouragement of race-based politics.
Yet, a methodological problem still exists: these black radical agrarianists did not ascribe a particular blackness to themselves, nor did they appeal to racial consciousness. This silence may itself be a reflection of the types of archival sources available, coded within the logic of Cuban nationalist discourse. But because these peasants do not appear to have overtly mobilized race as primary component of their identities, I lean self-consciously on the category of blackness, cognizant of the ways in which these classifications (black and Afro-Cuban) may be ascribing a cultural and racial identity that the protagonists themselves may have rejected. Transposing U.S. racial categories onto Cuban ones inevitably collapses a multiple categories—trigueño, mestizo, moreno negro—into an overarching category of black or “African-American.” But by referring to Cuba’s radical agrarianists of color as black—and while resisting the projection of a false sense of racial cohesiveness to the category—I hope to recover a neglected dimension to the 1959 revolutionary project.
Agrarian Reform and the Cuban Revolution
In January 1959, Fidel Castro and his parade of bearded rebels rolled into Havana, ecstatic that they had triumphed against Batista. Within days, Cuba’s peasantry became the central focus of revolutionary policy: “Without agrarian reform there is no Revolutionary Government,” Fidel bellowed out to the mass of 150,000 peasants who had gathered in Guantánamo to hear him speak in late January; he was greeted by cheers and what one local newspaper described as “delirious ovations” from the crowd. Hailed as the “centerpiece” of the revolution by its leaders and followers, the Agrarian Reform Law, passed five months later, in May 1959, quickly upended Cuban economic, social and cultural life. Over the next few years, the enactment of this law tore at notions of private property, inverted social hierarchies, and pitted wealthy landowners and the U.S. government against the revolution. Indeed, it was agrarian reform that first unleashed unbridled U.S. antagonism against the new government. And sixty years later, it remains at the heart of efforts to tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In April 2019, in an aggressive move against Cuba, the U.S. government allowed a provision of the 1996 Helm-Burton Law to go into effect, essentially allowing U.S citizens and Cuban-Americans whose property was seized after 1959 to sue foreign companies operating on that property. With its considerable consequences, and as the basis for social transformation, Cuba’s project of agrarian reform was, I argue elsewhere, the linchpin of both the consolidation and radicalization of the revolution. But beyond the leadership that signed laws, attended ceremonies and whose faces plastered the front pages of national newspapers, who were the individuals working on the ground—building momentum and support for the rebels and their revolutionary policies, implementing the laws and making the new reality materialize?
Black Radical Agrarianism in Oriente
In September 1958, at the height of the guerrilla war to topple dictator Fulgencio Batista, Laureano Prado, a peasant from Guantánamo, crossed Cuba’s easternmost mountain range, headed toward Mayarí. He had been elected to represent the Peasant Association of Ají de la Caldera at an important peasant congress organized in conjunction with Fidel Castro’s political organization, the 26th of July Movement (hereon abbreviated as 26JM). On his way, he picked a fight with a group of landowners he encountered. “I think that when this war is over the government will hand over the land to those who work it!” he yelled out to the men. One of them turned and yelled back, “Who said that? Don’t start talking trash! No government can give away land—only the communists do that, and this is a war to end communism!” In his account of this brief provocation, a pleased Laureano reports, “they, of course, had no idea that I was a local Communist Party leader.” In the 1973 magazine article commemorating the 15-year anniversary of the Peasant Congress in Arms, where this anecdote appears, there is no mention of Laureano Prado’s race or color. A picture of him published next to the interview, however, reveals a perhaps forgotten but common trait about peasant organizers and members of the Communist Party in eastern Cuba: Laureano was black.
Oriente, the Cuban east, was heavily populated with people of African descent who lived in rural and mountainous areas. In most of Oriente’s rural municipalities, blacks outnumbered white, so it should be no surprise that they comprised a good portion of peasant leaders in the region. The Communist Party even referred to parts of eastern Cuba as the “black belt of Oriente,” as it briefly sought to popularize a separatist plan for black self-determination in the early 1930s. The region of Oriente and its radical black peasant leaders were not entirely representative of the entire island. In addition to having more blacks than other regions, eastern Cuba also had more U.S. owned sugar plantations, more encroachment upon the land, more illegal land squatting, and as a result, more violent land struggles than almost any other region of Cuba. It is significant, then, that these struggles born in Oriente’s mountainous regions—rooted in racial and rural inequality—became central to how the story of the Cuban Revolution unfolded.
Cuban peasants had been organizing against displacement from their land and pushing for agrarian reform since as far back as the 1920s. The short-lived 1933 revolution had contemplated a series of agrarian transformations, and the 1940 Constitution had even passed an agrarian reform law that, to the frustration of many Cubans, was never implemented. Fidel Castro even mentioned it in his well-known 1953 speech, “History Will Absolve Me.” Competing conceptions of what agrarian reform should look like existed across the island in decades preceding the 1959 revolution. A more conservative vision of land reform posited the protection of private properties of large landowners while more liberal and radical notions, encapsulated in the “land to its tiller” slogan, envisioned the expropriation and free redistribution of land to poor peasants. Six months into 1959, the battle for the revolution’s political and ideological character materialized around struggles over the agrarian reform law. But, significantly, as this article will show, the land reform that was eventually signed, enacted, and made waves across the hemisphere, was, it turns out, in large part built on the ideas, experiences and aspirations of a critical group of radical peasants—many of them black and communist—with a long history of organizing in the majority-black regions of eastern Cuba.
Following the Wars for Independence, in which Cubans fought to liberate the island from Spanish rule and end slavery, some of the same insurgents who had risked their lives in the name of Cuban sovereignty now found themselves waging war against greedy landowners, or as they called them, geófagos—usurpers of the land. Evelio Lino de la Mercedes Álvarez—known more commonly as Lino Álvarez—was born in 1877, while slavery was still legal in Cuba. Like other free and enslaved blacks, he fought in the wars for liberation. Lino reached the rank of Lieutenant, fighting alongside José Maceo, the younger brother of Afro-Cuban Cuban national hero Antonio Maceo. After promises to grant land to veterans of the war went unfulfilled, he and other veterans—many of them also black—occupied and settled on unclaimed state-owned lands across the island, called realengos.
In the 1930s, when illegal encroachment upon the land by private companies threatened their livelihoods, peasants organized into collectives and peasant leagues. Though not alone in its struggles, Realengo 18, an 11,000 acre amalgamation of farms located in the mountainous eastern municipality of Guantánamo, is particularly recognized for its combative and radical approach to land struggles. There, Lino Álvarez led years of successful resistance against the Rural Guard—a paramilitary force with roots in the U.S. military occupation of Cuba and designed to protect the extensive properties of wealthy landowners. After having exhausted all legal recourse, the Realengo 18 peasants armed themselves, demanding an end to the usurpation of their land or the “alteration of public order.” When the Rural Guard attempted to evict any of them, they formed an encirclement around the farms, patrolled the area, and with cries of “Land or blood!” sent the outnumbered Rural Guardsmen on their way. Once, Realengo 18 peasants woke up to find five kilometers of barbed wire placed around a portion of their land. Lino ordered the immediate purchase of 200-300 sets of pliers, and by morning the new fence was shredded and rendered useless. The slogan that embodied conceptions of agrarian reform by the peasants who lived in Realengo 18 was nothing short of radical: “Free Possession of land to those who work it!”
The battles for land at Realengo 18 in 1933 caught the attention of Cuba’s Communist Party (founded in 1925 as the Cuban Communist Party, CCP, and later renamed as the Popular Socialist Party, or PSP), whose members saw revolutionary potential in the armed peasantry and a convergence of political strategies and goals of realenguistas and themselves. In May 1933, the CCP headquarters in Havana announced its support for the rural land movements in Oriente, calling for “the taking and redistribution of the land among landless campesinos by means of armed warfare; for the support of campesinos who are fighting for the land.” From Havana, the CCP—which was illegal in Cuba until 1938—sent a clandestine arms shipment to the Realengo, whose peasants otherwise patrolled the area armed only with sticks and machetes, and also set up a municipal office on their land. It also sent representatives and journalists to help rally support for the land claims being made by the collective, which resulted in firsthand journalistic reports that elevated the struggles at Realengo 18 to the national and international realm. By March 1934, the Communists were pointing specifically to Oriente’s mountainous regions of the Sierra Maestra and the Sierra Cristal for examples of successful peasant organizing, where peasants had successfully raised coffee prices paid to producers and were now carrying out a rent strike. Squatters had even undertaken their own efforts at armed land redistribution. The Party also created an “agrarian commission” that began making calls for radical agrarian reform and started organizing Peasant Associations across Cuba.
It was during this same moment of convergence of political platforms between Oriente’s radical agrarianists and the Communists that the CCP also became the nation’s staunchest advocate for racial equality, making large inroads in its organizing with black workers and peasants. By 1934, several members of the Central Committee of the CCP were Afro-Cuban. Eight out of 23 members of the Central Committee were black. It’s Secretary General, Blas Roca, moreover, as well as several of its leaders, Severo Aguirre, Lázaro Peña, Salvador García, Serafín Portuondo Linares, Martín Castellanos, Antolín Dickinson Abreu, and Marcelino Hernández were all black or Afro-Cuban. In 1935, the Communists had publicly committed to working against capitalism, racism and sexism, simultaneously. In a 1935 publication, Communist sympathizer Agustín Alarcón’s intersectional analysis of race, class, and gender publicly signaled the Party’s commitment to these ideas simultaneously: “The black masses, like the masses of poor women, suffer … a double oppression, a general [oppression] of class and a specific [oppression] of race or sex. (The black female worker suffers three: that of class, of race, and … of sex.)” In the “black belt of Oriente,” where violent conflicts over land were ongoing, and where that majority of the population was black or afro-descendant, it is no wonder, then, that attempts by Communists to organize the peasantry resonated.
In 1938, the CCP struck a deal to back Fulgencio Batista, in return for formal recognition of the Party’s legal status and influence over the major labor union, the Cuban Confederation of Workers. Across the island, the CCP was discredited for this collaboration, but in rural Oriente where the commitment to anti-racism and agrarian justice resonated strongly, the Communists retained popular support and continued to organize. Black Cubans joined the CCP and the Communist Youth League, in some places making up over 30-50 percent of the membership. In 1944, conservative Cuban newspaper Diario de la Marina and U.S. intelligence reports alleged that number had risen to 75 percent, leading conservatives to refer to the CCP as the “Negro Party.” The number was undoubtedly exaggerated in an attempt to stir fears and discredit both the anti-racist movement and the Communist Party by linking them.
In the decades leading up to the Cuban Revolution, links between radical agricultural workers, landless peasants, and the Communists were active and fluid. During the worker occupation of the Tacajó mill in 1933, the National Confederation of Cuban Workers counted on membership from the Peasant Leagues. In the 1930s and 40 s, Urbano Noris Cruz, a black Communist cane cutter and labor leader after whom an entire municipality of Holguín is now named, participated in resistance movements against land dispossession in the outskirts of Holguín. In the 1940s, another black Communist labor leader who organized sugar worker unions, Jesús Menéndez—after whom another municipality and town are named—fought simultaneously against land eviction and racism. The links between Oriente’s black radical agrarianists and the Communist Party persisted even as the Party was again banned and went underground after Batista’s coup d’état in 1952. By the time that Fidel Castro’s rebel troops arrived in the Sierra Maestra and Sierra Cristal in 1957 and 1958, the region’s local peasantry already had decades-old links to the Communist Party—and to its political commitment to land reform and anti-racism.
Making an Agrarian Revolution—Black Communists in the Liberated Territory
In 1957, at the time of Fidel Castro’s insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, many radical campesinos continued to work across the Cuban east, organizing and pushing for their communities’ rights to the land in the face of constant illegal and violent evictions. A look into the personal backgrounds of some of these radical peasants reveals not only a shared experience of life in rural eastern Cuba, but also points to Realengo 18 as a continuous source and nucleus of political activity. It also reveals that many of Oriente’s leading peasant organizers were black. Post-1959 revolutionary narrative has tended to portray land struggles at Realengo 18 as unfolding in linear and logical prolog to the 1959 revolution, emphasizing them as the ‘heroic antecedents’ to the armed insurgency against Batista. Meanwhile, the stories of the men and women who fought to push their platform of radical agrarian reform onto the agenda of the revolutionary government remain untold. All four of the black peasants profiled below joined or engaged with Cuba’s Communist Party starting in the 1930s and became prominent activists, fighting for local land rights against encroaching landowners. That this section focuses on just a select few of the black radicals in question is not indicative of a scarcity of black radicals in the region, as much as it is symptomatic of the paucity of historical sources with which to identify them.
Teodoro Pereira la Rosa was born in 1908 to a sugar cane cutting family in Matanzas. In the late 1930s, he worked for the United Fruit Company in Baracoa, and, later, at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo. Teodoro spent his spare time associating with local labor unions and the communists. He never joined the Communist Party, but he read their newspapers and engaged their ideas. After a few years, he bought a small plot of land in Guantánamo, set up a Peasant Association with rural neighbors and made contact with leaders at nearby Realengo 18. He was soon elected president of the ‘Regional Peasant Federation of Guantánamo, Sagua and Baracoa,’ where he fought land evictions and won many cases on behalf of his fellow campesinos.
Miguel Ángel Betancourt Rodríguez was born over a decade later, in 1922 to a peasant family in La Inagua, Guantánamo. According to people who knew him, he was attending a public school at age 14, when his teacher introduced him to Marxist literature. He joined Cuba’s Communist youth, the Juventud Socialista, and later, the PSP (Popular Socialist Party—the new name of the Communist Party). In 1943, his family moved to los Ñames, an area inside of Realengo 18. He developed a relationship with Lino Álvarez and his group of radical peasants, and, like Teodoro Pereira, became an influential peasant organizer in the Realengo and nearby regions, working to rally support explicitly for goals of agrarian reform.
Cándido Betancourt Ámelo was born in 1921 near Alto Songo. As a child, he had to work and could not attend school, but by age 18 he had taught himself to read and write. Cándido owned no land and farmed others’land as a squatter. Candito, as he was nicknamed affectionately by his comrades, joined the Communist Party in 1940 and became a recognized peasant leader in Mayarí Arriba—a town adjacent to the United Fruit Company’s Preston sugar mill near the Sierra Cristal’s northern coast. It was there that Raúl Castro would establish his rebel headquarters in 1958.
Esther Cámbara Batista, like the others, had spent years working toward a radical re-conception of property rights before Fidel Castro and his rebels exploded onto the scene. Esther was born in 1927 in Pilar de la Cana, a mountainous enclave in the Sierra Maestra, proximate to the town of El Cobre. She attended school until the sixth grade, working in the fields and picking coffee during harvest season. Esther joined the Juventúd Socialista when she was sixteen years old, along with her niece and the daughters of nearby family friends. It was 1943, and the PSP had not yet had to go underground. Once the Communist Party was officially banned by Batista in 1953, Esther, her husband and his family—also militant communists—continued to organize in secret.
In March of 1958, with still nine months to go before the end of the war, Raúl Castro and a group of rebels headed to the Sierra Cristal to open up a second rebel front. Upon settling, Raúl Castro appealed to experienced peasant organizers from around the country to join the “Frank País Second Oriental Front” and participate in the insurgency. Many of the individuals profiled above, including, Miguel Ángel Betancourt, Teodoro Pereira la Rosa, and Cándido Betancourt Ámelo joined. Having all spent the previous decades organizing for land rights in the “black belt” of Oriente, they were, importantly, experienced in fighting and winning battles against landowners. Meanwhile, in the Sierra Maestra, Esther Cámbara Batista and her husband, Ángel, worked secretly to smuggle in comrades from the PSP to the rebel campgrounds where they would join the insurgency.
By summer of 1958, Raúl Castro’s Second Oriental Front controlled almost all of eastern Cuba’s mountainous regions. The area that it claimed as its “liberated territory” included the portion of Guantánamo farmed by the peasants of Realengo 18 and other similar communities in which intense land struggles had occurred. Oriente’s black radical peasant organizers had joined the Second Oriental Front and were busy working with local peasants to both ramp up support for the insurgency and get a real agrarian reform agenda on the platform of the guerrilla revolutionaries. Meanwhile, under Raúl Castro’s leadership and with the support of the rural population, the Second Oriental Front offered a sophisticated project of state formation that cleared roads and opened up numerous rural schools and clinics months before the war had even been won.
From their positions on the peasant organizing committee of the Second Oriental Front, Cándido, Miguel Ángel, Teodoro, and other black agrarianists got to work. In June 1958, the group convened an assembly that was attended by 500 peasants from the Sierra Cristal who discussed their troubles with rent payments, gaining access to credit for farming, land disputes, evictions, and the need for agrarian reform, as well as social problems relating to marriage, education, and health. A month later, thirty-two organizers came together in Sagua de Tánamo to begin planning a massive peasant summit. The steering committee elected to organize the “Campesino Congress en Armas”—Peasant Congress in Arms—as they would call it, was made up of a group of experienced peasant leaders whose organizing together covered much of eastern Cuba. Teodoro Pereira was elected President of the committee, Miguel Ángel Betancourt was elected Secretary (de Actas) and Cándido Betancourt was elected Vice-Secretary of Finance. Argelia Fernández, a 15-year old female delegate from Realengo 18, nicknamed La Guerrillera, was selected as secretary. That several of the organizers elected by the local peasant population were radicals and socialists suggests that their ideas were representative of the ideals, values and aspirations of at least a significant group of campesinos in the region.
In 1958, the call for agrarian reform in Cuba spanned several decades. Cuba’s 1940 Constitution had passed legislation outlawing the existence of large estates. But to the disappointment of many, the law was never enacted and calls for land reform remained unfulfilled. Agrarian reform had been a central tenet of Fidel Castro’s 1953 speech announcing revolution against Batista’s dictatorship, History Will Absolve Me. Yet, upon the arrival of 26JM rebels to the Sierra Maestra, a precise notion of the policies that agrarian reform would enact was still shifting. Most of all, 26JM rebels disagreed with each other over whether their eventual law should even seize private property—and risk angering influential land owners and the United States—or settle for only distributing lands that were already in the hands of the state.
The guerrilla take-over of the liberated territory opened up new possibilities for political activity, and longtime peasant organizers took advantage. By harnessing the supportive apparatus of the 26JM, they negotiated the presence of the rebels, building a mutually beneficial arrangement that allowed them to push for the achievement of their own goals, while furthering the revolutionary cause. At one early meeting, Teodoro Pereira stated that the campesino movements and the guerrillas would do well to work together—precisely what the rebels hoped to hear. He also emphasized the urgent need to enact agrarian reform.
Black peasants did more than urge the 26JM to act; they sometimes told them what to do. Peasants shared their own proposals for the rebels’ rural program. In July, the peasant organizing committee ratified a list of agrarian policies and urged the Rebel Army to pass them. The first proposed wage increases for coffee pickers. Another encouraged peasants to contribute ten percent of their earnings to the 26JM war tax. And the third urged the 26JM to seriously take up the cause of agrarian reform—granting illegal squatters in Oriente provisional land titles, as quickly as possible, and before the end of the war.
Over the summer, Oriente’s black agrarianists continued to organize and advocate. The committee took on a massive campaign to organize local peasants. Within two months they had created 81 local Agrarian Commissions, held six regional assemblies (three of them with over 1,000 peasant attendees), held elections for regional delegates from all six municipalities in Oriente, and re-opened a number of peasant associations that had been previously shut down. On September 21, 1958, their efforts culminated in a historic summit of peasants “in arms.”
The Peasant Congress in Arms brought together hundreds of participants, among them 203 regional representatives elected by their local Peasant Associations and representing all of Oriente—including areas with long-held and intense struggles for land, such as Realengo 18, Las Cuchillas and Caujerí. Some traveled to the congress evading fire from Batista’s air force. At the convention, peasant representatives, guerrillas, and landowners debated questions regarding land and labor contracts, unpaid debts, product prices, and even ensuing “sectarian issues” between Communist and noncommunist members of the 26JM. Testimony from local coffee farmers, who opposed Batista but also objected to the notion of expropriation of private property, and even more to the ascension of the communists, shows that even in Oriente in 1958, the idea of redistributing privately owned land remained a radical, or at least contested, demand. At the convention, its members also debated and voted on a plan for agrarian reform.
Heavily represented at the congress were campesinos who lived in Realengo 18, many of them black and who—like Miguel Ángel and Teodoro—had either worked with Lino Álvarez in years prior, or, like Luis Pineda, had witnessed the realenguista’s passionate defense of their land as children. Luis and his brothers were orphaned at a young age, but were able to stay on the plot of land that their father had left them. Under the guidance of peasant organizers such as Miguel Ángel Betancourt, Luis joined the Juventud Socialista. He was from a younger generation, but in 1958, he traveled to Soledad de Mayarí to represent his local peasant association at the congress.
Skeptical of what might be accomplished at the congress, Tranquilino Videaux, a black peasant and worker at the U.S.-owned Guantánamo Sugar Company attended as a representative of the Peasant Association of Pivaló. “Once I saw and heard the rebels, I told myself this is taking a particular path, and,” he recalled after seeing how rebels and organizers responded to attempts by anti-communist “reactionaries” to influence congress votes, “it was the path that I had for some years already been walking down.”
At the end of the event, Raúl Castro affirmed local aspirations for change in land structures, “There cannot be revolution without agrarian reform!” he declared, to the applause of his audience. Just twenty days later, at the guerrilla headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro signed an agrarian reform law valid across the Rebel Army’s liberated territory: “Law No. 3 on Peasants’ Rights to the Land.” In the months that followed, before the end of the insurgency, Rebel Army commanders across the liberated territories—Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, for instance—pursued land occupations and redistribution. Just as Teodoro, Miguel Ángel and Cándido had suggested, Raúl Castro signed land titles that granted property rights to peasants at Realengo 18. For the many peasant communities that had spent decades fighting against eviction from lands they had worked without formal title, this law—however tenuous it may have seemed—represented a major victory that would, moreover, help them lay claim to the land in subsequent months.
The black peasants from Guantánamo, who were politically formed in the radical environment of armed land occupations and Communist organizing in Oriente succeeded in getting their demands for free distribution of land to poor farmers on the Rebel Army’s political agenda. Once the rebels took over in 1959, those demands, which remained the primary battle cry of peasants, became the main battle cry of the revolution in its first years. In championing agrarian reform throughout 1959, Fidel Castro and his fledgling government used these demands to engender support and disassemble the previous economic, social and political regime.
Securing the Agrarian Revolution
In 1959, as the faces of revolutionary leaders plastered the front pages of Cuban newspapers and magazines calling for “agrarian reform or death!” the platform pushed by radical peasants gained momentum. It was elevated to the national stage so successfully that in the first months of 1959 even urban Cubans—workers, bureaucrats, schoolteachers, children, housewives, businessmen—all hustled about in a terrific frenzy to raise funds and guarantee the enactment of a revolutionary agrarian reform law. Meanwhile, the rural men and women of Oriente continued to organize.
The agrarian law passed in May of 1959 indeed reflected a convergence of the concerns and aspirations of Oriente’s peasant organizers, and the political commitments of rebel leaders. But the fight was not over. In the lead up to the signing of the law, peasant organizers continued to advocate for radical land redistribution as a critical element of the legislation. In the face of disagreement over the extent to which the law impinged on private property rights, Bonifacio Hernández, a black habanero and member of the urban wing of the 26JM, proposed and organized a nationwide debate to discuss the implications of agrarian reform among all of its stakeholders. Broadcast nationally over radio and television the two-week long event, called the “First National Forum on Agrarian Reform,” brought together over 20 international experts on agrarian reform from around Latin America and over 220 representatives of Cuba’s many agricultural associations, businesses and enterprises. Among its delegates were representatives from the PSP, regional peasant federations, labor unions, the National Sugar Mill Association, tobacco farmers’ associations, agricultural banks, the bureau of commerce, lawyers, and for example, some of the law’s most staunch opposition—the National Association of Cattle farmers.
Most of the participants of the forum were urban university-educated professionals and elites, many with financial interests in Cuba’s different agricultural industries. Representatives of the landed classes, the owners of coffee farms, for example, argued for a tepid version of agrarian reform, one that did not seize private property nor would distribute land freely to poor peasants. Teodoro Pereira, who now presided over the new “Frank País’ Provincial Peasant Association of Oriente,” was in attendance. He and José “Pepe” Ramírez, another Communist peasant organizer from Oriente, spoke up to explain the importance and value of enacting an agrarian reform that granted free land to squatters and set a cap on how much land any one person could own, righteously questioning the objections to those ideals made by land and business owners. It is significant, then, that by the end of the forum, the version of agrarian reform approved in almost unanimity by the parties involved was the version that—like the proposals of black radicals in Oriente—upheld the ideals of expropriation of private property and free distribution of land to the peasants who labored it.
In subsequent months, the historic agrarian reform law indeed transferred lands into the hands of the peasants who tilled it. Over two years, 36,000 peasants received land titles. Thousands more joined cooperatives, maintaining legal rights to the land, but working collectively and under state guidance. The radical campesino leaders who had pushed for these policies often entered the ranks of government. Many were appointed as personnel to the National Institute for Agrarian Reform (INRA) and worked directly on the implementation of the 1959 agrarian reform law.
The 1959 revolution, and the success of Oriente’s black radical peasants in helping set the parameters of the massive agrarian reform project that transformed Cuba, effectively changed the relationship of these black peasants to the state. Having spent their lives fighting landed elites who received financial and military backing from the state, they were now driving the very national and local reform processes that they had spent decades advocating for prior to the revolution. In 1959, Teodoro Pereira, Miguel Betancourt, Cándido Betancourt, and Pepe Ramírez—all socialists, and excepting Pepe Ramírez, all black—formed and led a new peasant association in Oriente that would serve as a blueprint for what would become one of the revolution’s largest mass organizations, the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP). Esther Cámbara continued to work for the PSP in eastern Cuba and was eventually recruited to the ANAP, as well. Even after agrarian reform was enacted across the island, these five radical peasant organizers continued to work in top positions of the island’s agricultural and political organizations, the ministries of production and cooperatives, and the armed forces. With the threats to land eviction having been largely eliminated, and massive infrastructure projects changing the rural landscape, the longtime activists became incorporated into the larger structures of Cuba’s revolutionary governance.
Triumphs and Challenges within the Struggle
In the years following the revolution, Cándido, Miguel Ángel and Teodoro all continued to work in leading governmental positions. Over the following two decades, Cándido worked in Cuban agriculture, the military, and the Communist Party. He received military honors and decorations for his many services to the revolution. Miguel Ángel was working as the Chief of Production for Oriente in the ANAP, when he died in a car accident in 1964. Teodoro left agriculture that same year and continued to work in construction until his retirement. Before passing away in 1991, at the age of 83, Teodoro received visits from Fidel and Raúl Castro, as well as honors and medals for his work and combat in the Rebel Army.
Additional details about the lives of Teodoro, Miguel Ángel, and Cándido remain difficult to access from within archives in Cuba, thus the trials and tribulations they might have faced after the 1959 revolution defy any easy assessment. Accounts by Esther Cámbara Batista about her political trajectory reveal that the success of Oriente’s black peasant organizers did not always come without struggle—especially in the case of an Afro-Cuban female peasant from a rural enclave, like herself. After 1959, Esther continued to work for the PSP, taking on increasingly important roles within the Party, organizing its rural constituents, and incorporating them into the revolution. Esther’s work quickly got the attention of local and national leaders who asked her to move to the mostly Afro-descendant town of El Cobre to lead the local PSP office. She would gladly do it, Esther asserted, if someone could facilitate her family with a place to live. Her husband was away, working with the Party, and she had five children under the care of her mother, living in the mountains of Pinar de la Cana. Her political work, she pointed out, separated her from her family. With help from Miguel Betancourt, who heard her conditions, the PSP granted Esther and her family a space to live at its headquarters in El Cobre.
Esther describes two challenges she faced as she rose in the ranks of organizer. The first was machismo. No matter how “revolutionary” some of the campesino PSP militants were or claimed to be, some of them rejected the idea of women working among them. The men were “an obstacle,” in her words, to their own political work. Peasant and PSP leader Eugenio Ducongel would not let his wife partake in political activities. Ducongel constantly pressured her husband, Angel, to prevent Esther from taking on political work. Esther put a stop to this, confronting Ducongel directly and adamantly defending her right to participate.
The second challenge she faced was discrimination and condescension by urban women who underestimated her skills and would not accept that a peasant might have something to teach them. “How is a campesina going to come here to lead us?” Esther recalled them questioning after she joined the Cuban Federation of Women (FMC). In this particular case, Esther asserted herself by showing precisely how peasant women could lead: far exceeding their expectations, she organized 300 women from across the Sierra Maestra region—a terrain that the urban FMC members were unfamiliar with—to attend a regional plenary that aspired to get more peasant women to join the FMC. Esther did not speak about racial discrimination; she alluded instead to prejudices against rural people. Yet, considering that El Cobre was overwhelmingly and historically Afro-Cuban, it would be reasonable to expect that, despite her silence, she may have found herself at some point encountering both. Despite revolutionary discourse that upheld Cuban peasants as national heroes, gender, racial, and cultural discrimination still permeated the ranks of revolutionary organizations.
Throughout the 1960s, Esther continued to fight against the multiple discriminations. Esther challenged patriarchal and racist formations of Cuban society by getting scholarships for young unemployed rural women to attend the well-known Ana Betancourt seamstress program in Havana, that were designed to provide peasant women with the capacity for obtaining financial independence against what she called the, “egotism of their husbands.” Her own daughter and niece traveled to Havana for over six months to learn how to sew, and returned with the program’s signature Union brand sewing machine given to participants upon graduation to help them set up seamstress businesses. Esther’s role and influence in organizing peasant women continued over the following decades. Prior to the revolution, she had never been in Havana. Through her political work, she traveled to the capital several times, participating in nationwide meetings, including the well-known 1962 International Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women, where she mingled and met with revolutionary leaders such as Vilma Espín and Fidel Castro. Like the other black radicals who helped lay the groundwork for Cuba’s rural transformation, Esther was recruited to work in the ANAP, where she worked on the organization’s foundation and growth. Over the decades, she also continued her work as a local leader of El Cobre’s Communist Party headquarters, where she still currently resides.
And what became of Realengo 18? After decades of protracted armed struggle, its members had finally obtained legal rights to the land. A 1961 magazine report featured one of several cooperatives in the area. Fittingly named “Cooperative Lino de la Mercedes Álvarez,” its 110 peasant families now held the rights to their land, but continued to farm collectively. Its veteran peasant organizers, like Teodoro Pereira, worked to link the state and the Realengo in such a way that their hard-fought sovereignty was not lost. Unlike the majority of agricultural cooperatives in revolutionary Cuba, this Realengo 18 cooperative retained autonomy from the National Institute of Agrarian reform (INRA). They self-managed and owned their businesses and properties independently of the government. Realengo 18 peasants now had access to credits, loans, irrigation, schools, medical dispensaries and new development projects that were developing across the region. But, as Elodio Vera Sosa, a black farmer from the cooperative clarified to the magazine reporter, “As you probably understand, these lands mean a lot to us. Now that the revolution has acknowledged our legal right to possess a part of these lands, we dedicate ourselves to keep working them, enthusiastically.”
Interviewed around 1970, Francisco—a 95 year-old peasant who had fought with Lino Álvarez in the Realengo’s 1934 land battles—described the chronology of their struggle, as he perceived it: “We would call a meeting and then scatter across the mountains with machetes and sticks to patrol the company-men who wanted to divide the Realengo. And we won the battle against the company, and they had to leave us alone. Then, during the revolution, we helped in everything in order to win another, larger, fight against them. Now, as you see, the land is ours, gained and maintained.”
Miguel Ángel Betancourt, Teodoro Pereira, Cándido Betancourt, Esther Gámbara, Laureano Prado, Pablo Milanés Fuentes, Luis Pineda, Tranquilino Videaux, and many other black radical peasants whose names elude archival documentation, were Communists, sympathizers, and organizers whose visions for revolutionary Cuba were rooted in ideals of egalitarian distributions of land and wealth. Their rise in eastern Cuba, part of a global-regional trajectory of the rise of black communism dating back to the 1930s, and their contributions to the success of the 26JM represent an important legacy of black radical and rural organizing that made a deep imprint on the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
Oriente’s black radical and communist peasantry fought to put their goals on Fidel Castro’s revolutionary agenda. Their success contributed to the profound transformation of Cuban society, in which, as we have seen, they played active and in many cases leading roles. After the enactment of agrarian reform, the black radicals whose work helped make that reform possible were among the revolution’s most solid supporters. Yet within a few years, amid the daily commotion of dramatic change and rhetoric of patriotism, their stories and personal struggles—simplistically incorporated into the revolution’s grand narrative about itself—became virtually invisible. More in-depth histories of Cuba’s revolutionary processes, and how racial dynamics played out within them, are needed if we are to fully the extent to which the work of these black radicals shaped life in revolutionary Cuba.
Back in Pilón del Cauto, Pablo Milanés Fuentes’ arm gestured toward the steep mountaintop behind him where his coffee fields lay. Following the revolution, he and his father had successfully farmed the land they obtained under the agrarian reform law. At age 87, he boasted still having the ability to cultivate it himself. Pablo expressed great pride in the land that he owned and farmed, and in the revolution that he helped bring to the Sierra Maestra. Yo era santero, pero revolucionario. “I was a Vodou priest, but a revolutionary,” he clarifies. Pablo had indeed managed to carve out a unique bit of the world that he had imagined for himself in his mountainous enclave, combining farming, political work and dedication to his religious community.
During the interview, Pablo never explicitly mentioned race. Yet, it was obvious that the struggle for black liberation was important to him. Figuring prominently on the wall in the shrine that he built for Gran Bwa—the Vodou spirit through which he worked—was a sword that he claimed had been used in the Wars of Liberation against Spain. A long rusty chain was strung across the wall next to it, over a sequined image of Gran Bwa. Pablo had found the chain buried under layers of dirt on his farm, he explained, with shackles that he identified as having been used by the owners of slaves who had been forced to labor the very land that he now owned.
As our interview neared its end, Pablo stood up and disappeared to his bedroom. He came out moments later, eager to show off a tattered poster of Fidel Castro, it’s edges frayed but nonetheless cared for. “They were all socialists,” he points out about his family. Eramos todos Fidelistas, he restates. For Pablo, the struggles for land, liberation and socialism were linked. Yet, the objects around him, heavy with historical symbolism, pointed to a longer process of struggle—one in which the Cuban Revolution was only the most recent chapter. Pablo returned to his bedroom, rummaging briefly through his things. When he came back out, a feathered tricorn hat made to resemble the one worn by Toussaint L’Overture during the Haitian Revolution sat proudly atop his head. Toussaint and his constituents, too, had fought for the land and freedom of Haiti’s subjugated populations. For Pablo—who stood there summoning aspirations for black liberation into the room—perhaps some measure of the freedom fought for by Cuba’s black radical campesinos during their decades-long struggle for the land, had been attained.