A bomb at the party

Cuban Anarchism uncovers the fascinating story of a forgotten movement and tries to light a fuse under Castro’s regime


Cuban Anarchism: The History
of a Movement

Frank Fernández, translated by Charles Bufe
2001, See Sharp Press
154 pages

Reviewed by Jay Kerr

THE 50th ANNIVERSARY of the Cuban Revolution throws into sharp relief the last half century’s well-documented and greatly celebrated struggle between the underdog and a superpower.

As symbols of defiance and struggle, the romantic figures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro have captured the hearts and minds of generations across the world. The cause of creating an egalitarian and just society based on socialist principles against the hostility of the most powerful nation on earth has won many adherents. The very fact of the Revolution’s survival after so many decades continues to inspire.

Yet the reality of the Cuban Revolution is so very different. Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement explodes the myth of this sun-kissed revolution and exposes uncomfortable truths about incarceration, execution and dictatorship. What was a united uprising by an entire generation of people to overthrow a corrupt and brutal regime with the aim of creating an egalitarian society has long since fallen into stagnation – a mirror image of what it once sought to destroy.

Frank Fernández has written an extremely important work that strips down the myth of Castro’s communist regime by bringing to light the forgotten history of Cuban anarchism – the largest libertarian movement the world has ever seen and second only to that of Spain during the Civil War that once inspired thousands of people to strive for a better life, a more just society and the freedom for all to live without overbearing authority be it that of colonial Spain, the imperial US or a native republican government.

The book is a heavy mixture of history and political commentary dealing with the little-known historical anarchist movement from its emergence 150 years ago. It addresses the movement’s attitude toward the national liberation question, the neglected role of anarchists during the anti-Batista uprising, the ignored eradication of anarchists in “socialist” Cuba, and the defiant struggle of those attempting to bring the truth to light.

Theories of Proudhon

Anarchism first emerged in Cuba during the 1850s as Spanish migrant workers introduced the mutualist theories of Proudhon and, by the 1880s and following greater contact between Cuban and Spanish anarchists, had developed into a distinct trend within the labour movement with several newspapers and associations being founded in major cities. Further immigration by Spanish workers into Cuba extended these ideas and, as in Europe, anarchism gained unprecedented influence among workers and peasants.

It was with the tobacco workers that revolutionary ideas took hold most strongly, and this decade saw a series of strikes – the first of their kind in Cuba – that shook the tobacco industry and spread to Key West and Tampa in the US where many Cuban labourers had migrated to find work.

By the 1890s, the emergent anarchist movement was developing in parallel with the growing independence movement aiming to remove the Spanish colonial oppressors, which sowed great division among anarchists. The Separatists led by José Martí and the Cuban Revolution Party advocated an independent republic. Many anarchists opposed this position, considering that a republican government would merely replace one system with another with no substantial benefit to the working class, while others sympathised with the independence struggle and saw it as a step in the direction of social revolution – a means of gaining the freedom of action to bring anarchism to fruition. This debate over support for the national liberation struggle was deeply divisive and spilled over into anarchist debates at an international level, only being resolved by the acknowledgment that the only beneficiaries of such division were the colonial oppressors. However, the part played by anarchists in the struggle for independence in the 1890s is as ignored in conventional history as their role in the struggle against Batista’s dictatorship.

The US invasion and the turn of the century saw further social strife, but the demise of the independence movement increased anarchist activity. By the 1920s, anarchism among the trade unions – known as anarcho-syndicalism – had spread across the island. Anarchist books, pamphlets and journals were published, often reaching circulations of several thousand. As Fernández puts it, a kind of “proletarian cultural renaissance” was taking place. Libertarian workers’ associations and centres were established as anarchists organised the Cuban working class into a force unparalleled in the country’s history – 100,000 workers came together in unions based on anarchist principles.

This golden era lasted over a decade as Cuban anarchists struggled against the Machado dictatorship and the succeeding Batista regime before finally succumbing to state repression following the collaboration of Batista with the Cuban Communist Party, established in 1925, in taking control of the central trade union confederation.

Attack on liberty

Anarchists would later take part in the armed struggle against Batista, some as guerrillas in the eastern mountains, others in the urban struggle establishing contact with many revolutionary groups, especially the Directorio Revolucionario, as well as fighting with Castro’s national liberationist 26th of July Movement. However, soon after the initial euphoria of revolutionary victory and the propulsion of Castro to the head of the new government, things turned sour. Leading anarcho-syndicalists were expelled from several unions where they had popular support and influence, anarchist and opposition journals were shut down en masse as freedom of the press was suspended and many anarchists were imprisoned alongside other opposition groups. Although this attack on liberty was not without resistance and many anarchist rebelled with armed struggle or non-violent direct action, took to the hills as guerrilla groups or published clandestine bulletins, their efforts proved futile.

With the failed Bay of Pigs invasion giving the new regime the excuse to crush all opposition and Castro’s declaration of the new government as Soviet socialist, the anarchists were faced with the choice of exile or imprisonment or, in many cases, execution for betrayal of the revolution. Those in exile vowed to show the reality of the new regime to the wider world and expose it as the brutal dictatorship that it had become. However, the endorsement of the government by an old and influential anarchist would make this an almost impossible cause.

Cuban Anarchism brings to light the fascinating story of a forgotten movement, naming uncelebrated figures that have lived and died in the struggle for freedom. It also gives a fascinating account of the relationship between the anarchists and the iconic Cuban national hero, Martí, which is often overlooked in conventional histories. Fernández has researched the history of Cuban anarchism to an impressive degree, uncovering and citing articles that until now had never been seen. His access to the firsthand accounts of anarchist militants who have survived is a testament to his own longstanding position in the exiled anarchist community and enriches his work immensely. The story of how these exiles faced the rejection of the international anarchist community by trying to expose Castro’s regime in the face of pure denial is one of courage and endurance that should, in the 21st century, serve as a lesson about the danger of being swept up in national liberation struggles and denying the realities of governmental authority and oppression.

Cuban Anarchism is an important work that will be of interest to anyone keen to explore the hidden history of Cuba beyond the conventional textbook discussion of colonial rule, US influence, Batista’s corruption and Castro’s revolution. However, the book is weakened by its excessive attention to minute historical detail that will be of little interest to most readers, and also lacks any significant analysis of the broad trends within Cuban anarchism. The final chapter provides an interesting account of the brutal policies and inherent failures of the current administration over the last half century that, while significant, lack detailed references and consist instead of personal opinions and hostile sentiment that damages the work’s overall objectivity. This is an issue that is touched upon in the introduction by Chaz Bufe but is excused by stating that this is not a conventional history but a “tribute, a homage to the thousands of Cuban anarchists who worked over the course of more than a century to build a freer, juster world, and who, but for this book, would remain almost entirely forgotten.”

Despite its shortcomings, such a book has long been needed to counteract the rose-tinted vision of Cuba’s lionised revolution continually reconstructed by the governmental propaganda machine and swallowed wholesale, with little criticism, by the international left. Cuban Anarchism is a timely reminder that the world is still far from creating a society that captures the true essence of freedom and equality that generations of people have struggled for. With the emergence of radical governments across Latin America and the distinct swing to the left in countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, this book is a valuable addition to the study of human freedom and a must read for the next generation of freedom fighters.

Jay Kerr is writing a history of anarchism in Latin America

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