By N. H. Gill
Luis E. Aguilar, Samuel Farber, and Robert Whitney present three complimentary interpretations of Cuba’s 1933 Revolution and the social unrest that led to the 1959 Revolution. The authors explore the role of rising mass society, the influence of political and intellectual elites, and the impact of the United States’ intervention in Cuban affairs to shed light on the historical context surrounding Fidel Castro’s rise to power.
Aguilar, a Cuban journalist and university professor, grounds his analysis in the events of the 1933 Revolution to show how this frustrated attempt at reform led directly to the successful struggle of the 26th of July Movement a quarter century later. Farber, a Cuban political scientist, sees the period between 1933 and 1960 as a time of maturing class consciousness, providing national social movements with the necessary experience to carry out a successful revolution in 1959. Whitney, a Latin American historian, focuses on the transition from oligarchic rule to a formal democracy in the period between 1920 and 1940, highlighting the rise of mass society, or what he calls the clases populares, as agents of change in Cuban history.
This historiographical critique focuses on the authors’ use of evidence, methods, and historical interpretations to analyze the treatment of five broad themes drawn from the texts: frameworks of time; popular struggle; racial tensions; and the impact of the army and political elite on events between 1920 and 1950. The chronological framework adopted by each author leads to differing interpretations about the significance of historical events, while their treatment of social movements presents contrasting conceptions of the importance of elite control from above versus popular change from below. Special attention is given to the authors’ examination of the roles of U.S. intervention and race in Cuba politics and how it influences historical interpretations. Each topic provides deeper insight into how these authors constructed their broader historical narratives.
Aguilar begins his monograph, Cuba 1933, in the Latin American independence period of the early nineteenth-century. While the region struggled for national sovereignty, Cuba remained one of the few Spanish colonies to stay “faithful” to the Spanish empire. Emphasizing the rise of large-scale sugar production sparked by the 1791 Haitian Revolution, he quickly moves through nineteenth-century conflicts generated by the growing social tensions, the dilemma of mass enslavement and the discrimination between Spanish- and Cuban-born citizens, to explore the impact of frustrated social reform on the creation of Cuban historical identity.
By grounding his work in this early period, he supports his later argument that Cuba’s history must be understood as a unique event in Latin American history with “important racial, economic, and cultural differences.” Describing this as a period of growing discontent, he emphasizes how the Ten Years’ War “transformed independence into a national cause” and simultaneously broke the native oligarchy in ways unseen in other Latin American nations. Neither Mexico in 1910 nor Bolivia in 1952, both cited by Farber, provide comparable historical backgrounds, Aguilar argues. He emphasizes Cuban historical agency and its uniqueness, a point of significant contrast to the works of Farber and Whitney, who highlight popular struggle and rising class consciousness and the U.S. and international actors, in the development of later social movements.
Within this discussion, Aguilar’s interpretation of the period immediately following the War of Independence is significant because of his contention that the aftermath of war and the first U.S. military intervention represented a new beginning in Cuban history. He claims that at this time, “Cuba was a fresh society, a nation where class divisions were not acute or stratified.” Also emphasizing an absence of religious conflict and claiming that race relations were “rather relaxed,” Aguilar presents an interpretive framework that prioritizes local factors and intellectual elites in shaping of Cuban history.
As will be discussed in more detail later, the author, who sought exile from Castro’s government in the U.S., downplays the role of American intervention in the post-Independence period, implicitly supporting his argument that Cubans occupied the determinant roles in events leading to 1959. For example, while acknowledging that in the constitutional assembly of 1901 the U.S. insisted on the “necessity of concrete concessions to the American government,” he claims that Cubans worked “without any interference from the American authorities.” Given the disagreement with other historical sources around the role of U.S. intervention in the early years of the Cuban republic, this assertion provides insight into Aguilar’s nationalist interpretation of the period, highlighting his goal of foregrounding Cuban agency in the making of the island’s history.
The role of the U.S. in the post-Independence War era represents a distinct point of contention with Whitney’s work in State and Revolution. Indeed, Whitney contends that this period was marked by such strong U.S. intervention that he sees “no compelling reason why a Cuban nation state should exist before 1933.” While Whitney follows Aguilar by beginning his history in the nineteenth century, he views the period between 1868 and 1959 as a long history of political change. Unlike Aguilar however, Whitney treats the post-independence period as one of de facto rule by the U.S. where local politicians were allowed to enrich themselves at the nation’s expense as long as they did not interfere with U.S. economic interests. “The Cuban political class accepted this arrangement and they were adept at using what political and economic space they had to obtain wealth and power,” he says.
In Whitney’s interpretation, Cuba’s political class became the brokers, competing internally to enrich themselves off the commissions provided by public office, while mediating between the U.S. and an ever-increasing mass society. The rise of these clases populares and the failed attempts by the Cuba’s elite to meet their social demands, form the central thesis of his work. In this respect, the 1924 collapse of the Veterans’ and Patriots’ movement, which sought the “regeneration of Cuba,” provided the watershed moment that led him to frame his history between 1920 and 1940, when the “merging of the two generations,” the aging leaders of the nineteenth century independence movements and the generations born after the war, were defeated in their bid to end corruption and assert national sovereignty.
For Whitney, this marked a generational transition from the rule of an older generation of independence leaders, so-called caudillos and caciques, to the youth and popular movements that became a central part of the 1933 Revolution. “For many younger people, the fiasco of the Veterans’ and Patriots’ Movement was the start of a political journey that would lead them toward a new conception of politics and society,” Whitney says.
Importantly, he claims the political crisis of this period generated competing visions of the kind of “imagined community” that Cuba should be, which influenced the political aspirations of later generations and lead to the enactment of the progressive constitution of 1940. Much like Aguilar’s “fresh” start mentioned earlier, the collapse of the Veterans’ and Patriots’ Movement represents for Whitney a historical watershed between colonial Cuba and modern society.
In Revolution and Reaction, Farber focuses on the role of the divided working and middle classes, which provides the chronological underpinnings for his study of the period betwen 1933 and 1960. According to Farber, middle-class social movements lacked strong ties to the working-classes and were unable to capitalize on popular support to form broad-based coalitions and revolutionary movements. He emphasizes the strong ties that middle class bourgeoisie had to the state bureaucracy, and their lack of an economic base of their own. He is interested in the 1933 Revolution and the ensuing period in order to “analyze the interplay of these structural conditions and historical processes” that led to Castro’s rise to power.
Unlike Aguilar, who sees the revolution of 1933 as a frustrated revolution that could have avoided the uprisings of the 1950s, Farber sees this period as a necessary crucible that built the class consciousness and maturity necessary for the successful movement of 1959. Indeed, so little do the events of the nineteenth-century factor into Farber’s explanation of the history of the revolution, that his chronology of major events in Cuban history does not include a mention of independence leader José Martí.
In reference to the Cuban hero in the body of his text, he limits himself to a brief discussion of Martí’s influence on the popular imagination and Cubans habit of “quoting Martí on every ideological question.” It is here that Farber’s sociological methodology separates him from the other two authors, leading him to give relatively more weight to the structural impact of class divisions, which gained momentum through the 1920s and crystalized in the general strike of August 1933. In this respect, both Farber’s and Whitney’s analyses of the rise of the popular classes go further than Aguilar’s focus on intellectual elites in shedding light on the decades preceding the 1959 Revolution. Still, significant differences concerning the role of class struggle exist between Farber and Whitney, leading them to different historical interpretations of the role of mass society in this period.
In reviewing the authors’ use of evidence to support their competing chronological frameworks, we find Whitney’s and Aguilar’s use of sources to be more rigorous than Farber’s. Whitney and Aguilar make use of a broader array of primary texts to provide a historical context to buttress their claims.
For example, in Aguilar’s discussion the rise of Cuban intellectual currents in nineteenth-century Cuba, he cites Antonio Bachiller y Morales’ 1859 work Apuntes para la historia de las letras en Cuba, as well as the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s “Manifesto de Monticristi,” as well as works by Communist Party founder Julio Antonio Mella. To understand the impact of economic growth and decline on Cuban history, he presents 1863 data on the development of the Cuban sugar industry and 1900 census data published by the U.S. Department of War. The effect of this type of research gives his work more authority when the reader is forced to make judgments about competing historical accounts. While the other two authors rely more heavily on secondary interpretations, Whitney makes good use of some primary sources, tapping presidential memoirs, Cuban Treasury records, and political manifestos of Tampa cigar workers to justify his choice of period.
The role of class divisions and the advent of the masses is another thematic area of competing historical interpretation. While all three authors agree that the middle and working classes were divided at this time, each reaches different conclusions about what that meant to the greater political struggles of the period.
Farber focuses on the relative weakness of class consciousness in the decades preceding the 1959 Revolution. He argues that a theoretical application of Karl Marx’s Bonapartism, a sociology of authoritarianism in which classes or groups with a low degree of economic and political organization and consciousness are susceptible to authoritarian leaders, is a better framework for understanding the events that brought Fulgencio Batista to power. Where earlier authors focused on the peasantry, working class, or generational conflict, Farber seeks to show how Batista, a Sergeant in the Cuban Army who rose to become president and dictator in the decades following the 1933 Revolution, was able to unite competing social classes under his rule to cement control over Cuban politics.
Like Batista, Farber argues that Castro was also able to implement similar control over diverse political factions to dominate Cuban politics in the post-revolutionary period. While largely relying on secondary sources, Farber also draws on agricultural census data, labor statistics culled from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and data on the concentration of Cuban workers and the size of industrial plants to support his argument that class-based movements remained weak at this point, allowing for a strong political leader like Batista to manipulate diverse social groups to gain control of Cuba’s political machinery.
Whitney argues that the rise of the clases populares brought sufficient pressure to bear on both the political elite and the U.S. to force the implementation of progressive reforms. This pressure culminated in the Constitution of 1940. Indeed, he argues that by the 1930s, the role of popular classes was more important than U.S. Ambassador Sumner Welles mediation, explicitly demoting U.S. foreign intervention in the calculus of revolution. Citing a 1933 Communist Party statement, Whitney says that “the mediation between ambassador Welles, the elite opposition, and Machado meant nothing to the workers and their organizations.”
His use of primary documents from labor organizations and popular political parties at this time supports his understanding of the relative lack of importance of the actions of Cuba’s political elite and the U.S. in comparison to the swelling social discontent of this period. Still, Whitney sees in Batista the same power to manipulate class divisions as Farber does. However, he focuses more on Batista’s repressive power to quell dissent than on his positive ability to construct coalitions within organized labor groups, saying “this lack of direction and constant turmoil on the left, as well as the repression from the army and police, allowed Batista to keep the opposition disoriented.”
According to Whitney, it was Batista’s ability to crush organized opposition to his rule between 1934 and 1936 that gave him the space necessary to build bridges to labor groups on his own terms in the run-up to the constitutional assembly and the elections of 1940.
Aguilar, while downplaying the role of organized labor and the Communist Party in the 1933 Revolution, is perhaps the most insightful of the three in his discussion of the nineteenth-century history of working-class movements. His focus on the first tobacco workers’ unions provides a useful history of the rise of organized labor, while simultaneously supporting his argument locating the historical roots of the 1959 Revolution in the nineteenth-century. Still, Aguilar gives relatively more importance to student and intellectual movements at this time, particularly in comparison to the role of the Communist party. In contrast, Farber and Whitney build their arguments around the role of these popular and working classes, as well as the impact of U.S. intervention on the Revolution of 1933.
Historians’ changing treatment of the role of the U.S. in Cuban history is apparent in the three works reviewed in this essay. In that respect, both Aguilar’s and Farber’s books, published in 1972 and 1976, respectively, provide insight not only in terms of changes over time, but how ideological differences shape historical narratives. While both authors are Cuban-born university professors who taught in the U.S., their personal lives provide insight into their historical interpretations of the role of the U.S in Cuban politics. Whitney, writing in 2001, provides a useful counterpoint to the interpretations of the other authors.
Beginning with Aguilar, the reader must ask: what influence does the author’s political exile in the U.S. and active political opposition to the Castro government play in his treatment of the nation that gave him refuge? Farber, how does his explicit statement that he “unconditionally support[s] all anti-imperialist struggles,” including those against the U.S., impact his interpretation of America’s role in Cuban history? While perhaps coincidental, both take positions that seem to align with their personal circumstances – Aguilar downplays U.S. intervention while Farber makes it a major focus.
Aguilar’s discussion of U.S. Special Representative Enoch Crowder’s involvement in the electoral reforms of 1919 is a good example of this interpretation. He states, “Liberal and Conservative parties agreed to a revision of the electoral code and decided to invite the American General, Enoch H. Crowder, who had kept in touch with Cuban affairs, to help them in rewriting the code.”
Whitney describes the event differently, highlighting Cubans’ distaste for U.S. intervention. The “main objection to Crowder’s visit was that Cubans – not an American general – should be solving the problems of corruption and political instability,” he says.
Aguilar doesn’t cite evidence to support his claim, while Whitney uses copies of speeches made at the Veterans’ and Patriots’ Movement in 1923. Further, in reference to U.S. Ambassador Sumner Welles’ 1933 opposition to President Gerardo Machado’s continued rule, Aguilar describes the ambassador’s contacts with opposition groups like the middle-class terrorist organization ABC as being “friendly” and says he offered his “good offices” to President Machado in the mediations, including his request that U.S. weapons shipments to Cuba be halted.
In contrast to this, Farber says the mediation efforts of 1933 were complicated by Welles, who “aggravated and complicated” things and “openly interfered” in Cuban politics. The role of the U.S. was “decisive” in overthrowing Machado, he says. “The United States became a powerful factor in defeating and emasculating the Revolution of 1933,” Farber says. While all of the authors make use secondary sources, neither Farber nor Aguilar provide convincing evidence to support their argument.
Whitney on the other hand draws on primary documents, including diplomatic dispatches, newspaper articles and political pamphlets of this period to contextualize Welles’ participation in the 1933 mediation between Machado and opposition groups. In his telling, middle-class Cubans weren’t anti-American, but anti-intervention. “There was an important difference between admiring and even emulating American trends and institutions, and having the United States impose them on Cuba,” he says.
To be sure, all three authors acknowledge the important impact that U.S. intervention had on Cuban politics, but the differences in representation provide an interesting insight into the authors’ contrasting interpretations of this period.
The treatment of race relations is another shared theme that sheds light on the authors’ differing historical perspectives. The contrasting interpretations of the Race War of 1912 provides an interesting example of historiographical changes that affect how we understand this period. In broad strokes, the sources agree that an Afro-Cuban uprising was repressed by the rural guard in 1912.
In Whitney’s telling, the protesters wanted land, increased access to public office, free education, better working conditions and an end to racial discrimination. The uprising was suppressed, with an estimate 3,000 Afro-Cubans killed in Oriente province alone. For Aguilar, this was a “minor racial uprising,” a “tactical error” in which only “hundreds” of people of color were killed. 
Interestingly though, Aguilar does not stop there, but continues to describe the movement, built around the Partido Independiente de Color, as engaging in “racial propaganda,” using “inflammatory terminology” and having a “faith in the effect of threats.” He even chides historian Hugh Thomas for giving “excessive importance” to the episode.
More than an exercise of omission, Aguilar seems to deliberately minimize the event. For Farber, the violence didn’t merit mention. The differences given to the importance of this event by the three authors raise interesting questions. What role did Afro-Cuban’s historical grievances play in the revolutions of 1933 and 1959? Why does Aguilar downplay this episode and Farber ignore it altogether? Does a race war more than a decade after the end of colonial rule undermine Martí’s claim that racial differences no longer mattered?
What seem clear is that the existence of race riots in 1912 that were large enough to precipitate a landing of U.S. Marines on the island undermines Aguilar’s assertion that Cuba was free from “racial impediments” and that relations at this time were “pretty smooth.” Indeed, Whitney seems to refute these claims, too, saying that “long-standing class and racial tensions…had always been present in the independence struggle.” Whitney cites historian Louis Pérez’s 1986 monography Cuba Under the Platt Amendment and Jorge Ibarra’s 1985 work Un Análisis Psicosocial del Cubano to support his argument, while Aguilar does not reference his sources.
The interpretations of the role of the Armed Forces, political elites, and intellectuals in the decades prior to the 1959 Revolution is also important in understanding the authors’ arguments and shows how the history of early twentieth-century Cuba has changed. The interpretation of the Revolution of 1933, including the collapse of the government of Ramón Grau San Martín and the rise of Batista by the end of the year, is indicative of this historiographical shift.
While all three authors highlight the impact that government repression had on opposition groups, it is the rise of mass movements and their pressure from below which carry the most weight for Whitney. Farber focuses on the Bonapartist role of Batista as mediator between social groups vying for their own interest and Aguilar emphasizes the critical role of the political and intellectual elite as spoilers of revolution.
Whitney frames his account by discussing the outcome of the September 3 and 4 military revolt, in which a group of non-commissioned officers at the military’s Camp Columbia began protesting the payment of back wages, poor living conditions and changes to their promotions and ended up in control of Cuba’s military headquarters in Havana.
According to Whitney, the middle class and student opposition groups joined cause with the armed forces while popular support “from below” pushed these groups to take part in the new government. The outcome of this movement was the appointment of Grau San Martín, an anatomy professor, as president and Batista as commander in chief of the Armed Forces. As political chaos ensued, Whitney says it was the popular classes that “unleashed insurgency from below,” buying Grau time to enact his reforms and keeping the Americans, Batista, and political elites at bay. Furthermore, Whitney uses data on worker strikes around the country to show that these groups kept up pressure on the government to proceed with its social and labor reforms, a form of support for Grau which forced the Army and the U.S. to take their grievances into account and eventually spurred the enactment of minimum-wage laws and an eight-hour work day. These rights would later be enshrined in the 1940 constitution.
Whitney presents a detailed description of unorganized protest in late 1933, compromising economic output and U.S. interests and leading U.S. ambassador Welles to give Batista the “green light” to overthrow Grau in October. However, “class struggles from September through November did not allow Batista to act with impunity,” Whitney says, forcing him to wait until divisions within Grau’s government caused it to collapse from within. In this version of events, the clases populares emerge as a stronger force than the Army, the U.S. ambassador, or traditional political elites, supporting Whitney’s argument that mass movements played the key role in the Revolution of 1933.
In Farber’s telling of the events, Batista emerges as a master manipulator of the Army, government and the U.S. embassy as he consolidated his control over the armed forces before moving against Grau. The social upheaval eventually led to an impasse where the revolutionary government lacked the necessary strength to consolidate its power while traditional political elites were unable to return to power. Batista emerges as victor precisely because of his ability to control the military and exert pressure on warring political and social factions to end the chaos.
Finally, examining Aguilar’s version of the Revolution of 1933, the reader is presented with a criticism of the internal divisions in Cuba’s political forces on the left and right. The Communist party is singled out for special criticism, as well as conservative movements like the ABC. He argues that the conservative factions’ attempts to get the U.S. to intervene in this dispute were initially refused by U.S. Ambassador Welles and it wasn’t until the Student Directory finally withdrew its support from Grau that the die was cast.
In analyzing the competing historical narratives of Aguilar, Farber, and Whitney, this essay highlighted important differences in historical interpretation in the discussion of events leading up to Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution, particularly the Revolution of 1933. We find value in each argument, from the role of students and the intellectual elite and Batista’s similarities to Luis Bonaparte, to the power of mass social movements that spurred social and political change in Cuba. Aguilar’s masterful command of the pormenores of the time as well as the breadth of his archival sources provides a particularly compelling insight into this period. However, his work is not without its flaws.
A close inspection of his historical interpretation reveals unanswered questions about his treatment of racial conflict and the role of the U.S. in Cuban history. Farber, who focused on the role of Batista as the master puppeteer, also sheds light on a relatively less understood period of the dictator’s rise to power. When analyzing the subsequent events of the 1940s and 1950s, this focus is particularly helpful in understanding how Batista would see himself as part of a revolutionary movement as opposed to a more simplistic view of him as a reactionary dictator.
Still, his close focus on the rise of class consciousness in Cuban society led him to exclude important elements of nineteenth-century Cuban history that Aguilar and Whitney demonstrated had an important impact on the course of twentieth-century events. He partially incorporates historical grievances arising from the failed Revolutions of 1868—1878 and 1895—1898. His emphasis on the pernicious effect of U.S. intervention was more useful than Aguilar’s brief criticism, but could be said to swing in the opposite direction, perhaps because of his explicit opposition to contemporary U.S. policy toward Cuba. His reliance on secondary sources also limited his arguments and left much of his critique in the realm of assertion.
Overall, Whitney’s more balanced tome, taking a long view of history and Cuba’s Revolution, supported by admirable archival research, seemed to find a middle ground in a field littered with partisan histories. Given the continued controversy surrounding this period of Cuba’s history, all but the most balanced of interpretations, demonstrating careful and prodigious research, are likely to suffer a similar fate as Cuba’s 1933 Revolution.
 This essay will focus on one work by each author: Luis E. Aguilar, Cuba 1933: Prologue to Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1972; Samuel Farber, Revolution and Reaction in Cuba, 1933-1960: A Political Sociology from Machado to Castro. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1976; Robert Whitney. State and Revolution in Cuba: Mass Mobilization and Political Change, 1920—1940. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 1.  Ibid., ix.  Ibid., 8-9.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, 25.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, ix.  Ibid., 21.  Ibid., 22.  Ibid., 17-18.  Whitney, State and Society, 177.  Ibid., 10.  Ibid., 177.  Ibid., 8.  Ibid., 31.  Ibid., 35.  Ibid., 36, 54.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, 67.  Ibid., 25.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, 27.  Ibid., xvii. Ibid., 30.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 4, 12, 11.  Ibid., 3, 13.  Whitney, State and Revolution, 191.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, 18.  Ibid., 23.  Ibid.  Whitney, State and Revolution, 82.  Ibid., 93.  Ibid., 205.  Ibid., 148.  Ibid., 167-168.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 78.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, xii.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 38.
 Whitney, State and Revolution, 32.  Ibid., 193-94, footnote 65.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 133-134.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, 49.  Ibid., 70-71.  Ibid., 72.  Whitney, State and Revolution, 83.  Ibid.  Ibid., 20-21.  Ibid.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 36.  Ibid., 36-37.  Ibid., 37.  Ibid., 24.  Whitney, State and Revolution, 19.  Louis A. Pérez, Jr., Cuba Under the Platt Amendment. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986, 150-51; Jorge Ibarra, Un Análisis Psicosocial del Cubano, 1898-1925. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1985, 331.  Whitney, State and Revolution, 108.  Ibid.  Ibid., 118.  Ibid., 119.  Farber, Revolution and Reaction, 75.  Ibid., 77.  Aguilar, Cuba 1933, 217.  Ibid., 187.