Nationalism and Socialism in Cuban Society

Just one generation after Cuba was granted independence from Spain, Fidel Castro and his allies prevailed victorious against President Batista, and a revolutionary state was implemented. However, studies of the Cuban revolution have persistently defied easy comprehension, particularly ideologically. Was the revolution socialist – fuelled by ideas of social ownership and cooperative management of the economy, or was it rather nationalist – a cry of a patriotic nation to depose the historic, overbearing influence of America? Toand unrivaledbeen an assessassessment, this essay will study different elements of Cuban society and how each perceived the revolution.

It will essentially conclude that there was a complex interrelationship between nationalism and socialism, which differed through levels of Cuban society. But ultimately, a nationalist society was created under the political banner of socialism.

For the sake of this essay, it is necessary to define nationalism. Originally derived from the Latin for race or breed’ and borne from the French Revolution, there have many different forms and thus there is an applied complexity in using the term.

However, Raymond Williams has asserted that nationalism is a political movement in subjugated countries and/or a ‘subordinate political group seeking its own distinct identity usually against the ‘nation.)

Nationalist principles are also particularly sensitive to being ruled by outsiders. Thus nationalism is characterized by patriotism, national pride and identity, and hostility to the state.

It is also necessary to have a working definition of socialismassessments. Twentieth-century socialism states that freedom cannot be achieved unless basic inequality is ended and social justice is established using abolishing private property.

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Moreover, it is a society based on social ownership and control, primarily an economic system, and is based on contrasting individualist theories. Socialism is thus characterized by collective ownership of economic systems and a desire for social equality.

Therefore, were the concerns of the Cuban Revolution primarily economic, or were they about freedom andunrivaledd self-governance? Moreover, there has beena dispute on how to classify Cuban society. Naturally, this makes it somewhat difficult to assesassess assessmenofts the aims of each sector of society. However, I believe there to be some social distinctions – thus this essay will firstly focus on the aims of the leadership, the middle class, and lastly the wage laborers.

Firstly, let us examine the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, focusing on Fidel Castro. Educated at Havana University, Castro was exposed to revolutionary fervor; the University of Havana had long been a center of radical politics, for example under the Machado dictatorship, students formed the Directorio Estudiantil, which continued to play a violent role in political opposition.” Here Castro also became a ‘fervent admirer ofbeeof bee the heroic nationalist figure of Jose Martí. Martí spoke of the danger Cuba’s relationship with America and stressed the vital nature of trPatriaria. In a speech in 1,892, he asserted: Our own Greece is preferable to the Greece that is not ours; we need it more… And let the vanquished pedant hold his tongue, for there is no Patria in which a man can take greater pride than in our long-suffering American republics? 

These concepts were key to Castro’s revolutionary zeal. Although not directly under colonial rule, Castro despised America’s influence in Cuba, they saw Cuba as their playground. For example, sugar export was increasingly controlled by American capital, and in 1914-23 overall US investment in Cuba increased six fold’, which created a severe dependence on America. They even wielded some political power due to The Platt Amendment, which had allowed them to directly intervene in Cuba in 1909-21 with troop occupation following unrest in elections.

In response to this control, in his speech after the 1953 Moncada Barracks attack, “La Historia Me Absolverá’ (History Will Absolve Me), he pledged great nationalist aims. For example, he uses the phrase “unprecedented patriotism and further appeals to Cuban nationalist sentiments by stating that ‘if there is in your hearts a vestige of love for your country, love for humanity, love for justice, listen carefully.

The speech is undoubtedly nationalist seen from the patriotic rhetoric. Antonio Kapcia is equally keen to promote this idea; ‘[the speech] evoked the whole Cubanista tradition…it also clearly identified with the example, ideas, and emblematic role of Martí.

However, others have pointed out the more socialist aspects of the ‘History Will Absolve Me’ speech. For example, Edwin Williamson asserts that: A program of reform…, which echoed the aims of progressive movements all over Latin America: industrialization, redistribution of land, full employment, and the modernization of education.

These ideas are far more indicative of a socialist ideology than a nationalist one. Additionally, even at university Castro was exposed to left-wing politics, evidenced by the fact that he was a member of Eddy Chibas’s Ortodoxos. The speech also has these explicitly socialist ideas: The problem of the land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing, the problem of unemployment, the problem of education, on and the problem of the people’s health: these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to solve, along with restoration of civil liberties and political democracy.

There were also class elements in the speech as he refers to the ‘selfish interests of a dozen big businessmen. The two combined indicate that Castro had an explicitly socialist reform agenda, but did so through nationalist rhetoric.

However, I wish to extend both the arguments of Kapcia and Williamson on the relationship between nationalism and socialism to Castro. Castro’s socialist reforms, although a part of Castro’s aims to depose American influence, also helped secure political support, legitimacy, and a larger support base.

Before the revolution Castro had no explicit political ideology, and to build political strength, he made alliances with established political parties such as the Ortodoxos and Communists, which delivered crucial support from both the middle classes and labor forces. Additionally, in 1961, Castro declared the revolution socialist, for example at the funeral of urban workers killed in the pre-playa Giron aerial bombings. This alignment secured a Soviet Union alliance, evidenced by the Soviet Union’s agreement to purchase five million tonnes of sugar over five years.

Thus, Castro’s commitment to nationalism was complex, he was primarily a nationalist and a patriot, using this inspiring rhetoric and tradition of cubanía to rally the people. But, he also realized the necessity of socialist reforms: it helped reduce American control, it created an equal society, but it also benefitted his country politically and increased his support base.

Next, this essay will move to focus on the revolutionary aims of the middle class, particularly students. As Louis A. Perez asserts, economic hardship wasn’t just limited to the working classes, as often is the case, and ‘the middle class, men and women with education and preparation, faced diminishing prospects. For example, 200 physicians graduated from the University of Havana annually for whom there was no employment. Perez goes as far as to call it the “crisis of professions.’ Equally, by the mid-1950’s more and more women, especially middle-class women, were being driven into the labor force as unemployment increased exponentially. Therefore it is not unreasonable to argue that students of the middle classes had economic interests in a socialist government.

Next, this essay will consider the revolutionary aims of the laboring classes. Kapcia has argued that the peasantry was bound by nationalist ideas, which arose as early as 1850 during Narciso Lopez’s annexation expedition. For example, the Cuworkforceorce in Florida responded to ideas of cubanísta radicalism in 1871 and created the Sociedad El Ateneo. This was set to ‘foment revolutionary nationalist activities and …with radical nationalism hegemonic in the community1880s80’s. In addition, ally many peasants joined rebel sides on the premise that, after the Moncada Barracks attack, Castro was a ‘nationalist hero. Mona Rosendhal however, refutes such a nationalist perspective. Rosenthal studies Palmera and argues that most people in the village ‘totally internalized the socialist ideology.’ For exa,mple she recalls witnessing a speech made by the second party secretary; he shoutPatriatriMuerteerte!” (Homeland or death), and the crowd answered “venceremos” (we will overcome), the speaker continued wisocialismismo” and the crowd repliedMuerteerte” Although these examples are from after the initial phase of the revolution, they help demonstrate the interdependence of the two terms. However, Roosenthal’sal’s research was undertaken whilst the country was still una der socialist regime and thus socialism was largely politically and culturally hegemonic.

The Cuban working classes were in crippling poverty, however. For example, Perez has pointed to the fact that about 600,000 to 800,000 men and women, which is about approximatelyoneapproximately one-third before beefone-third-thirdd of the total labor force, languished permanently in conditions between unemployment and under-employment.’ And thus, socialist reforms were certainly appealing and a motivating force. For the majority of the working class, the Cuban revolution was about socialist reform under the noble banner of nationalist dreams.

However, Cuban society was ‘curiously fluid as wage laborers and the middle class shared grievances and therefore class distinctions also fluid. This created a distinctive difference in revolutionary aims from from the usual socialist or nationalist revolution31. Williamson, Perez, and Kapcia universally agree that the revolution crossed class boundaries, however, they disagree as to why.

Antonio Kapcia argues that the laboring forces and middle classes, and even the Havana elite, initially shared in the early euphoria as much as the poorest Sierra peasants. He also asserts that by the time Castro reached Havana in 1959, he enjoyed a ‘visibly broad base of active and passive support that crossed traditional political, regional and social boundaries. This culmination he argues was largely due to Castro’s largely undefined ideology – everyone had their reasons for seeing out Batista”.

Williamson conversely argues that the nation joined together in a nationalist spirit, bound in disgust at Batista’s brutality and that almost all elements of society benefited from Castro’s reforms. He asserts that ‘the fundamental economic aim of the revolution was the end the dependence on the sugar export economy) through socialist methods of central planning and four-year plans.  The key is that despite all the hardship, living conditions were improved, in the first three years of the revolution wages rose forty percent for all classes, unemployment and underemployment were eliminated, and thus peasants workers largely supported the regime. But what was the greatest achievement? The regime promoted, and achieved a ‘common   national spirit, something that most other countries of Latin America republics had failed to do.’ Again we see a clear interdependence of both socialism and nationalism.

Perez tends to concur with Williamson, yet extends the argument, asserting that the main motivation in this class culmination was the poor living standards. He argues that the dire socio-economic circumstances were casting a ‘dark shadow over households of all social classes: among salaried professionals and wageworkers, house makers and students. For example basis, foodstuff prices rose forty percent from 1956-7, which unite Cubans in a feeling of “deepening crisis, of disquiet and despair, of disappointment and disillusionment.’ Castro’s aims thus seemed redemptive of pueblo y PatriaIdentity (people and homeland). Neither the middle class nor the working class could subsist as they were and therefore socialism was appealing. Thus they laid their allegiances to nationalist heroic figure Fidel Castro, who promised the change they desired.

Ultimately, the Cuban Revolution neither warrants solely the label socialism nor the label nationalism. Although Cuba was ‘technically’ politically independent, it was not free of American domination, which fostered and augmented Cuban national identity, or cubanía – of which Fidel Castro was a part. Castro was primarily nationalist, whilst his aims simultaneously included those of a socialist nature. However, he soon realized that declaring the revolution socialist would gain his political support, legitimacy, and a larger support base – though he did so through nationalist rhetoric. Nationalism can exist in a socialist state?, and Cuba is a perfect example – the two are inextricably linked here. The complex interrelationship between the two concepts created a politically hegemonic society; there was a genuine loyalty to nationalist principles under the politics and reforms of socialism.


  1. Castro, Fidel, “History will absolve medefensence speech, (October 1953), <>, (February 2015)
  2. Cuban Revolution (Fidel Castro Raul Castro Che Guevara), <> (Feruary, 2015)
  3. Kapcia, Antoni, Cuba: Island of Dreams, (Berg, 2000)
  4. Martí, José, “Our America” El Partido Liberal (Mexico City, 1892) <> (February 2015)
  5. Perez Jr., Louis A, On Becoming Cuban: Identi,ty, Nationality and Culture, (North Carolina, 1999)
  6. Rosendahl, Mona, Inside the Revolution: Everyday Life in Socialist Cuba, (Cornell, 1997)
  7. Nimni, Ephraim, Marxism and nationalism: theoretical origins of a political crisis, (London, 1991)  Williams, Raymond, Keywords, (Fourth Estate, 2014)
  8. Williamson, Edwin, The Penguin history of Latin America, (Allen Lane, 1992)

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Nationalism and Socialism in Cuban Society. (2022, Aug 20). Retrieved from

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