It is no secret that Fidel Castro always rejected the Cuban Republic (1902-1958). This rejection, stemming perhaps from the knowledge that its laws and institutions would never allow him to realize his hegemonic political ambitions, is evident from two early incidents. In his student days there was the strange “abduction, rescue and return” of the bell of Demajagua, the symbol of the call-to-arms of Yarra.* As an adult there was the assault on the Moncada Barracks. In both actions Fidel Castro was looking for political advantage by positioning himself against the “evils” of the Republic. To conveniently gain “patriotic cover,” he first invoked the name of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the Father of the Country, and later José Martí, known in Cuba as the Apostle. The tactic of using both national and international figures would become a hallmark of all his future actions.
The dismantling of the Republic began early in January 1959 with the decision to move the nation’s capital from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, a decision that was impossible to carry out given its economic and political impracticality.
It continued with the refusal to re-establish the Constitution of 1940, which had been a commitment and objective of the struggle against Batista. It was replaced with the Fundamental Law, which made all his actions legal while ignoring existing laws.
Subsequently, there was the replacement of the designated president, who demanded he share power, with a compliant president, who allowed him to exercise complete power. Agencies and institutions such as ministries, the national army and the national police were also deactivated, replaced with others which served his interests.
Existing political parties and organizations were banned. The entire institutional framework of the nation — the Congress, Senate, House of Representatives, governors’ and mayors’ offices — ceased being democratic, becoming instead an autocratic pyramid scheme.
Not even public buildings escaped this overhaul. Many such as the Capitolio, the Presidential Palace, the Court of Audit and the Supreme Court no longer fulfilled the functions for which they were designed and built. In most cases they were reassigned and underutilized, given functions of little importance, with the clear objective of discrediting them as symbols of the Republic.
In making a clean sweep of everything that had anything to do with the Republic, monuments were dismantled while avenues, streets, parks, schools, hospitals and other facilities — even companies, factories and businesses — were renamed.
For anyone with no experience of these things, it might seem all seem like a great folly or an exaggeration, but it is the sad reality of a country under the control of a man filled with contempt for anything that does not carry his personal imprint.
After each “dismantling,” anything transformed or created anew became part of his legacy, marked by a commemorative plaque with the date of its inauguration and a commemoration each year. This dismantling affected the arts and sciences, industry, technical procedures in livestock and agriculture, as well as education — including even the design of students’ uniforms — as well as medical and hospital practices, not to mention chemistry and physics.
Such exaltation of ego, though easy to witness daily in our official media outlets, has no precedent in the nation’s history — not even in its darkest periods — and is the direct result of a total absence of civil and political controls for over fifty-four years.
Re-evaluating the Republic
Fortunately, some honest historians, serious researchers and talented writers working largely overseas have for some time now been objectively re-evaluating this subject in order to preserve the memory of the Republic, which constitutes an important part of the national memory. Unfortunately, this has not been the case within Cuba, where the period is considered taboo, unless you look at it through the monochromatic governmental lens, and where the impartiality necessary to evaluate its main events and key players is absent.
This re-evaluation has filled in a lot of “black holes” and “dead zones,” and overturned some “fake pedestals” created for political reasons. These include the largely successful first four-year term of Tomas Estrada Palma, the first president of Cuba, and his later mistaken decision to seek re-election which, over the objections of most Cubans and the American government itself, led to the second U.S. occupation of Cuba.**
What follows are the administrations of José Miguel Gómez, Mario Garcia Menocal, Alfredo de Zayas and their governments of light and shadow, a period — in spite of it all — of social and economic development. We then have the first Machado administration, with its ambitious Public Works Project filling the national landscape with highways, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and other important constructions, followed by the later phase in which he tried to hold onto power in defiance of the popular will.
Years of instability — a period when presidents lasted weeks, days or even hours due to conflicts between national and foreign interests — ended with Federico Laredo Brú, the historic Constitution of 1940 and the restoration of democratic order. Fulgencio Batista’s first term was won in a free election, followed by those of Ramón Grau and Carlos Prío. It was all undone with a senseless military coup in March 1952, which brought down the young democracy.*** There was a return to violence, which could not be contained in time because of the irresponsibility and weakness of existing political forces. While rejecting it in principle, they felt forced to accept it, thus cutting off any hope for a possible political solution in spite of the fact that the country was in the midst of a period of accelerated economic development.
Then the period of insurrection — marked by sabotage, attacks and civil war — consolidated and laid the foundation for the totalitarian system and denial of democracy under which we still suffer.
The possibility of re-engaging today as Cubans depends on putting aside ideology and politics, and turning away from pointless confrontations that have only brought us pain and misery. It means taking up the search for our lost republican roots, looking back to the key moments when it all happened to make sure the same errors are not repeated.
First came March 10, 1952, the moment the constitutional order was brought down. Then on January 1, 1959 the Republic ceased to be. We must re-evaluate this crucial time in our history without attempting to reproduce that Republic, which would be utterly impossible anyway. Too much time has gone by and the current situation is very different from that of the past, as are we Cubans. We should carefully re-assemble it so that it is in tune with the current era while ensuring that it is truly democratic, modern and “with all and for the good of all,” as the Apostle would have wanted.
Fernando Dámaso | Havana | 25 December 2013
*Translator’s note: Demajagua and the call-to-arms of Yarra represent the site and beginning of Cuba’s 1868 war of independence against Spain.
**Estrada Palma has been criticized by Castro and his supporters for agreeing to allow the United States to establish a naval base at Guantanamo and for appealing to the American governement to intervene in Cuba in 1906.
*** Former president Fulgencio Batista seized power for a second time, cancelling scheduled presidential elections.
25 December 2013