Liberated Territories, Occupied Land: Agrarian Reform in Cuba's 1958 Rebel Insurgency

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:10 AM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Sara Kozameh, New York Univeristy
Following the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Fidel Castro publicly announced the “socialist character” of the Cuban Revolution. A year later, having picked its side in the Cold War, Cuba found itself a protagonist in the world’s most extreme nuclear confrontation. Scholars have argued that the Cuban Revolution was not conceived of as socialist at its outset, and indeed there is little evidence to show that it was. But what about its trajectory toward triumph set it on a course that favored the Soviet Union? In 1958, amidst the fight to topple dictator Fulgencio Batista, guerillas in Cuba's Sierra Maestra passed an important but largely overlooked agrarian reform law. Implemented across the 26th of July Movement's liberated territories, it brought decades of local struggles, national aspirations and regional conflicts to bear. Its consequences would reverberate globally.

This paper examines the implementation of agrarian reform by the Rebel Army and their first attempts at state formation in the liberated territories. Analyzing polemics around Communist contributions to the insurgency, this paper recasts initial attempts at land reform as a crucial element to Cuba’s eventual positioning within the Cold War, and places the 1958 insurgency into conversations about anti-colonial and anti-imperialist global revolutionary change. Using rare documentation from the Sierra Maestra, this paper argues that the ways in which pressures exerted on guerilla leaders by peasants, communists, and anti-communist revolutionaries during the war competed against each other set the revolution on a particular path, even before it had been won. Finally, this essay incorporates an often overlooked group of black radical peasants into the historiography of the Cuban Revolution, arguing that in their negotiation with guerrilla incursions they helped shape what would eventually become the Revolution’s social, economic and agrarian policies.