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Cuba Under Castro, Implementing the Revolution

eastern Cuba, large profits, Fidel Castro, political left, revolutionary government

Castro demanded that all opposition groups lay down their arms and consolidate power under his leadership. These groups complied since their objective had been to remove Batista; they had no plans to govern. Fidel Castro led a jubilant procession from eastern Cuba to Havana, and his bearded, youthful revolutionaries became uncontested national leaders.

When Castro entered Havana on January 9, 1959, he had support from the political left and the majority of the population. Most people agreed with Castro’s earlier promises to hold elections in one year, to recognize individual rights as stated in the 1940 constitution, and to guarantee political freedom. At first Castro did not assume a political office. He appointed moderate politicians to serve in the new government. However, Castro continued serving as head of the armed forces, and he remained the major force in determining the policies of the new government. Moderate politicians quickly became disenchanted with Castro’s policies and began leaving the government. Following the resignation of Prime Minister Miro Cardona in February 1959, Castro became prime minister.

His first order of business was purging Batista supporters from the government. The government created special tribunals, which quickly passed judgment on Batista associates. Sentences ranged from death before firing squads to prison terms lasting from 2 to 30 years. Officially the number of people executed was less than 700, though Castro’s opponents claim that many times that number died.

Castro’s second objective was to centralize control of the economy. In March 1959 the cabinet passed the Urban Reform Law, designed to reduce or eliminate the large profits made by wealthy individuals who had amassed extensive real estate holdings in the cities. Batista’s strongest supporters—those who had promoted violence to suppress anti-Batista dissent—lost their properties immediately. Large property owners lost some of their estates. The law restricted the profits of other landlords by reducing rents to a fraction of the pre-1959 levels. Other economic reforms were passed, and wage and price controls standardized wages and reduced the cost of living. Wealth was quickly redistributed. In May the Agrarian Reform Law limited private landholdings to 402 hectares (993 acres) per family. Limits were set at 1,350 hectares (3,336 acres) in the case of farms producing sugar, rice, and livestock. The government confiscated the largest estates, converting them into state cooperatives upon which individual workers could hold parcels of 26 hectares (65 acres).

The government also implemented a number of social programs designed to improve living conditions for poor and working-class citizens. A major literacy program taught almost all Cubans to read and write, and the government built hospitals in rural areas where health care had never been available. The laboring classes benefited significantly from these changes and their support for the revolutionary government was unequivocal.

Liberals and moderates, however, harbored doubts that Castro would return Cuba to democracy. Between 1959 and 1962, more than 200,000 people, many wealthy property owners and middle-class professionals, left the island. The government viewed them as traitors and prohibited them from taking any transportable wealth with them.

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