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Franklin Roosevelt and the Cuban Left: Contradictions of the Colonised Mind?

Franklin Roosevelt y la Izquierda Cubana: ¿Las contradicciones del pensamiento colonizado?
Antoni Kapcia


In any study of modern Cuban history, 1933 is seen as a turning point, either a “prelude to revolution” (for some) or because it divided the overtly neo-colonial First Republic (1902-33) from the Second (1934-58), changing the scope and nature of US involvement in Cuba, with the Platt Amendment replaced by a more complex economic and political dependency. However, it was also when, under Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), a different United States seemed to exist in the eyes of those Cubans who wanted greater Cuban independence within a good relationship with a United States, now seemingly driven by the new “Good Neighbour” policy. This chapter goes beyond that perspective to examine the reformist Cuban Left’s revealingly ambiguous reactions to the other strand of FDR’s new approach, namely his New Deal, reactions which brought out the complexities and contradictions of the reformist Left's attitudes to the United States and to their own group identities within the Cuban spectrum. Those responses and contradictions tell us much about the strength and depth of residual colonised attitudes in Cuban society and politics that even included the Left and the rhetorically nationalist forces, suggesting that an intellectual and cultural dependence on the United States might still go deeper than the discourse might imply.

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  • 1 Roosevelt used the ‘Big Stick’ to mean ‘protective imperialism’ in the region from 1904.
  • 2 The Amendment wording was inserted (at US insistence) into Cuba’s future Constitution, allowing US (...)
  • 3 Three interventions came in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-23. Only the first, however, was a full-scale m (...)

1When Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was elected US president in November 1932 (taking office in January 1933), Latin America welcomed his non-interventionist “Good Neighbour” policy which ended three decades of military involvement under Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” approach.1 That was especially true in Cuba; after years of legalised neo-colonialism (under the 1901 Platt Amendment and the 1903 Reciprocity Treaty) and a long love-hate relationship,2 Gerardo Machado’s repression had generated an unrest that might trigger US military intervention under the Amendment.3 Hope was reinforced by FDR’s policy advisors’ familiarity with Cuba. Two of the “Brains Trust” sent to Cuba in December 1932 (Adolf A. Berle Jr and Charles Taussig) and Rexford Tugwell (Under-Secretary of Agriculture) knew Cuba through the American Molasses Company, while Treasury First Secretary William Woodin was ex-director of the Consolidated Railways and Cuba Company (Thomas, 1971: 686-7). In March 1933, Cordell Hull (an 1898 veteran and ‘Good Neighbour’ champion) became Secretary of State; in May FDR’s friend Sumner Welles became ambassador to Cuba. As Thomas put it: “Cuban exiles in New York or Washington were looking forward to his inauguration in March 1933, without hiding their enthusiasm” (Thomas, 1971: 598).

  • 4 Three rebellions (1868-78, 1879-80, 1895-98) led to US intervention in April 1898, converting the W (...)

2 However, despite many Cubans’ traditional desire for closer Cuba-US relations, there was good reason for caution, given US presidents’ history of involvement in Cuba, and Cubans’ experiences of limited independence and dependency; that led many to question or oppose the relationship. A fusion of radicalism (of different kinds) and nationalism (of both Left and Right) had grown out of Cuba’s 1800s’ separatist struggles (when slaves and free people of colour sought independence as a path to racial and social equality) and José Martí’s ideas and work with Florida’s migrant tobacco workers for a socially equal Cuba Libre (Free Cuba).4 As the 1902-33 “First Republic” deteriorated into instability, corruption, and US intervention, a radical nationalism shaped an unusual Left. That Left included the 1925 Cuban Communist Party (PCC), founded by Carlos Baliño, co-founder of Martí’s 1892 Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC), and ex-student leader Julio Antonio Mella, who sought to ‘Latin Americanise’ Marxism for Cuban conditions; however, it also included other variants, some more influenced by nationalism and others more rhetorically leftist (since leftism was becoming the hegemonic discourse of dissent) but in reality centrist or even on the Right. When a 1919-20 sugar price boom (“The Dance of the Millions”) brought economic crisis and increased US capital in Cuban sugar and banking, nationalists began to equate anti-imperialism with anti-capitalism, posing the question: would the Good Neighbour end US hegemony or would FDR be a typical US president, especially as “El New Deal rooseveltiano …. accedió a las demandas del bloque de poder burgués terrateniente” [Roosevelt’s New Deal… responded to the power of bourgeois landowners] (Ibarra, 1995: 46)? Would a more progressive US domestic policy make a difference to Cuba?

  • 5 The Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party was created in 1934 by Grau and the ex-students of the Dire (...)
  • 6 From September 1933, the ‘revolution’ begun by the DEU and mutinous non-commissioned officers (NCO) (...)

3This chapter examines responses to those questions from the Cuban Left, that ranged from radical and notionally revolutionary to reformist and moderate, from nationalist to internationalist, with evidence from the contemporary leftist and centrist press and other writings, and from later reflections by the two key players of the 1933 “100-days revolution” that led to the 1934-58 “Second Republic”: Ramón Grau San Martín, president in late 1933 and again 1944-48 (with his new Auténtico Party),5 and Fulgencio Batista, who began, defended, and finally ended the revolution by removing Grau and then ruling de facto until 1940.6

1. The Cuban Press in 1933

  • 7 Bohemia, founded in 1910, began life as an increasingly popular and prestigious society magazine, r (...)

4In 1933 the leading centre-left weekly Bohemia welcomed Roosevelt’s election, contrasting his “protección limitada” [limited protectionism] with Hoover’s “rígido y absurdo proteccionismo” [rigid and absurd protectionism] (Bohemia 24, 45: 3), but saying little about his programme.7 A week later, it defined his politics as “amplio, franco y acogedor liberalismo” [broad, honest and inclusive liberalism] (Bohemia 24, 46: 20), welcoming the end of a protectionism that had “sumido a Cuba en la más pavorosa miseria” [plunged Cuba into fearful misery] (Ibid: 41). Its centrism was seen in a March 1933 editorial on FDR’s inauguration, warning that failure to meet voters’ expectations might create “una excelente materia prima al comunismo” [perfect raw material for communism] (Bohemia, XXV, 9: 3). The following weeks saw continuing vagueness on his policies but praise for his “dinamismo […] algo extraordinario” [quite extraordinary […] dynamism], proclaiming “todos los horizontes del mundo parecen iluminados por las luces de una nueva fe” [the world’s horizons have been lit up by a new faith] (Bohemia, XXV, 17: 11).

  • 8 The PCC then numbered only some 250-300 members (Goldenberg, 1970: 65). Distanced from the protests (...)
  • 9 The Comintern (the (Third) Communist International) pursued, under Stalin, a confusing series of po (...)
  • 10 Arévalo began his political trajectory when, as a labour activist, he founded Acción Socialista, wh (...)

5On the Left, the PCC’s paper Bandera Roja (BR) from May 1933 said little about FDR;8 following the Comintern’s Second Period policy (of revolutionary non-cooperation with the Left),9 it praised the Soviet Union while condemning the non-communist Left, the 1933 revolutionary government, and US imperialism (BR, 1, 4: 1), and backing US workers’ struggles (BR, 1, 2: 2) and the US Communist Party (CPUSA). Between them and Bohemia stood Acción Socialista (AS), the daily organ of Juan Arévalo’s Unión Federativa Obrera Nacional, opposing anarcho-syndicalism and communism in the Cuban National Workers’ Confederation (CNOC) but with an anti-capitalist and class-war rhetoric.10 Until Welles’s arrival clarified the US position on Cuba, AS simply highlighted FDR’s promises on employment and land (AS, XI, 280: 5) and, for six months, ignored him (AS, XI, 282: 8), focussing instead on fascism, war, unemployment, anarchism, and communism, and advocating a state-run “socialismo evolutivo” [socialism by evolution] (AS, XI, 284: 1). Meanwhile, while reporting labour activism abroad in August 1933, it ignored Cuba’s ongoing labour insurrection, until the army removed Machado.

6Therefore, the initial evidence in 1932-33 suggests quiet hopes among the reformist Left about FDR’s meaning for Cuba alongside a more radical view of him as just another US president. However, they all shared a confusion between the (domestic) New Deal and the Good Neighbour, a confusion also evident among US commentators: in August 1933, the New Republic wrote of a “New Deal in regard to Latin America” (Gellman, 1973: 105), a 1934 World Affairs Interpreter article argued that “a new deal in our relations with Cuba is required” (Stuart, 1934: 53), and in 1935 Carleton Beals lamented that “[i]n the name of the New Deal in Latin America we have nailed Cuba back on the same old cross” (Beals, 1935: 219).

2. The Cuban Political Scene

7Cubans’ caution reflected Cuban politics by 1932, with even bourgeois elements opposing Machado, sharing fears about US dependence, as reflected in 1931 in both the radical terrorist organisation ABC and failed elite-led rebellions. After years of growing insurrection and opposition, some saw Machado as a bulwark against communism and anarchy, but more saw him as an obstacle to social progress, economic recovery and guarantees against US intervention. By March 1933, that divide had widened, as Machado’s regime neared the end. Hence, Cuban interest in FDR focussed inevitably on the Cuban impact of any US recovery and New Deal protectionism.

8The 100 days revolution reflected those reactions. While it suggested radicalism (Grau seeking to end the Amendment, replace the neo-colonial 1901 Constitution, and enact a postponed nation-building), Grau never fully controlled Cuba in his 134 days. Moreover, the revolution was a fluid state of chaos, with at least five discrete strands. The once radical DEU were the most visible but increasingly moderate, alarmed by “soviets” declared in the sugar mills. The second strand was labour radicalism, although the PCC’s ideological position (that a semi-feudal Cuba made socialist revolution impossible) led them to dismiss the revolution as bourgeois. Meanwhile, Antonio Guiteras (Grau’s radical Minister of War and Minister of the Interior) led an anti-imperialist strand of nationalism, based in the police and soldiers in his charge and some of the old action groups that formed Joven Cuba [Young Cuba] in 1934. The mutinous NCOs (under sergeant Batista) who sparked the revolution on 4 September 1933 showed some radicalism by removing most (and killing many) of the officer class (Kapcia, 2002), but their grievances focussed on pay, conditions, and blocked promotion. The residual armed action groups (a further strand) lacked any clear political position. Meanwhile, the increasingly corporatist ABC opposed the revolution; part of Welles’s failed mediation with Machado, they sided with the army officers and backed Batista’s January 1934 coup, ending the revolution; their own variant of radicalism (firstly in their overt commitment to terrorism and their militant nationalism, but increasingly in their association with more corporatist ideas) led some on the Left to label them Cuba’s fascists, although their profile until 1934 had been much more complex than that.

3. The Cuban Press from 1936

  • 11 The presidents were: Carlos Hevia (January 1934), Manuel Márquez Sterling (January 1934), Carlos Me (...)

9With FDR’s re-election (November 1936), press attention changed in a very different Cuba under the ‘Generation of the 1930s’, replacing the First Republic’s discredited ‘1895 Generation’. After removing Grau (backed by the elite and the US embassy), Batista installed a series of “puppet” presidents for six years.11 His chameleon trajectory had thus moved from “revolutionary” (1933) through military rule (1934) to repression (1934-35); in 1937-40, he would then become a socially reforming populist, enticing the PCC into electoral alliance in 1939-40. Grau, in Mexican exile from 1934, created the Auténticos, opposed Batista and was eventually elected in 1944.

10The press’s change from their 1932-33 caution bore that out. Bohemia greeted FDR’s re-election enthusiastically, but the old confusion of New Deal and Good Neighbour continued: one early editorial (“La política del ‘Buen Vecino’” [The Good Neighbour policy]) used ‘New Deal’ to mean the new Cuba-US relationship (the 1934 Reciprocity Treaty and the quota system) (Bohemia, 28, 44: 56). Politically too, Bohemia was confused: while the editorial denied FDR’s socialism or fascism, concluding, “Roosevelt no es más que un demócrata, un gran demócrata, un demócrata de cuerpo entero” [Roosevelt is nothing but a democrat, a great democrat, a democrat in his whole being] (Ibid: 57), the first of a series of Gustavo Gutiérrez articles on the new Soviet Constitution included the words “Precisamente lo que admiramos de la Rusia Soviética y de la Italia Fascista y de los hombres que las guían es su extraordinaria perspicacia para arrojar las fórmulas fracasadas y adoptar otras nuevas” [What we admire in those leading both Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy is their remarkable vision in rejecting failed formulas and adopting new ones] (Ibid: 17), then seeing Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler and Roosevelt following the same “socialista” idea (Ibid: 46). Meanwhile, Miguel Coyula’s “República y Democracia” hoped that any new Cuban Constitution would be “ni comunismo ni fascismo” [neither communism nor fascism] (Ibid: 38).

11Confusion continued, Coyula a week later welcoming FDR’s re-election as “La victoria democrática aparece como un venturoso rayo de luz” [the victory for democracy is a welcome ray of light] (Bohemia, 28, 45: 38), and the editor Miguel Angel Quevedo Jr. seeing him as a leader who “manifestaba una tendencia liberal y liberadora a favor de los contingentes labourantes de la nación” [tended towards liberalism and liberation for the nation’s labouring masses] (Ibid: 42). Three weeks later, Coyula praised him as a possible pauta (model) for Cuba (Bohemia, 28, 48: 36). The latter reflected pattern on the reformist Left, as Eddy Chibás (former student radical, now Auténtico) drew implicit personal parallels, seeing FDR as someone who, elected in crisis, representing the poor, and accused of communism, had rebuilt via the New Deal. It was clear that a particular Cuban Left now invested faith in a US model of ‘third way’ socially progressive politics. Chibás himself welcomed FDR as “el campeón de las modernas democracias, como el adalid internacional del nuevo liberalismo consciente” [the champion of modern democracy, the international champion of a new liberal consciousness], adding the slogan, “Ni Roma ni Moscú: Libertad y Democracia” [Neither Rome nor Moscow: Freedom and Democracy]’ (Ibid: 39). That tone continued in later issues, reflecting on FDR’s programme (Bohemia, 28, 50: 14-5) and his meaning for Cuba, Coyula seeing his re-election as “para Cuba cuatro años de posibilidades alentadoras” [four more years of promise for Cuba] (Ibid: 46). Chibás’s stance was especially significant; in 1947, he would create the radical nationalist Cuban People’s Party (Ortodoxos), which would include a young Fidel Castro.

12By the March 1937 inauguration, however, Bohemia’s main focus had become the Spanish Civil War and Grau, both emblematic issues for the Left to redefine itself in a global ideological conflict. That was seen in “Política Americana”, Alejandro Vergara Leonard (of the reformist Partido Agrario Nacional (PAN)) praising FDR’s belief in economic equality, contrasting him with Fascism (Bohemia, 29, 10: 28), and urging the necessary leftward drift of politics and Popular Fronts: “De aquí que todos los partidos de izquierda y el Demócrata, que se ha izquierdizado, hayan formado el potentísimo frente popular que hoy dirige los destinos de Norte-América” [all left parties and the Democrats (who have moved leftwards) have formed a powerful popular front now shaping the US future]. (Ibid: 53). Indeed, across western Europe (even in the new Comintern line) ‘popular fronts’ were the new Left orthodoxy.

  • 12 In 1937, the newly legalised PCC became the Revolutionary Communist Union Party (PURC); in 1942, tw (...)
  • 13 Cuba provided the largest Latin American contingent fighting on the Republican side.

13The new attitude to FDR reflected changes in Cuban politics. Only a year earlier, the Left’s principal concerns had been Batista’s control and the hope of a new Constitution, seeing a Rooseveltian democracy as a bulwark against both communism and Batista. By 1937, however, leftism had become more universal and even hegemonic; even Batista (through Laredo Bru) was enacting popular social reforms, and politics was dominated by two popular fronts: Batista’s post-1939 Democratic Socialist Coalition (CSD) and a bloc under the Auténticos.12 Democracy now seemed more threatened in Spain than in Cuba, generating a popular crusade and cause for the residual radical Left.13 Bohemia could thus commit fully to a Republic (in Spain as in Cuba) where the Right had become discredited.

14Bandera Roja confirmed that in 1937, silent on FDR (once the imperialist) and stressing popular unity against fascism and Batista: “¡No hay un cambio democrático de las fuerzas batistianas! ¡Su nacionalismo es la defensa descarada de los yankis…..!” [Batista’s forces have not seen any democratic change! Their nationalism is a shameless defence of the Yankees!] (BR, 79, 24: 6). It all reflected PCC ambivalence: as the CPUSA (under Earl Browder) supported a New Deal ‘popular front’ of blacks, labour, the collapsing Socialist Party, and LaFolette Progressives (Leuchtenberg, 1963: 190), the PCC posture was easy to frame. By 1938, BR had been replaced by the daily Noticias de Hoy, under Blas Roca; the party now allied with Batista, Hoy addressed FDR’s opposition to monopolies (Hoy, 30 April 1938: 2) and a supposed fascist threat to his life (Hoy, 1, 1: 10). In October, it cited Roca (on a US visit) praising the Good Neighbour policy as a “tremenda influencia en la dirección que ha tomado el gobierno de Cuba” [a great influence on the policies of the Cuban government] (Hoy, 1, 139: 5). With favourable coverage of Batista’s own US visit, Hoy was proving its democratic and reforming credentials.

15Acción Socialista’s attitude in 1936-37 was equally revealing. Its discourse was now even more reformist and even reactionary: once the Periódico del Proletariado, it was now the Semanario Obrero [Workers’ Weekly], referring to the socialistas (including José Manuel Cortina) around the (questionably) “progressive” President Mariano Gómez (AS, XIV, 501: 1), and, by opposing PCC-led unions, perhaps seeking their own accord with Batista. Hence, it welcomed the re-election of someone seen as taking up Eugene Debs’s socialist project (AS, XIV, 523: 12), a triumph for the people against “los bastardos intereses de la reacción, de la burguesía explotadora, de las tendencias represivas de la libertad y del derecho humano” [the bastard interests of reaction, the exploiting bourgeoisie and the tendencies repressing freedom and human rights] (Ibid). A month later, it hailed FDR’s programme (AS, XV, 530: 5). In May, it asked “¿cuándo en Cuba tendremos un Presidente así?” [when will Cuba have a president like that?] (AS, XV, 537: 2). It now seemed that FDR was at least a yardstick for Batista, his AFL links and the New Deal being a possible basis for Batista’s Plan Trienial (AS, XV, 540: 1), and (in an Arévalo article in September) Batista being “el Jefe de la Revolución” (AS, XV, 544: 1). AS now advocated the “socialismo moderado” (AS, XV, 545: 4) of the new Partido Socialista Independiente (PSI) and a progressive alliance with Batista, not via a popular front (associated with the PCC) but the less radical New Deal, although AS was always vague on its programme.

16Meanwhile, in 1935, a new leftist periodical IR (organ of the small Izquierda Revolucionaria [Revolutionary Left]) had included an article on the New Deal’s reforms, agencies, and benefits for US farmers (IR, 1, 2: 1). Their motives and their political position were clarified by a PAN criticism of the betrayal of the 1933 revolution, repeating the slogan, “CUBA PARA LOS CUBANOS!” [Cuba for the Cubans!] (IR, 1, 2: 3). By nationalistically supporting agrarian interests, it saw the pro-farming New Deal as a model, while AS’s (and the PSI’s) more urban base made the New Deal less important than Roosevelt’s aura of social and democratic progress.

17By 1937, opinion beyond the press still shared the early confusion on the New Deal. José Pérez Cubillas’s Roosevelt, el New Deal y Cuba focussed solely on the financial and trade aspects of FDR’s Cuba policy. Analysing the crisis, unemployment, and poverty behind his election and protectionism (the “bandera del nacionalismo exagerado” [banner of an exaggerated nationalism] (Pérez Cubillas, 1937: 5)), Pérez welcomed the benefits of US stabilisation and recovery, and defended the 1934 Reciprocity Treaty against Cuban critics. In 1938, Cortina’s Franklyn Delano Roosevelt y la Nueva Democracia praised the US history of independence, liberty and the Monroe Doctrine, seeing the 1898 US intervention as the American people fighting alongside Cubans (Cortina, 1938: 9); the Platt Amendment was never mentioned. Cortina equally lauded FDR’s “revolution” of individual liberty, economic reorganisation, social justice, and unity, unlike “otras revoluciones que destruyen, anarquizan o matan” [other revolutions that destroy, bring chaos, and kill] (Cortina, 1938: 17). For him, like others on the centre-left, revolution was a vague concept, neither radical, violent nor communistic. Once again, FDR’s importance for Cuba was non-intervention and cooperation.

18However, in 1940 El ‘New Deal’ Norteamericano, by the centrist, but avidly anti-communist, historian Herminio Portell Vilá, did address FDR’s “nuevo Sistema” and “nueva filosofía” (Portell Vilá, 1940: 1), ignoring the Cuba-US relationship. He argued that Cubans should not expect a new Reciprocity Treaty in 1940 (FDR needing rural protectionist votes) and should see the New Deal as an inspiration and a model: “se ha convertido en [….] empresa humana de progreso social y económico, en régimen de equidad y de libertad, en expresión de democracia muy siglo veinte, nueva, eficiente y renovadora” [it has become […] a human enterprise of socio-economic progress, a system of equity and liberty, a 20th century expression that is new, effective and reforming] (Portell Vilá, 1940: 24). He at least saw the New Deal legitimising a safe alternative to worrying radicalism.

4. Grau San Martín and Fulgencio Batista

19Given the continuing confusion about the New Deal, we now turn to the two 1933 leaders steadily shaping new political careers. In 1936, a series of Grau’s 1935 speeches in Panama were published as La Revolución Cubana Ante América, where revolución was only defined as: “un proceso que tiende a operar transformaciones profundas en lo económico, en lo político y en lo social, que redunden en beneficio inmediato de las mayorías oprimidas y desposeídas” [a process bringing deep changes in the economic, political, and social spheres of immediate benefit to the oppressed and dispossessed majority] (Grau, 1936: 103). That reflected the Auténtico stance: a new politics in a new Cuba under a new generation, adapting to changes in Cuba and beyond. For Grau, revolución was either a synonym for reform or legitimacy from 1933; he offered what 1933 had promised, enacted, or could have happened with US recognition: nationalisations, social reform, education, health reform, the ‘abolition of the Platt Amendment’ (Ibid. pp.89-96). 1933 was for him a real revolution and the Auténticos made Grau’s revolución part of a longer process from Martí in 1892.

  • 14 The Association had been invited by Mendieta make recommendations to the Cuban government.

20Despite anger at their role in 1933, Grau was now ambivalent about the United States; based on his record, he took authority from the 1935 US Foreign Policy Association’s Problems of the New Cuba report,14 but his discourse remained nationalist, opposing ingerencia (interference) and the ills of foreign ownership in the economy, explicitly defining the Auténticos as “La expresión revolucionaria, de definida y comprobada ejecutoría nacionalista” [the revolutionary expression of a clear and proven nationalist government] (p.105), but also as “esencialmente nacionalista, socialista, y anti imperialista” [essentially nationalist, socialist, anti-imperialist] (p.104). He seemed caught between two stools.

  • 15 The Amendment was effectively ‘abolished’ by the 1934 Treaty of Relations under Roosevelt, which, b (...)

21Batista had no need to outline ideas so explicitly: the policies under his “puppets” spoke for him, especially the 25 July 1937 Programa del Plan Trienal of infrastructural investment, social reform, economic protection, support for colonos (sugar growers), and state regulation. That facilitated alliance with the PCC and echoed contemporary Latin American populists such as Brazil’s Vargas and Mexico’s Cárdenas as much as the New Deal. Moreover, silence on nationalism was now more possible with US capital’s partial withdrawal from Cuba in the Depression. Hence, unlike Grau, he could simply imply radicalism; by 1939, with PCC support and the (PCC-led) Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC) operating openly, for many Cubans Batista was delivering well, even if his Plan missed its targets. Indeed, he lived off that record when seeking the 1940 presidency; once elected, he sided with the Allies and watched the War, aware that US links benefited Cuba economically and politically, while having PCC (by then PURC) cabinet ministers in 1942 allowed him to be both pro-US and pro-USSR. Out of office after 1944, he could then trumpet his record in his memoirs (Revolución Social o Política Reformista) and in 1964 exile repeated that record, claiming credit for ending the Platt Amendment (Batista, 1964: 13).15 Repeating his 1933 claim to radicalism, he even criticised FDR for preaching “good neighbourliness” while stationing 29 warships off Cuba to threaten action if peaceful persuasion did not work (Batista, 1964: 8).

22Overall, therefore, both Grau and Batista after 1938 claimed revolutionary credentials from 1933: Grau laid the basis for a new Constitution and Batista sparked the revolution in September 1933 and then defended it in October and November. The Left might condemn his 1934 seizure of power and 1935 repression, but, by 1938, he enjoyed legitimacy across the spectrum with his populism, nationalism, and Amendment “success”. In 1936, Grau had adopted a more overtly nationalist interpretation of US behaviour, while Batista had been more supportive, but by 1939 they had both shifted. The Auténticos had become a catch-all for disparate radicals and centrists (including Joven Cuba from the nationalist Left and ABC refugees from the nationalist Right) and accepted the New Deal as a possible model for a ‘modern’ reforming and ‘safe’ Cuba. Batista, aware of Comintern shifts, had outflanked Grau on the Left, helped by the Left’s weakness and a less visible US presence, Platt giving way to the 1934 Jones-Costigan Act (and sugar quota) and a new Reciprocity Treaty. When, in 1942, the Soviet Union joined the Allies, Batista could argue US-approved toleration of the Soviet Union.

5. US Attitudes

  • 16 The mediation marginalised groups such as ABC that, by participating, risked legitimising Machado’s (...)

23Therefore, the key players of 1936-40 reflected the press responses to FDR, although some still feared that, despite appearances, the United States might not have changed much. In 1932-33, they watched FDR’s effects on Cuba, fearing protectionism but hoping for a new tariff and Reciprocity Treaty (Gellman, 1973: 10) or for him to accept Welles’s idea of Washington financing Cuba’s unpayable debt (Benjamin, 1977: 74), but aware that FDR had tacitly tolerated both Machado and Welles’s mediation,16 and, in the chaos between August and December 1933, despite resisting Welles’s pressure to intervene, did threaten action and make non-interventionism conditional. He told reporters that “as long as Cuba had a semblance of stability and American lives were not in danger, the United States would not invoke the Platt Amendment” (Gellman, 1973: 28), which, seemingly echoing the Amendment, fuelled intervention fears. Indeed, the Good Neighbour (invented during the 1932 election) was less first tested in Cuba, as historians have often argued, than empirically developed during the Cuban episode; intervention was not as remote as later believed, with Welles authorised to use the Amendment “stick” and the “carrot” of a new trade treaty (Benjamin, 1977: 58).

24That salutary reminder of US neo-colonialism confirmed that Cuba was less a foreign issue for the United States than an extension of domestic concerns, outside Latin America and the Good Neighbour. Indeed, FDR was keen (for US interests) to stimulate Cuba politically and economically (Benjamin, 1977: 59), while those most determining Cuba policy (Hull and Welles) clearly saw Cuba as a domestic issue. Certainly, the principles of the National Recovery Administration and Agricultural Adjustment Act were applied to Cuba for US interests (Ibid.: 59) and a new Reciprocity Treaty aimed to stabilise US exports and limit Cuban imports (Ibid.: 65). Moreover, while (in 1932-33) Cubans had been either suspicious of FDR’s intentions or concerned about his meaning for Cuba, by 1937-40 that tendency had lessened; either more Cubans understood the New Deal, or the 1934 changes had indeed stabilised Cuba, or Cubans now accepted regulation.

6. The Cuban Left after 1933

25The Cuban Left had changed the most since August 1933; then, its discourse had enjoyed dissident hegemony, with centrist and right-wing attitudes to Machado discredited by a growing consensus on insurrection, and with the Left legitimised by radical traditions. It had thus felt no need to seek legitimacy via a progressive US model. Thereafter, however, unity and coherence weakened; by 1936, Left morale had been broken by division and repression. Hence, the PCC began to reassess its strategy, soon coinciding with the Comintern’s new line. Even the non-communist Left agreed; after Guiteras’s 1935 death, Grau’s exile in Mexico, and Batista’s total control, more now saw Batista as most likely to realise the 1933 goals without chaos. Moreover, 1933 had persuaded many reformists that flirting with revolution risked real upheaval, leading to repression, while the Left had a new cause in Spain.

26The two largest forces reacted differently to the dilemma posed by Batista’s popular but authoritarian reformism: while the PCC joined him, the Auténticos led the opposition bloc in the 1939 Constitutional and 1940 presidential and congressional elections. Therefore, the Auténticos now sought different sources of legitimacy; despite their historic roots, they were now less able to find legitimacy in anti-imperialism or revolution. It was now (and not in 1932-33) that the reformist but increasingly moderate Left began to embrace FDR’s model wholeheartedly; what was problematic in 1932-33 now brought legitimacy. For the New Deal’s real significance was not to be a model but to legitimise an emerging social-democratic reformism in Cuba. In 1940, that became explicit, as both major blocs in the Constitutional Assembly chose a charter espousing New Dealist regulation, accepting Batista’s corporatist reforms based on both 1933 and Rooseveltian principles, and equating revolution with socially progressive regulation.

7. The Meaning of the New Deal in Cuba

27Hence, the New Deal ultimately legitimised several things. Firstly, it set the new reformist Left within a radical dissenting tradition, against immorality, betrayal and corruption, thus identifying itself with Martí (Kapcia, 2000: 87-88). As the 1930-33 consensus disappeared, unable to use Platt or even a popular Batista’s “betrayal”, it now focussed on corruption, an issue that had hardly figured in 1933-36 but that now reappeared for the Auténticos, using images of both Martí and the New Deal. Thus, in 1940 Portell Vilá’s picture of the pre-FDR United States reflected growing unease about Cuba (Portell Vilá, 1940: 3), while his view of the New Deal’s logic also applied to Cuba: “los abusos, los errores y los egoísmos habían engendrado el “New Deal” administrativo” [abuses, errors and egoism had spawned the New Deal] (Portell Vilá, 1940: 5).

28Secondly, combining democracy and social reform, the New Deal enabled a reformist Left to challenge both a discredited Right and the CSD: the stronger the CSD, the greater the condemnation of “anti-democratic” communists and Batista, strengthened by association with FDR’s progressive centrism rather than an insipid neutrality: “..reforma, corrección, reoragnización, innovación y experimento que formaron el ‘New Deal’ norteamericano, un conjunto de medidas de las más elementales del socialismo del Estado, pero que al fuerte individualism” [[the] reform, adjustment, reorganisation, innovation and experiment of the US New Deal, combining the basic measures of state socialism with the strength of individualism] (Portell Vilá, 1940: 5).

  • 17 The 1934 Reciprocity Treaty (as many Cubans requested) followed the patterns of the 1903 model but (...)

29Thirdly, the New Deal legitimised a growing consensus on regulation. Once characterising both the non-communist Left and the corporatist Right, regulation was now more universally credible, characterising the new Cuba-US relationship and global patterns: since 1930-33 had exposed Cuba’s vulnerability, regulation was now the only acceptable and patriotic answer to both revolution and right-wing authoritarianism, justifying the new Cuba-US arrangement.17 Before 1933, discursive simplification had made vague anti-imperialism and revolution the sine qua non of any progressive position; after 1933, the reformist Left saw the New Deal as a chance to redefine itself as a ‘new’ Left. Given the favourable attitudes to the New Deal from Cuba’s sugar, manufacturing, and importing interests and from the middle class, the political groups representing them responded appropriately. The most pro-US and by now fully corporatist ABC was now ensconced in both the Batista governments (Saladrigas was Prime Minister from 1940) and the Auténticos, while the pro-New Deal Left had either split, been eliminated by Batista, turned to Spain, or joined the Auténticos. That included the anti-imperialist Joven Cuba, now advocating co-operation and regulation (Pichardo, 1980: 514-525).

30Yet, interestingly, neither the Auténticos nor Batista identified themselves explicitly with the New Deal, although Zamora y López made the link with Batista’s 1937 Plan (Zamora y López, 1937). The Auténticos were presumed to be as democratic as FDR, and, by not making that association explicit, their formal nationalism was never questioned. However, their 1934 Programa Constitucional was clearly New Dealist, riddled with references to anti-trust “prácticas cooperativas y corporativas” [cooperativist and corporatist practices] (Pichardo, 1980: 301), echoing FDR in 1932-33 and talking of regulation, rejecting nationalisation, and stressing through laws “la participación más equitativa en el disfrute de los recursos de su propio país” [the most equitable participation in national resources] (Pichardo, 1980: 290). Batista’s successful cooperation (on the Amendment) with a US president was perhaps overlooked given his wide popularity, and, since his regulatory programme was evidently New Dealist, he needed no explicit homage to FDR.

  • 18 The speech would become the first manifesto of the 26 July Movement.

31The New Deal had a further indirect and enduring significance in that the Foreign Policy Association Report continued to influence the Cuban Left’s discourse into the 1950s, as the gospel on ‘the Cuban situation’, an authority for leaders in the 1940s, and even informing Fidel Castro’s seminal 1953 La Historia me absolverá [History will absolve me] speech.18 It associated the New Deal with Cuba: “The inauguration of the New Deal between Cuba and the United States may be hastened if the American government adopts further steps…” (Buell, 1935: 499). It advocated a regulatory economy, social reform, an inclusive political structure, a “reconstruction programme” (Buell, 1935: 21), diversification, welfare, health and social reforms, a fair sugar quota, the colonisation of unused land, an agricultural bank, and a public utilities commission – measures all adopted by subsequent Cuban governments, under Batista's direction but clearly legitimised by the Report. The Report’s concerns were also clear: radicalism might result if problems were not addressed, making communism more significant if “the forces of nationalism and capital (permitted) the masses to fall into a state of desperation” (Buell, 1935: 200). The Report therefore coincided with the evolving reformist Cuban Left after 1935, with the Auténtico prescriptions and with Batista, who, in 1936, extolled an alliance of “Unión, Capital y Trabajo” [Unity, Capital, and Labour] (Batista, 1944: 61) before offering his Plan. There was a clear correlation of perspectives, programmes, and motivations. There was also a further link: those espousing New Dealist solutions spoke of the “New Cuba”, recognising that 1933-34 had changed Cuba irrevocably, and that FDR had created a new relationship. Hence, “New Deal” was shorthand for new politics, new economy, and new Cuba-US relationship, legitimising those forces identified with any presumed newness.

32Furthermore, in 1936-40, New Deal regulation proposed opportunities and a role for the middle-class, whose new inclusive politics proposed modernisation, mitigation of “savage capitalism” through a caring capitalism of protectionism and regulation, greater political incorporation, and the state as a progressive and reforming social and economic actor. In Cuba, that made sense, new opportunities restoring a belief in the state and giving a leading role to a class which, until 1933, been in limbo between the traditional caudillos and the increasingly radical proletariat, between a drive for real independence and a servile pro-US accommodation. 1933-35 had exposed that limbo, bringing many defining moments for the class which, by 1936-37, now welcomed a new definition and a new role as the technocracy of an inclusive reforming state. Thus, the New Deal legitimised the class’s ambitions, allowing either identification with the Auténticos or Batista, or a progressive neutrality that: “se trataba de ilusiones reformistas que fomentaba el New Deal rooseveltiano en las clases medias y en grupos de trabajadores” [was about reformist hopes encouraged by Roosevelt’s New Deal in the middle class and worker groups] (Ibarra Cuesta, 1995: 200). That all helps to explain the many political metamorphoses of Batista from 1933.

33The New Deal’s final significance was that it demonstrated the continuing cultural dependency of Cuban politics. In 1930-33, the anti-Machado struggle and fears of intervention made progressive politics self-referential, but, after 1933, fears of unrest and the changing Left led the middle-class back to the US fold, accommodation now legitimised by FDR. It was thus appropriate that, when the reformist Left sought a new definition, it found it in US models and the 1935 Report. Even the PCC followed Browder’s reformism and model of an inclusive US ‘popular front’.

8. The Changing Meaning of FDR in Cuba

34In both respects, 1940 was a turning point. Thereafter, the overt praise of FDR began to disappear with the 1929-32 crisis that had made him attractive. Cuban politics now had a new yardstick and source of legitimacy, more immediately autochthonous than the New Deal: the 1940 Constitution. Regulatory, socially reforming, economically nationalist, and inclusive, it remained until 1958 (and beyond) the main legitimating force of radical politics. That most clearly explains the New Deal’s real role and significance in 1936-40: not in changing thinking, nor in persuading or heralding a wave of New Dealist reformism, but in bringing short-term legitimation and redefinition to a particular class and political position between the disorienting crisis of 1933-35 and the point when the Cuban system had its own sources of legitimacy. In 1948, the Cold War would force all groups across the spectrum to take sides: only the PCC (by then the PSP) sided with the Soviet Union; the rest openly supported Washington or remained silent. That included the reformist Left: however vociferous their ‘anti-imperialism’ or ‘socialism’, they opposed both revolution and Soviet models, finding a safe rhetorical nationalism and ‘revolution’ within a less destabilising US policy. Therefore, the New Deal became in 1936-40 all things to all people, each political position to the right of the PCC taking out of it appropriate lessons, models, or legitimacy.


35This all feeds into a wider reality: the complexities of decolonisation. Just as any colonialism or neo-colonialism needs the colonised to perceive themselves as ‘the problem’ (their presumed backwardness, racial divisions, inability to develop, and so on) and the coloniser as ‘the solution’, any process of growing nationalism and decolonisation needs the colonised to develop a pride in their own cultural identity, to start questioning the coloniser as solution. That can bring more significant slow steps to reverse the dichotomy, seeing the coloniser as ‘the problem’ and the colonised as ‘the solution’. However, that process is invariably long, haphazard, contested, undermined by self-doubt, and resisted by the coloniser; even after formal independence, it continues, any cultural decolonisation being far from complete after self-rule, leading many to see the outsider (previous coloniser or a new hegemon) as the solution to the inevitable problems of formal independence. In Cuba’s case, four centuries of colonialism and self-doubt, and the reality of the US role as pole of attraction, economic hegemon, determinant of independence, and gatekeeper of limited sovereignty, made some of ‘the Left’ prepared to accept that an affinity with the new hegemon was both pragmatic and a default position to protect Cubans against themselves. That pattern could be glimpsed in many reactions in the Republic’s six decades and would not be addressed fundamentally until a revolutionary questioning accompanied a process of long-delayed nation-building from January 1959.

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Primary Texts

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Año XI, No 278, 9 February 1933

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Año XI, No 282, 8 April 1933

Año XI, No 284, 1 May 1933

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Año XV, No 537, 25 May 1937

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Bandera Roja

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No 79, 24 January 1937


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Vol XXV, Año 25, No 9, 5 March 1933

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Vol XXV, Año 25, No 20, 28 May 1933

Año 28, No 44, 1 November 1936

Año 28, No 45, 8 November 1936

Año 28, No 49, 6 December 1936

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Año 29, No 5, 31 January 1937

Año 29, No 10, 7 March 1937

Diario de la Marina

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1 Roosevelt used the ‘Big Stick’ to mean ‘protective imperialism’ in the region from 1904.

2 The Amendment wording was inserted (at US insistence) into Cuba’s future Constitution, allowing US intervention and neo-colonial control; it was included in the 1903 US-Cuban Permanent Treaty. The Reciprocity Treaty tied Cuba to a limited exchange of raw sugar for US manufactured goods.

3 Three interventions came in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-23. Only the first, however, was a full-scale military occupation, which, designed to end the upheaval caused by a Liberal revolt, restructured Cuban politics to include the Liberals, as well as reforming several aspects of the political and economic systems; the other two occupations were smaller and more focussed, both aiming to protect property at times of violent unrest or rebellion.

4 Three rebellions (1868-78, 1879-80, 1895-98) led to US intervention in April 1898, converting the War of Independence (led by Martí) into the Spanish-American War and US occupation until 1902.

5 The Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party was created in 1934 by Grau and the ex-students of the Directorio Estudiantil Universitario (DEU).

6 From September 1933, the ‘revolution’ begun by the DEU and mutinous non-commissioned officers (NCO) saw radicalism, but also growing chaos and unrest. In 1940-44 Batista was elected president.

7 Bohemia, founded in 1910, began life as an increasingly popular and prestigious society magazine, reflecting elite Havana culture and fashions; by the 1930s, however, it had become much more political in its tone, posture, and focus, generally providing a critical centrist perspective of political violence and authoritarianism.

8 The PCC then numbered only some 250-300 members (Goldenberg, 1970: 65). Distanced from the protests, in August 1933 it agreed with Machado (unrealistically) to end a general strike. Bandera Roja (Red Flag) was its principal periodical until replaced by Noticias de Hoy (Today’s News).

9 The Comintern (the (Third) Communist International) pursued, under Stalin, a confusing series of political policies for the world communist parties to follow.

10 Arévalo began his political trajectory when, as a labour activist, he founded Acción Socialista, which he continued to edit until August 1933; he came to prominence in the leadership of the largely moderate Hermandad Ferroviaria (Railwaymen’s Brotherhood) from 1924, but then founded the Unión Federativa Obrera Nacional (National Workers’ Federative Union) which pursued a strategy of moderate, peaceful, and conciliatory relations with managements and the government (even, and especially, under Machado). Increasingly anti-communist, he and the Unión and Acción Socialista became critical of the radical Left and, despite the epithet ‘socialist’ and their rhetoric, became identified with what was disparagingly called the amarillo (yellow) labour unions, accused of siding with the bosses and Machado. The UFON’s affiliation with the US AFL labour confederation enhanced the reputation as pro-US.

11 The presidents were: Carlos Hevia (January 1934), Manuel Márquez Sterling (January 1934), Carlos Mendieta (1934-35), Jose A. Barnet (1935-36), Miguel Mariano Gómez (1936), and Federico Laredo Bru (1936-40).

12 In 1937, the newly legalised PCC became the Revolutionary Communist Union Party (PURC); in 1942, two leaders joined Batista’s wartime cabinet; in 1944 PURC became the People’s Socialist Party (PSP).

13 Cuba provided the largest Latin American contingent fighting on the Republican side.

14 The Association had been invited by Mendieta make recommendations to the Cuban government.

15 The Amendment was effectively ‘abolished’ by the 1934 Treaty of Relations under Roosevelt, which, by replacing the contentious 1903 Permanent Treaty (which included the Amendment’s wording), de facto removed the Amendment completely.

16 The mediation marginalised groups such as ABC that, by participating, risked legitimising Machado’s position.

17 The 1934 Reciprocity Treaty (as many Cubans requested) followed the patterns of the 1903 model but with fewer benefits to Cuba and with no hint of the industrialisation seen across Latin America.

18 The speech would become the first manifesto of the 26 July Movement.

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Antoni Kapcia, « Franklin Roosevelt and the Cuban Left: Contradictions of the Colonised Mind? »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 54 | Avril 2023, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2023, consulté le 04 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Antoni Kapcia

Emeritus Professor, University of Nottingham,

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