An Unfinished Struggle? The Guerrilla Legacy in the Cuban Revolution



Dr Anna Clayfield is Lecturer in Spanish and Hispano-American Studies in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Chester. A Faculty of Humanities Early Career Research Award enabled her to undertake field work in Cuba in March and April 2016. This research formed part of an on-going project which examines the ways in which the guerrilla insurrection of the 1950s has shaped the ideology of the Cuban Revolution since 1959.

From the moment the Cuban revolutionaries entered Havana in January 1959, the image of the guerrillero (guerrilla fighter) became instantly emblematic of the Cuban Revolution as a whole.  The leaders’ olive green uniforms were a very visible reminder of how the Revolution had been fought and won, while the somewhat unsystematic approach to building a revolutionary government pointed to a leadership that had little political experience beyond what it had learnt in the mountains.


Within a decade, however, the Revolution’s guerrilla roots had seemingly been forgotten, as it established closer ties with the Soviet Union and subsequently underwent a process of ‘institutionalisation’. Since then, many foreign observers have commented on the supposed ‘militarisation’ of the Cuban Revolution, citing as evidence the pervasive military presence on the island, particularly within the political leadership.  These observers argue that this ‘militarism’, and the increased level of authoritarianism that it implies, is key to understanding the longevity of the Cuban Revolution during the past six decades.


My current research, which has developed out of the doctoral project I completed at the University of Nottingham, challenges this notion of ‘militarisation’. While the prevalence of the Cuban military in Cuban politics and society is undeniable, I argue that the very term ‘militarism’ does not allow for a consideration of the guerrilla origins of the Cuban armed forces, nor the Revolution more broadly.  Moreover, it overlooks the signs and symbols that point to an on-going promotion of guerrilla struggle in revolutionary Cuba.


Drawing on extensive archival research in Cuba and the UK, I analyse the official discourse of the Revolution — as expressed in Cuban newspapers, magazines, speeches and history textbooks — at different stages in its trajectory to demonstrate that the idea and lived experience of guerrilla warfare has shaped the beliefs and values that have underpinned it since 1959. Together, these beliefs and values form part of a unique political culture in which the figure of the guerrillero is revered, and the guerrilla campaigns of the Cuban historical narrative are presented as unfinished struggles. It is the active cultivation of this political culture, I contend, rather than ‘militarisation’, which partly legitimises the long-standing presence of former guerrilleros in the revolutionary leadership, and has helped to garner the support of civilians for the revolutionary project.


My doctoral project focused largely on the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s in its analysis of the language of the Revolution; this focus revealed that the promotion of a guerrilla ethos is more pronounced when the Revolution experiences a process of consolidation and/or crisis. Currently, I am working to expand the scope of the study by examining official discourse since the year 2000, and particularly since Raúl Castro officially took power in 2008.  This new research aims to show that the legacy of the guerrilla insurrection of the 1950s is still readily discernible in the leadership’s rhetoric, despite the many economic and social changes that have occurred in recent years.

My recent trip to Cuba proved invaluable in sourcing material published since the year 2000, much of which was found at the National Library and the Institute of Literature and Linguistics in Havana, as well as in the capital’s plentiful bookshops. It also gave me the opportunity to document further the ubiquitous signs and symbols that evidence a continued veneration of the figure of the guerrillero in present-day Cuba.  The most famous example of such signs is the much-photographed silhouette of Cuba’s archetypal guerrilla, Che Guevara, in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, adjacent to which has been added more recently that of another famous guerrillero, Camilo Cienfuegos, seen below.

blog pic 1

Similar visual celebrations of Cuba’s guerrilla history permeate the island’s landscape, both urban and rural, in the form of billboards and statues, as well as slogans and images painted on walls in towns and cities.

The research discussed here has enabled me to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of Cuban politics and society (moving beyond the often one-dimensional perspective offered in Western media), and, as such, has informed my teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. It has also been disseminated through a number of conference papers, and will be published in the form of a monograph by the University Press of Florida in 2017.

(Photographs courtesy of Ian Clayfield)


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