WITNESSING THE REVOLUTION: NORTH AMERICANS IN CUBA IN THE 1960s

By Strug, David L. | The International Journal of Cuban Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

WITNESSING THE REVOLUTION: NORTH AMERICANS IN CUBA IN THE 1960s


Strug, David L., The International Journal of Cuban Studies


Abstract

Cuba sought international help in the 1960s from individuals, organisations, and countries that were sympathetic to the revolution in response to acts of aggression by the US government. We discuss the experiences of one such group of individuals, North Americans from Canada and the United States, who travelled to Cuba in the 1960s to live and work there. We show that the revolution benefited from their support in practical and symbolic ways. It politically socialised North Americans and imbued them with a revolutionary enthusiasm. This enthusiasm was tempered over time by recognition of the revolution's limitations. The story of these North Americans offers an insider perspective on the revolution in its early humanist phase and furthers an understanding of the New Left's views on Cuba in the 1960s. Data come from 28 qualitative interviews with North Americans who lived and worked in Cuba in the 1960s.

Keywords: Cuba, Cuban revolution, New Left, North America, political socialisation, 1960s

Introduction

The Cuban revolution of 1959 was one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of Latin America (Kaplan 2009). It represented one of the most profound social transformations ever seen in the Americas (Fagen 1969). Cuba transformed its political culture, socialised its economy, redistributed its wealth, and mobilised its population to address illiteracy, poor health, and other social and economic problems (Saney 2004). Optimism filled the air. There was hope that a more just society was possible.

The United States responded to Cuba's revolutionary process with acts of aggression aimed at destroying the revolution and at isolating Cuba from the Western Hemisphere (Bolender 2010; Domínguez 1978). In response, Cuba sought international help where it could from individuals, organisations, and countries that were sympathetic to the revolution, including from North Americans.

Thousands of persons from around the globe came to Cuba in the 1960s to view the revolution's accomplishments and support the revolutionary process, including North Americans from the US and Canada. A number of these North Americans were so impressed by what they observed, so attracted by the energy and excitement generated by the revolution, that they decided to stay, some for years, before they returned home, working as economic advisers, engineers, journalists, teachers, and translators. We discuss why they travelled to Cuba, their experiences on the island, and the meaning Cuba has had in their lives. Almost nothing has been written about these individuals. Our study is unique, because it analyses primary material gathered through qualitative interviews with Americans and Canadians who lived in Cuba for years, before they eventually returned home. Our account of North Americans on the island offers an insider perspective on the revolution in its early humanist phase and enhances an understanding of the New Left's views on Cuba in the 1960s (Radosh 1976).

The story of these North Americans is important for a number of reasons. It demonstrates the significance for Cuba of a North American presence on the island in the 1960s. It also shows how the revolution politically socialised North Americans. Political socialisation here refers to exposure to political information and values and to the impact of this exposure on one's attitudes about politics and society (Merelman 1986). The revolution imbued North Americans with a revolutionary enthusiasm, which was tempered over time by recognition of the revolution's limitations. There are few descriptions of the impact of political socialisation on individuals living in Cuba in the 1960s (Lewis, Lewis and Rigdon 1978), although there is a considerable literature on the general process of political socialisation and efforts to transform revolutionary culture (Fagen 1969; Medin 1990; Rhoades 1979).

Methods

We used a snowball sampling technique (Goodman 1961) to recruit individuals for this study whereby one North American recruited another. …

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