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Vol. 75/No. 2      January 17, 2011

Capturing a moment in revolutionary
history: Story behind a photo
Cover of ‘Soldier of the Cuban Revolution:
From the Cane Fields of Oriente to General of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba’
(feature article)
Below is a piece that appears at the end of Pathfinder Press’s just released book Soldier of the Cuban Revolution: From the Cane Fields of Oriente to General of the Revolutionary Armed Forces by Cuban brigadier general (ret.) Luis Alfonso Zayas, who is today one of the national leaders of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution. The book is available in both English and Spanish. Copyright © 2011 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The photograph on the cover of this book captures a high point in the history of the men and women who made the Cuban Revolution. Taken by Raúl Corrales, one of the revolution’s great photographers, the picture shows a militia unit of workers and farmers riding to the headquarters of the United Fruit Company near the town of Mayarí in eastern Cuba on May 14, 1960, to inform its management that the company’s massive holdings had been expropriated, that these lands and buildings had become the property of Cuba.

In April 1960, a year after the first of the revolution’s two deepgoing agrarian reform laws began to be carried out, a group of sugar cane farmers and agricultural laborers working one of the vast plantations of the United Fruit Company and nearby farms wrote a letter to the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA). They asked the revolutionary government to do something about United Fruit’s refusal to share the water it piped to its domains with workers and farmers who lived on or near their property.

A few weeks later, an INRA delegation visited United Fruit’s offices at the company’s Preston sugar mill in what is today Holguín province. They presented the farmers’ and workers’ request for access to water. According to an account by INRA’s executive director at the time, Antonio Núñez Jiménez, the company’s answer “was an insolent ‘No.’ ”

The next day, in response, Prime Minister Fidel Castro signed an order expropriating the more than 270,000 acres, nearly 425 square miles of Cuban land, held by United Fruit—a name that had become so hated throughout Latin America that the company later decided to reinvent itself as Chiquita Brands International. The wealthy US capitalist families who own the corporation had extensive landholdings throughout Central America and the Caribbean, including in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama, whose rulers had so often been subordinated to imperialist interests through a combination of bribery and, when necessary, naked force.

The expropriation decree included the Preston sugar mill and all US-owned property on the plantation. United Fruit was to receive compensation of 6,150,207 Cuban pesos* in twenty-year Agrarian Reform bonds paying an annual interest of 4.5 percent. The same terms were given other big landowners expropriated under the 1959 agrarian reform law. That law set a limit of roughly 1,000 acres on individual landholdings, transferred property in excess of that limit to the new government, and granted sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and squatters title to the land they tilled. Interest on the agrarian reform bonds was to be paid from the sugar “quota,” the amount of Cuban sugar guaranteed for sale each year in the United States. Compensation was based on the assessed value of the holdings of United Fruit and other big landowners, which in turn was based on the value the companies themselves had declared for tax purposes a year and a half earlier, in October 1958.

In face of outraged cries from Washington and other imperialist governments and their mouthpieces—“Confiscation!” screamed the headline in Time magazine’s June 1, 1959, issue—Fidel Castro explained the necessity of the revolutionary government’s land reform in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 1960.

“In our country [the land reform] was indispensable,” the Cuban leader told the delegates, speaking over the UN’s marble rostrum to revolutionary-minded working people and youth around the world. “More than 200,000 peasant families lived in the countryside without land with which to plant essential foodstuffs. Without agrarian reform our country could not have taken the first step toward development,” he said—toward solving “the great unemployment problem on the land” and “the frightful poverty that existed in the rural areas of our country.”

As to the compensation paid to the expropriated capitalist families, Castro said, “Notes from the U.S. State Department began to rain down on Cuba. They never asked us about our problems [or] their responsibility in creating the problems. They never asked us how many died of starvation in our country, how many were suffering from tuberculosis, how many were unemployed.” Instead, he said, the State Department “demanded three things: ‘prompt, adequate, and effective compensation.’ Do you understand that language?” Castro asked. “That means, ‘Pay this instant, in dollars, and whatever we ask.’ ”

The arrogant response of the owners of United Fruit to the Cuban government’s compensation offer was no different. While the giant corporation had “acquired” its vast landholdings for well under a penny an acre (some $817 all told!)—at the turn of the twentieth century, when the island was under direct US military occupation—its owners demanded that the Cuban government pay them more than $56 million for the expropriated land.

A few months later, in retaliation against the expropriation of US-owned properties and other measures taken by the revolutionary government in the interests of Cuba’s working people, the US rulers ended all sugar imports from Cuba. With that unilateral act, Washington rendered null and void redemption of the bonds. The US government’s abolition of the quota was soon followed by a full-fledged economic embargo of Cuba that remains in effect to this day.

The mounted militia squad on the cover is reminiscent of the nineteenth-century mambi army units, often composed primarily of combatants who had been slaves or bonded Chinese laborers. After thirty years of revolutionary struggle, that army won Cuba’s independence from Spain in 1898. The pictured mambises of May 14, 1960, included many of the farmers who had written to INRA only a few weeks before.

The ceremony where the expropriation was officially proclaimed was held on the golf course that had been reserved for United Fruit Company bosses and their friends. Those assembled learned that the new name of the mill was to be “Guatemala”—in honor of the people of that country, whose government had been overthrown in 1954 in a US-organized coup to reverse a land reform affecting holdings of United Fruit and other US corporations there.

Among the first measures implemented by INRA in the area was to give the toilers the authorization and means to install pipes to provide water from the former United Fruit’s aqueduct to neighboring farmers.

The new administration of the Guatemala mill, with the armed support of the revolutionary government, also put an end to segregated living quarters on the United Fruit plantation, where, Nuñez noted, there were “neighborhoods with borders, so that blacks and whites, Americans and Cubans, could not live together or intermingle.” There was even a neighborhood called Brooklyn “where the poorest and blackest live,” while “near the bay, in brand-new buildings with luxurious gardens, are the homes of the Americans and their Cuban lackeys… .”

Prior to 1944, Nuñez recalled to those celebrating United Fruit’s expropriation, the company had refused to allow a public school on the grounds of the sugar mill, or the construction of additional roads to connect the plantation with the Central Highway. “They wanted to keep this region isolated, closed off to all progress, to have us isolated here as if it were—and it was, in fact—a separate republic.”


In late 2010, as the final editing of Soldier of the Cuban Revolution by Alfonso Zayas was under way, an exhibit entitled “Cuba in Revolution” opened at New York City’s International Center of Photography. It was widely acclaimed in newspapers and magazines across the country. Of the more than 180 evocative photos on display at the museum—from prerevolutionary Cuba of the early 1950s, through 1968—the photograph by Raúl Corrales that serves as the cover of this book was selected by the curators as the image used on press releases and brochures for the show. It was reproduced as part of reviews of the exhibit in newspapers as varied as the New York Times, the Militant, and the Boston Globe, and magazines such as Art Daily and Art Info.

As the exhibit brought home to those of us fortunate enough to see it, the photographic record of the Cuban Revolution draws its power from the joy and creativity, the youth, humor, and enthusiasm of Cuba’s working people. That love of life and determination to struggle was captured on film as they set about laying the foundations of a new social order and defending their newly conquered freedom with discipline and arms, with their lives.

From that same wellspring, world-famous Cuban photojournalists of the epoch, including Alberto Korda, Osvaldo Salas, Liborio Noval, and Corrales himself, developed their craft and created a priceless legacy. That some of their photos have enriched the covers and internal pages of books published by Pathfinder Press over the last two decades, and in that way can be shared more widely with revolutionary-minded working people around the world, is a source of great satisfaction.

December 2010

* A peso was roughly equivalent to one US dollar at the time.

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