University students have always been the agents of change in Cuba since the founding of the Republic. The revolutions that overthrew Machado and Batista were in large part their doing. It is debatable whether either revolution was necessary but unquestionable that the evils which briefly followed the first and interminably the second were much worse than those which the students sought to remedy. The Revolution of 1933, the greatest bloodbath which our country had known since independence, did no harm to the institutions of the republic. If anything it strengthened them with the adoption of such reforms as the 8-hour working day and women's suffrage; and the greatest achievement of the Revolution of 1933, the abrogation of the Platt Amendment. Also, in just 3 years, all jailed Machado officials had been pardoned (none was ever executed) and many of these were returned to office in the elections of 1936.
The events of 1933 led many casual observers to believe that national reconciliation was impossible. They were wrong. Alliances were formed between the old politicos and the new without reference to the immediate past. Because the basic foundation of the republic was undisturbed, and barbarism was checked early by those who initially benefitted by it, the Revolution of 1933 was more of a generational shift than a seismic break with the past.
Gerardo Machado, the last general of Cubas's War of Independence to occupy the presidency, was the most popular president in Cuban history. At one time, all parties supported him and the people's adulation of him was real and near universal. His monumental public works programme, which transformed Cuba in every way, gave us the country which we know today. Then, practically overnight, he became the most hated man in Cuba. The Cuban economy was not immune to the effects of Great Depression but Machado may have weathered even that if he had not attempted to prolong his mandate by extending the presidential term from 4 to 6 years after winning re-election. Fearing that he might use this expedient to perpetuate himself in office, the students initiated a campaign of terrorism against the regime which threw the country into chaos. There were no battles between the rebels and government troops; there was not even the pretense of such battles as in the Castroite revolution. In fact, after Machado was overthrown, the constitutional army, which had been faithful to him, remained in place. The students were in charge of the government but not the army. It required another coup, within the army itself, to dislodge the old guard. This, too, was a generational revolution. This revolution-within-the revolution was led by a young sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, who was promoted to colonel and named head of the army by Ramón Grau San Martín, a university professor whom the students had chosen as president. Nothing is more amazing about the 1933 Revolution than the fact that the students chose one of their professors as their leader. Grau and Batista would dominate Cuban politics for the next 25 years, first as allies and then as rivals. Both were populists and progressives whose programmes never differed substantially; it was therefore possible for them to coalesce briefly to create the greatest monument of the Cuban Republic, the Constitution of 1940.
What brought about the Revolution of 1933 would also precipitate the Generation of 1953 to rebel against Batista. Not tyranny, because it was precisely the freedoms which Cubans enjoyed under both Machado and Batista which made these revolutions possible. Without the Rule of Law and constitutional protections neither revolution would have succeeded. The fact that Machado never unleashed the army on the students, and that Batista refused to bomb the Sierra Maestra or offer more than token resistance to the mock rebel army, no doubt had something to do with an older generation's condescension to a younger one which would one day judge it. The advanced state of Cuban civilization and national cohesion prevented a real civil war both in 1933 and 1953. The death penalty was never applied by Machado against his opponents nor by his opponents against Machado's followers. The Constitution of 1940, which abolished the peath penalty in Cuba, made Castro and his cohorts immune to the consequences of their actions; nor did Batista show any disposition to punish them beyond the bounds of the law. In no other country in the world, certainly not in the U.S., could terrorists have attacked an army barracks and been set free almost immediately to continue their campaign of terror. (Well, yes, something like it happened in the Weimar Germany; its leniancy with the putschists of 1923, who also benefitted from the Rule of Law, would have catastrophic results for Germany and the world). Batista used to refer to the rebels as "los muchachos." He believed that he could control them as Machado before him believed. He was more mistaken than Machado. The Revolution of 1933, incredibly, had no leader from its own ranks; an entire generation rebelled without a visible leader and when the time came to chose one, they deferred to someone (Grau) who did not belong to their generation and was very much in the mainstream of the establishment. The 1953 Revolution did have an undisputed leader who saw to it that all who might dispute his authority disappeared. He was no typical Cuban revolutionary because his revolution was not just generational but institutional. Fidel Castro's real goal was not to dislodge an entrenched autocrat but to destroy the Cuban Republic and establish the island's first real dictatorship. This Batista did not see, nor, indeed, did anybody else. Yes, Batista correctly identified Castro as a Communist; but Batista had co-opted the Communists before and did not realize that these particular Communists were not interested in being part of the establishment or even subverting it, but in destroying it. Castro's own democratic followers were either fooled by him or also thought they could control him, as the German junkers believed they could control Hitler. All were too late in realizing the peril he posed to the country, not merely to its political and social institutions, but to its freedom and independence.
Castro learned much from Machado and Batista. He learned from their mistakes not to repeat them. He knew that to enshrine himself in power indefinitely it was necessary to end that generational cycle which had brought him to power, that is, he had to suffocate the revolutionary spirit of future Cuban generations; only by neutering them could he perpetuate his rule and extend the influence of his generation for several generations. The Generation of 1953 refused to cede its place to its children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren. While the other Cuban generations which succeeded it withered and died from apoplexy before their time, it remained, if not eternally youthful, at least eternally omnipotent. It sublimated the revolutionary instincts of the other generations in failed sugar harvests and mercenary wars; but, especially, by focusing their attention on present necessities rather than future opportunities, which it accomplished by substituting the quest for self-realization with the struggle for survival. Castro's revolution was the revolution to end all revolutions: the everlasting revolution, which superceded the nation as the ultimate loyalty and nationality as the common identity. The Revolution became the sole unifying force in society, except that its object was not to unify but to divide the Cuban people. Like all Communist revolutions, Castro's was an anti-nationalist revolution which confounded and eventually replaced the nation with the party, or, more precisely, with a monopolistic plutocracy which exists to combat the public good.
Recently, the first indication appeared that a new generation of Cubans may rekindle the revolutionary spirit which once defined coming of age in Cuba, which made and unmade governments before 1959 without eviscerating the essence of the country. Now, however, it is not a question of preserving our national idiosyncrasy but of resurrecting it from under layers of brine meant to leave no trace of it.
5000 university students, faculty members and graduates with university degrees have signed a petition requesting that the regime allow universities to function independently of the state and reopen the country's former Catholic University, which was closed along with all the country's parochial schools at the start of the Revolution. On their part, it is not a symbolic gesture. Carrying a bus up the monumental stairs of the University of Havana in 1951 and sending it crashing down to protest a one-cent hike in the bus fare was a symbolic gesture. The students knew that they would face no repercussions. Although it may seem a bolder gesture, it was nothing but a stunt. This petition is another matter. It is the equal of hurling a 5000 bombs at Raúl's entourage or through Fidel's hospital window. The provocation should be judged not on the basis of the act itself but the reaction to it. Students didn't petition Machado in 1933 or Batista in 1953. If they had, a delegation would have been received at the presidential palace by the chief executive and their petition duly filed for further consideration. Certainly nothing would have happened to the students for pursuing their complaints through regular channels, not that anything would have changed. But engaging the Castro regime in a civilized manner and even availing themselves of the illusory rights in Castro's sham constitution to petition for change could have dire consequences for the students. At the least, it could end their lives as students. No student was ever expelled from university in Cuba before the Revolution because of political activism. The University, along with churches and embassies, were inviolate in pre-revolutionary Cuba and all three could and did offer asylum to political dissidents. Castro's own life was saved in the wake of the Moncada by the Church. The University itself was autonomous, which meant that it was off limits to the police or any other government entity. The University of Havana had thousands of "students" on its rolls that had not attended classes in decades, gangsters like Castro who, in effect, used the University as a hideout. Still, the government respected the extraterritoriality (which would be a more correct term than "autonomy") of the universities since it preferred the students to confine their activities to its precincts than run amok. You could say that the University was the "headquarters" of both the Revolution of 1933 and the Revolution of 1959. Given that fact, it is inconceivable, of course, that the Castro regime would ever grant the universities autonomy. You might as well petition it to grant all Cubans freedom. The petition is instructive, though, because it shows that Cuban students are acquainted with the history of their predecessors and willing, like them, to assume the vanguard role in challenging the government even without the protections and immunities which Castro and his generation enjoyed when they were students. It gives the lie to the notion that the Revolution was made for them and that they are its heirs. Rather, it shows that the Revolution robbed them of their birthright and that they know it.