Fighting for Independence: Two Victories

In the 20th century, resistance to outside domination--generally strongly nationalist in tone-sprang up all around the world. But though nearly all 19th century colonies achieved some degree of independence, they generally won their independence from countries whose economic and military strength was declining. The countries that succeeded in escaping from the domination of the rising superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, were few. The two countries most prominently successful in escaping from the domination of a large country in the last 25 years are probably Cuba and Yugoslavia.

If Americans between 1898 and 1960 had had textbooks on imperialism, Cuba would have been a textbook case. Cuba's main industry was always sugar production, and whoever controls Cuba's sugar has a large measure of control over most Cubans' earnings, the Cuban government--traditionally a government of the educated and well-to-do--and most Cubans' lives. In the 20th century, more and more Cuban sugar mills were bought by Americans, protected by occasional U.S. military intervention, and Cuban owners of small and inefficient mills were forced out of business. Large mill owners--many American--came to have a major influence on Cuban politics. Since these owners, controlling much of the available capital, had little interest in developing other branches of the economy, it remained one-sided and shaky, with the U.S. ambassador--whose primary concern was usually protecting American investment--"at least the second strongest man in Cuba," according to historian Hugh Thomas.

In the late '50s, Fidel Castro led a guerrilla revolt against the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. At first, his profession of democratic principles won him considerable support among the Cuban middle class and in the United States (though one American ambassador asked Batista if he wanted a CIA or FBI agent sent to assassinate him), even though the core of his army came from the peasantry. But when Castro began to talk about nationalizing industry and collectivizing agriculture, and failed to hold the elections he'd promised, the United States and many Cuban liberals became alarmed. First the United States stopped importing sugar--700,000 tons a year--from Cuba. (The Soviet Union and China agreed to buy 1,20,000 tons a year at a somewhat lower price.) The United States applied an embargo on all exports to Cuba except medicines and some foodstuffs, and arranged for the Organization of American States to throw Cuba out. A couple of years later, President Kennedy organized an invasion, which Cuba's army, still predominantly peasant, repelled. Cuba had won its independence.

Yugoslavia has a weaker national tradition than Cuba, and in the years preceding its struggle for independence, it wasn't dominated by a single neighbor. Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia all took an interest in Yugoslavia's mineral resources and in transporting goods along the Danube River. But after the Second World War the Soviet Union achieved a position of dominance, largely because of the assistance and inspiration it had lent to the Yugoslav Partisans--commanded by Josip Tito, a Croatian Communist--who led the only active resistance to the Nazis. The United States and the other western powers seemed prepared to accept Soviet domination of Yugoslavia, and the Russians considered it part of their East European sphere of influence. The Soviet secret police recruited Yugoslav citizens, and Russia planned to integrate Yugoslavia into its economic empire. When Yugoslav delegates to a meeting on joint mineral companies asked for help in industrializing--Yugoslavia had just adopted an almost impossibly ambitious Five-Year Plan--the head of the Soviet delegation told them the Urals contained all the heavy industry Yugoslavia would need. Yugoslavs should stick to mining and agriculture, he said. Even the two joint companies that were set up for air transport and Danube shipping were nearly exclusively devoted to Soviet interests. In addition to--or reflecting--the economic conflict over Yugoslavia's desire to industrialize fast, there were ideological strains. The Soviet Union felt that Tito was insufficiently hostile to wealthy peasants, and insufficiently eager to start rapid collectivization of agriculture. (There weren't many wealthy peasants in Yugoslavia, and the Yugoslavian Communist Party included more small peasants wary of rapid collectivization than the Bolsheviks who relied more on urban workers.)

When Tito declined to accede to Soviet pressure, Stalin reacted in almost the same way Eisenhower and Kennedy were to react to Castro. Just as Cuba was expelled from the OAS, Yugoslavia was thrown out of the Cominform. Just as the United States sponsored and trained bands of Cuban refugees, the Soviet Union and its supporters sponsored and trained "Free Yugoslavia" movements of emigres. Just as the United States imposed a boycott on trade with Cuba, the Soviet Union and its supporters cut off trade with Yugoslavia, then dependent on these countries for half its imports including nearly all forms of industrial capital. Yugoslavia's Five-Year Plan was all but destroyed, its industrial capacity depleted and its labor force reduced by a massive military draft for defense against a Russian invasion. And just as Cuba found the socialist countries willing to help it resist American economic pressures, Yugoslavia, under pressure from the socialist countries, turned increasingly to the United States. From 1945 to 1960, the United States sent more aid to Yugoslavia than to all of Latin America. Despite this American aid, Yugoslavia remained a socialist state: it, too, had won its independence.


Why did Yugoslavia and Cuba succeed in achieving independence? Why didn't their respective patrons suppress their independence movements, as they did in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile? Certainly the Yugoslavs and the Cubans were brave, certainly their leaders were astute. But Hungary and Guatemala had their heroes too, and Dubcek and Allende were certainly remarkable politicians. Answers based on countries' different political situations are bound to seem unpleasant, for they discourage belief in the imminent self-rule of all peoples in all situations; and with just two cases to go on, they're bound to be inaccurate as well. Nevertheless, there are some interesting similarities between Cuban and Yugoslav independence.

1. In both countries, the governments that successfully resisted imperialism came to power primarily on their own, by armed, popular struggle. Unlike Allende, Castro wasn't chosen in a conventional election. As a result, his followers had a strong army of their own. Tito didn't ride into office on the coattails of the Red Army, as most other East European Communists did. As a result, his followers, too, had a mass army, the Partisans, and didn't need to rely on the Soviet army to keep him in power.

2. In both countries, the most important supporters of the government were small peasants, not middle class people or urban workers. Partly because the countryside was still as important as the cities in these countries, guerrilla warfare was a possibility any would-be conquerer had to take into account. Both Castro's and Tito's insurgents began as guerrilla fighters. Besides, this predominantly agricultural, relatively undeveloped, largely peasant economy is probably less vulnerable to outside pressure than a more developed but not self-sufficient urban economy.

3. Both countries found that the main adversary of the imperialist country they escaped was willing to help them resist by economic aid and with at least some threat of a military response to invasion. Easings in the tension of the Cold War are often assumed to help small countries. The experience of the last ten years--in which the Soviet Union offered no assistance to freedom fighters in the Dominican Republic, and the United States offered no assistance to freedom fighters in Czechoslovakia--suggest that this assumption is not always correct.

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