The First Declaration of Havana – 60 years on

Autumn 2020

Cuba will never surrender their self-determination writes Francisco Dominguez

On the 2nd of September 1960, Fidel Castro addressing a huge crowd, made a historic speech in response to a US-orchestrated statement issued by the Organization of American States against the Cuban Revolution in a specially held meeting in San José, Costa Rica. The First Declaration of Havana, as it would later become known, was a formidable statement of resistance and defiance to the escalating threats of US military aggression. It is not exaggeration to say that Fidel’s speech would shake Latin America, the US political establishment, and the whole world.

The First Declaration was made seven moths before the US-led military attack against the island at Bay of Pigs and less than two years of the victory of the Revolution in January 1959. The political context of the First Declaration was dominated by the intensification of US-led destabilization, including the certainty of imminent US military aggression. In the background to the First Declaration there had been the frustrating efforts by the fidelistas to establish good and normal relations with the US government but had been treated with contempt by US President Eisenhower. When a Cuban delegation that had travelled to the US in April 1959, they were told, the President could not meet them because he happened to be playing golf. Fidel ended up meeting vice-president Richard Nixon that, reportedly, was a stormy event.

Unsurprisingly, the United States began to sponsor, encourage, finance and organise domestic subversion and external aggression against the Cuban revolution, whose manifestations rapidly increased in quantity and lethality. Huber Matos, a Castro’s guerrilla commander, propelled by his strong anti-communist views had attempted an uprising against the revolution as early as September 1959; Matos’ insurgency had been preceded in July by a failed military invasion attempted by US-backed Dominican Republic dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

By 1960 US aggression gradually but steadily intensified. In a sabotage carried out by the CIA, in March 1960 the La Coubre French ship exploded in Havana Bay, killing more than 100 people and over 400 injured

; in March 1960, Eisenhower had agreed to a CIA recommendation to organize Cuban exiles who had began to leave for the US since the revolution’s very beginning; illegal aerial raids into Cuba from Flrorida-based airports by Cuban exiles became ever a more frequent and frightening occurrence; in July, the US media was openly informing that US officials were discussing “how to accelerate Castro’s downfall”; previously in June, the three big oil refinery US companies based in Cuba - Texaco, Royal Dutch and Standard Oil –under US Treasury pressure, announced they would not refine Soviet crude; in July 1960, Eisenhower pretty much abolished the US sugar quota, which used to guarantee the purchase of a large proportion of the island’s sugar output, with devastating consequences for Cuba; a few days earlier in June the revolution had expropriated refineries belonging to Esso and Shell, Texaco suffered the same fate; on July 9th, all US companies in the island received orders to present affidavits with detailed information about their assets, stocks, reserves, etc.; on 6th August the Cuban Telephone Company, the Cuban Electricity Company (owned by US capital, were ‘Cuban’ only in name), all oil refineries and all sugar mills were expropriated. The Soviet Union, China and the socialist Eastern European countries would buy all the Cuba sugar the US was not prepared to purchase.

Eisenhower knew the abolition of the sugar quota was an economic sanction against the revolution which, given the revolution’s willingness to resist and fight back, would require as he put it “further economic, diplomatic and strategic measures”. To the signal that some kind of US military aggression was in the offing, Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier, declared that Russian gunners could defend Cuba with rockers, if necessary. The scene was set for a military aggression against the revolution by US imperialism and both sides began preparations in earnest. Thus, in typical fashion, US banks refused to exchange Cuban pesos and a Caribbean Rescue Committee to welcome and organise Cuban refugees in the United States (in a speech Fidel told the US “Cuba is not another Guatemala”). The US State Department activated the Organization of American States (OAS) to an emergency meeting to condemn Cuba for ‘endangering the whole region’ (does it sound familiar?). The lackeys in the US “backyard” obliged by holding a Seventh Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, held at San José, Costa Rica, at which on August 28th they issued the San José Declaration after the formal withdrawal from the event of the Cuban delegation. Formally, it was to respond to the San José Declaration that Fidel pronounced the First Declaration of Havana, which, at the time in Latin America, was an unusually combative and courageous response to US imperialism, expressing an unwavering and unequivocal determination to not surrender the nation’s sovereignty under any circumstance, no matter what the odds, the Fidelista revolution’s raison d’être.

In the First Declaration Fidel’s rhetorically asked “What have we done to deserve the San José Declaration? Our people have done no more than break free from their shackles.” The San José Declaration was originally instigated by the US State Department with the aim to condemn Cuba and Fidel Castro specifically, but they got neither. Nevertheless, the OAS did condemn the acceptance of “extra-continental intervention” in the Americas, it even mentioned the Sino-Soviet powers’ attempt to endanger “peace and security in the hemisphere.” Ironically, the statement went on to also reaffirm the principle of “nonintervention by any American state in the internal or external affairs of the other American states”, but even worse, it reiterated “that each state has the right to develop its cultural, political, and economic life freely and naturally, respecting the rights of the individual and the principles of universal morality, and as a consequence, no American state may intervene for the purpose of imposing upon another American state its ideologies or its political, economic, or social principles.” It seems evident that the no condemnation of Cuba and Fidel Castro specifically and the insertion of the ‘nonintervention’ clause in the San José Declaration had the function of ensuring majority vote. Mexico made it clear that it voted for the Declaration in the understanding that it did “not even theoretically” impugn the right to self-determination.

As is well known, since then, the OAS has experienced extensive additional degeneration and Latin America oligarchies’ submissiveness has dramatically worsened.

Whatever the San José Declaration ‘shortcomings’, US key objective to rally Latin America against the Cuban revolution, depicting it as an instrument ‘of extra-continental intervention’, thus isolating it politically and diplomatically, was an essential component of the aggression being prepared. The Cuban delegation to the OAS ‘consultation meeting’ had withdrawn before the vote was taken. Another component of the impending US military aggression had been Eisenhower’s authorization to the CIA to arm and train the Cuban exiles, a strategy that had been successfully used to carry out the military invasion of Guatemala and the violent overthrow of the progressive government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, six year earlier. The third element was comprehensive economic sanctions and generalised blockade, that would have been crippling, had the Soviet Union and the socialist countries not taken the decision to purchase most of Cuba’s sugar output.

To the regional and world Hegemon, the Cuban Revolution had gone too far. It had not only overthrown their man in Havana, Fulgencio Batista, but it was razing to the ground the state and socio-economic structure the US had patiently but ruthlessly built since its military occupation of the island in 1898. It had almost fully expropriated not only the capitalists in the island, but the overwhelmingly dominant US capital. It was determined to break free from US dependency by being willing to sell its sugar to the Soviet Union or any other potential commercial partner in the world economy. Furthermore, Fidel and the revolutionary government not only would not buckle under US pressure, intimidation, threats and economic aggression, but would defy the US and be prepared to resist and confront any possible US military aggression. And worst of all, in a manifestation of unprecedented Latin American self-determination, revolutionary Cuba had established relations with the Soviet Union and the socialist countries, thus shattering US hegemony over the island but also challenging it in the whole region.

Fidel’s reply to the San José statement was swift and immediate: the First Declaration of Havana of 2nd September 1960, made to the people of Cuba congregated in large quantities – reportedly, one million –in Revolution Square to listen to him. The First Declaration had several functions, and we will focus on the three most important ones, namely, a call to intellectually, psychologically and practically prepare the people of Cuba for the imminent US aggression; a defiant warning to the US and the world that the revolution would fight back and resist any US or US-backed military attack; and a moral justification of the legitimacy of resisting imperialist aggression as a clarion call to all the oppressed peoples of Latin America and the Third World to also break free from the imperialist chains. It is a powerful speech when you read it in English, but more so when in Spanish, and substantially more appealing when you actually listen to it (recordings are available).

In the First Declaration Fidel condemns the San José OAS statement as having been dictated by US imperialism and being inimical and detrimental to national self-determination, and the sovereignty and dignity not only of Cuba but also of all the nations in the Americas. The San José Declaration was a betrayal of Latin America. Fidel also condemns the criminal intervention of US imperialism over Latin America for more than a century through military invasion (more than once) of Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba, including the military occupation of Puerto. Turning in this way the region into “an area of exploitation, the backyard of the political and financial Yankee empire, a reserve of votes for the international organization in which the Latin America countries have figured only as the herds driven by the ‘restless and brutal North that despises us.’” Thus, the OAS San José statement is a betrayal of the sacred principles of independence of Bolívar, Hidalgo, Juárez, San Martín, O’Higgins, Sucre and Martí.

The mention of Bolívar requires no explanation; Miguel Hidalgo, was a priest who led the independence process in Mexico in 1810; Benito Juárez, indigenous president of Mexico (1858-1872), led the successful resistance against the French invasion and occupation (1861-1867); José de San Martin, led the independence war of liberation of Chile and Argentina; Bernardo O’Higgins of Irish descent, Chilean independence leader, who led the liberation of his country from Spanish colonial subjugation; José Antonio Sucre, the most trusted general of Bolivar’s liberation armies, led the war of liberations of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia (Bolivar appointed him in charge of the  military liberation of Ecuador in 1821 which he brilliantly accomplished in 1822 at the age of 27; by 1825 at 30, Sucre had liberated Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia); and José Martí

, Cuban patriot, architect of Cuba’s freedom who led the 1895 war of liberation and Fidel’s chief source of political and intellectual influence. Thus, the First Declaration was charged with history and Fidel couched his statement within the ethical parameters of their struggles, which presented the Cuban revolution as a contemporary continuation.

There is also a sober but sharp insightful understanding of the mechanisms of economic domination of Latin America by the use of the Monroe Doctrine which Fidel explains by quoting Martí: “the poison of the loans, the canals, the railroads”, but whose domestic domination results because the US is “a country where Negroes are lynched, intellectuals are persecuted and workers are forced to accept the leadership of gangsters.” All proportions guarded, there is an amazing contemporary resonance to this last phrase since bad habits die hard.

The political crux of the First Declaration comes when Fidel’s speech touches upon the issue of the “imminent attack by the Pentagon”. In this very dangerous context dominated by “the cowardly and criminal [US] aggressions”, Soviet help is, therefore, an act of solidarity. And Cuba is “grateful for the support of the Soviet Union's rockets, should its territory be invaded by military forces of the United States.” In it Fidel categorically rejects the charge that the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union intend to use Cuba as a platform “to break the continental unity and endanger the unity of the hemisphere.” He is categorical that Cuba and its 20,000 martyrs

– the actual toll in lives of the 1952-1959 struggle against the US-backed Batista dictatorship –, assumes full responsibility for all of the acts – “from the first to the last shot” – leading to the Revolution, the people of Cuba “acted with free and absolute self-determination.” On the contrary, Fidel retorts, it is the US imposition on Latin America a policy of isolation and hostility to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and the US belligerent and aggressive stance and systematic opposition to accept China into the UN, that “endanger the peace and security of the hemisphere and the world.”

The First Declaration affirms that democracy cannot be reduced to voting, “which is almost always fictitious and manipulated by big land holders and professional politicians,” and that it does not exist in Latin America where its people are subjugated by “hunger, social inequality, illiteracy, and the juridical systems”. Thus, the First Declaration condemns

“…poverty for the peasants and a backward and inhuman agricultural system; condemns starvation wages and the iniquitous exploitation of human labour by immoral and privileged interests; condemns illiteracy, the lack of teachers, of schools, of doctors and hospitals, the lack of protection of old age that prevails in Latin America; condemns the inequality and exploitation of women; condemns the discrimination against the Negro and the Indian; condemns the military and political oligarchies that keep our peoples in utter poverty and block their democratic development and the full exercise of their sovereignty; condemns the handing over of our countries' natural resources to the foreign monopolies as a submissive policy that betrays the interests of the peoples; condemns the governments that ignore the feelings of their people and yield to the directives of Washington; condemns the systematic deception of the people by the information media that serve the interests of the oligarchies and the policies of oppressive imperialism; condemns the news monopoly of the Yankee agencies, instruments of the North. American trusts and agents of Washington; condemns the repressive laws that prevent workers, peasants, students and intellectuals, which form the great majority of each country, from organizing themselves and fighting for the realization of their social and patriotic aspirations…” 

Flowing from this the First Declaration logically “condemns both the exploitation of man by man and the exploitation of under-developed countries by imperialistic finance capital.” It reads as though the First Declaration was uttered last week about the key issues contemporary Latin America confronts. In fact, in many respects, sixty years later, Fidel’s depiction of the region has got worse.

It is true that ever since there have been gigantic advances in Latin America, not only in terms of poverty eradication, elimination of illiteracy, improvements in the wellbeing and cultural and political rights of Black and indigenous people, but also on gender equality, sexual diversity, land redistribution, natural resources and so forth in countries such as Nicaragua, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, etc. But after the First Declaration’s depiction, Latin America did not improve at all but the opposite all the way to 1998, when Hugo Chávez was elected President of Venezuela. During the 1970s, US policy of fostering military dictatorships led to the physical elimination through extra-judicial killings of 5,000 people in Chile and 32,000 in Argentina; and during the 1980s, US policy of genocide in Central America led to the murder of 50,000 people in Nicaragua, 80,00 in El Salvador, and 120,000 in Guatemala. In Mexico, government policy under Felipe Calderon and Enrique Peña Nieto alone, due to the extensive domination of the drug cartels, led to the assassination of nearly 300,000 people. Plus, the concomitant increase in poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, squalor, disease, malnutrition and all the ills associated with US-dominated backward neoliberal capitalism.

Additionally, all the setbacks that progressive Latin America has had since 2009 in Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Uruguay, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, etc. have US-backed and US-financed destabilisation plans as their core cause (in some cases involving a direct coup d’état, in others ‘constitutional’ coups, such as in Brazil).

The First Declaration ends with a call to the masses of Latin America to struggle for their rights, which are

The right of the peasants to the land; the right of the workers to the fruit of their work; the right of children to education; the right of the ill to medical and hospital attention; the right of youth to work; the right of students to free, experimental, and scientific education; the right of Negroes and Indians to “the full dignity of Man”; the right of women to civil, social and political equality; the right of the aged to a secure old age; the right of intellectuals, artists, and scientists to fight, with their works, for a better world; the right of nations to their full sovereignty; the right of nations to turn fortresses into schools, and to arm their workers, their peasants, their students, their intellectuals, the Negro, the Indian, the women, the young and the old, the oppressed and exploited people, so that they may themselves defend their rights and their destinies. 

And it, therefore, not only proclaims that it is the “duty of peasants, workers, intellectuals, Negroes, Indians, young and old, and women, to fight for their economic, political and social rights” but it empowers them with the necessary instruments to do so; the duty of oppressed and exploited nations to fight for their liberation; the duty of each nation to make common cause with all the oppressed, colonized, exploited peoples, regardless of their location in the world or the geographical distance that may separate them.”

Ever since the First Declaration of Havana, the Cuban Revolution has remained true to its principles not just rhetorically but in deeds. The Revolution has given concrete, material support to the struggles of the people in Africa and Latin America for their liberation, where Cuban volunteers have died fighting for their brothers and sisters, asking nothing in return. Their doctors and health workers have been everywhere where there has been a human or natural disaster such as in Pakistan and Haiti after the 2005 and 2010 earthquakes respectively, and to Italy, during the current pandemic saving lives and risking their own.

Since the 1960s Cuba has sent more than 600,000 doctors and health workers to over 160 countries. The US, instigating a perfidious campaign of demonization and exerting bullying pressure on its regional allies, has managed to ‘persuade’ Bolsonaro in Brazil and Janine Añez, de facto president of Bolivia, to expel all Cuban doctors right in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. As the First Declaration presciently observed, US imperialism counts on “the miserable submission of treacherous rulers”. This campaign against Cuban doctors has got disgusting enthusiastic mainstream media support. The doctors deserve the Nobel Peace Prize that large sections of the international community are demanding.

The First Declaration was in preparation for the imminent US aggression against the Cuban revolution, which it did come in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs invasion, which the Cubans roundly defeated. The invasion would be followed by a Second Declaration of Havana, which would take the revolution even further. The Revolution has done justice to its ethos and proclaimed principles in the First (and the Second) Declaration; US imperialism has time and again confirmed its essence: “detrimental to the national self-determination, the sovereignty and the dignity of the nations of the continent”, and its “monopolies and imperialistic organizations […] continuously loot our wealth, exploit our workers and peasants, bleed and keep in backwardness our economies, and submit the political life of Latin America to the sway of their own designs and interests.” Not Cuba, Patria o Muerte!


This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue of CubaSi magazine.

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