“Another dictator, Gen. Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, has fallen, and good riddance to him,” read The New York Times on January 2, 1959. The day before, a band of youthful revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, a thirty-two-year-old lawyer and ardent nationalist, took the capital city of Havana. New Year’s Day 1959 marked the apotheosis of a ragtag insurgency that had unofficially kicked off six years earlier with a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba and another on the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Barracks in the city of Bayamo. Government forces repelled the rebels, who retreated into the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains. Those who were not killed were captured several days later.
“History will absolve me,” Castro defiantly declared in a four-hour speech that autumn. Despite being sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison, Fidel and many of his comrades were granted amnesty and relocated to Mexico in 1955, where they met a young Argentinian doctor named Ernesto Guevara who would join the Cuban exiles on their trip home in December 1956 to resume the guerrilla struggle.
Today, Cuba signifies different things to different people. For some, it is a crumbling redoubt of authoritarianism, an outdated anomaly in a region that mostly abandoned the utopian horizon of revolution long ago. Others see the small socialist island as a beacon of principled resistance against overwhelming odds. Castro, after all, held on to power throughdifferent U.S. administrations despite the superpower’s periodic attempts to remove him from office. The bearded revolutionary’s seeming invincibility contributed to Cuba’s subversive mystique, the specter of which helped usher in a spate of reactionary and often U.S.-backed military dictatorships throughout Latin America: Brazil in 1964, followed by Chile in 1973 and Argentina in 1976.
These military regimes, justified through the narrow terms of the Cold War, had their own particular characteristics. One thing they shared, however, was the abiding notion that the success of the Cuban Revolution posed an existential threat to the status quo in the region. If Castro and his meager crew could topple Batista, a military dictator backed by the United States, who was to say peasants in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, for example, couldn’t do the same? As Cuba under Castro drifted away from the United States and firmly into the orbit of the Soviet Union, concern mounted that Brazil might follow suit. It was one thing for Washington to “lose” a little Caribbean island, as they put it. It would be quite another for the largest Latin American nation to align against the United States. Kennedy and Johnson, committed cold warriors, were committed to not letting that happen.
Whatever its faults, in the context in which it emerged, the Cuban Revolution gave millions of ordinary people hope that their destiny was in fact in their hands, and that they could drastically remake their governments and their lives on their own terms. For the powerful, that was precisely the problem. In 1962, the Public Affairs Institute warned about the revolutionary potential of legitimate grievances many residents of countries to the south of the United States held against their domestic elites: “Throughout much of Latin America there is a prevailing belief that the governments are under the control of men who are indifferent to the needs of the lower-income groups, and that these groups will use the armies to prevent any more representative government from taking power.” In fact, containing social movements that could conceivably lead to insurrection had become an urgent task for Latin American armed forces. As historian Jerry Dávila points out, “Castro had executed the officers of the president he deposed, so Latin American military officers saw their struggle against insurgencies as a fight to the death.” Radical popular power scared Latin American elites more than communism per se.
Like the capture of Havana on January 1, 1959, the inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil on January 1, 2019 is a culminating event: the ultimate validation of a right-wing resurgence that started gathering strength in 2013 when massive demonstrations of general dissatisfaction clogged the arteries of the country’s major cities. In 2016, protestors once again took to the streets of Brazilian cities, this time to demand the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff. Clamorous yet substantively thin calls for Rousseff’s impeachment began soon after the fourth consecutive victory for her center-left Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT). Demonstrators characterized the PT era, which began thirteen years earlier with the presidency of former metalworker and union leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and admittedly had its fair share of scandals even as it lifted millions out of abject poverty, as an insidious plot to subvert the fabric of Brazilian society and align the nation with international pariahs like Iran and Venezuela. The pro-impeachment camp demanded that Rousseff’s defenders—progressives, generally—move to Cuba, that enduring bastion of a Latin American left-wing supposedly frozen in time.
The violent authoritarian impulse that led the armed forces to remove democratically-elected president and labor-friendly João Goulart in 1964 was never fully excised from the Brazilian body politic, even after power returned to civilian hands in 1985. The notion that anyone challenging the established order should be met with overwhelming force, that visible displays of dissatisfaction over endemic poverty and inequality are best addressed through violent means, has lingered just below the surface of national life despite the palpable gains achieved since the return of democracy.
Against the backdrop of economic crisis, endless tales of official corruption, and an astronomical crime rate, Bolsonaro rode a visceral anti-progressive backlash to office with precious little substance to his campaign beyond a promise to ratchet up state violence against criminals, real or imagined. The end of the Cold War, which seemed to promise an end to the black-and-white strictures of East versus West in global affairs, did not deliver nuance or inject complexity into the worldview of millions who, for various reasons, still see even mildly progressive discourse as a threat. While the guard is changing in Cuba, echoes of 1959 still sound across Latin America, with Venezuela and Cuba enduring as boogeymen for conservatives in the region.
There is a cosmic irony to the reactionary Bolsonaro being inaugurated on the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Commemorations of the revolutionary hope of yesteryear, achieved through a violent insurrection of unelected militants, will coincide with the consecration of today’s authoritarian promise, secured at the ballot box through democratic means. Whom will history absolve?