Date: Sun, 7 Apr 1996 09:25:26 -0500
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The Sugar Workers' Strike Of 1955
By Alina Marti'nez Triay, The Militant, Vol. 60, no. 115, 15 April 1996
Pathfinder Press has recently released a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58.
To promote this book the Militant is running "Pages from Cuba's Revolutionary History." This series features articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.- backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
This week's installment - the 12th - is on the strike by 200,000 sugar workers in December 1955, centered in Las Villas province. The walkout took on the character of a class battle that drew in students and all working people. The main issue in the strike was an attempt by the Batista government, on behalf of the sugar owners, to reduce the so-called sugar differential. Instituted in 1946, the differential was the result of an agreement between the Cuban and U.S. governments, whereby Washington was committed to increase the price it paid for Cuban sugar in proportion to increased costs of food and consumer goods sold to Cuba. The total amount of this differential price for sugar was to be distributed between workers, independent sugar farmers, and the landed estates. For workers the additional payment came to constitute an important component of their income.
The following article was published in Trabajadores, the weekly newspaper of the Central Organization of Cuban Workers (CTC), Nov. 27, 1995. Translation is by the Militant.
On Nov. 27, 1955,(1) a militant student protest in Santiago de Cuba was brutally repressed by the police, with a toll of 17 young people hurt and more than 30 arrested. This action was the start of a campaign of revolutionary agitation that would unite students, workers, and the people in general. By the time of the new year, a state of open rebellion against the regime existed.
The high point was reached during the December sugar workers' strike, which achieved a unity between students and workers not seen since the days of Mella.(2)
The origin of this unity was the series of actions that followed rapidly after the Santiago de Cuba events: A protest strike was called involving the country's high schools, during which Jose' Antonio Echeverri'a, the leader of the FEU, was arrested.(3) On December 2, after being released, Echeverri'a headed a demonstration in which, together with Fructuoso Rodri'guez, he was seriously injured and again imprisoned. On December 4 the police brutally assaulted a group of students during a protest on the playing field of the Cerro Stadium, seen on television by baseball fans all across the country. On December 7 an activity in homage to Maceo(4) by the students and people ended with the demonstrators being sprayed with gunfire; among the wounded were FEU leader Juan Pedro Carbo' Servia' and Camilo Cienfuegos.
In the midst of the indignation created by these actions, a five-minute national work stoppage was called by the FEU, supported with determination and enthusiasm by various sectors of workers; it was observed in thousands of workplaces throughout the country. This positive experience contributed to the subsequent united action by students and proletarians during the sugar workers' strike.
Combativity versus deals
In a statement to the daily newspaper Man~ana, Conrado Be'cquer - at the time vice-secretary general of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (FNTA) of Las Villas - denounced the maneuvers by the owners of the landed estates and the wealthy sugar farmers, whose objective was "to take back from the workers the differential they were entitled to, manipulating at whim the final average sugar price so as to avoid paying out what the workers had won through their sweat in the plantations and sugar mills."
Looking back on these events today, Be'cquer recalls, "We raised the slogan that if the sugar workers did not have a merry Christmas, then nobody would have a happy new year. We addressed ourselves to the workers to organize a massive mobilization in support of the differential."
A group of workers leaders, among them Conrado, visited the university to coordinate actions with the FEU. Later, Conrado visited Jose' Antonio when the latter was being held prisoner in the Pri'ncipe Castle. At that time the student leader gave him a list of names of comrades who would be going to the provinces to reinforce the proletarian protests. It should be stated that immediately after arriving at their destinations, the young people sent by the FEU got in touch with the high school students to enlist them in the struggle.
Pressured by the workers, the leading councils of the CTC and FNTA, led by Mujal(5) felt compelled to announce a 48-hour work stoppage beginning December 26 to demand the differential. They hoped that the strike would not have a larger impact because the sugar mills had not yet begun the stage of pressing, and only a few workers were on the job, doing repairs and bulk shipments. Acting underhandedly, Mujal and his gang made a deal with the tyrant and the sugar owners that amounted to a slap in the face to the workers, giving them a 2.77 percent differential instead of the 7.5 percent they were entitled to.
What the Mujalists did not anticipate was that the strike would get out of their control, not just because of its power and scope - involving other sectors of workers - but because a large number of the strikers rejected returning to work until they had been paid the full differential.
"In Las Villas," Conrado explains, "the strike was widespread. There the FEU sent Fructuoso Rodri'guez, who was in Santo Domingo when they took him prisoner. A number of areas were declared `dead cities,' where the town halls and churches were taken over. Transportation on the central highway was halted. We acted jointly with the PSP's(6) Committees in Defense of Workers Demands, with the comrades of the July 26 Movement's action and sabotage units, and numerous students from the Institute. Similar things occurred in other provinces."
Two persons were killed during those combative days: Everardo Carrera, a worker from Los Palos in Nueva Paz; and Heriberto Espino, an agricultural worker from Quemado de Guines. In Ciego de Avila, Pedro Marti'nez Breito, the leader of the Commercial Science School, was injured.
When Jose' Antonio left jail, he made a tour of the scenes of battle, together with Rene' Anillo and Julio Garci'a Oliveras. The latter recalls: "What we saw resembled a war zone. The sugar workers had felled trees to impede the movement of vehicles, and had torn up the pavement. Visiting the towns Jose' Antonio stopped and spoke with the people. In Santa Clara we met with Conrado Be'cquer and made efforts to free Fructuoso. In Ciego de Avila we visited Marti'nez Brito, who was at his parents' house recovering from his wounds. The movement had become so strong that the army had been withdrawn to its barracks and the workers dominated the streets."
Octavio Louit Venzant, leader of the July 26 Movement's workers section in Guanta'namo, recounts how on the day before the strike began he toured the sugar mills accompanied by Osmel Francis, sent by the FEU, to urge the workers to join the job action. The office of the Regional Workers Federation of Guanta'namo was taken over, as was the town hall. The members of the action and sabotage units undertook numerous support actions. The railroad workers, bus drivers, and merchants joined the protest. "More than an action of sugar workers, things took on the appearance of a general struggle of the people and of all workers."
Trade union locals that did not obey the order given by the FNTA to return to work on December 29 were taken over by the national leadership. Nevertheless, the agitation continued, and on December 31 the newspapers were still announcing disturbances in various localities of the country, demonstrations being broken up by force with injured, burning of bridges, interruption of telephone and telegraph communication between the capital and the provinces, and towns and villages being taken over by the army.
The strike was thus transformed into a formidable demonstration of protest against Batista. On Jan. 1, 1956, the dictator signed a decree ordering the payment of a differential slightly greater than what was initially proposed, but that signified a payment of only 6.5 million pesos, less than half of the 18 million demanded by the strikers.
Nevertheless, workers, students, and the people in general had, in a united manner, conducted an impressive display of power against the tyrant, sending him the "present" of a rebel new year.
1. November 27 is a traditional day of student protests in Cuba, marking the execution of eight medical students by the Spanish colonial regime in 1871.
2. Julio Antonio Mella was a founder of the Federation of University Students (FEU) in 1923, and of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1925.
3. Jose' Antonio Echeverri'a had been elected president of the Federation of University Students in 1954. Earlier in 1955 he helped found the Revolutionary Directorate, and was killed March 13, 1957, in events surrounding the Directorate's attack on the Presidential Palace.
4. Antonio Maceo was a prominent military leader and strategist in Cuba's wars of independence from Spain in the 19th century, and a symbol of revolutionary intransigence.
5. Eusebio Mujal, a prominent supporter of Batista, was general secretary of the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), using his post to stifle opposition to the regime. He fled Cuba after Jan. 1, 1959.
6. The pro-Moscow Communist Party, which changed its name to Popular Socialist Party (PSP) in 1944.
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