By Steve Cushion

The Socialist History Society/Caribbean Labour Solidarity. 57 pages. £5. ISBN 978-0-9930104-4-6

Reviewed by Helen Larkin

“On January 22nd, 1948, Jesús Menéndez, General Secretary of the National Federation of Sugar Workers, the largest and most important trade union in Cuba, stepped down from a train in the town of Manzanillo and was shot in the back by an army officer”.

Those are the opening words of this slim, but interesting account of how communists in Cuba fared in the period between 1935 and 1955, to put a rough framework on the period involved. They were, of course, years when various dictators held sway on the island. Perhaps the one best known to non-specialists is Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar, who was President between 1940 and 1944, and then seized power in 1952 and ruled until overthrown by Fidel Castro in 1959. Havana had been a playground for wealthy Americans during his dictatorship and well-known gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who had “business interests” in Cuba, were often in the city, as were Americans from the CIA and other organisations.

But if American gangsters were present, the Cubans had plenty of their own to carry out killings when there were power-struggles inside various unions, and especially against communists who   had established a presence in the leaderships of the public transport, sugar, and dockworkers unions. There was often also a substantial communist membership among the rank-and-file workers. The Party had been looked on reasonably favourably when the United States entered the war in 1941, and Cuba was seen as of key importance to the Americans.  And communist co-operation was needed to prevent strikes and other signs of discontent. The unions had been able to use the situation to their advantage, and had made some gains in terms of improvements to pay and working conditions. They would quickly be rolled back once the war priorities ceased.

The attitude towards communists soon altered when the war ended and anti-communist propaganda began to increase in the United States. The Cuban Communist Party had, in some ways, followed a lead set by the American Communist Party, which had been dissolved in 1944 and re-formed as the Communist Political Association with a policy of co-operation with capitalism. That was to change in 1946 when William Z. Foster replaced Earl Browder and re-constituted the Communist Party of the United States of America, acting on instructions from Moscow.

Once the Cold War got underway in earnest, attacks on communists increased and Steve Cushion lists the bus drivers, dockers, sugar workers, and others who were killed or beaten up. It wasn’t just the police or the army carrying out such actions, but also gunmen from rival factions in the unions. Anti-communism was often an opportunity to muscle in on union leaderships and so obtain access to substantial union pension funds. That sort of gangsterism was encouraged by the government. The conservative American Federation of Labour, always happy to play a part in opposing communism, was used as a conduit to move funds to anti-communist elements in Cuban unions.

Killing Communists in Havana is a well-researched and detailed survey of the harassment and assassinations of communist activists. I have to admit that there were times when I found myself somewhat overwhelmed by its plethora of names and their abbreviations – PRC-A, PSP, CTC, ARG, FNTA, and more -  and  had to keep checking back to see who or what was being referred to. But otherwise I found this small book of use in filling in the background to Fidel Castro’s successful revolution in 1959.