In the final days of 1958, ragged rebels began the process of driving out forces loyal to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista
. By New Year’s Day, the nation was theirs, and Fidel Castro
, Ché Guevara, Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos
and their companions rode triumphantly into Havana and history. The revolution began long before, however, and the eventual rebel triumph was the result of many years of hardship, guerrilla warfare and propaganda battles.
Batista Seizes Power:
The revolution began in 1952, when former army Sergeant Fulgencio Batista seized power during a hotly contested election. Batista had been president from 1940-1944 and ran for president in 1952. When it became apparent that he would lose, he seized power before the elections, which were cancelled. Many people in Cuba were disgusted by his power grab, preferring Cuba’s democracy, as flawed as it was. One such person was rising political star Fidel Castro, who would likely have won a seat in Congress had the 1952 elections taken place. Castro immediately began plotting Batista’s downfall.
Assault on Moncada:
On the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro made his move. For a revolution to succeed, he needed weapons, and he selected the isolated Moncada barracks as his target
. 138 men attacked the compound at dawn: it was hoped that the element of surprise would make up for the rebels’ lack of numbers and arms. The attack was a fiasco almost from the start and the rebels were routed after a firefight that lasted a few hours. Many were captured. Nineteen federal soldiers were killed, and the remaining ones took out their anger on captured rebels and most of them were shot. Fidel and Raul Castro
escaped, but were captured later.
“History Will Absolve Me”:
The Castros and surviving rebels were put on public trial. Fidel, a trained lawyer, turned the tables on the Batista dictatorship by making the trial about the power grab. Basically, his argument was that as a loyal Cuban, he had taken up arms against the dictatorship because it was his civic duty. He made long speeches and the government belatedly tried to shut him up by claiming he was too ill to attend his own trial. His most famous quote from the trial was “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but had become a nationally recognized figure and a hero to many poor Cubans.
Mexico and the Granma:
In May of 1955 the Batista government, bending to international pressure to reform, released many political prisoners, including those who had taken part in the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raul Castro went to Mexico to regroup and plan the next step in the revolution. There they met up with many disaffected Cuban exiles who joined the new “26th of July Movement,” named after the date of the Moncada assault. Among the new recruits were charismatic Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara
. In November, 1956, 82 men crowded onto the tiny yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba and revolution.
In the Highlands:
Batista’s men had learned of the returning rebels and ambushed them: Fidel and Raul made it into the wooded central highlands with only a handful of survivors from Mexico; Cienfuegos and Guevara were among them. In the impenetrable highlands the rebels regrouped, attracting new members, collecting weapons and staging guerrilla attacks on military targets. Try as he might, Batista could not root them out. The leaders of the revolution permitted foreign journalists to visit and interviews with them were published around the world.
The Movement Gains Strength:
As the July 26th movement gained power in the mountains, other rebel groups took up the fight as well. In the cities, rebel groups loosely allied with Castro carried out hit-and-run attacks and nearly succeeded in assassinating Batista. Batista decided on a bold move: he sent a large portion of his army into the highlands in the summer of 1958 to try and flush out Castro once and for all. The move backfired: the nimble rebels carried out guerrilla attacks on the soldiers, many of whom switched sides or deserted. By the end of 1958 Castro was ready to deliver the knockout punch.
Castro Tightens the Noose:
In late 1958 Castro divided his forces, sending Cienfuegos and Guevara into the plains with small armies: Castro followed them with the remaining rebels. The rebels captured towns and villages along the way, where they were greeted as liberators. Cienfuegos captured the small garrison at Yaguajay on December 30. Defying the odds, Guevara and 300 weary rebels defeated a much larger force at the city of Santa Clara
on December 28-30, capturing valuable munitions in the process. Meanwhile, government officials were negotiating with Castro, trying to salvage the situation and halt the bloodshed.
Victory for the Revolution:
Batista and his inner circle, seeing that Castro’s victory was inevitable, took what loot they could gather up and fled. Batista authorized some of his subordinates to deal with Castro and the rebels. The people of Cuba took to the streets, joyfully greeting the rebels. Cienfuegos and Guevara and their men entered Havana on January 2nd and disarmed the remaining military installations. Castro made his way into Havana slowly, pausing in every town, city and village along the way to give speeches to the cheering crowds, finally entering Havana on January 9.
Aftermath and Legacy:
The Castro brothers quickly consolidated their power, sweeping away all remnants of the Batista regime and muscling out all of the rival rebel groups that had aided them in their rise to power. Raul Castro and Ché Guevara were put in charge of organizing squads to bring to trial and execute Batista era "war criminals" who had engaged in torture and murder under the old regime.
Castro was an unknown factor in 1959; he would not "come out of the closet" as a communist until later. Communist Cuba would be a thorn in the side of the United States for decades, triggering international incidents such as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States imposed a trade embargo in 1962 which led to years of hardship for the Cuban people.
Under Castro, Cuba has become a player on the international stage. The prime example is its intervention in Angola: thousands of Cuban troops were sent there in the 1970's to support a leftist movement.
The greatest legacy of the Cuban Revolution has perhaps been as an example to other would-be Chés and Fidels. The revolution spawned copycats in almost every nation in Latin America as idealistic young men and women took up arms to try and change hated governments for new ones. The results were mixed. In Nicaragua, rebel Sandinistas eventually did overthrow the government and come to power. In the southern part of South America, the upswing in Marxist revolutionary groups such as Chile's MIR and Uruguay's Tupamaros led to right-wing military government seizing power: Augusto Pinochet is a prime example. Working together through Operation Condor, these repressive governments waged a war of terror on their own citizens. The Marxist rebellions were stamped out, but many innocent civilians died as well.
Many Cubans disagree about the revolution. The thousands of middle and upper class Cubans who fled the nation (often to Miami) loathe Castro and have kept the pressure on the United States government to retain the embargo. Many of those still in Cuba, after years of hardship, have tried to flee to the United States or Mexico in makeshift rafts and boats. Nevertheless, there are still many in Cuba who love Fidel and continue to embrace the revolution. Will history absolve him? Only time will tell.
Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara . New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.