Key Facts and Summary
- The U.S. had been heavily involved in Cuba since it took the island from Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1899.
- S. interference in Cuban life had led to a growth of anti-American sentiment, which often manifested itself in opposition to the ruling regime.
- Fulgencio Batista had first become president of Cuba in 1940. When he stood for election again in 1952, he decided to avoid defeat by overthrowing the government.
- A young lawyer, Fidel Castro, had been running for the House of Representatives in the 1952 election. He tried to oppose Batista’s coup via legal means, but after he failed he pledged to overthrow him with an armed revolution.
- On 26 July 1953, Castro led a small group of revolutionaries in an attack on an army barracks. The attack was a disaster and most of his followers were killed or captured. Castro and his brother Raúl were arrested and imprisoned.
- In 1955, the Castro brothers were released from prison. They went into exile in Mexico, where they joined with other Cuban revolutionaries and the Argentine Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara to plan an invasion of Cuba.
- On 2 December 1956, Fidel Castro and 81 others landed on Cuba aboard a yacht named Granma. The invasion was crushed by the Cuban army and the survivors fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains to start a guerrilla campaign.
- Other groups were also active against Batista’s regime – on 13 March 1957, the presidential palace in Havana was attacked by the Revolutionary Directorate, a group made up mostly of students.
- Batista’s response to the challenges to his rule was to suspend the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
- In July 1958 Batista launched a military campaign against Fidel Castro’s group, which was known as the 26th of July Movement.
- The government troops were defeated by Castro’s guerrillas at the Battle of La Plata (11-21 July 1958).
- Although Batista’s army gained a victory at the Battle of Las Mercedes in late July 1958, the army commander allowed the rebels to escape back into the mountains.
- On 21st August 1958, Castro’s forces emerged from the mountains and began to advance north, capturing towns as they went.
- A presidential election was held in November 1958, having been postponed by Batista in March. Batista’s chosen candidate won after massive electoral fraud, causing support for him to virtually disappear.
- On 30 December 1958, Che Guevara’s revolutionary force in Santa Clara derailed and captured a train carrying a supply of arms desperately needed by government troops.
- New Year’s Day 1959 saw Batista finally relinquish power in Cuba before fleeing into exile.
- Che Guevara led revolutionary troops into the Cuban capital Havana on 3 January 1959. Five days later Fidel Castro joined him and established a provisional government with himself as Prime Minister.
- Castro carried out violent reprisals against perceived allies of Batista. Many Cubans left the country.
- The rise of Fidel Castro led to the total breakdown of relations with the U.S. and the alliance of Cuba with the communist USSR.
From 1492 until 1899, Cuba had been a Caribbean possession of Spain. The island nation fought a succession of wars against Spain for independence, with the third conflict involving the United States and becoming known as the Spanish-American War.
Spain’s defeat in that war meant that Cuba was liberated from Spanish rule, but would be administrated by the U.S. for a period of three years, until 1902. In that time, improvements were made in public works and health projects, and American businesses established themselves in Cuba. Although Cuba became independent in 1902, the U.S. was still heavily involved in the country and could even decided to intervene militarily if it saw fit. American companies operating in Cuba grew to dominate its exports, leaving Cuba almost dependent on one crop (sugar) and one market (the U.S.). Organised crime also found a home in Cuba, which is conveniently situated not far from Florida and en route to Central and South America. Cuban presidents were often corrupt, and as a consequence there were frequent uprisings and coups. In 1940, army officer Fulgencio Batista was elected as president. In his first term he was a progressive leader, pledging to uphold democracy and improve living standards for Cubans. Batista did not contest the 1944 election. although his chosen candidate was defeated. When standing for the 1952 presidential election, Batista realised that he was not going to win. Instead he launched a coup and took power for himself. Also standing in 1952, for a seat in the House of Representatives, was young lawyer Fidel Castro. When Batista cancelled the election, Castro tried to use the courts to topple him from power. When these attempts failed, Castro decided that he needed to launch an armed revolution to free Cuba from Batista’s dictatorship.
Together with his brother Raúl, Fidel Castro founded an organisation called ‘The Movement’ in 1952. By year’s end, it had well over a thousand members and a stockpile of weapons. On 26 July 1953, the Movement carried out an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Of around 160 revolutionaries taking part in the attack, nearly all were killed or captured. Fidel and Raúl Castro were among just 20 rebels who escaped into the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains. However, President Batista was able to swiftly round up the fugitives, and the Castros were imprisoned. At his trial, Fidel Castro spoke for several hours to defend his actions and condemn Batista. His concluding words were “History will absolve me.”
At another presidential election in 1954, Batista was duly elected without opposition. Despite the way in which he had taken power, Batista’s regime was recognised by the United States. During the election, Castro’s supporters had campaigned for him to be released in an amnesty for political prisoners. Batista now felt that his position was strong enough that he had nothing to fear from Castro’s Movement, and he agreed to free the Castro brothers and many other political prisoners. Leaving prison in May 1955, Fidel and Raúl Castro found that their freedoms in Cuba were being restricted under Batista’s regime. Concerned that they would be arrested again, the brothers and several fellow revolutionaries left the country for Mexico.
It was in Mexico that they met the Argentinian doctor Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. The revolutionary Guevara would become one of their closest associates. While in exile, Fidel Castro prepared to reenter Cuba and dislodge Batista by force. He visited the U.S. to raise money for his campaign, and trained his band of rebels, now named the 26th of July Movement after the attack on the Moncada Barracks, for combat. He also kept in touch with other revolutionary groups back in Cuba, so that they could coordinate their attacks for maximum effectiveness.
On 25 November 1956, 82 members of the 26th of July Movement left Mexico aboard the yacht Granma. The boat arrived at Playa Las Coloradas in south-west Cuba on 2 December, and the rebels immediately headed for the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra mountains, from where they could conduct a guerrilla campaign. However, attacks by Batista’s troops severely reduced their numbers and barely a quarter of the original invasion force made it through. Both the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were among the survivors.
The rebels then embarked on a period of making raids on local army installations and recruiting new members for their movement. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Cuba, other revolutionary cells were carrying out anti-government activity. On 13 March 1957, the Revolutionary Directorate, a group comprising mostly students, tried to storm the presidential palace in Havana to assassinate Batista. The attack failed and there were terrible reprisals from the authorities.
As Batista’s regime grew more repressive, support from the U.S. started to waver. Castro was inviting journalists and film crews to his mountain hideouts to tell the world about the justice of his cause, and was winning sympathy from far outside the borders of Cuba. Money and supplies from abroad began to find their way to Castro, and some foreigners even came to Cuba to fight against Batista, notably the American William Morgan, who rose to the rank of comandante in a rebel band fighting in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba.
By 1958, Batista was feeling the pressure. The U.S. had stopped sending him weapons and he was finding it hard to equip his army. He decided to try and crush Castro once and for all, launching Operation Verano in the summer. Government troops surrounded Castro’s Sierra Maestra stronghold. Batista had overestimated the number of rebels that were there and so his army vastly outnumbered them. However, Castro’s men and women were by that time experienced guerrilla fighters who knew the terrain extremely well. They had networks of local people who would supply them with information about the army’s movements and plans. On 11 July 1958, government troops began the Battle of La Plata, entering the mountains from the sea to the south and advancing towards Castro’s base. However, Castro was ready for them, ambushing the soldiers en route and cutting off their escape route. The battalion commander refused to surrender for many days but finally capitulated to Castro on 21 July.
The army commander, General Cantillo, decided to try and lure Castro out using another battalion, which he would strategically withdraw in hopes that the rebels would again deploy an ambush. This time the government troops were ready, another force of them waiting to launch a surprise attack on the rebels. This was the Battle of Las Mercedes, beginning on 29 July 1958, and this time the army did get the better of Castro’s guerrillas. Fearing his forces would be wiped out, Castro requested a ceasefire, but during negotiations his fighters began disappearing back into the mountains. When the talks ended, General Cantillo prepared to resume hostilities on 8 August, but found his enemies had vanished. Batista’s gambit had failed – Castro was still at large and army morale was in tatters.
On 21 August 1958, Castro launched an offensive of his own. Coming out of the mountains, he began advancing north, splitting his forces into three columns under Jaime Vega, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Vega’s column was stopped by Batista’s troops, but the other two made it to central Cuba, joining up with other rebel groups. From 19-30 December 1958 Cienfuegos besieged the army garrison at Yaguajay. When the garrison finally surrendered due to lack of ammunition, Cienfuegos was hailed as the ‘Hero of Yaguajay’.
Meanwhile, Che Guevara was advancing on Santa Clara, arriving on December 28. Batista had ordered an armoured train to be sent to the town, carrying vital weapons and supplies. During the Battle for Santa Clara, Guevara managed to bend the railway track using a bulldozer, causing the derailment and capture of the government train. Batista realised that the end of his rule in Cuba had come, and fled the country on 1 January 1959. On 3 January, Guevara and Cienfuegos advanced unopposed into Havana. Fidel Castro arrived on 8 January, and the Cuban Revolution was complete.
Castro would rule for many decades as a communist dictator. At first he had claimed not to be a communist, but this might have been so that he would appear less radical to his supporters around the world, including in the U.S. Once relations broke down with America, Castro allied with the USSR and proclaimed Cuba to be a communist state. Although Castro improved access to healthcare and education, there were violent reprisals against opponents of his regime, and Cuba was deeply impoverished.
In the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was dominated by the U.S. and had a series of corrupt presidents. In 1952, former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was running for office again but, fearing that he would lose, he instead overthrew the government and cancelled the election. After lawyer Fidel Castro failed to bring down Batista through the courts, he decided to start an armed rebellion with his brother Raúl. Imprisoned after an attack on an army garrison on 26th July 1953, Castro was released in 1955 and went to Mexico to plan another campaign against Batista.
Here he met Che Guevara, who joined his 26th of July Movement. Castro returned to Cuba in December 1956 and went to the Sierra Maestra mountains, where he gathered followers and carried out small-scale raids. In summer 1958, Batista launched Operation Verano to try and eliminate Castro, but this failed. Castro then went on the offensive, leading his followers out of the mountains and advancing north through Cuba. After rebel victories at the Battles of Yaguajay and Santa Clara in December 1958, Batista left Cuba. Fidel Castro formed a new, communist government. His allegiance with the USSR would later make Cuba a central part of the Cold War.
[1.] Various, The Times Complete History of the World (Times Books, 2004)
[2.] Roberts, J.M., The Penguin History of the World (Penguin, 1992)