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The Cuban Revolution (1953–1959) was an armed revolt conducted by Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement and its allies against the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. The revolution began in July 1953, and continued sporadically until the rebels finally ousted Batista on 1 January 1959, replacing his government with a revolutionary socialist state. The Movement organization later reformed along communist lines, becoming the Communist Party in October 1965. The Communist Party, now headed by Castro's brother Raúl, continues to govern Cuba today.
The Cuban Revolution had powerful domestic and international repercussions. In particular, it reshaped Cuba's relationship with the United States, which continues an embargo against Cuba as of 2015, although efforts to improve diplomatic relations have gained momentum in recent years. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Castro's government began a program of nationalization and political consolidation that transformed Cuba's economy and civil society. The revolution also heralded an era of Cuban intervention into foreign military conflicts, including the Angolan Civil War and Nicaraguan Revolution.
In the decades following its independence from Spain in 1902, Cuba's nominally democratic government underwent a period of significant instability, enduring a number of revolts, coups and periods of U.S. military intervention. Fulgencio Batista, a former soldier who had served as the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, became President for the second time in March 1952, after seizing power in a military coup and cancelling the 1952 elections. Although Batista had been a relative progressive during his first term, in the 1950s he proved far more dictatorial and indifferent to popular concerns. While Cuba remained plagued by high unemployment and limited water infrastructure, Batista antagonized the population by forming lucrative links to organized crime and allowing American companies to dominate the Cuban economy.
During his first term as President, Batista had been supported by the Communist Party of Cuba, but during his second term he became strongly anti-communist, gaining him political and military support from the United States. Batista developed a powerful security infrastructure to silence political opponents. In the months following the March 1952 coup, Fidel Castro, then a young lawyer and activist, petitioned for the overthrow of Batista, whom he accused of corruption and tyranny. However, Castro's constitutional arguments were rejected by the Cuban courts. After deciding that the Cuban regime could not be replaced through legal means, Castro resolved to launch an armed revolution. To this end, he and his brother Raúl founded a paramilitary organization known as "The Movement", stockpiling weapons and recruiting around 1,200 followers from Havana's disgruntled working class by the end of 1952.
To strike their first blow against the Batista government, Fidel and Raúl Castro gathered 123 Movement fighters and planned a multi-pronged attack on several military installations. On 26 July 1953, the rebels attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the barracks in Bayamo, only to be decisively defeated by government soldiers. The exact number of rebels killed in the battle is debatable; however, in his autobiography, Fidel Castro claimed that nine were killed in the fighting, and an additional 56 were executed after being captured by the Batista government. Among the dead was Abel Santamaría, Castro's second-in-command, who was imprisoned, tortured, and executed on the same day as the attack.
Numerous key Movement people, including the Castro brothers, were captured shortly afterwards. In a highly political trial, Fidel spoke for nearly four hours in his defense, ending with the words "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in the Presidio Modelo prison, located on Isla de Pinos, while Raúl was sentenced to 13 years. However, in 1955, under broad political pressure, the Batista government freed all political prisoners in Cuba, including the Moncada attackers. Fidel's Jesuit childhood teachers succeeded in persuading Batista to include Fidel and Raúl in the release.
Soon, the Castro brothers joined with other exiles in Mexico to prepare for the overthrow of Batista, receiving training from Alberto Bayo, a leader of Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In June 1955, Fidel met the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who joined his cause. The revolutionaries named themselves the "26th of July Movement", in reference to the date of their attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953.
"I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear."
The yacht Granma arrived in Cuba on December 2, 1956, carrying the Castro brothers and 80 others, even though the yacht was only designed to accommodate 12 people with a maxiumum of 25. The boat landed in Playa Las Coloradas, in the municipality of Niquero, arriving two days later than planned because the boat was heavily loaded, unlike during the practice sailing runs. This dashed any hopes for a coordinated attack with the llano wing of the movement. After arriving and exiting the ship, the band of rebels began to make their way into the Sierra Maestra mountains, a range in southeastern Cuba. Three days after the trek began, Batista's army attacked and killed most of the Granma participants – while the exact number is disputed, no more than twenty of the original eighty-two men survived the initial encounters with the Cuban army and escaped into the Sierra Maestra mountains.
The group of survivors included Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The dispersed survivors, alone or in small groups, wandered through the mountains, looking for each other. Eventually, the men would link up again – with the help of peasant sympathizers – and would form the core leadership of the guerrilla army. Celia Sanchez and Haydée Santamaría (the sister of Abel Santamaria) were among the female revolutionaries who assisted Fidel Castro in the mountains.
On 13 March 1957, a separate group of revolutionaries – the anticommunist Student Revolutionary Directorate (Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil, DRE), composed mostly of students – stormed the Presidential Palace in Havana, attempting to assassinate Batista and decapitate the government. The attack ended in utter failure. The RD's leader, student José Antonio Echeverría, died in a shootout with Batista's forces at the Havana radio station he had seized to spread the news of Batista's anticipated death. The handful of survivors included Dr. Humberto Castello (who later became the Inspector General in the Escambray), Rolando Cubela and Faure Chomon (both later Commandantes of the 13 March Movement, centered in the Escambray Mountains of Las Villas Province).
Thereafter, the United States imposed an economic embargo on the Cuban government and recalled its ambassador, weakening the government's mandate further. Batista's support among Cubans began to fade, with former supporters either joining the revolutionaries or distancing themselves from Batista. Nonetheless, the Mafia and U.S. businessmen maintained their support for the regime.
Batista's government often resorted to brutal methods to keep Cuba's cities under control. However, in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro, aided by Frank País, Ramos Latour, Huber Matos, and many others, staged successful attacks on small garrisons of Batista's troops. Che Guevara and Raúl Castro helped Fidel to consolidate his political control in the mountains, often through execution of suspected Batista loyalists or other rivals of Castro's. In addition, poorly armed irregulars known as escopeteros harassed Batista's forces in the foothills and plains of Oriente Province. The escopeteros also provided direct military support to Castro's main forces by protecting supply lines and by sharing intelligence. Ultimately, the mountains came under Castro's control.
In addition to armed resistance, the rebels sought to use propaganda to their advantage. A pirate radio station called Radio Rebelde ("Rebel Radio") was set up in February 1958, allowing Castro and his forces to broadcast their message nationwide within enemy territory. The radio broadcasts were made possible by Carlos Franqui, a previous acquaintance of Castro who subsequently became a Cuban exile in Puerto Rico.
During this time, Castro's forces remained quite small in numbers, sometimes fewer than 200 men, while the Cuban army and police force had a manpower of around 37,000. Even so, nearly every time the Cuban military fought against the revolutionaries, the army was forced to retreat. An arms embargo – imposed on the Cuban government by the United States on 14 March 1958 – contributed significantly to the weakness of Batista's forces. The Cuban air force rapidly deteriorated: it could not repair its airplanes without importing parts from the United States.
Batista finally responded to Castro's efforts with an attack on the mountains called Operation Verano, known to the rebels as la Ofensiva. The army sent some 12,000 soldiers, half of them untrained recruits, into the mountains. In a series of small skirmishes, Castro's determined guerrillas defeated the Cuban army. In the Battle of La Plata, which lasted from 11 July to 21 July 1958, Castro's forces defeated a 500-man battalion, capturing 240 men while losing just three of their own.
However, the tide nearly turned on 29 July 1958, when Batista's troops almost destroyed Castro's small army of some 300 men at the Battle of Las Mercedes. With his forces pinned down by superior numbers, Castro asked for, and received, a temporary cease-fire on 1 August. Over the next seven days, while fruitless negotiations took place, Castro's forces gradually escaped from the trap. By 8 August, Castro's entire army had escaped back into the mountains, and Operation Verano had effectively ended in failure for the Batista government.
"The enemy soldier in the Cuban example which at present concerns us, is the junior partner of the dictator; he is the man who gets the last crumb left by a long line of profiteers that begins in Wall Street and ends with him. He is disposed to defend his privileges, but he is disposed to defend them only to the degree that they are important to him. His salary and his pension are worth some suffering and some dangers, but they are never worth his life. If the price of maintaining them will cost it, he is better off giving them up; that is to say, withdrawing from the face of the guerrilla danger."—Che Guevara, 1958
On 21 August 1958, after the defeat of Batista's Ofensiva, Castro's forces began their own offensive. In the Oriente province (in the area of the present-day provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Guantánamo and Holguín), Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Juan Almeida Bosque directed attacks on four fronts. Descending from the mountains with new weapons captured during the Ofensiva and smuggled in by plane, Castro's forces won a series of initial victories. Castro's major victory at Guisa, and the successful capture of several towns including Maffo, Contramaestre, and Central Oriente, brought the Cauto plains under his control.
Meanwhile, three rebel columns, under the command of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Jaime Vega, proceeded westward toward Santa Clara, the capital of Villa Clara Province. Batista's forces ambushed and destroyed Jaime Vega's column, but the surviving two columns reached the central provinces, where they joined forces with several other resistance groups not under the command of Castro. When Che Guevara's column passed through the province of Las Villas, and specifically through the Escambray Mountains – where the anticommunist Revolutionary Directorate forces (who became known as the 13 March Movement) had been fighting Batista's army for many months – friction developed between the two groups of rebels. Nonetheless, the combined rebel army continued the offensive, and Cienfuegos won a key victory in the Battle of Yaguajay on 30 December 1958, earning him the nickname "The Hero of Yaguajay".
On 31 December 1958, the Battle of Santa Clara took place in a scene of great confusion. The city of Santa Clara fell to the combined forces of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos, and Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Comandantes Rolando Cubela, Juan ("El Mejicano") Abrahantes, and William Alexander Morgan. News of these defeats caused Batista to panic. He fled Cuba by air for the Dominican Republic just hours later on 1 January 1959. Comandante William Alexander Morgan, leading RD rebel forces, continued fighting as Batista departed, and had captured the city of Cienfuegos by 2 January.
Castro learned of Batista's flight in the morning and immediately started negotiations to take over Santiago de Cuba. On 2 January, the military commander in the city, Colonel Rubido, ordered his soldiers not to fight, and Castro's forces took over the city. The forces of Guevara and Cienfuegos entered Havana at about the same time. They had met no opposition on their journey from Santa Clara to Cuba's capital. Castro himself arrived in Havana on 8 January after a long victory march. His initial choice of president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó, took office on the 3 January.
"Our revolution is endangering all American possessions in Latin America. We are telling these countries to make their own revolution."
— Che Guevara, October 1962
On 15 April 1959, Castro began an 11-day visit to the United States, at the invitation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He said during his visit: "I know the world thinks of us, we are Communists, and of course I have said very clear that we are not Communists; very clear."
Hundreds of Batista-era agents, policemen and soldiers were put on public trial, accused of human rights abuses, war crimes, murder and torture. Most of the people accused were convicted by revolutionary tribunals of political crimes, and were executed by firing squad; others received long sentences of imprisonment. A notable example of revolutionary justice was after the capture of Santiago, where Raúl Castro directed the execution of more than seventy Batista POWs. For his part in taking Havana, Che Guevara was appointed supreme prosecutor in La Cabaña Fortress. This was part of a large-scale attempt by Fidel Castro to cleanse the security forces of Batista loyalists and potential opponents of the new revolutionary government. Though many were killed or imprisoned, others were fortunate enough to be dismissed from the army and police without prosecution, and some high-ranking officials of the Batista administration were exiled as military attachés.
During its first decade in power, the Castro government introduced a wide range of progressive social reforms. Laws were introduced to provide equality for black Cubans and greater rights for women, while there were attempts to improve communications, medical facilities, health, housing, and education. In addition, there were touring cinemas, art exhibitions, concerts, and theatres. By the end of the 1960s, all Cuban children were receiving some education (compared with less than half before 1959), unemployment and corruption were reduced, and great improvements were made in hygiene and sanitation.
According to geographer and Cuban Comandante Antonio Núñez Jiménez, 75% of Cuba’s best arable land was owned by foreign individuals or foreign (mostly American) companies at the time of the revolution. One of the first policies of the newly formed Cuban government was eliminating illiteracy and implementing land reforms. Land reform efforts helped to raise living standards by subdividing larger holdings into cooperatives. Comandante Sori Marin, who was nominally in charge of land reform, objected and fled, but was eventually executed when he returned to Cuba with arms and explosives, intending to overthrow the Castro government. Many other non-Marxist, anti-Batista rebel leaders were forced into exile, purged in executions, or eliminated in failed uprisings such as that of the Beaton brothers.
Shortly after taking power, Castro also created a revolutionary militia to expand his power base among the former rebels and the supportive population. Castro also created the informant Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) in late September 1960. Local CDRs were tasked with keeping "vigilance against counter-revolutionary activity", keeping a detailed record of each neighborhood’s inhabitants' spending habits, level of contact with foreigners, work and education history, and any "suspicious" behavior. Among the increasingly persecuted groups were homosexual men.
In February 1959, the Ministry for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets (Ministerio de Recuperación de Bienes Malversados) was created. Cuba began expropriating land and private property under the auspices of the Agrarian Reform Law of 17 May 1959. Farms of any size could be and were seized by the government, while land, businesses, and companies owned by upper- and middle-class Cubans were nationalized (notably, including the plantations owned by Fidel Castro's family). By the end of 1960, the revolutionary government had nationalized more than $25 billion worth of private property owned by Cubans. The Castro government formally nationalized all foreign-owned property, particularly American holdings, in the nation on 6 August 1960.
In 1961, the Cuban government nationalized all property held by religious organizations, including the dominant Roman Catholic Church. Hundreds of members of the church, including a bishop, were permanently expelled from the nation, as the new Cuban government declared itself officially atheist. Education also saw significant changes – private schools were banned and the progressively socialist state assumed greater responsibility for children.
In July 1961, the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (IRO) was formed by the merger of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement, the People's Socialist Party led by Blas Roca, and the Revolutionary Directorate of 13 March led by Faure Chomón. On 26 March 1962, the IRO became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC) which, in turn, became the modern Communist Party of Cuba on 3 October 1965, with Castro as First Secretary. Castro remained the ruler of Cuba, first as Prime Minister and, from 1976, as President, until his retirement in February 2008. His brother Raúl officially replaced him as President later that same month.
The Cuban Revolution was a crucial turning point in U.S.-Cuban relations. Although the American government was initially willing to recognize Castro's new government, it soon came to fear that Communist insurgencies would spread through the nations of Latin America, as they had in Southeast Asia. Castro, meanwhile, resented the Americans for providing aid to Batista's government during the revolution. After the revolutionary government nationalized all U.S. property in Cuba in August 1960, the American Eisenhower administration froze all Cuban assets on American soil, severed diplomatic ties and tightened its embargo of Cuba. In 1961, the U.S. government backed an armed counterrevolutionary assault on the Bay of Pigs with the aim of ousting Castro, but the counterrevolutionaries were swiftly defeated by the Cuban military. The American embargo against Cuba – the longest-lasting single foreign policy in American history – is still in force as of 2015, although it has undergone a partial loosening in recent years. The U.S. began efforts to normalise relations with Cuba in the mid-2010s, formally reopening its embassy in Havana after over half a century in August 2015.
Castro's victory and post-revolutionary foreign policy had global repercussions. Influenced by the expansion of the Soviet Union into Europe after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Castro immediately sought to "export" his revolution to other countries in the Caribbean and beyond, sending weapons to Algerian rebels as early as 1960. In the following decades, Cuba became heavily involved in supporting Communist insurgencies and independence movements in many developing countries, sending military aid to insurgents in Ghana, Nicaragua, Yemen and Angola, among others. Castro's intervention in the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s and 1980s was particularly significant, involving as many as 60,000 Cuban soldiers.
Following the American embargo, the Soviet Union became Cuba's main ally. The two Communist countries quickly developed close military and intelligence ties, culminating in the stationing of Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962, an act which triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba maintained close links to the Soviets until the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. The end of Soviet economic aid led to an economic crisis and famine known as the Special Period in Cuba.
In the wake of the revolution, thousands of disaffected anti-Batista rebels, former Batista supporters, and campesinos (peasants) fled to Cuba's Las Villas province, where an anticommunist underground had been forming since early 1960. Operating out of the Escambray Mountains, these counterrevolutionary rebels, also known as Alzados, made a number of unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Cuban government, including the abortive, United States-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the United States promised not to invade Cuba in the future; in compliance with this agreement, the U.S. withdrew all support from the Alzados, effectively crippling the resource-starved resistance. The counterrevolutionary conflict, known abroad as the Escambray Rebellion, lasted until about 1965, and has since been branded the War Against the Bandits by the Cuban government.
Between 1959 and 1980, an estimated 500,000 Cubans left the island for the United States, seeking greater political and economic freedom; 125,000 left in 1980 alone, when the Cuban government briefly permitted any Cubans who wished to leave to do so. By 2010, the Cuban American community numbered over 1.9 million, 67% of whom lived in the state of Florida. As a voting bloc, Cuban Americans have traditionally been strongly opposed to ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba, but in recent years there has been growing support for diplomatic engagement among the younger generations.
The yacht, designed for only 12 passengers and supposedly with a maximum capacity of 25, also had to carry fuel for a week as well as food and weapons for the soldiers.
Guevara murdered or oversaw the executions in summary trials of scores of people—proven enemies, suspected enemies, and those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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