The Cuban Revolution was an armed conflict perpetuated by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement against president Fulgencio Batista’s authoritarian government. The revolution began in 1953 and ended on the 1st of January 1959, when the rebels deposed Batista and replaced his government with a socialist one.
The stage for the violent upheaval was set by the existence of striking political, economic and social inequalities. More than one-third of the population was considered poor and lacking in social mobility. Coupled with this was the growth of a frustrated middle class whose rising expectations could no longer be met by a stagnant, sugar-based economy. A corrupt and repressive government supported by the United States had alienated its own people and spurred the growth of a Cuban identity and nationalism divorced from the United States.
Fidel Castro had run for the Cuban House of Representatives as a member of the Ortodoxo Party. He had been a supporter of Eduardo Chibas, the Ortodoxo leader who had committed suicide during a radio broadcast. When Batista seized power, Castro began organizing a group in Artemisa with the express purpose of toppling Batista. Many in the group had been active in the Ortodoxo Youth Movement. Most of Castro’s followers in 1953 were not university graduates, but primarily workers and farmers.
The plan, which was worked out in Abel Santamaria’s office in Havana, was to attack the Moncada Barracks at Santiago and the Bayamo Barracks in the early morning of the 26th of July during a carnival. The purpose of the attack was to capture weapons that would enable Castro to arm his movement in the future and spark a popular uprising in Oriente Province, which had a long tradition of revolutionary activities. The attacks at both the Moncada and Bayamo Barracks were doomed from the very beginning given that Castro’s group was outnumbered and poorly armed. Castro was captured and imprisoned.
During his prison stay, Castro wrote many letters that gave clues as to the future of the revolution he would lead. He emphasized the corruption, greed and repression of the Batista government. On the other side, believing he was in control and feeling invulnerable, Batista made a fateful decision. He granted a general amnesty to all prisoners. Castro and his comrades walked out of the prison on the Isle of Pines.
Castro decided, once again, that the use of violence was the only way to topple Batista. Raúl Castro and others left for Mexico to begin preparations for an armed invasion of Cuba. Fidel Castro met with those supporters who were to remain on the island, then left for Mexico. Enough money was raised to purchase some arms and a farm outside Mexico City to begin the military training of Castro’s group of revolutionaries. The Mexican government frequently harassed Castro and his group by seizing their arms and arresting some of their members.
The students at the University of Havana, led by Jose Echeverria, began a more violent campaign against Batista after negotiations with the major opposition parties failed to bring about a political settlement. Police arrested and brutalized many students at anti-Batista rallies in Havana and Santiago.
Dissident officers in the army, led by the nationally known and decorated Colonel Ramon Barquin, conspired against Batista. Barquin represented the young, professional, non political officers who had come to resent the politicization of the armed forces by Batista. Barquin’s supporters represented the best of the Cuban military. Two hundred and twenty officers were implicated in the conspiracy and most were tried and thrown in jail.
Echeverria then traveled to Mexico and met with Castro. He agreed to support Castro’s invasion with diversionary riots and student demonstrations in Havana. Frank Pais, the leader of the 26th of July Movement’s national underground, also traveled to Mexico to work out the details of the invasion. Castro and eighty-two companions crowded onto a small yacht named the Granma and left Mexico. They arrived on Cuban shores, but a naval vessel started bombarding the rebels as they made their way inland. With the assistance of some local peasants, the revolutionaries avoided capture for the next several days and made their way into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
On Christmas Eve, the 26th of July Movement encouraged strikes and bombed several facilities in Oriente, causing a blackout in several cities. On New Year’s Eve, bombs exploded in several hotels in Havana and in the city of Santiago. Batista responded with torture and brutality against anyone associated with the opposition, but the bombings continued. Still, the rebellion was not considered to be a major problem by either Batista or the United States, which continued to support him politically and economically. It was in the Sierra Maestra, the mountains of southeastern Cuba, that Castro waged his guerrilla war against Batista.
In Havana, Echeverria and his Revolutionary Directorate staged a daring attack on Batista’s palace. The goal was to assassinate Batista, capture Havana radio and announce the end of the dictatorship. Echeverria and most of the student rebels were killed during the attack.
Castro and his guerrillas captured a military outpost at El Uvero. This much-needed victory gave the rebels necessary weapons, ammunition and supplies, as well as a boost in morale. Castro’s guerrillas had come of age and they began to believe they could defeat Batista’s army. Pais was trapped in Santiago and shot. A general strike immediately began in the eastern provinces of Cuba. Throughout 1957 Castro’s force in the mountains continued to grow in size and a headquarters was established at La Plata. At the same time, an urban underground in Havana and Santiago waged a brutal terrorist war against Batista.
By the end of 1957, US ambassador Earl Smith and the American business community wanted an end to the political crisis. The war widened when Raúl Castro led rebels to the Sierra de Cristal on the northern coast of Oriente to set up a second front. A few influential members of the US State Department were not supportive of Batista and were upset that US arms were being supplied to his repressive regime. The United States suspended a shipment of arms to Cuba. In effect, the United States had put an arms embargo in place. Many Cubans viewed this as a change in US policy and it clearly affected the morale of the Batista government and the armed forces.
During the early hours of the 1st of January 1959, as guerrilla columns marched across the plains of central Cuba, General Eulogio Cantillo seized power and appointed Supreme Court Justice Carlos Piedra as provisional president. The 26th of July Movement rejected the coup and demanded unconditional surrender to the rebel army. Seeking to revive the moribund war effort, Cantillo summoned the imprisoned Colonel Ramon Barquin and relinquished command of the army to him. Barquin surrendered to the rebels, saluting their revolutionary spirit.
At 2:00 AM on the 1st of January 1959, Batista and his closest associates fled to the Dominican Republic. That evening Castro entered Santiago and called for a general strike. The next day Guevara and Cienfuegos entered Havana. The stage was set for Castro’s triumphant parade across the island to Havana. A new chapter in the history of Cuba was about to be written.
The old regime collapsed in Cuba and a revolution came to power. The rebel army became the defender of the new revolutionary state, sweeping aside the parties that had structured political life in previous decades. Only the Communist party (Partido Socialista Popular, PSP) was left intact. The fall of the old regime required that new norms, rules and institutions be devised to replace those that had collapsed or been overthrown. Politically, Cuba became an ally of the Soviet Union during this period.
The US government viewed with concern the affairs of a country that seemed uncharacteristically out of its control. Cuba mattered to the United States because of its strategic location and its economic importance. While US military forces had not been stationed in Cuba outside Guantanamo for several decades, in the 1950s the US ambassador was still the country's second most important political figure after the President of the Republic. Fidel Castro sought to affirm Cuban nationalism.
In the early months of the Revolution there were three principal themes in Cuban-US relations. First, there was mistrust and anger over US criticism of events in Cuba. The second major factor was the Revolution's initial impact on US firms operating in Cuba. The frequency of strikes increased sharply as workers sought gains from management under the more favourable political situation. Foreign-owned firms were affected by such strikes and in some cases the question of their expropriation arose. The third feature of this period was changing Cuban attitudes to new private foreign investment and official foreign aid. Cuba under Fidel would not seek foreign aid.