Fidel Castro: Life of the Cuban Leader
In this video, we take a look at the life and rule of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz (Spanish: [fiˈðel ˈkastro]; born August 13, 1926) is a Cuban communist revolutionary and politician who was Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, and President from 1976 to 2008. He also served as the Commander in Chief of the country’s armed forces from 1959 to 2008, and as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba from 1961 until 2011. Politically a Marxist-Leninist, under his administration the Republic of Cuba became a one-party socialist state; industry and businesses were nationalized, and socialist reforms implemented in all areas of society. Internationally, Castro was the Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, from 1979 to 1983 and from 2006 to 2008.
The illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, Castro adopted leftist anti-imperialist politics while studying law at the University of Havana. After participating in rebellions against right-wing governments in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, he planned the overthrow of the United States-backed military junta of Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, and served a year’s imprisonment in 1953 after a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks. On release he traveled to Mexico, where he formed a revolutionary group with his brother Raúl and friend Che Guevara, the 26th of July Movement. Returning to Cuba, Castro led the Cuban Revolution which ousted Batista in 1959, and brought his own assumption of military and political power. Alarmed by his revolutionary credentials and friendly relations with the Soviet Union, the U.S. governments of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy unsuccessfully attempted to remove him, by economic blockade, assassination and counter-revolution, including the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Countering these threats, Castro formed an economic and military alliance with the Soviets, and allowed them to place nuclear weapons on the island, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
In 1961 Castro proclaimed the socialist nature of his administration, with Cuba becoming a one-party state under Communist Party rule. Socialist reforms introducing central economic planning and expanding healthcare and education were accompanied by state control of the press and the suppression of internal dissent. Abroad, Castro supported foreign revolutionary groups in the hope of toppling world capitalism, sending Cuban troops to fight in the Yom Kippur War, Ogaden War, and Angolan Civil War. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, Castro led Cuba into its economic “Special Period“, before forging alliances in the Latin American Pink Tide – namely with Hugo Chávez‘s Venezuela – and joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas in 2006. Amid failing health, in 2006 he transferred his responsibilities to Vice-President Raúl Castro, who assumed full presidency in 2008.
Castro is a controversial and divisive world figure, lauded as a champion of anti-imperialism, humanitarianism, socialism and environmentalism by his supporters, but viewed as a dictator who has overseen multiple human rights abuses by his critics. Through his actions and his writings he has significantly influenced the politics of various individuals and groups across the world.
Early life – Early life of Fidel Castro – Childhood and Education: 1926–1945
A letter written by the 14-year-old Castro, learning English, to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt—”My good friend Roosevelt.” In the letter Castro expresses his joy at Roosevelt’s re-election, states his age as “twelve years old” and writes, “If you like, give me a ten dollar bill green American, because never, I have not seen a ten dollar bill,” signing the letter, “Thank you very much. Good by. Your friend, Fidel Castro.”
Castro was born out of wedlock at his father’s farm on August 13, 1926. Due to his illegitimacy, he was given his mother’s surname of Ruz rather than his father’s name. His father, Ángel Castro y Argiz (1875–1956) was born to a poor peasant family in Galicia, Northwest Spain. A farm laborer, in 1895 he was conscripted into the Spanish Army to fight in the Cuban War of Independence and the ensuing Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the U.S. seized control of Cuba. In 1902, the Republic of Cuba was proclaimed, however it remained economically and politically dominated by the U.S. For a time, Cuba enjoyed economic growth, and Ángel migrated there in search of employment. After various jobs, he set up business growing sugar cane at Las Manacas farm in Birán, near Mayarí,Oriente Province. Ángel took a wife in 1911, María Luisa Argota Reyes, with whom he had five children before separating. He then began a relationship with Lina Ruz González (1903–1963), a household servant of Canarian descent who was twenty-seven years his junior; she bore him three sons and four daughters, legally marrying in 1943.
Although Ángel’s business ventures prospered, he ensured that Fidel grew up alongside the children of the farm’s poor workforce, something Castro thought prevented him from absorbing “bourgeois culture” at an early age. Aged six, Castro, along with his elder siblings Ramón and Angela, was sent to live with their teacher in Santiago de Cuba, dwelling in cramped conditions and relative poverty, often failing to have enough to eat because of their tutor’s poor economic situation. Aged eight, Castro was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, although later became an atheist. Being baptized enabled Castro to attend the La Salle boarding school in Santiago, where he regularly misbehaved, and so was sent to the privately funded, Jesuit-run Dolores School in Santiago. In 1945 he transferred to the more prestigious Jesuit-run El Colegio de Belén in Havana. Although Castro took an interest in history, geography and debating at Belén, he did not excel academically, instead devoting much of his time to playing sport.
University and Early Political Activism: 1945–1947
The University of Havana in 1930.
In late 1945, Castro began studying law at the University of Havana. Admitting he was “politically illiterate,” he became embroiled in the student protest movement: under the governments of Cuban Presidents Gerardo Machado, Fulgencio Batista and Ramón Grau there had been a crackdown on protest, with student leaders being killed or terrorized by gangs. This led to a form of gangsterismo culture within the university, dominated by armed student groups who spent much of their time fighting and running criminal enterprises. Passionate about anti-imperialism and opposing U.S. intervention in the Caribbean, Castro joined the University Committee for the Independence of Puerto Rico and the Committee for Democracy in the Dominican Republic. Unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency of the Federation of University Students (Federación Estudiantíl Universitaria – FEU), he put forward a platform of “honesty, decency and justice” and emphasized his opposition to corruption, associating it with U.S. involvement in Cuba.
Castro became critical of the corruption and violence of Grau’s government, delivering a public speech on the subject in November 1946 that earned him a place on the front page of several newspapers. In contact with members of student leftist groups – including the Popular Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular – PSP), the Socialist Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Socialista Revolucionaria – MSR) and the Insurrectional Revolutionary Union (Unión Insurrecional Revolucionaria – UIR) – he grew close to the UIR, without for certain becoming a member. In 1947, Castro joined a new socialist group, the Party of the Cuban People (Partido Ortodoxo), founded by veteran politician Eduardo Chibás (1907–1951). A charismatic figure, Chibás advocated social justice, honest government, and political freedom, while his party exposed corruption and demanded reform. Though Chibás lost the election, Castro remained committed to working on his behalf. Student violence escalated after Grau employed gang leaders as police officers, and Castro soon received a death threat urging him to leave the university; refusing, he began carrying a gun and surrounding himself with armed friends. In later years Castro was accused of attempting gang-related assassinations at the time, including of UIR member Lionel Gómez, MSR leader Manolo Castro and university policeman Oscar Fernandez, but these remain unproven.
Latin American Rebellions: 1947–1948
In June 1947, Castro learned of a planned international expedition to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow its right-wing president, Rafael Trujillo, a military general and U.S. ally. Widely seen as a dictator, Trujillo utilized a violent secret police which routinely murdered and tortured opponents. Becoming president of the University Committee for Democracy in the Dominican Republic, Castro decided to join the expedition, led by Dominican exile General Juan Rodríguez. Launched from Cuba, the invasion began on July 29, 1947; it consisted of around 1,200 men, most of whom were exiled Dominicans or Cubans. However, the Dominican governments were prepared, and soon quashed the rebellion. Grau’s government arrested many of those involved before they set sail, but Castro escaped arrest by jumping off of his naval frigate and swimming to shore at night.
“I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle in a police station that collapsed when it was rushed by a crowd. I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous revolution… [T]hat experience led me to identify myself even more with the cause of the people. My still incipient Marxist ideas had nothing to do with our conduct – it was a spontaneous reaction on our part, as young people with Martí-an, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist and pro-democratic ideas.”
— Fidel Castro on the Bogotazo, 2009.
The botched mission furthered Castro’s opposition to the Grau administration, and returning to Havana, he took a leading role in the student protests against the killing of a high school pupil by government bodyguards. The protests, accompanied by crackdown on those considered communists, led to violent clashes between protesters and police in February 1948, in which Castro was badly beaten. At this point his public speeches took on a distinctively leftist slant, condemning the social and economic inequalities of Cuba, something in contrast to his former public criticisms, which had centered around condemning corruption and U.S. imperialism.
After a quick visit to Venezuela and Panama, in April 1948 Castro traveled to the city of Bogotá, Colombia, with a Cuban student group sponsored by the government of Argentine President Juan Perón, whose anti-imperialist politics impressed Castro. There, the assassination of popular leftist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala led to widespread rioting that came to be known as the Bogotazo. Leaving 3000 dead, the riots revolved around clashes between the governing Conservatives – backed by the army – and leftist Liberals with support from socialists. Along with his fellow Cuban visitors, Castro joined the Liberal cause by stealing guns from a police station, but subsequent police investigations concluded that neither Castro nor any of the other Cubans had been involved in the killings.
Marriage and Marxism: 1948–1950
Returning to Cuba, Castro became a prominent figure in protests against the government’s attempts to raise bus fares, a mode of transport used mostly by students and workers. That year, Castro married Mirta Díaz Balart, a student from a wealthy family through whom he was exposed to the lifestyle of the Cuban elite. The relationship was a love match, disapproved of by both families. Mirta’s father gave them tens of thousands of dollars to spend in a three-month honeymoon in New York City, and the couple also received a U.S. $1,000 wedding gift from the military general and former president Fulgencio Batista, a friend of Mirta’s family. That same year, Grau decided not to stand for re-election, which was instead won by his Partido Auténtico‘s new candidate, Carlos Prío Socarrás. Prío faced widespread protests when members of the MSR, now allied to the police force, assassinated Justo Fuentes, a “self-taught black man,” prominent UIR member and friend of Castro’s. In response, Prío agreed to quell the gangs, but found them too powerful to control.
“Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t even know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.”
Castro had moved further left in his politics, being influenced by the writings of Marxist communists like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin. He came to interpret Cuba’s problems as an integral part of capitalist society, or the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”, rather than the failings of corrupt politicians. Adopting the Marxist idea that meaningful political change could only be brought about by a proletariat revolution, Castro visited Havana’s poorest neighborhoods, witnessing the nation’s social and racial inequalities, and became active in the University Committee for the Struggle against Racial Discrimination.
In September 1949, Mirta gave birth to a son, Fidelito, so the couple moved to a larger Havana flat. Castro continued to put himself at risk, staying active in the city’s politics and joining the September 30 Movement, which contained within it both communists and members of the Partido Ortodoxo. The group’s purpose was to oppose the influence of the violent gangs within the university; despite his promises, Prío had failed to control the situation, instead offering many of their senior members jobs in government ministries. Castro volunteered to deliver a speech for the Movement on November 13, exposing the government’s secret deals with the gangs and identifying key members. Attracting the attention of the national press, the speech angered the gangs, and Castro fled into hiding, first in the countryside and then in the U.S. Returning to Havana several weeks later, Castro lay low and focused on his university studies, graduating as a Doctor of Law in September 1950.
Career in Law and Politics: 1950–1952
Castro founded a legal partnership with two fellow leftists, Jorge Azpiazu and Rafael Resende, focusing on helping poor Cubans assert their rights. A financial failure, its main client was a timber merchant who paid them in timber to furnish their office. Caring little for money or material goods, Castro failed to pay his bills; his furniture was repossessed and electricity cut off, distressing his wife. He took part in a high-school protest in Cienfuegos in November 1950, fighting a four-hour battle with police in protest at the Education Ministry’s ban on the founding of student associations. Arrested and charged for violent conduct, the magistrate dismissed the charges. He also became an active member of the Cuban Peace Committee, campaigning against western involvement in the Korean War. His hopes for Cuba still centered around Eduardo Chibás and the Partido Ortodoxo; however Chibás had made a mistake when he accused Education Minister Aureliano Sánchez of purchasing a Guatemalan ranch with misappropriated funds, but was unable to substantiate his allegations. The government accused Chibás of being a liar, and in 1951 he shot himself during a radio broadcast, issuing a “last wake-up call” to the Cuban people. Castro was present and accompanied him to the hospital where he died.
Seeing himself as the heir to Chibás, Castro wanted to run for Congress in the June 1952 elections. Senior Ortodoxo members feared his radical reputation and refused to nominate him; instead he was nominated as a candidate for the House of Representatives by party members in Havana’s poorest districts, and began campaigning. The Ortodoxo gained a considerable level of support and was predicted to do well in the election.
During his campaign, Castro met with General Fulgencio Batista, the former president who had returned to politics with the Unitary Action Party; although both opposing Prío’s administration, their meeting never got beyond “polite generalities.” In March 1952, Batista seized power in a military coup, with Prío fleeing to Mexico. Declaring himself president, Batista cancelled the planned presidential elections, describing his new system as “disciplined democracy”: Castro, like many others, considered it a one-man dictatorship. Batista moved to the right, solidifying ties with both the wealthy elite and the United States, severing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, suppressing trade unions and persecuting Cuban socialist groups. Intent on opposing Batista’s administration, Castro brought several legal cases against them, arguing that Batista had committed sufficient criminal acts to warrant imprisonment and accusing various ministers of breaching labor laws. Coming to nothing, Castro began thinking of alternate ways to oust the new government.
Cuban Revolution – Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution – The Movement and the Moncada Barracks attack: 1952–1953
Dissatisfied with Ortodoxo’s non-violent opposition, Castro formed “The Movement”, a group consisting of both a civil and a military committee. The former agitated through underground newspaper El Acusador (The Accuser), while the latter armed and trained anti-Batista recruits. With Castro as the Movement’s head, the organization was based upon a clandestine cell system, with each cell containing 10 members. A dozen individuals formed the Movement’s nucleus, many also dissatisfied Ortodoxo members, although from July 1952 they went on a recruitment drive, gaining around 1,200 members in a year, organized into over a hundred cells, with the majority coming from Havana’s poorer districts. Although a revolutionary socialist, Castro avoided an alliance with the communist PSP, fearing it would frighten away political moderates, but kept in contact with several PSP members, including his brother Raúl. He later related that the Movement’s members were simply anti-Batista, and few had strong socialist or anti-imperialist views, something which Castro attributed to “the overwhelming weight of the Yankees’ ideological and advertising machinery” which he believed suppressed class consciousness among Cuba’s working class.
“In a few hours you will be victorious or defeated, but regardless of the outcome – listen well, friends – this Movement will triumph. If you win tomorrow, the aspirations of Martí will be fulfilled sooner. If we fail, our action will nevertheless set an example for the Cuban people, and from the people will arise fresh new men willing to die for Cuba. They will pick up our banner and move forward… The people will back us in Oriente and in the whole island. As in ’68 and ’92, here in Oriente we will give the first cry of Liberty or Death!”
Castro stockpiled weapons for a planned attack on the Moncada Barracks, a military garrison outside Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. Castro’s militants intended to dress in army uniforms and arrive at the base on July 25, the festival of St James, when many officers would be away. The rebels would seize control, raid the armory and escape before reinforcements arrived. Supplied with new weaponry, Castro intended to arm supporters and spark a revolution among Oriente’s impoverished cane cutters. The plan was to then seize control of a Santiago radio station, broadcasting the Movement’s manifesto, hence promoting further uprisings. n Castro’s plan emulated those of the 19th century Cuban independence fighters who had raided Spanish barracks; Castro saw himself as the heir to independence leader and national hero José Martí.
Castro gathered 165 revolutionaries for the mission; 138 stationed in Santiago, the other 27 in Bayamo. Mostly young men from Havana and Pinar del Río, Castro insured that – with the exception of himself – none had children, and ordered his troops not to cause bloodshed unless they met armed resistance. The attack took place on July 26, 1953, but ran into trouble; 3 of the 16 cars that had set out from Santiago failed to get there. Reaching the barracks, the alarm was raised, with most of the rebels pinned down outside the base by machine gun fire. Those that got inside faced heavy resistance, and 4 were killed before Castro ordered a retreat. The rebels had suffered 6 fatalities and 15 other casualties, whilst the army suffered 19 dead and 27 wounded.
Meanwhile, some rebels took over a civilian hospital; subsequently stormed by government soldiers, the rebels were rounded up, tortured and 22 were executed without trial. Those that had escaped, including Fidel and Raúl, assembled at their base where some debated surrender, while others wished to flee to Havana. Accompanied by 19 comrades, Castro decided to set out for Gran Piedra in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains several miles to the north, where they could establish a guerrilla base. In response to the Moncada attack, Batista’s government proclaimed martial law, ordering a violent crackdown on dissent and imposing strict censorship of the media. Propaganda broadcasted misinformation about the event, claiming that the rebels were communists who had killed hospital patients. Despite this censorship, news and photographs soon spread of the army’s use of torture and summary executions in Oriente, causing widespread public and some governmental disapproval.
Trial and History Will Absolve Me: 1953
Over the following days, the rebels were rounded up, with some being executed and others – including Castro – transported to a prison north of Santiago. Believing Castro incapable of planning the attack alone, the government accused Ortodoxo and PSP politicians of involvement, putting 122 defendants on trial on September 21 at the Palace of Justice, Santiago. Although censored from reporting on it, journalists were permitted to attend, which proved an embarrassment for the Batista administration. Acting as his own defense council, Castro convinced the 3 judges to overrule the army’s decision to keep all defendants handcuffed in court, proceeding to argue that the charge with which they were accused – of “organizing an uprising of armed persons against the Constitutional Powers of the State” – was incorrect, for they had risen up against Batista, who had seized power in an unconstitutional manner. When asked who was the intellectual author of the attack, Castro claimed that it was the long deceased national icon José Martí, quoting Martí’s works that justified uprisings.
The trial revealed that the army had tortured suspects, utilizing castration and the gouging out of eyes; the judges agreed to investigate these crimes, embarrassing the army, which tried unsuccessfully to prevent Castro from testifying any further, claiming he was too ill to leave his cell. The trial ended on October 5, with the acquittal of most defendants; 55 were sentenced to prison terms of between 7 months and 13 years. Castro was sentenced separately, on October 16, during which he delivered a speech that would be printed under the title of History Will Absolve Me. Although the maximum penalty for leading an uprising was a 20 years, Castro was sentenced to 15, being imprisoned in the hospital wing of the Model Prison (Presidio Modelo), a relatively comfortable and modern institution on the Isla de Pinos, 60 miles off of Cuba’s southwest coast.
Imprisonment and the 26th of July Movement: 1953–1955
Imprisoned with 25 fellow conspirators, Castro renamed “The Movement” the “26th of July Movement” (MR-26-7) in memory of the Moncada attack’s date. Forming a school for prisoners, the Abel Santamaría Ideological Academy, Castro organized five hours a day of teaching in ancient and modern history, philosophy and English. He read widely, enjoying the works of Marx, Lenin, and Martí but also reading books by Freud, Kant, Shakespeare, Munthe, Maugham and Dostoyevsky, analyzing them within a Marxist framework. He began reading about Roosevelt’s New Deal, believing that something similar should be enacted in Cuba. Corresponding with supporters outside of prison, he maintained control over the Movement and organized the publication of History Will Absolve Me, with an initial print run of 27,500 copies. Initially permitted a relative amount of freedom within the prison, he was locked up in solitary confinement after inmates sang anti-Batista songs on a visit by the President in February 1954. Meanwhile, Castro’s wife Mirta gained employment in the Ministry of the Interior, having been encouraged to do so by her brother, a friend and ally of Batista’s. This was kept a secret from Castro, who found out through a radio announcement. Appalled, he raged that he would rather die “a thousand times” than “suffer impotently from such an insult”. Both Fidel and Mirta initiated divorce proceedings, with Mirta taking custody of their son Fidelito; this angered Castro, who did not want his son growing up in a bourgeois environment.
“I would honestly love to revolutionize this country from one end to the other! I am sure this would bring happiness to the Cuban people. I would not be stopped by the hatred and ill will of a few thousand people, including some of my relatives, half the people I know, two-thirds of my fellow professionals, and four-fifths of my ex-schoolmates.”
In 1954, Batista’s government held presidential elections, but no politician had risked standing against him; he won, but the election was widely considered fraudulent. It had allowed some political opposition to be voiced, and Castro’s supporters had agitated for an amnesty for the Moncada incident’s perpetrators. Some politicians suggested an amnesty would be good publicity, and the Congress and Batista agreed. Backed by the U.S. and major corporations, Batista believed Castro to be no political threat, and on May 15, 1955 the prisoners were released. Returning to Havana, Castro was carried on the shoulders of supporters, and set about giving radio interviews and press conferences; the government closely monitored him, curtailing his activities. Now divorced, Castro had sexual affairs with two female supporters, Naty Revuelta and Maria Laborde, each conceiving him a child. Setting about strengthening the MR-26-7, he established an 11-person National Directorate; despite these structural changes, there was still dissent, with some questioning Castro’s autocratic leadership. Castro dismissed calls for the leadership to be transferred to a democratic board, arguing that a successful revolution could not be run by committee. Some then abandoned the MR-26-7, labeling Castro a caudillo (dictator), although the majority remained loyal.
Mexico and Guerrilla Training: 1955–1956
As Castro would later relate: “[Che] distinguished himself in so many ways, through so many fine qualities… As a man, as an extraordinary human being. He was also a person of great culture, a person of great intelligence. And with military qualities as well. Che was a doctor who became a soldier without ceasing for a single minute to be a doctor.”
In 1955, bombings and violent demonstrations led to a crackdown on dissent; Castro was placed under protective armed guard by supporters, before he and Raúl fled the country. MR-26-7 members remaining in Cuba were left to prepare cells for revolutionary action and await Castro’s return. He sent a letter to the press, declaring that he was “leaving Cuba because all doors of peaceful struggle have been closed to me. Six weeks after being released from prison I am convinced more than ever of the dictatorship’s intention, masked in many ways, to remain in power for twenty years, ruling as now by the use of terror and crime and ignoring the patience of the Cuban people, which has its limits. As a follower of Martí, I believe the hour has come to take our rights and not beg for them, to fight instead of pleading for them.” The Castros and several comrades traveled to Mexico, which had a long history of offering asylum to leftist exiles. Here, Raúl befriended an Argentine doctor and Marxist-Leninist named Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a proponent of guerrilla warfare keen to join Cuba’s Revolution. Fidel liked him, later describing him as “a more advanced revolutionary than I was.” Castro also associated with the Spaniard Alberto Bayo, a Republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War; Bayo agreed to teach Fidel’s rebels the necessary skills in guerrilla warfare, clandestinely meeting them at Chapultepec for training.
Requiring funding, Castro toured the U.S. in search of wealthy sympathizers; Prío contributed $100,000. Castro was monitored by Batista’s agents, who allegedly orchestrated a failed assassination and bribed Mexican police to arrest the rebels; with the support of several Mexican politicians, they were soon released. Castro kept in contact with the MR-26-7 in Cuba, where they had gained a large support base in Oriente. Other militant anti-Batista groups had sprung up, primarily from the student movement; most notable was the Revolutionary Directorate (DR), founded by the Federation of University Students (FEU) President José Antonio Echevarría. Antonio traveled to Mexico City to meet with Castro, but they disagreed on tactics; Castro opposed the student’s policy of supporting indiscriminate assassinations.
Purchasing a decrepit yacht, the Granma, on 25 November 1956 Castro set sail from Tuxpan, Veracruz, with 81 revolutionaries, armed with 90 rifles, 3 machine guns, around 40 pistols and 2 hand-held anti-tank guns. The 1,200 mile crossing to Cuba was harsh, and in the overcrowded conditions of the ship, many suffered seasickness, and food supplies ran low. At some points they had to bail water caused by a leak, and at another a man fell overboard, delaying their journey. The plan had been for the crossing to take 5 days, and on the Granma’s scheduled day of arrival, 30 November, MR-26-7 members under Frank Pais led an armed uprising against government buildings in Santiago, Manzanillo and several other towns. However, the Granma’s journey ultimately lasted 7 days, and with Castro and his men unable to provide reinforcements, Pais and his militants dispersed after two days of intermittent attacks.
Guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra: 1956–1958
The Granma crash-landed in a mangrove swamp at Playa Las Coloradas, close to Los Cayuelos, on 2 December 1956. Within several hours they were bombarded from a naval vessel; fleeing inland, they headed for the forested mountain range of Oriente’s Sierra Maestra. At daybreak on 5 December they were attacked by a detachment of Batista’s Rural Guard; the rebels scattered, making their journey to the Sierra Maestra in small groups. Upon arrival, Castro discovered that of the 82 rebels who had arrived on the Granma, only 19 had made it to their destination, the rest having been killed or captured.
Setting up an encampment in the jungle, the survivors, including the Castros, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos, began launching raids on small army posts to obtain weaponry. In January 1957 they overran the outpost near to the beach at La Plata; Guevara treated the soldiers for any injuries, but the revolutionaries executed the local mayoral (land company overseer) Chicho Osorio, who was despised by the local peasants and who boasted of killing one of the MR-26-7 rebels several weeks previously. Osorio’s execution aided the rebels in gaining the trust of locals, who typically hated the mayorals as enforcers of the wealthy landowners, although they largely remained unenthusiastic and suspicious of the revolutionaries. As trust grew, some locals joined the rebels, although most new recruits came from urban areas. With increasing numbers of volunteers, who now numbered over 200, in July 1957 Castro divided his army into three columns, keeping charge of one and giving control of the others to his brother and Guevara. The MR-26-7 members operating in urban areas continued agitation, sending supplies to Castro, and on 16 February 1957 he met with other senior members to discuss tactics; here he met Celia Sánchez, who would become a close friend.
“The story of our beards is very simple: it arose out of the difficult conditions we were living and fighting under as guerrillas. We didn’t have any razor blades… everybody just let their beards and hair grow, and that turned into a kind of badge of identity. For the campesinos and everybody else, for the press, for the reporters we were “los barbudos” – the bearded ones. It had its positive side: in order for a spy to infiltrate us, he had to start preparing months ahead of time – he’d have had to have six-months’ growth of beard, you see… Later, with the triumph of the Revolution, we kept our beards to preserve the symbolism.”
Across Cuba, militant groups were rising up against Batista, carrying out bombings and acts of sabotage; police responded with mass arrests, torture and extra-judicial killings, with corpses being hung on trees to intimidate dissidents. In March 1957, Antonio’s DR launched a failed attack on the presidential palace, with Antonio being shot dead; his death removed a charismatic rival to Castro’s leadership of the revolution. Frank Pais was also killed, leaving Castro the unchallenged leader of the MR-26-7. Castro hid his Marxist-Leninist beliefs, something in contrast to Guevara and Raúl, whose beliefs were well known; in doing so, he hoped to gain the support of less radical dissenters, and in 1957 met with leading members of thePartido Ortodoxo. Castro and Ortodoxo leaders Raúl Chibás and Felipe Pazos drafted and signed the Sierra Maestra Manifesto, in which they laid out their plans for a post-Batista Cuba. Rejecting the rule of a provisional military junta, it demanded that a provisional civilian government be set up that was “supported by all” and which would implement moderate agrarian reform, industrialization and a literacy campaign before introducing “truly fair, democratic, impartial, elections.”
Batista’s government censored the Cuban press, and so Castro contacted foreign media to spread his message. Herbert Matthews, a journalist from the The New York Times, interviewed Castro, attracting international interest to the rebel’s cause and turning him into a celebrity. Other reporters followed, sent by such news agencies as CBS, while a reporter from Paris Match stayed with the rebels for around 4 months, documenting their routine. Castro’s guerrillas increased their attacks on military outposts, forcing the government to withdraw from the Sierra Maestra region, and by spring 1958, the rebels controlled a hospital, schools, a printing press, slaughterhouse, land-mine factory and a cigar-making factory.
Batista’s fall and Cantillo’s Military Junta: 1958–1959
“When I saw the [U.S. supplied] rockets being fired at Mario’s house, I swore to myself that the Americans would pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over a much wider and bigger war will begin for me: the war that I am going to wage against them. I know that this is my real destiny.”
— Fidel Castro in a letter to Celia Sánchez, 1958.
Batista was under increasing pressure by 1958. His army’s military failures, coupled with his press censorship and the police and army’s use of torture and extra-judicial executions, were increasingly criticized both domestically and abroad. Influenced by anti-Batista sentiment among their citizens, the U.S. government ceased supplying him with weaponry, leading him to buy arms from the United Kingdom. The opposition used this opportunity to call a general strike, accompanied by armed attacks from the MR-26-7. Beginning on 9 April, it received strong support in central and eastern Cuba, but little elsewhere.
Batista’s responded with an all-out-attack on Castro’s guerrillas, Operation Verano. The army aerially bombarded forested areas and villages suspected of aiding the militants, while 10,000 soldiers under the command of General Eulogio Cantillo surrounded the Sierra Maestra, driving north to the rebel encampments. Despite their numerical and technological superiority, the army had no experience with guerrilla warfare or the mountainous region. Now with 300 men at his command, Castro avoided open confrontation, using land mines and ambushes to halt the enemy offensive. The army suffered heavy losses and a number of embarrassments; in June 1958 a battalion surrendered, their weapons were confiscated and they were handed over to the Red Cross. Many of Batista’s soldiers, appalled at the human rights abuses that they were ordered to carry out, defected to Castro’s rebels, who also benefited from popular support in the areas they controlled. In the summer, the MR-26-7 went on the offensive, pushing the army back, out of the mountain range and into the lowlands, with Castro using his columns in a pincer movement to surround the main army concentration in Santiago. By November, Castro’s forces controlled most of Oriente and Las Villas, and tightened their grip around the capitals of Santiago and Santa Clara. Through control of Las Villas, the rebels divided Cuba in two by closing major roads and rail lines, severely disadvantaging Batista’s forces.
Castro (right) with fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos entering Havana on January 8, 1959.
The U.S. realized Batista would lose the war, and fearing that Castro would displace U.S. interests with socialist reforms, decided to support Batista’s removal in support of a rightist military junta, believing that General Cantillo, then commanding most of the country’s armed forces, should lead it. After being approached with this proposal, Cantillo secretly met with Castro, agreeing that the two would call a ceasefire, following which Batista would be apprehended and tried as a war criminal. Double crossing Castro, Cantillo warned Batista of the revolutionary’s intentions. Wishing to avoid a tribunal, Batista resigned on 31 December 1958, informing the armed forces that they were now under Cantillo’s control. With his family and closest advisers, Batista fled into exile with over US$ 300,000,000. Cantillo then entered Havana’s Presidential Palace, proclaimed the Supreme Court judge Carlos Piedra to be the new President, and began appointing new members of the government.
Still in Oriente, Castro was furious. Recognizing the establishment of a military junta, he ended the ceasefire and continued on the offensive. The MR-26-7 put together a plan to oust the Cantillo-Piedra junta, freeing the high-ranking military officer Colonel Ramón Barquín from the Isle of Pines prison (where he had been held captive for plotting to overthrow Batista), and commanding him to fly to Havana to arrest Cantillo. Accompanying widespread celebrations as news of Batista’s downfall spread across Cuba on 1 January 1959, Castro ordered the MR-26-7 to take responsibility for policing the country, in order to prevent widespread looting and vandalism. Whilst Cienfuegos and Guevara led their columns into Havana on 2 January, Castro entered Santiago, accepting the surrender of the Moncada Barracks and giving a speech invoking the wars of independence. He spoke out against the Cantillo-Piedra junta, called for justice against human rights abusers and proclaimed a better era for women’s rights. Heading toward Havana, he met José Antonio Echevarría’s mother, and greeted cheering crowds at every town, giving press conferences and interviews. Foreign journalists commented on the unprecedented level of public adulation, with Castro striking a heroic “Christ-like figure” and wearing a medallion of the Virgin Mary.