The Cuban Revolution
Soon men began joining the Rebel Army, mostly idealists keen to help oust a corrupt regime, but many of them, claims Jon Lee Anderson, were “former rustlers, fugitive murderers, juvenile delinquents, and marijuana traffickers.” On January 16, Castro’s modestly armed force struck an army post. Batista responded with a ruthless campaign against the local populace, while B-26 bombers and P-47 fighter planes supplied by the United States strafed the Sierra Maestra. Batista managed to alienate the peasantry upon whom Castro’s forces relied, while the Rebel Army cemented the support of the guajiros by assisting with the coffee harvest.
War in the Cities and Countryside
While the Rebel Army nibbled away at its foes in the mountains, a war of attrition spread throughout the countryside and cities. Sugarcane fields were razed; army posts, police stations, and public utilities were destroyed. On March 13, an attack on the presidential palace in Havana by the Students’ Revolutionary Directorate failed, and 35 students died in the attack. Castro, far off in the mountains of Oriente, increasingly found himself in a battle for revolutionary leadership with the movement’s urban wings and on July 12 committed himself to “free, democratic elections” to assuage the growing leadership crisis.
Castro also affirmed the movement’s choice of a respected liberal judge, Manuel Urrutia Lleó, to head a provisional government after Batista’s fall. Urrutia promptly left for exile in the United States, where he was instrumental in Eisenhower’s pledge to stop arming Batista. However, Washington kept shipping arms secretly (including napalm, which was used to bomb peasant villages) and even re-armed Batista’s warplanes at Guantánamo naval base.
Finally, Batista decided to launch an all-out offensive in the Sierra Maestra with 10,000 men—Operation FF (Fin de Fidel). The fidelistas, however, beat back the 76-day offensive and even captured two tanks and huge quantities of modern weapons. Radio Rebelde broadcast the victories to the rest of the nation from La Plata, Castro’s secret headquarters.
In July Castro and eight leading opposition groups signed an agreement to create a civic coalition. The writing now on the wall, Washington began negotiations with Castro while maneuvering to keep him from power. (Meanwhile, the CIA was channeling funds—at least US$50,000 was delivered between November 1957 and mid-1958—to Castro’s movement. The top-secret operation remains classified by the U.S. government.) In September, Castro led an offensive to take Santiago de Cuba. On December 30, Che Guevara captured Santa Clara. The scent of victory was in the air.
The Revolution Triumphs
Washington persuaded Batista to hand over power to a civilian-military junta. At midnight on New Year’s Eve 1958, Batista and his closest supporters boarded a plane for the Dominican Republic. (Batista settled in Spain, where he lived a princely life until his death in 1973. The poor cane cutter died as one of the world’s wealthiest men—he had milked Cuba of almost US$300 million.)
On January 2, the same day that the rebel armies of Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara entered Havana, Castro’s army took over Santiago de Cuba. That night he delivered a televised victory speech and the following day the triumphant guerrilla army began a five-day victory march to Havana, with crowds cheering Castro atop a tank, all of it televised to the nation.
Castro was intent from day one on turning the old social order upside down. Fidel moved cautiously but vigorously to solidify his power under the guise of establishing a pluralist democracy, but his aim was clear. Although Manuel Urrutia had been named president and an unusually gifted coalition cabinet had been formed (the U.S. government recognized Urrutia’s government on January 4, 1959), Castro—the real power-holder—set up a parallel government behind the scenes. He began secretly negotiating with the Communists to co-opt them and build a Marxist-Leninist edifice (many of his wartime compadres who resigned over this issue were jailed for treason).
Castro recognized that the Cuban people were not yet ready for Communism; first he had to prepare public opinion. He also had to avoid antagonizing the United States. Castro manipulated Urrutia by getting himself named prime minister with power to direct government policy. Speaking before large crowds, he molded and radicalized the public mood as a tool to pressure the Urrutia government, which he repeated must obey “the will of the people.” Meanwhile, hundreds of Batista supporters and “enemies of the Revolution” were dispatched following summary trials. The executions, presided over by Che Guevara, were halted after international protests.
Uncle Sam Responds
Castro—determined to assert Cuba’s total independence—feared the possibility that U.S. Marines would steal his revolution as they had stolen independence at the end of the Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1898. Just as Washington became obsessed with the Communist issue without understanding or taking into account Cuban nationalism, Castro allowed himself to become obsessed with the United States and its Plattist mentality. An antagonistic relationship between a Castroite Cuba and the United States was inevitable. History ordained it. The Revolution was born when the east–west struggle for power was at its zenith. There was no way Uncle Sam could tolerate a left-leaning revolution beyond its control only 90 miles from Florida, especially one that was aligning itself with America’s principal enemy.
In March 1959, Castro visited the United States. Vice President Nixon met with him and badly misread the Cuban leader—he considered Castro to be controlled by the Communists. Castro disingenuously promised not to expropriate foreign-owned property and affirmed that elections would follow “democracy,” which he publicly defined as when all Cubans were employed, well fed, well educated, and healthy. “Real democracy is not possible for hungry people,” he said.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition