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Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution was a revolution that led to the overthrow of the dictatorial government of Cuban President General Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959 by the 26th of July movement and other revolutionary organizations. The Cuban Revolution also refers to the ongoing implementation of social and economic programs by the new government since the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship, including the implementation of Marxist policies.

Pre 1956

The starting point of the Cuban Revolution is generally accepted to be poorly armed rebels attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the barracks in Bayamo. The exact number of rebels killed is debatable, however in his autobiography, Castro claims that five were killed in the fighting, and an additional fifty-six were killed later by the Batista regime. Among the dead was Abel Santamaria, second-in-command of the assault on the Moncada Barracks, who was imprisoned, tortured, and executed the same day of the attack. The survivors, among them Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl Castro Ruz, were captured shortly afterwards. In a highly political trial, Fidel Castro spoke for nearly four hours in his defense, ending with the words; "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." Fidel Castro was sentenced to 15 years in the presidio modelo prison, located on Isla de Pinos; Raúl was sentenced to 13 years.

In 1955, under broad political pressure, the Batista regime freed all political prisoners in Cuba – including the Moncada attackers. Batista was persuaded to include the Castro brothers in this release also in part by Fidel's Jesuit teachers, and perhaps by his personal acquaintance with them as youths as well.

The Castro brothers joined with other exiles in Mexico to prepare a revolution to overthrow Batista, receiving training from Alberto Bayo, a leader of Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. Fidel met and joined forces with Ernesto "Che" Guevara during this period.

In November, 1956, exiles under Fidel's leadership sailed aboard the Granma – a small leisure yacht in poor repair – for Cuba. Its landing was to coincide with planned uprisings in the cities and a general strike, coordinated by the llano wing of the 26th of July Movement; a swift armed offensive was expected to topple the regime.

December 1956 to Mid-1958

The Granma arrived in Cuba on 2 December 1956. It arrived in Cuba 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 their trek began, they were attacked by Batista's army. Most of the Granma participants were killed in this attack, but a small number escaped. While the exact number is in dispute, it is agreed that no more than twenty of the original eighty-two men survived the initial bloody encounters with the Cuban army and succeeded in fleeing to the Sierra Maestra mountains. The group of survivors included Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos. The survivors were separated, alone or in small groups, and wandered through the mountains, looking for each other. Eventually, the men would find one another with the help of peasant sympathizers and would form the core leadership of the guerrilla army. Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria, sister of Abel Santamaria, were two women revolutionaries that assisted Fidel Castro in the mountains.

On March 13, 1957, a distinct group of revolutionaries – the student anticommunist Revolutionary Directorate (RD; Directorio Revolucionario) – stormed the Presidential Palace, attempting to assassinate Batista and decapitate the regime. The attack was suicidal. The RD's leader, student Jose Antonio Echeverria, died in a shootout with Batista's forces at the Havana radio station he had seized to spread news of Batista's death. The handful of survivors included Dr. Humberto Castello (later Inspector General in the Escambray), and Rolando Cubela and Faure Chomon (later Commandantes of the 13 of March Movement, centered in the Escambray Mountains of Las Villas Province).
Raul Castro (left), with his arm around second-in-command, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, in their Sierra de Cristal Mountain stronghold in Oriente Province Cuba, 1958.

The regime resorted to often lethal repression to keep Cuba's cities under Batista's control until the end. But in the Sierra Maestra mountains, Castro, aided by Frank País, Ramos Latour, Huber Matos, and many others, staged successful attacks on small Batista garrisons. Che Guevara and Raúl Castro helped Fidel to consolidate political control in the mountains, often through execution of suspected Batista Loyalists or other Castro rivals. In addition, poorly armed irregulars known as escopeteros harassed the Batista forces in the foothills and plains of Oriente Province. These also provided direct military support to Castro's main forces, protecting supply lines and sharing intelligence. Ultimately, the mountains came under Castro's control.

In addition to the physical attacks endured by Batista, further insult came from a pirate radio station called Rebel Radio (Radio Rebelde), created in February 1958. It was on these airwaves that Castro and his forces broadcast their message to everyone, from within enemy territory. The radio broadcasts were made possible by Carlos Franqui, a previous acquaintance of Castro and Cuban exile now living in Puerto Rico.

During this time, Castro's forces were quite small, at times less than 200 men, while the Cuban army and police force numbered between 30,000 and 40,000 in strength. Yet nearly every time the army fought against the revolutionaries, they were the ones who retreated from the fight. The Cuban military was remarkably ineffective. A growing problem for the Batista forces was an arms embargo imposed on the Cuban government by the United States government on March 14, 1958. The Cuban air force rapidly lost its power as planes could not be repaired without spare parts from the United States.

Batista forces finally responded with an attack on the mountains called Operation Verano (the rebels called it "la Ofensiva"). Some 12,000 soldiers (more than half new, untrained recruits) attacked into the mountains. In a series of small-scale fights, the Cuban army was defeated by Castro's determined soldiers. In one battle (the Battle of La Plata) which lasted from July 11 till July 21, Castro's forces defeated an entire battalion, capturing 240 men, while losing just 3 of their own. The tide nearly turned on July 29 when Castro's small army (some 300 men) was almost destroyed at the Battle of Las Mercedes. With his forces pinned down by superior numbers, Castro asked for, and was granted, a temporary cease-fire (August 1st). Over the next seven days, while fruitless negotiations took place, Castro's forces gradually escaped from the trap. By August 8th, Castro's entire army had escaped back into the mountains. Operation Verano had been a failure for the Batista government.

Mid-1958 to January 1959

"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."

On August 21, 1958, after the defeat of the Batista "ofensiva", Castro's forces began their offensive. There were four fronts in the "Oriente" province (now divided into Santiago de Cuba, Granma, Guantánamo and Holguín) directed by Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Juan Almeida Bosque. Descending from the mountains, with weapons captured during the ofensiva and smuggled in by plane, Castro's forces won a series of victories. The major Castro victory at Guisa, and the succeeding capture of several towns (Maffo, Contramaestre, Central Oriente, etc.) consolidated victory on the Cauto plains.

Meanwhile, three columns under the command of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Jaime Vega proceeded westward toward the provincial capital of Santa Clara. Jaime Vega's column was ambushed and destroyed. The surviving two columns reached the central provinces, where they joined efforts with several other resistance groups not under the command of Castro. According to Faria, when Che Guevara's column passed through his native province of Las Villas, specifically through the Escambray Mountains — i.e., where the anticommunist Revolutionary Directorate forces (13 of March Movement) had been fighting Batista's army for many months — friction developed between the two groups of rebels. Che's 26th of July Movement troops were found to be heavily infiltrated by communists, such as the polemicist Armando Acosta and the more dangerous Comandante Felix Torres. But the combined rebel army continued the offensive and Cienfuegos won a key victory in the Battle of Yaguajay on December 30, 1958 (earning him the nickname "The Hero of Yaguajay").

The next day (the 31st), in a scene of great confusion, the city of Santa Clara was captured by the combined forces of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos, 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 for the Dominican Republic just hours later on January 1, 1959. Comandante William Alexander Morgan, for his part and leading RD rebel forces, continued fighting and captured the city of Cienfuegos on January 1 and 2, during, and in, the wake of Batista's departure. Castro learned of Batista's flight in the morning and immediately started negotiations to take over Santiago de Cuba. On January 2nd, 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 January 8th after a long victory march, his choice of President, Manuel Urrutia Lleó taking up office on the 3rd.

Post 1959: After the Revolution

"Our revolution is endangering all American possessions in Latin America. We are telling these countries to make their own revolution."
— Che Guevara, October 1962
Castro came to the United States later on to explain his revolution to the U.S. He said, "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 suspected Batista-era agents, policemen and soldiers were put on public trial for human rights abuses and war crimes, including murder and torture. Most of those convicted in revolutionary tribunals of political crimes were executed by firing squad, and the rest received long prison sentences. One of the most notorious examples of revolutionary justice was the executions of over 70 captured Batista regime soldiers, directed by Raúl Castro after capturing Santiago. For his part in 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 regime that could launch a counter-revolution. Others were fortunate to be dismissed from the army and police without prosecution, and some high-ranking officials in the ancien régime were exiled as military attachés.

In 1961 after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the new Cuban government also nationalized all property held by religious organizations including the Roman Catholic Church. Hundreds of members of the clergy, including a bishop, were permanently expelled from the nation, with the new Cuban government being officially atheist. Faria describes how the education of children changed as Cuba became officially an atheist state: private schools were banned and the progressively Socialist state assumed greater responsibility for children.

According to geographer and Cuban Comandante Antonio Núñez Jiménez, 75% of Cuba’s best arable land was owned by foreign individuals or foreign (mostly U.S.) companies. One of the first policies by 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, nominally in charge of land reform, objected and fled and eventually was executed. Many other anti-Batista, but not Marxist, rebel leaders were forced in to exile, purged in executions, or eliminated in failed uprisings such as those of the Beaton brothers.

To expand his power base among the former rebels and the supportive population, shortly after taking power the new Cuban government also created a Revolutionary militia. Castro also initiated Committees for the Defense of the Revolution or CDRs in late September 1960. Informants became rampant within the population. CDRs were tasked with keeping "vigilance against counter-revolutionary activity." Local CDRs were also tasked with keeping a detailed record of each neighborhood’s inhabitant’s spending habits, level of contact with foreigners, their work and education history, and any "suspicious" behavior.

Cuba began expropriating land and private property under the auspices of the Agrarian Reform law of May 1959. Cuban lawyer Mario Lazo writes that farms of any size could be and were seized by the government. Land, businesses, and companies owned by upper and middle class Cubans were also nationalized, including the plantations owned by Fidel Castro's family. By the end of 1960, the revolutionary government had nationalized more than $25 billion of private property owned by Cubans. Cuba also nationalized all United States and other foreign-owned property in the nation on August 6, 1960. The United States, in turn, responded by freezing all Cuban assets in the US and tightening the embargo on Cuba, which is still in place after nearly 50 years.

Many attempts have been made by the U.S. to overthrow Cuba's government. One of the most notorious is the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion at the height of the Cold War, but after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it promised verbally to never invade the island. In July 1961, the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (IRO) was formed by the merger of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Revolutionary Movement, the People's Socialist Party (the old Communist Party) led by Blas Roca and the Revolutionary Directorate March 13th led by Faure Chomón. On March 26, 1962 the IRO became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution (PURSC) which, in turn, became the Communist Party of Cuba on October 3, 1965 with Castro as First Secretary.

Desperate but unsuccessful rebellions known as the War Against the Bandits continued until about 1965.


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