The son of a Spanish immigrant and his former household servant turned mistress, Fidel Castro first became active in politics while studying law at the University of Havana. It was there that Fidel met and married fellow student Mirta Diaz-Balart, the daughter of a well-known Cuban political figure, Rafael José Diaz-Balart. Born into a wealthy family that owed its financial blessings to the sugar industry, Fidel strongly opposed U.S. intervention in Caribbean affairs.
After Fulgencio Batista seized power in 1952, Castro filed several futile lawsuits against the corrupt government before reaching the conclusion that stronger measures would be necessary. He formed a clandestine group called “The Movement” opposing Cuba’s new dictator, who had strong ties with the U.S. and support from wealthy Cuban business interests. The group, which engaged in propaganda activity, publishing an underground newspaper, The Accuser, went on to plan and execute an ill-fated attack on Cuba’s second largest military installation, the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province.
The plan, which sought to parallel 19th century anti-colonial hero José Martí’s similar raid during Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain, was to take control of the facility and its weapons, and then spark an uprising among the poor cane-cutters of the region. On July 26 1953, Castro and 165 revolutionaries, including his brother Raúl, tried and failed in their mission. Although many of his men were killed or captured in the assault, Fidel escaped and went into hiding at a farm in the Sierra Maestra mountains, surrendering only after his wife used her political connections to guarantee him a fair trial.
Fidel was convicted, stating at his trial, “Condemn me, it does not matter, because history will absolve me.” He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on the Island of Pines off Cuba’s southwest coast. He would serve only 22 months before he and his brother were granted freedom. They soon joined other exiles in Mexico, where they would train and prepare for the overthrow of Batista.
Returning to Cuba on a yacht called the Granma with 82 revolutionaries, Fidel went on to lead the successful revolution against Batista’s army from the Sierra Maestra mountains, causing the dictator to flee Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959. Castro held power on the island nation until his brother, Raúl, succeeded him as president in 2008. Fidel Castro died on November 25th 2016 at the age of 90.
The younger brother of Fidel, Raúl Castro played a key role in the Cuban Revolution. He participated in the attack on the Moncada Barracks, for which he and his brother were imprisoned, and later commanded a column of fighters in the revolutionary army that drove Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista from power. He personally ordered the executions of over 100 of Batista’s officers, cementing his reputation as a ruthless hard-liner.
Married in 1959 to fellow revolutionary Vilma Espin, Raúl Castro had established close ideological and personal ties with the Soviet Union during visits there prior to the revolution. He has held numerous government positions in Cuba, including minister of defense, a job he had from 1959 until 2008, when he succeeded his brother Fidel as president.
Fulgencio Batista served as the elected president of Cuba from 1940-1944. He then moved to the U.S. and lived in Florida for eight years. He returned to Cuba to challenge the sitting president Carlos Prio Socarras in the 1952 election. However, when it became apparent to Batista that he would lose the election, he ordered his forces, still loyal to him from the time of his presidency, to overthrow the government, sending Prio into exile.
Most Cubans were apprehensive but hopeful that Batista would govern as he had previously. During his legitimate presidency, Batista had enacted progressive policies, and the country had entered a time of relative prosperity. Batista had seemed very concerned about the people and the country’s development.
But things had changed after Batista moved in to the presidential palace in 1952. Initially, he had the support of the Communist Party in Cuba, but after seizing power he eschewed Communism and began openly fraternizing with American interests. Many Cubans felt that Batista was turning his back on the Cuban people to enrich himself – which he was. The wider Batista opened the doors to American businesses, the more he profited personally. At the same time, the Cuban economy began suffering. High unemployment set in, and the wealth divide between the lower and the upper classes widened considerably.
Batista seemed to be under the American’s spell at every turn, and most Cubans were concerned that Cuba was becoming increasingly dependent on the U.S. Large American companies had taken over nearly all of the cattle ranches, coal mines, and utilities. U.S. interestes also controlled the country’s oil industry, and owned 40 percent of the sugar farms. Additionally, the U.S. was supplying two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.
Batista also turned Havana into a gambling mecca for the purpose of lining his pockets and those of the corrupt government officials who did his bidding. He had established close ties with American organized crime figures Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano and made back room deals that led to Havana became an immoral den of iniquity. Prostitution and drugs became big business, with the Batista regime taking kickbacks from all the action. Everyone at all levels of power, from the police to the president, was on the take.
Things began to unravel for Batista when Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces began gaining traction against Batista’s army in 1958. The CIA, which was helping supply Batista’s military with weapons, instituted an embargo when it appeared that Batista was losing control. Castro’s forces strengthened. After winning the Battle of Santa Clara on New Year’s Eve 1958 and surrounding the city of Santiago, they were on the move to take Havana.
That night, Batista received word at the presidential palace that Santa Clara had fallen and Santiago was next. There was no hope. Castro’s 26th of July Movement had defeated the Cuban army, leaving it so demoralized that trying to hold Havana was pointless and impossible. The Cuban president was told that the revolutionary forces would be at his doorstep by morning.
Batista’s rule of Cuba was finished for certain. He had already been told on December 11 by U.S. Ambassador Earl Smith that the U.S. no longer supported his government in any way. In that meeting, Batista had asked for permission to travel to a house he owned in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he had lived during his years in exile. On behalf of the U.S. government, Smith denied his request.
At his New Year’s Eve party, Batista informed his top officials that he was leaving Cuba and that they should do the same to avoid being captured by the revolutionary forces. Hours later, around 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, Batista and his immediate family boarded a military plane and flew to the Dominican Republic. Another plane carrying several top government officials left shortly after Batista’s. Through various means, the overthrown Cuban president took some $300 million with him, a sum matched by other officials who looted the treasury on their way out of the country.
Camilo Cienfuegos, along with the Castro brothers and Che Guevara, was one of the four leaders and heroes of the Cuban revolution. Shot in the leg by Batista’s military police during a student demonstration at age 23, Cienfuegos decided in the hospital that he would follow Fidel in his quest to free Cuba.
One of the 82 fighters who traveled from Mexico with Fidel on the yacht, Granma, Cienfuegos, a man with a slight build and no military experience, advanced through the ranks, ultimately being appointed to the rank of Commandante in 1957. The following year, he led a column of soldiers to a decisive victory against an army outpost in Yaguajay, forcing the enemy to surrender in December of 1958 and earning the nickname “The Hero of Yaguajay.” Cienfuegos carried the momentum of that victory forward and played a key role in capturing Santa Clara, effectively ending the war.
Cienfuegos was later appointed Chief of Staff of the Cuban Army. At a victory rally on January 8, 1959, Castro interrupted his speech to ask Cienfuegos, “Am I doing all right, Camilo?” To which Camilo famously replied, “You’re doing fine, Fidel” — a phrase the crowd picked up on and made a slogan of the revolution.
Trusted by Fidel, Cienfuegos was responsible for defeating several anti-Castro uprisings and implementing the regime’s agrarian reforms. He was sent to arrest fellow revolutionary hero-turned dissident, Huber Matos, in Camagüey on October 2, 1959, a mission after which Cienfuegos would never be seen again as his aircraft disappeared over the Florida straits on his return trip to Havana. The mystery of what happened has never been solved.
Along with the Castro brothers and Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara was a prominent figure in the Cuban Revolution. Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, Argentina, Che completed medical school at the University of Buenos Aires and became politically active first in his native Argentina and then in neighboring Bolivia and Guatemala. In 1954, he met Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl while they were training and preparing in Mexico for the coming revolution. There, he joined the rebels in their struggle to overthrow the Batista regime in Cuba. He served as a military advisor to Fidel Castro and led rebel forces in several battles against government troops. When Castro took power in 1959, Guevara was placed in charge of La Cabaña Fortress prison. It is estimated that between 156 and 550 people were executed on Guevara’s orders during this time.
Che was later appointed president of the Cuban national bank and advocated a shift in the country’s trade relations from the United States to the Soviet Union. Three years later, he was appointed minister of industry. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to export his communist revolution to other parts of the world, beginning with South America. In 1967, with only a small guerrilla force to support his efforts, Guevara tried to overthrow yet another government and replace it with a communist state, this time in Bolivia.
He was captured and killed in La Higuera by the Bolivian army on October 9, 1967.
Since his death, Guevara has become a legendary figure and political icon, particularly in Cuba, where his image is ubiquitous as a symbol of the revolution. His name is often equated with rebellion, revolution, and socialism throughout the world.
Huber Matos Benitez was a Cuban who opposed the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After the coup that brought Batista to power, Matos fled to Costa Rica for several years, developing a close relationship with its president, Jose Figueres, who supported the July 26th Movement and who ultimately helped Matos secure weapons and supplies for the Cuban rebels.
On March 31,1958, Matos landed a five-ton shipment of arms and other badly needed equipment from Costa Rica in a converted passenger liner on a remote air strip in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Fidel rewarded Matos by placing him in command of the rebel army’s ninth column, which Matos led to victory in the revolutions final assault on Santiago de Cuba.
Matos rode as a hero of the revolution into Havana on the same tank as Fidel Castro in January of 1959 and was appointed Commander of the Army in Camagüey province a few days later.
Matos, however, soon became an outspoken critic of Fidel’s coziness with the communists, expressing his uneasiness with the way things were going under the revolutionary government. In July 1959, he tendered his resignation, which was refused by Castro. Two months later, Matos sent a second letter of resignation, which resulted in Fidel sending Camilo Cienfuegos in October to arrest Matos in Camagüey.
Matos was convicted of engaging counterrevolutionary activity, with Fidel himself testifying at his trial (giving a seven hour speech). Matos was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He served his full sentence and was released from prison in 1979. He lived in Florida and Costa Rica after his release, continuing to speak and write about his criticism of the Castro regime and it’s policies until his death in 2014 at the age of 95.