The Cuban Revolution began on July 26, 1953 when Fidel Castro declared war on Cuban President Fulgencio Batista in an attack on the Moncada Barracks, Cuba’s second largest military facility. Led by Fidel Castro, the goal of the movement was to unseat the U.S.-backed Batista, who had seized power in a coup the previous year. The Movement’s platform was to return the country to the people and eliminate the mass scale corruption of Batista’s government. Although the assault failed, it thrust the young, idealistic Fidel and his brother, Raúl, into the Cuban political spotlight and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the 26th of July Movement.
Fidel and Raúl were put on trial for conspiracy to overthrow the government. In court, Fidel delivered a moving speech that became the basis for the Manifesto of the 26th of July Movement. Castro told the court, “Condemn me, it does not matter, because history will absolve me.” The Castro brothers were sentenced to fifteen years in prison on the Island of Pines, off Cuba’s southwest coast. But 15 months later, Castro’s supporters pushed Batista to release them, and the Cuban president, detecting no real threat, granted a general amnesty to all prisoners in 1955.
The Castro brothers fled to Mexico, where they joined other exiles. It was there, during this period, that the Castro brothers met the Argentine doctor and political idealist Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. They were also joined by Camilo Cienfuegos, a gregarious reactionary who had fled Cuba after irritating police there. Che became an architect of the revolution, Cienfuegos one of its commanding generals. The ragtag bunch trained and prepared to return to Cuba and overthrow Batista.
The group, consisting of a total of 82 revolutionaries, secured an aging but seaworthy leisure yacht called the Granma – which was designed to accommodate only 12 passengers. On November 25, 1956, the Granma disembarked from Veracruz, Mexico for Cuba. The journey was perilous and the boat arrived on December 2, leaking and two days late, at Playa de los Colorados, about fifteen miles south of Niquero, Cuba. The revolutionaries struggled through a swamp and were unable to unload many of the weapons and equipment they had brought from Mexico. The group survived on food provided by peasants, as they made their way towards the Sierra Maestra mountains. On December 5, the troops were ambushed at Algeria de Pío, where most were killed in the fighting or while attempting to surrender. Only 12 of the original 82 survived, including the Castro brothers, a wounded Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the core leadership of the guerrilla army. They regrouped on December 18 high in the Sierra Maestra.
For the next two years, the rebel ranks swelled as the movement gained in both strength and popularity. The rebels recruited fighters dedicated to Castro’s populist ideals to join them. It wasn’t long before Castro had assembled several hundred foot soldiers. Guevara and Cienfuegos assumed the role of commanders, as they were fearless in the face of the enemy and willing to attack on any front. Once news of the assembled rebel forces reached Batista, the president dispatched the military to stop the rebels. But the rebels proved to be more sophisticated fighters in the rough terrain.
After Castro’s forces turned back attacks in the mountains from Batista’s army, they began moving across the country toward Havana, turning back the army at every juncture. In the decisive Battle of Santa Clara, on New Year’s Eve of 1958, the rebels dealt Batista’s demoralized army a crippling blow. Early the following morning, Batista fled the country with his family and his most trusted advisers.
News of Batista fleeing and the collapse of his government hit the streets of Havana in the early morning hours of January 1, 1959. The New Year’s Eve revelers were out in full force, and the city plunged into celebratory chaos. Thousands of Cubans poured into the streets of old Havana, carrying champagne bottles and waving flags, rendering them impassable to vehicular traffic. Radios blasted, car horns blared, and the shouts of “Viva la Revolucion” rang out.
On January 2, Castro’s forces, led by Che Guevera and Camilo Cinefuegos, took Havana. They were greeted by the people as conquering heroes. There was no resistance from the military, as the Cuban commander in Havana had ordered his men to stand down and surrender Havana to Che. At the same time, having received word that the president had fled the country, the Cuban military forces in Santiago surrendered to Fidel Castro. Seven days later, Castro and the rest of his troops marched into Havana with no resistance and took control of Cuba.
Fifty-seven years later, a Castro still controls the country, with Raúl Castro serving as president.