Fulgencio Batista had served as the elected President of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, and became President for the second time in March 1952, after seizing power in a military coup and cancelling the 1952 elections. During his first term, Batista had proved quite progressive, however, after seizing power he became far more dictatorial and ignorant of public affairs. Cuba suffered from high unemployment and limited infrastructure, Batista made lucrative deals with American companies which allowed them to dominate the Cuban economy.
During Batista’s first term, he had been supported by Cuba’s communist Party, but became strongly anti communist during his second term, which earned him military aid and political support from the U.S, who were in the midst of fighting the Cold War, and Batista began to develop a strong security infrastructure to silence political opponents.
After Batista’s military coup in March 1952, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer and activist, petitioned for Batista to be removed from power, accusing him of being corrupt and a tyrant, but the arguments were rejected by the Cuban courts.
After realizing Batista couldn’t be overthrown by legal means, Castro decided on an armed revolution. He and his brother Raúl founded a paramilitary organization known as “The Movement”, and began stockpiling weapons and had recruited around 1,200 followers from the dissatisfied working class by the end of 1952.
Fidel and Raúl gathered 123 Movement fighters for a multi-pronged attack on military bases, and on 26th July the rebels attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the barracks in Bayamo, but were unsuccessful. Castro claimed that nine of the rebels were killed in the fighting, and 56 executed after being captured by Batista’s government, though the exact number killed is debatable. The death toll included Castro’s second in command, Abel Santamaria, who was imprisoned, tortured and executed on the same day as the attack.
In a highly political trial, Fidel spoke for nearly four hours in his defense, finishing with the words “Condemn me, it does not matter.. History will absolve me”, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Raúl was sentenced to 13 years. Under huge political pressure, the Batista government freed all political prisoners in Cuba.
Fidel and Raúl met with other exiles in Mexico to plan a more successful way of overthrowing Batista, and began training with Alberto Bayo. Fidel met the Argentine revolutionary Ernestio Guevara in June 1955, who joined the cause. In reference to their attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, the rebels named themselves the “26th of July Movement”.
The Castro brothers and 80 others arrived in Cuba on December 2nd (two days later than planned), 1956, in Playa Las Coloradas, in Niquero. The late arrival meant the attack was not coordinated with the llano wing of the movement. The rebels made their way to the Sierra Maestra mountains, in south-eastern Cuba.
Batista’s army attacked the band of rebels three days after the trek began, and though there is dispute as to the exact number of rebels killed, fewer than 20 of the original eighty-two men survived the encounter with the army. Those who did escaped into the Sierra Maestra mountains, including both the Castro brothers, Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The survivors were scattered and wandered the mountains in small groups or alone, looking for one another.
The men eventually found each other, and formed the core leadership of the guerrilla army. Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria were among the female revolutionaries who helped Fidel in the mountains.
After a failed attempt by a separate group of revolutionaries; the anti communist Student Revolutionary Directorate, to overthrow Batista, the US imposed economic restrictions on the Cuban government. Batista’s support among the Cuban’s began to fade and the government , though US businessmen and the Mafia continued their support.
Castro, helped by other rebels, successfully attacked small garrisons of Batista’s troops, and consolidated his control in the mountains with the help of his brother and Guevara, which often involved execution of Batista loyalists, or other political rivals of Castro.
A pirate radio was set up called “Rebel Radio” in February 1958 to allow Castro to gain influence within enemy territory. Carlos Franqui, an acquaintance of Castro made these broadcasts possible, who subsequently became a Cuban exile in Puerto Rico.
However, Castro’s forces remained small, sometimes dipping below 200 men, compared to the combined manpower of the Cuban army and police force of around 37,000. However, Castro’s rebels forced the Cuban military into a retreat at nearly every conflict that arose between them; Batista’s forces were significantly weakened by the arms restrictions imposed on them by the US government. These restrictions also left the Cuban air force to deteriorate.
Batista responded to Castro with “Operation Verano”, which saw 12,000 soldiers, half of them untrained recruits, into the mountains, only to be defeated by Castro’s determined guerrillas. In the Battle of La Plata, which lasted from 11th July to 21st July, 1958, Batista’s 500-man battalion was defeated, with 240 of them being captured, while Castro only lost 3 of his men.
However, on 29th July, Batista’s troops had almost turned the tide, when they pinned down Castro’s forces in the Battle of Las Mercedes, forcing Castro to ask for a cease-fire on 1st August.
Over the next week, Castro’s trapped forces managed to escape while the useless negotiations took place, and by the 8th August, Castro’s entire army had managed to escape back into the mountains, and Batista’s government had failed once again.
On 21st August, Castro’s forces began their own offensive. In the Oriente province, Fidel and Raúl Castro directed attacks on four fronts. With weapons captured during Operation Verano, Castro’s forces captured several towns such as Maffo, Contramaestre, and Central Oriente, which brought the Cauto plains under his control.
Meanwhile, under the command of Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and Jamie Vega, the three other rebel fronts moved westward towards Santa Clara, the capital of the Villa Clara Province.
Batista’s forces destroyed Vega’s column, but the two others managed to reach the central provinces, where they joined with other rebel groups, not under the command of Castro. When Guevara’s group passed through Las Villas, through the Escambray Mountains, friction developed between them and the Anti-communist Revolutionary Directorate forces, who had been fighting Batista’s army for many months.
However, the combined rebel army continued the battle, and Cienfuegos won a key victory in the Battle of Yaguajay on 30th December, 1958, and earning himself the nickname “The Hero of Yaguajay”.
On 31st December 1958, Santa Clara fell to Guevara, Cienfuegos and the Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Commandantes Rolando Cubela, Juan Abrahantes and William Alexander Morgan. These defeats panicked Batista, who fled to the Dominican Republic a few hours later, in 1st January, 1959.
Upon hearing of Batista’s leaving, Castro started negotiations to take Santiago de Cuba, and on 2nd January, the military commander in the city, Colonel Rubio ordered his soldiers not to fight, and Castro’s forces took over the city.
Castro learned of Batista’s flight in the morning and immediately started negotiations to take over Santiago de Cuba. Guevara, Cienfuegos and their forces entered Havana around this time, and encountered no opposition on their journey to Cuba’s capital. Castro arrived in Havana on 8th January after a long victory march, and his first choice of president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó took office on 3rd January.