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Batista, Castro and Che Guevara

Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro, to 1959 | Che Guevara to his Death in 1967

Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro, to 1959

Fulgencio Batista, a former army sergeant, had stepped down from power in Cuba in 1944 – a wealthy man. He returned to power in a coup d'etat in 1952, his regime quickly recognized by the United States. The United States had just signed an agreement with Cuba to install an Army, Navy and Air Force mission on the island and to provide military equipment under a mutual defense assistance act. Strategists in the U.S. were pleased with Batista, who was known to them as a reliable friend and a good anti-communist.

Batista took power with claims that he would honor all international agreements, guarantee lives and property and continue public work projects. The army was Batista's main support in Cuba, and also many Cuban businessmen gave Batista their support. Some from the middle and upper classes were opposed to Batista, while his major opposition was from students – also from the upper and middle classes.

Fulgencio Batista

President Batista,1952

Students were planning a massive demonstration and a symbolic burial of Cuba's 1940 Constitution. Four student leaders were arrested and taken to Batista. He told them they were free but that he had a great desire to talk with them. He told them he had taken power to avoid a civil war, that he needed the cooperation of all Cubans in order to reorganize the institutional life of the nation and that the Constitution had not died. One of the student leaders accused Batista of planning to ban all opposition, and Batista denied it, saying opposition was a necessity, especially a constructive opposition. Batista said he had once been an idealist youth like they, that he admired them and was not against their demonstration itself but against the "professional agitators" who will capitalize on it.

One of the agitators that Batista worried about was a law student, Fidel Castro. Castro was the son of a wealthy plantation owner who leased a large tract of land from the United Fruit company and sold his cane back to it. Fidel presented himself as an idealist. His hero, he said, was José Martí, Cuba's poet and fighter for independence of the 1890s. Fidel was an aggressive idealist – one of the gun-toting student activists involved in the sometimes violent conflicts between rival student political groups.

Castro wanted to be rid of Batista through armed uprising, and in 1953, at age 26, he organized a dawn assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. He had a hundred youths willing to follow him, poorly armed but aiming to capture weapons. The plan went awry. The insurgents were overwhelmed, and the defending soldiers went on a rampage, beating to death those who had surrendered, and they fanned out and killed anyone they believed had taken part in the attack. In Santiago de Cuba, it was a bad time to be bandaged after some minor mishap.

Moncada barracks

Moncado barracks with attack scars

Castro wanted to be rid of Batista through armed uprising, and in 1953, at age 26, he organized a dawn assault on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. He had a hundred youths willing to follow him, poorly armed but aiming to capture weapons. The plan went awry. The insurgents were overwhelmed, and the defending soldiers went on a rampage, beating to death those who had surrendered, and they fanned out and killed anyone they believed had taken part in the attack. In Santiago de Cuba, it was a bad time to be bandaged after some minor mishap.

The bishop in Santiago de Cuba, with others, met with Batista and stopped the killing and torture of those suspected of having taken part in the attack on the barracks. Only a few of Castro's hundred followers survived. Castro and his half-brother, Raúl, were captured a week after the attack, Castro found hiding in the hills, after widespread protest had made treatment of prisoners more circumspect. Cuba's middleclass, liberals and professional people had been outraged by the army's rampage – especially people in Santiago de Cuba. Castro was imprisoned and tried. He made a speech and won considerable publicity and was sentenced to 15 years in prison, Raúl to 13 years.

On November 1, 1954, Batista held elections, and, with only half of the electorate going to the polls, he won for himself the presidency. No one had run against him. He constructed a cabinet and was inaugurated in February 1955. The Constitution of 1940 was said to have been restored, and Batista told Cuba's Congress that he wanted amnesty and peace but that there could be no amnesty during terrorism. He was referring to occasional bombings by dissidents and the continuing political turmoil at the university.

But congressmen in the weeks ahead were enthusiastic for an amnesty. Prosperity was in the air, brought on in part by an agreement to sell reserve sugar to the Soviet Union. Vice President Richard Nixon came in February and gave Batista the Eisenhower administration's blessing. Batista was relaxed and confident. The period of uncertainty, he believed, was over. In mid-April, he granted amnesty, and among the prisoners released were Fidel and Raúl Castro, who went into exile in Mexico.

Economically, Cuba was thriving in the mid-fifties. Cuba's main export, sugar, was getting a good price in the United States. American investors were pouring money into the country and already owned half of Cuba's sugar industry. International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) bought Cuba's telephone service. U.S. citizens were investing in petroleum and mining. And U.S. goods of all kinds were marketed in Cuba. The United States and Cuba were enjoying a good relationship. Seventy-one percent of Cuba's imports were from the United States and 67 percent of its exports went to the United States.

Tourism was Cuba's second largest industry – before tourism had become common for the average U.S. citizen. People with money went to Cuba to enjoy its fine beaches – for their exclusive use – for the casino gambling, lewd shows and open prostitution of all kinds. A percentage of the money won from the tourist industries went straight to Batista, and Batista paid his go-betweens well.

The best casino was run by a U.S. gangster, Meyer Lansky, a casino that for a while had the only honest gaming. The Cuban government had Lansky instruct and transform Cuban-owned casinos into honest establishments similar to his.

Among Latin American nations, Cuba was third in per capita income. (Venezuela was first at around 38 percent of the average income of U.S. citizens, and Argentina was second at 24 percent.) The average Cuban made 19 percent of what the average U.S. citizen earned, and in Cuba a large gap existed between better off families and the common Cuban worker. Forty-three percent of the population was still rural. Sugar cane harvesting occurred only a couple months of the year, leaving cane cutters unemployed the rest of the year. Telephones were still for the middle and upper class in the major cities – one person in 38 having a telephone.

On paper everyone had the same rights. The races got along, the Cubans accustomed to intermixing. Batista was one of the mixed – part Chinese, Spanish-Indian and Afro-Cuban. But there was some elitism. Even Batista had been refused membership in Havana's elitist yacht club.

Castro Overthrows Batista

The attack on the army barracks in 1953 increased Fidel Castro's prominence among those opposed to Batista. Castro went to the United States and gathered $9,000 in contributions from Cubans there, before complaints from the Batista regime resulted in the U.S. taking away his visa, forcing him to leave. Castro also received donations from Puerto Ricans, Costa Ricans, Venezuelans and from Cuban businessmen who hoped that Castro would end corruption and mismanagement.

It was about corruption that Castro complained. People with Batista were enriching themselves, he said, while the pockets of his movement were empty. Castro also complained of "foreign trusts" stealing millions from Cuba and of money being wasted in "gambling, vice, and the black market."

Castro's movement was called the 26 of July Movement, named for the day he had attacked the Moncada barracks. For his movement, Castro bought arms, and he bought a boat named Granma for $20,000 from an American living in Mexico City. With Castro were 130 others, but only 81 could fit on the boat, and, on November 25, 1956, the 81 chugged down the Tuxpan River (halfway between Tampico and Veracruz) and into the Gulf of Mexico, hoping they were not noticed by Batista's agents. After a miserable seven days at sea they ran aground in a swamp at the foot of the Sierra Maestras in eastern Cuba. An airplane had spotted them, and Batista's army was waiting for them. A government report claimed that forty of the invading rebels had been killed, including Castro. Only a few of the rebels made it into the Sierra Maestras – among them Fidel, his brother Raul and a gun toting, asthmatic Argentinean physician, Che Guevara.

These few survived with the help of people who lived in the mountains, while outside the Sierra Maestras few knew of the rebels' existence. In early 1957, Herbert Mathews of the New York Times sneaked by army checkpoints, interviewed Castro and returned to New York. Publication of his interview was a sensation and was followed by Cuba's minister of defense calling the story a fantasy. The New York Times published a photo of Mathews and Castro, making the Batista regime look foolish, and some who disliked Batista drew hope. Soon a cell of support among Cubans working at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, in Cuba, was stealing arms for the rebels in the hills.

Castro had competition in his fight against Batista. On March 13, 1957, a student-based urban group stormed Batista's palace, seized a radio station and tried to assassinate Batista. After fierce fighting they were crushed. Castro denounced the assault. The real fight, he said, was in the mountains. Batista denounced the communists for having participated in the attack, although the communists were not involved.

Through 1957, Cuba's economy boomed, and investments continued to pour into the country, while few tourists came. Castro's guerrilla campaign won an occasional small battle here and there around the Sierra Maestras, his purpose not to kill but to capture more weapons. And his force grew slightly, to nearly a hundred.

In 1958, Batista launched a major military offensive against Castro, sending a force of some 10,000 against him. But his troops performed poorly in the mountains. And, fortunately for Castro, it was not a point in history in which helicopter gunships and their trained crews would be available to Batista's forces.

Batista's forces were more exposed than the rebels who waited for them, striking when they wanted to and then withdrawing. Communications between the various army units was poor, while Castro's communications were superb. Batista's offensive failed. Morale among his troops fell. Castro acquired more weapons, including a tank, and more people saw the coming of a Castro victory and a Batista defeat.

By December, a force under Che Guevara was expanding into central Cuba, and soldiers were deserting Batista's army in droves. Castro's success was creating support for revolution in the cities – to be described as a little engine (the guerrillas) driving the big engine (the masses). Batista decided that the game was up. On New Year's Eve he and a group he had invited to his party boarded three planes. Batista's plane flew to the Dominican Republic – ruled then by the brutal and dictatorial Trujillo family. The other two planes went to the United States, avoiding Miami, where many Cubans were hostile toward Batistianos.

On New Year's Day, 1959, people in Cuba were joyed by Batista's departure. In the days that followed, people cheered the rebels riding in trucks coming from the hills to proclaim the success of the revolution. Castro came and walked among the cheering crowds, unafraid of assassination and relishing the opportunity to appear as a man of the people.


Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.