In May 1958, Cuban General Fulgencio Batista’s army attacked Fidel Castro’s forces at their home base in the mountains. The battle lasted 10 weeks. But it achieved the opposite of what Batista intended. Instead of dispensing with Fidel, the confrontation produced massive desertions in the Cuban Army. And it gave the Castro rebels a military victory on July 21 that proved to be the turning point in the civil war.
Batista Flees Cuba
Fidel Castro unified several anti-Batista organizations under his leadership and moved toward Havana. The Batista government now tried to salvage the situation by sponsoring elections that November. As expected, Batista’s handpicked successor won in a landslide. But the obvious fraud was clear to all Cubans. Even the US government decided the time had come to disassociate itself from Batista.
In late 1958, a guerrilla column under Che Guevara derailed an armored train filled with Batista’s troops. His men took over the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba. Castro wrote to Che, saying: “The war is won, the enemy is collapsing with a resounding crash.”
Days later, Batista fled the country. And the Cuban people erupted in a joyous New Year’s celebration. Rebels occupied government offices and army posts while crowds looted the casinos and hotels that symbolized Batista’s corruption.
A week later, Castro arrived in the capital. Greeted as a hero, he told jubilant crowds, “This time, the Revolution is for Real.”
A Communist Threat
In the waning days of the Batista regime, the US government had tried to negotiate an arrangement to ensure that Castro didn’t come to power. The Eisenhower administration viewed Castro’s policies—as it had Arbenz’s in Guatemala—as emblematic of a worldwide communist threat.
Once Castro assumed power, he seemed to give credence to the fear, nationalizing American-owned businesses, including utility companies and large plantations.
Fidel maintained that his revolution was “not red” but “olive green”, the color of rebel uniforms. But the threat of a communist regime 90 miles from Florida sent Washington into panic. Che Guevara himself maintained that Fidel wasn’t a communist. But he felt “he would be become one within a short time”, believing the Cuban Revolution would lead to Marxism-Leninism.
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A Prophet of Revolutionary Change
It’s important to remember that revolutions transform not just state structures but also the people who inhabit them. Indeed, revolutions transform societies. As Jose Martí said before his death, “Revolution is not what we begin in the jungle but what we will develop in the republic.”
Castro beautifully inculcated the feeling. In the first six months after taking power, he held massive rallies attended by up to one million people. By communicating a message of redemption, Castro became a prophet of revolutionary change and hope for a better tomorrow.
Cuba’s new leader didn’t avoid religious ideas or imagery. Instead, he used Christian discourse to describe the new era. At this point, he presented his objectives in humanist rather than socialist terms. And in doing so, he created a sense of legitimacy for the revolution. Still, Cuban redemption necessitated retributive justice.
Show Trials of Batista Officials
Che Guevara doled out punishment with a vengeance that reflected his understanding of revolution as a war for justice. He orchestrated show trials of former Batista officials to fulfill the new Cuban government’s pledge to consign corruption, exploitation, and oppression to the dustbin of history. Hundreds were shot.
Executions of Batista’s officers charged with murder and torture were especially popular. When sentences seemed insufficiently harsh, protests ensued.
A Populist Revolution
In this regard, we can see the Cuban Revolution, at this point, as a populist one. It promoted revolutionary and retaliatory justice against those who’d exploited the common people. Jose Martí’s quest to strip away privilege and corruption that oppressed the people seemed within reach. Subsequently, an agrarian reform law promulgated in May 1959 restricted the size of island estates, leading to a dramatic redistribution of land to small farmers.
The Castro government also engaged in wealth redistribution. It lowered rents in urban areas and reduced the cost of utilities. Resources were reallocated from the military to social services that were offered for free or at minimal cost.
For the first time, many Cubans gained access to education and medical care. The government also invested in domestic industries, in the hopes of making Cuba free of economic imperialism and ending its dependence on the United States.
Partido Socialista Popular
A year after the revolution, prices had fallen, wages had risen, and the availability of affordable housing had skyrocketed. Now, Castro’s policies might have been inspired by populism and described as a humanistic approach to governing, but they aligned with principals espoused by Cuba’s communist party, the Partido Socialista Popular, otherwise known as the PSP.
Castro’s 26th of July Movement never previously included communist party members. They’d played no role in the revolution. But by the summer of 1959, the PSP was becoming more involved in the government. And by this time, although Fidel Castro didn’t yet identify as a communist, Che Guevara and Raul Castro both were committed to Marxism-Leninism. We can assume that it was through Che and Raul that members of Cuba’s communist party secured key positions in the new government, particularly in the military and the state media.
It’s also likely that the communists’ fortunes rose because they had something to offer. Their connection with labor unions were useful to the new government and the PSP had operational experience in Cuba. Still, its involvement increasingly irritated the more moderate members of the anti-Batista coalition, and communist influence concerned the US government.
Common Questions about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution
The Eisenhower administration viewed Fidel Castro’s policies—as it had Arbenz’s in Guatemala—as emblematic of a worldwide communist threat.
Che Guevara orchestrated show trials of former Batista officials to fulfill the new Cuban government’s pledge to consign corruption, exploitation, and oppression to the dustbin of history.
Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement never previously included communist party members. They’d played no role in the revolution.