By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
In 1952, the Cuban General, Fulgencio Batista, overthrew the existing government in a military coup d’état supported by the US government. His strong ties to the United States, and his obvious penchant for corruption, meant that popular resistance to the Batista regime began almost immediately. Fidel Castro, a person who in time would become Batista’s arch rival, was in his 20s when Batista seized power.
As the illegitimate son of a wealthy Spanish landowner and his maid, Castro could personally identify with the perils of social inequality. Castro had sometimes been described as a bully when he was a child. But he went on to study law and become the leader of a revolutionary student group in Cuba. Castro was attracted to the concept of social revolution that he’d discovered in the writings of Karl Marx.
And yet, Castro didn’t draw revolutionary inspiration from such theories of communism as Marx or Vladimir Lenin. Instead, he found a muse in the revolutionary Cuban poet Jose Martí. He’d spoken of the necessity to gain independence from Spain, and for the need to fundamentally transform Cuba. Martí had said, “Revolution, is not what we begin in the jungle but what we will develop in the republic.”
This would prove prescient for Castro.
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Theories of Revolution
By the late 1940s, Fidel Castro was eager to test his theories of revolution. And so he enlisted as a volunteer in an attempted overthrow of the Dominican Republic leader, Rafael Trujillo, who was an ally of the United States. The plot went awry but Castro remained obsessed with the idea of revolution. Believing that the Cuban army stood as the greatest impediment to Batista’s overthrow, Castro and scores of supporters attacked the army’s Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba, which is a coastal area in the southeastern part of the island.
Castro hoped the action would prompt a popular uprising. It didn’t. Instead, it was an abysmal failure. Many of Castro’s approximately 160 men were killed in fighting. Others were tortured and executed. But Castro was not among them.
Castro on Trial
Instead, Castro was put on trial. The former law student used the occasion to call for political and social rights for all Cubans and a robust policy of land redistribution. Castro didn’t ask for mercy. He showed defiance rather than remorse. His last words in the courtroom were: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me!”
Fidel and brother Raul were sentenced to 15 years in prison. Yet in another surprising twist of fate, they were freed from prison in 1955. While Batista was normally ruthless in disposing of his political enemies, he freed the pair as part of an amnesty campaign. The Castros fled to Mexico.
The 26th of July Movement
Meanwhile, US investment in Cuba grew to about $1 billion. With the economy skewed towards the sugar and tourism industries, some Cubans grew fabulously wealthy while others faced low wages, unemployment, and poverty. Extreme economic inequalities persisted. Castro realized that he needed to shift public opinion behind him, and formed a political body known as the ’26th of July Movement’.
It commemorated the Moncado attack, and pledged support for democracy, equality, anti-imperialism, and Cuban nationalism. Yet, Castro realized he also needed a revolutionary guerilla force.
In Mexico, Castro met a number of exiles from other Latin American countries, many of whom shared his commitment to revolutionary change. Among them was Che Guevara whom Castro invited to join his assault on the Batista regime. Guevara was the only non-Cuban enlisted.
The Cuban Revolutionaries
Thus, the Castro brothers, Che, and 80 other Cuban revolutionaries sailed for Cuba, in December of 1956, on a small yacht christened, the Granma. When Castro’s men landed, they came under heavy fire. Just over a dozen of Castro’s guerillas survived the onslaught. Almost miraculously, they made their way safely to the Sierra Maestra mountains and plotted their next move.
Meanwhile, Batista engaged in indiscriminate bombings, and forced relocations of Cuban peasants to squash the insurgency. This increased Castro’s popular support. And while Batista announced falsely that every member of Castro’s guerilla force was dead, the New York Times published a photograph of Castro very much alive.
Times reporter Herbert Matthews had made his way to the mountains for a face-to-face meeting. Matthews wrote, “Thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands.” Further, he observed that a “formidable movement of opposition to General Batista [was] developing” and the guerilla forces were poised to take advantage. Castro himself told the reporter, “They never know where we are, but we always know where they are.”
The portrait fueled Fidel’s popularity and possibilities.
Castro’s Underground Supporters
As the 26th of July Movement made plans, radical elements in the cities contested Batista’s government. In March 1957, student activists attacked the presidential palace, and nearly killed the president. But they were repelled. And the repression got worse. One focus for Batista were Castro’s underground supporters, who funneled supplies and weapons to the guerillas.
A lynchpin in this support network was Frank País, who led the movement’s urban wing. He was popular among the revolutionaries and may even have posed a threat to Castro’s leadership of the movement. But on July 30, 1957, País, was gunned down.
The murder provoked outrage. More that 60,000 sympathizers attended his funeral. Widespread strikes, rallies, and violence followed. But the supply network was now rudderless.
In Control of the Movement
The outrage and subsequent violence however, left Fidel in unquestioned control of the movement. With Che’s help in developing a strategy of guerrilla warfare, Castro’s men attacked large plantations, mines, and factories to disrupt the Cuban economy.
Feeling threatened, Batista countered by suspending freedom of speech, assembly, and the press. He also imprisoned hundreds of suspected dissidents. Cuba was now on the brink of civil war.
Common Questions about Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro, and the 26th of July Movement
Fidel Castro found a muse in the revolutionary Cuban poet Jose Martí.
Fidel Castro invited Che Guevara to join his assault on the Batista regime. Guevara was the only non-Cuban enlisted.
Frank País was popular among the revolutionaries and may even have posed a threat to Fidel Castro’s leadership of the movement.