One of the most powerful reasons to study history is personal: to discover and trace the forces that have shaped our lives and, sometimes quite literally, made us who we are. This approach to history as self-discovery describes my view of the Cuban Revolution, and for me, its largest impact on the world isn’t the ouster of Fulgencio Batista or the rise of communism in Cuba, but how it precipitated my family’s arrival in the United States.
Cuba achieved its independence from Spain, its colonial overlord for over four centuries, in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. The infant nation spent the next 30 years in a state of political and economic subservience to the United States while the fledgling republic struggled to establish order on an island rife with civil unrest and economic depression.
The straw that broke the government’s back came in the 1930s when a combined nationwide strike and military revolt forced the president to resign. In just a month, his successor would be driven from power by a seminal figure in Cuban history: Fulgencio Batista.
Born to humble beginnings, Batista led a coup known as the Sergeants’ Revolt in September 1933 that overthrew the legitimate Cuban government, and in the power vacuum that followed, he effectively ruled through a series of puppets. He was elected president himself in 1940, and when he ran again in 1952 following an eight-year hiatus from office, he seized power through a coup and cancelled the elections.
Batista’s chief priority was to enrich his own power and wealth. Although the unemployment rate regularly hovered between 15% to 20% and the average Cuban family survived on a weekly income of only $6.00, Batista lined his own pockets through lucrative partnerships with the American mafia to control Havana’s thriving casinos, brothels, and drug trade. And, in exchange for selling out entire industries, natural resources, and other assets to American interests, Batista’s regime enjoyed the unflinching support of its northern neighbor.
Like all dictators, when his regime was challenged or even questioned, Batista responded with force. He suspended constitutional rights, imposed media censorship, and deployed a ruthless secret police force to ferret out opposition and neutralize it: Torture was a commonly used as a tool to extract information or confessions, and government forces routinely conducted public executions and left the bodies of the slain in the street in a savage warning to any who might consider resistance. As many as 20,000 Cubans, including youths and students, died during Batista’s reign of terror.
On July 26, 1953—barely a year after the second coup that brought Batista to power—a young lawyer who tried to run for office in the previous year’s elections led a force of over 100 men in an attack on Moncada Barracks, a Cuban Army installation, in the city of Santiago. The attack failed, and dozens of the would-be rebels were captured or killed.
The young lawyer who led the assault, Fidel Castro, was himself captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison, but he was released in 1955 when Batista’s government acquiesced to pressure and freed all political prisoners. Castro originally petitioned the courts to overthrow Batista, and when the law failed to depose the tyrant, he decided to launch a revolutionary uprising to force the strongman from power. Along with his brother, Raúl, Castro went to Mexico to organize the revolution. In Mexico, he met Ernesto Guevara—better known as Che—who would become one of his key allies.
Castro’s revolutionaries adopted the name “26th of July Movement” in honor of their attack on Moncada Barracks and set sail for Cuba in a much-romanticized voyage aboard the tiny yacht, Granma. They made landfall in December 1956 in Southern Cuba and headed to the Sierra Maestra mountains, but in fewer than three days, Batista’s forces attacked the revolutionaries and killed at least 60 men, or about 75% of Castro’s band. The survivors struggled to regroup.
Eventually, with the help of civilian sympathizers and armed partisans, Castro rallied and slowly took control of the Sierra Maestra. He waged a guerrilla war against the Batista regime, striking at small targets far from the heavily-defended cities and often forcing government forces to retreat. The revolutionaries also made effective use of propaganda via broadcasts on their own radio station, Radio Rebelde. Eventually, Castro’s forces routed a campaign by Batista’s military to drive them from the mountains and responded with a successfully counteroffensive.
Although the revolutionaries claimed the high ground against Batista, their tactics were often just as brutal. Castro’s forces carried out hundreds of public, extrajudicial executions of enemies and suspected opposition, including civilians, by firing squad; many of these executions were led by his chief enforcer, Che Guevara, and his brother, Raúl. Prisoners of war were frequently executed as well.
In December 1958, with less than a week left before the dawn of the new year, Che Guevara began his assault on the city of Santa Clara supported by rebel groups who had not been affiliated with Castro’s revolution. The ensuing battle, which featured myriad skirmishes and the capture of an armored train, ended in victory for the revolutionaries, who seized Santa Clara on December 31.
Before dawn on New Years Day, 1959, Batista—recognizing that his regime was in its death throes—fled the country and flew to the Dominican Republic. His departure sparked euphoric celebrations across Havana: A symphony of car horns and shouts crescendoed throughout the city as Cubans poured into the streets, waving flags of the 26th of July Movement and rejoicing that the dictatorship they lived under for seven years had finally fallen.
Che’s forces rolled into Havana, met by exultant crowds, on January 2; Castro would arrive several days later on January 8. The revolutionaries’ entry into the capital signalled the end of the old regime and, although few may have realized at the time, the beginning of a new regime that would be every inch as brutal and repressive as its predecessor.