Remembering the Cuban Revolution
Sixty-two years ago on July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro united a rebel force with systematized plans to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro, then a young lawyer and activist, had joined the highest ranks of the reformist Cuban People’s Party and was slated for candidacy as the party’s delegate in the House of Representatives. He had long accused Batista of corruption and tyranny, and petitioned for his expulsion.
When legal means proved futile, Castro led 160 guerrilla fighters in laying siege to the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba. He failed to ignite a popular uprising. Instead, the majority of the rebels were killed and Castro arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. When a 1955 political amnesty freed Castro and his brother Raúl, the two fled to Mexico where, among other Cuban exiles, they organized the 26th of July Movement — marking the beginning of the campaign that would finally oust Batista.
Less than a year later, Castro and his 82 men boarded the Granma yacht — built to accommodate a maximum of 25 people — in Mexico, landing on Cuba’s eastern coast on Dec. 2, 1956. All but 12 fighters were either killed or captured. Among those who evaded both and retreated into the Sierra Maestra mountains were Fidel and Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — who would later become one of the movement’s top commandantes — and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The guerrilla war pack amassed revolutionary volunteers as it pushed across the island, winning a series of victories over Batista’s armed forces. While Batista resorted to “brutal methods” to keep cities under control, Guevara and Raúl Castro executed supporters of the Batista regime in the mountains. A poorly armed extension of Castro’s movement, los escopeteros, or the gunsmiths, held captured terrain against Batista’s troops, served as informants to the guerrillas and protected their supply lines through the foothills and plains of el Oriente Province. With their help, the 26th of July movement was able to capture the Sierra Maestra in its entirety.
Though guerrilla fighters at the time remained fewer than 200, they continuously forced the Cuban army, comprised of over 35,000 soldiers, to retreat. By March 1958, U.S.-Cuban relations were changing drastically, contributing significantly to the unrelenting defeat of Batista’s forces. On March 14 of that year, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed an arms embargo on the island. American support was swiftly shifting away from Batista and, without being able to get American parts for repairs, the Cuban air force started to break down.
In one of his final attempts to regain control over the mountains, Batista organized Operation Verano, also known as la ofensiva — the offensive — sending 12,000 troops to combat Castro.
The operation led to historical battles, and on Aug. 21, 1958, Castro’s rebels launched their own offensive, splitting off into columns of fighters lead by Castro, Guevara and Cienfuegos. The columns won ground in Yaguajay and Santa Clara, and Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic on Jan. 1, 1959. The next day, a military commander ordered his troops not to fight in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The 26th of July movement had triumphed, and the rebel columns set out on a victory march to the island capital of Havana — where Fidel Castro finally arrived on Jan. 8, 1959.