Castro’s Communist Guerrillas Were Ordinary Cubans With No Money or Training. How Did They Beat Batista’s War Machine?


The revolution didn’t get off to an excellent begin. A number of days after they landed their leaky cabin cruiser on Cuba’s remoted southern coast in December 1956, an exhausted expeditionary drive of 82 insurgent troopers led by a cigar-puffing ex-lawyer named Fidel Castro had been decimated by well-armed authorities troops. Among the rebels had fled; others had been captured and killed. Escaping from the chaos, Castro took cowl in a sugarcane area with two compatriots: Universo Sánchez, his bodyguard, and Faustino Pérez, a health care provider from Havana. “There was a second after I was commander-in-chief of myself and two others,” Castro later admitted.

In a bit of over two years, nonetheless, Castro and his small band of revolutionaries had mustered sufficient assist to overthrow the army dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. How did they do it? 

On the time of his abortive touchdown on Cuba’s swampy coast, the 30-year-old Castro was already a widely known determine in his homeland. After the Cuban authorities captured him and put him on trial following a failed assault on a army barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, it had jailed him—and 29 coconspirators—on the Isle of Pines. 

Fidel Castro and two of his fellow guerrillas pose with their rifles at their Sierra Maestra hideout in jap Cuba. (Getty Photographs)

Launched in 1955 in a prisoner amnesty, Castro made tracks to Mexico Metropolis the place, underneath the umbrella of the newly shaped twenty sixth July Motion (M-26-7), he recruited and skilled a guerrilla drive with the intention of returning to Cuba to start out a revolution. Regardless of 18 months of planning, the voyage from Mexico and subsequent disembarkation in Cuba was a catastrophe. Having survived a baptism of fireplace within the cane area, Castro and his two remaining companions crept furtively inland towards the security of the Sierra Maestra, the mountain vary that rises sharply from the southeast coast of Cuba. Bereft of provides and weak with starvation, they dodged military patrols, crawled by sewage pipes, and sucked on sugarcane for subsistence.

Lastly, per week later, they met up with Guillermo García, a farmer who was sympathetic to the insurgent trigger, and their luck began to alter. In mid-December 1956 on the small village of Cinco Palmas, Castro’s brother, Raúl—who unbeknownst to Fidel had additionally escaped from the skirmish within the cane area—emerged from the jungle with three males and 4 weapons. Castro was elated. Three days later, eight extra troopers, together with Che Guevara
and Camilo Cienfuegos, confirmed up, swelling the ranks of weary rebels to fifteen. “We are able to win this battle,” a reinvigorated Castro instructed his small band of ragged troopers. “We have now simply begun the struggle.”

Historical past likes to painting the early days of the Cuban revolution as a traditional David-and-Goliath battle between a bullying authorities and a small band of poorly outfitted rebels. It wasn’t fairly that straightforward. Regardless of his charismatic persona and dogged willpower to succeed no matter the price, Castro wasn’t Cuba’s solely revolutionary within the late Fifties. Others, appearing clandestinely in Cuba’s cities and cities, had been equally intent on bringing down Batista’s authoritarian authorities, which had openly seized energy in a 1952 coup. With out these rebels and the grassroots assist they sowed among the many Cuban individuals, the revolution won’t have been attainable.

Certainly one of them was Frank País, a younger trainer from Santiago de Cuba who had grow to be more and more politicized after Batista’s audacious energy seize. Forming a small opposition group in Santiago, he secretly merged with Castro’s twenty sixth July Motion in 1955. Quite than relocating to Mexico, nonetheless, País determined to stay in Santiago, the place he coordinated a well-organized underground resistance to the Batista regime. It was from right here that he deliberate an city rebellion in late 1956 to coincide with the touchdown of Castro’s expeditionary drive on the southern coast. Later, when Castro was safely put in within the mountains, País collaborated carefully with the rebels, forming an important hyperlink between the underground cells within the cities and the revolutionaries within the Sierra Maestra. Extra seen and weak than Castro within the scorching, sticky backstreets of Santiago, País was in the end tracked down and murdered by Batista’s police in July 1957. He was simply 22. However even in loss of life, his concepts lived on. He had already performed an important half in launching the Cuban revolution. 

Celia Sánchez was the daughter of a Cuban physician from Manzanillo, a small metropolis on the cusp of the Sierra Maestra. Impressed by Castro’s twenty sixth July Motion, she shaped her personal cell in Manzanillo and supplied an important conduit for the nascent insurgent military, sending provides and new recruits up into the mountains. By 1957 she had moved completely to the Sierra Maestra hideout, turning into the primary girl to affix the revolutionaries and in the end forming the Mairana Grajales Brigade, an all-female army platoon, in 1958. In time, she additionally turned Castro’s lover and closest confidant.

A cornerstone of Castro’s early success was his capability to make use of the information media to advance his trigger. In February 1957, with Celia Sánchez’s assist, Castro lured Herbert L. Matthews, a reporter for the New York Occasions, to fulfill him at a secret location within the Sierra Maestra for an unique interview. Ever because the skirmish within the cane area, the Cuban press had erroneously reported that Castro was lifeless. Incensed, Castro needed to loudly announce to the world that he was very a lot alive and able to struggle. 

Throughout his assembly with Matthews, Castro boldly exaggerated the scale of his military and organized for a similar handful of males to repeatedly march by to provide the journalist the impression that he was harboring a major army drive. The trick labored. Matthews was smitten. His story within the New York Occasions per week later started: “Fidel Castro, the insurgent chief of Cuba’s youth, is alive and preventing onerous and efficiently within the rugged, virtually impenetrable fastnesses of the Sierra Maestra.”

Fulgencio Batista
Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba with greater than $300 million he had amassed by graft and kickbacks. (Getty Photographs)

It was one of many greatest newspaper scoops of the twentieth century and the primary of a number of propaganda coups for Castro by which he was in a position to paint himself as a heroic outlaw to the international press.

If Castro was Robin Hood, Batista was shortly turning into an unsavory Prince John. As challenges to his more and more corrupt regime mounted, so did the ensuing repression. An tried assault on the presidential palace in Havana in March 1957, led by pupil chief José Antonio Echeverría, was ruthlessly suppressed. A naval mutiny within the metropolis of Cienfuegos in September was snuffed out with bombers and tanks.

Hid within the Sierra Maestra, Castro and his rising band of revolutionaries managed to keep away from that destiny. Rising sporadically from the mountains and utilizing guerrilla techniques, the rebels scored an early victory in January 1957 when, with simply 23 functioning weapons, they stormed a small military barracks on Cuba’s south coast. 4 months later, the rebels, now numbering 127, efficiently overran a army garrison within the coastal city of El Uvero. From the humid days of spring 1957 till the ultimate insurgent victory in 1959, Cuba remained in a simmering state of civil battle.

Many in Castro’s authentic expeditionary drive, having no army expertise, may barely fireplace a rifle. However pressured to be taught quick within the energetic “coaching fields” of the Sierra Maestra, a major proportion of those that survived the disastrous touchdown advanced into competent troopers and leaders. 

Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine physician, had joined the mission in Mexico Metropolis in 1955 as group medic. After forsaking his medical equipment for a field of ammunition through the ambush within the cane area, he shortly grew right into a fearless warrior. 

Guevara turned Castro’s right-hand man, an efficient and ruthless guerrilla fighter who expounded a inflexible socialist ideology and led by instance in battle. Courageous, disciplined, and zealously dedicated, he additionally had a darker facet. Exhibiting little mercy for captured informants, he typically executed them himself. However on the similar time, Guevara performed a key position in advancing the lot of the impoverished individuals within the mountains. Underneath his management, faculties had been established and bread ovens constructed. These and different such small-scale infrastructure tasks that took root in distant Cuban villages had been essential in sealing the continued assist of the agricultural working class. With out their backing as runners, guides, and volunteers, Castro would have struggled to realize a foothold within the mountains. 

Cienfuegos, a Cuban from Havana who had been one of many final recruits to affix Castro’s expeditionary drive in Mexico, proved to be Guevara’s equal as a soldier and chief. He was made a army commander in 1957, and the next summer season he shaped one among two columns that Castro despatched west to in the end occupy the remainder of Cuba. 

Guevara and Cienfuegos had been complemented on the high of the insurgent command chain by Raúl Castro and Juan Almeida, each veterans of the Moncada Barracks assault in 1953. They’d served their jail senten-ces alongside Fidel on the Isle of Pines. Raúl was younger (solely 25 in 1956), impulsive, and fewer charismatic than his hotheaded brother. Almeida was the rebels’ solely Afro–Cuban commander and an necessary image for a revolution that professed to be nondiscriminatory and egalitarian.

It was this tight core of “comandantes” who helped set up Castro’s first everlasting base within the Sierra Maestra in 1958, a well-camouflaged army camp nestled within the cloud forests ringing Cuba’s highest peaks that turned generally known as Comandancia La Plata. 

La Plata was rustic however refined and effectively hidden: Batista’s troops by no means discovered it. It was from right here, underneath the supervision of Che Guevara, that the rebels arrange their very own radio station, Radio Rebelde, as a substitute supply of stories and propaganda to Cuba’s state-controlled press.

As Batista’s repression unfold, so did his unpopularity. Refusing to take the rising army threats critically, the Cuban president selected to make use of his secret police to harass, torture, and publicly execute individuals suspected of aiding and abetting Castro’s band of barbudos (bearded ones). Not surprisingly, the ugliness prompted a backlash, not simply amongst Cubans—who progressively abandoned the federal government in favor of the twenty sixth July Motion—but additionally amongst Batista’s international allies. In March 1958, because the regime’s excesses grew ever extra discomforting, the U.S. authorities imposed an arms embargo on Cuba and recalled its ambassador. On the similar time, the U.S. Central Intelligence Company, hedging its bets on the result of the battle, secretly started channeling some $50,000 to the twenty sixth July Motion (an irony given its later plots to assassinate Castro).

Castro and his revolutionaries greet jubilant crowds as they arrive in the capital city of Havana on January 8, 1959
Castro and his revolutionaries greet jubilant crowds as they arrive within the capital metropolis of Havana on January 8, 1959. (Library of Congress)

By the summer season of 1958, Batista was starting to see Castro as a real drive and a perennial thorn in his facet. Understanding the necessity to smoke the rebels out of their mountain hideout for good, he dispatched Basic Eulogio Cantillo to the Sierra Maestra to supervise a significant army offensive that was dubbed Operation Verano, or “Plan FF” (Fin de Fidel).

Along with his recognition imploding and his international allies abandoning him, it was Batista’s final throw of the cube. However regardless of a minor victory on the Battle of Las Mercedes in August 1958, Operation Verano did not quash the quickly spreading rebel. A part of the issue was poor army intelligence. Lots of Cantillo’s choices had been based mostly on his assumption that the insurgent military was far larger than it truly was (it was maybe 3,000-strong by summer season 1958, however historic studies differ and Castro’s personal reported figures fluctuated wildly).

One sure benefit that Castro had was the motivation and morale of his followers. The rebels had been bonded by the spirit of the underdog. Not solely had been they preventing for his or her lives, however—within the days earlier than Castro forged his lot with the Soviet Union—they had been impressed by ideology and the dream of a greater future. Sympathetic journalists and photographers elevated them to the realm of romantic fantasy. Earlier than the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle and pleasant visits to Moscow soured the connection with america, the revolutionaries had been seen as virtuous cowboys cleansing up Cuba’s “wild east.”

Quite the opposite, Batista’s military of 12,000 paid conscripts was finishing up the soiled work of an more and more embarrassing dictator. Many troopers refused to fireplace their weapons. Some even secretly defected. 

With Operation Verano derailed and Batista’s tactical choices turning into more and more irrational, the top appeared to be in sight. Sensing a groundswell in standard assist throughout the nation, Castro despatched Guevara and Cienfuegos, his two senior commanders, on an extended march west to Las Villas Province in an try to chop the nation in two. It was the primary time in almost two years that the insurgent military had come down from the mountains to face the enemy on open floor. 

The tentative and largely clandestine advance took seven weeks, with the insurgent columns principally masking floor at evening in robust, unfavorable circumstances. However assist throughout the nation was rising. The inexperienced however tightknit group of revolutionaries discovered they picked up new recruits wherever they went. Their numbers shortly doubled.

By late December 1958, each columns had taken up strategic positions in central Cuba: Guevara outdoors town of Santa Clara and Cienfuegos 50 miles to the east close to the settlement of Yaguajay. Cienfuegos acted first, attacking a well-defended army garrison on the settlement’s outskirts. The federal government troopers managed to carry out for 11 days earlier than they ran out of ammunition on December 30. 

By this level, Guevara was within the midst of a battle for Cuba’s fourth largest metropolis, Santa Clara, along with his drive of 350 males, a lot of them barely out of their teenagers, outnumbered 10 to 1. Undaunted, the rebels fearlessly derailed an armored prepare, capturing its weapons and slicing communications. Drained, dejected, and torn by conflicting loyalties, town’s leaders surrendered. The motion that turned out to be the loss of life knell for the Batista regime had in the end been achieved with a few bulldozers and a hail of Molotov cocktails. 

Listening to of Santa Clara’s capitulation at a glitzy New Yr’s Eve celebration at Camp Columbia in Havana, Batista panicked and fled the nation. Boarding a airplane with 40 cohorts and $300 million in money, he headed to the Dominican Republic (the U.S. authorities refused to have him), the place he was greeted by President Rafael Trujillo, one other soon-to-be-deposed despot.

Performing swiftly to offset a army coup, Castro stationed himself on the western strategy to Santiago de Cuba and threatened to invade town if it refused to give up. Defending him on his jap flank, Raúl Castro stood guard over Guantánamo, whereas Guevara and Cienfuegos headed instantly for Havana. 

Going through a juggernaut of revolutionary fervor, Santiago’s army leaders surrendered and not using a shot being fired, and from the balcony of town corridor on New Yr’s Day in 1959, an ecstatic Fidel Castro introduced the “triumph of the revolution.” Throughout Cuba, jubilation was combined with confusion and trepidation. In Havana, casinos had been looted, parking meters had been smashed, and a Cuban farmer marched his pigs into the foyer of the five-star Lodge Riviera, then owned by Meyer Lansky, the richest and strongest American mafia boss. 

The battle gave the impression to be over. Castro started a triumphant, weeklong procession throughout the nation, Guevara took up residence in Havana’s Cabaña fort, and in a middle-of-the-night interview with Ed Sullivan, the U.S. tv host, in Matanzas, Cuba’s new Most Chief claimed in faltering English that he was a democrat. 

The euphoria, nonetheless, didn’t final lengthy. Inside simply six weeks, ruthless reprisals, together with present trials and executions, had been being meted out with recent zeal by Cuba’s fledgling revolutionary authorities. The cycle gave the impression to be beginning once more.

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