The Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution was an armed revolt that led to the overthrow of the U.S. backed Dictator Fulgencio Batista of Cuba on the 1st January 1959. Although it was not reported at the time, there were many mercenaries involved in the lead up, mostly from Latin America.

Most people know the name Fidel Castro, as the person who over threw Fulgencio Batista and took control of Cuba. However many will not know that he was only one of several prominent figures who were all equally qualified to take over the leadership to run the country. These include people such as Che Guevara, Juan Almeida, and even an American mercenary named William Morgan. Castro had a very good legal mind and considered himself a good fighter, but he was neither a military strategist nor the architect of the whole campaign that eventually took over the country. However people like Guevara, Almeida and Morgan were just as well placed to assume this role.

However Castro was a good speaker and master at making the best of any situation that presented itself. Once the county was in the hands of the guerrillas it was Castro’s charisma that took over, wooing the followers and the fighters of the revolution into choosing and following him as their leader. Something some of them later regretted, at their own cost.

Once established as the leader, Castro secretly set about getting rid of any potential rivals and opponents, both real and imagined. A few saw the writing on the wall and left the country of their own accord, sometimes to fight in other wars and revolutions.

After surviving the exciting and ruthless lifestyle of mercenary living for most of his life, all William Morgan wanted to do was to live in the country and enjoy its peace and quiet.  In 1960 Castro rewarded him for his services by setting him up with a small farm in the hills where Morgan bred frogs. This was a place where he had hoped to live out the remainder of his days enjoying a peaceful, country way of life, leaving Fidel to run the country. For William Morgan, this idyllic life would not last for long.

Both of Castro’s parents were illiterate, but they were determined that their children should receive a good education, and so Fidel was sent to a Jesuit boarding school. Although he disliked the strict discipline of the school, Fidel soon showed that he was extremely intelligent. However, except for history, he preferred sports to academic subjects. Fidel was good at running, soccer and baseball. He was a rebellious boy and at the age of thirteen helped to organise a strike of sugar workers on his father's plantation. In 1944 he was awarded a prize as Cuba's best all-round school athlete.

Later while studying at Havana University he began his political career and became a recognised figure in Cuban politics. His political career continued with nationalist critiques of Fulgencio Batista, and also of the United States, which had political and corporate influence in Cuba. He gained a faithful but limited following that drew the attention of the authorities.

After he had finished his education he became a lawyer in Havana. As he tended to take the cases of poor people who could not afford to pay him, Castro was constantly short of money. His experiences as a lawyer made him extremely critical of the great inequalities in wealth that existed in Cuba. Like many other Cubans, Castro resented the wealth and power of the American businessmen who appeared to control the country.

In 1947 he joined the Cuban People's Party. He was attracted to this new party's campaign against corruption, injustice, poverty, unemployment, and low wages. The Cuban People's Party accused government ministers of taking bribes, and of running the country for the benefit of the large United States corporations that had factories and offices in Cuba. Later he also became a member of the Ortodoxo Party, a social-democrat party that strongly criticized the government of Fulgencio Batista.

In 1952 Fidel became a candidate for Congress in the Cuban People's Party. He was a superb public speaker and soon built up a strong following amongst the young members of the party. The Cuban People's Party was expected to win the election but during the campaign General Fulgencio Batista, with the support of the armed forces, took control of the country.

The Cuban People's Party came to the conclusion that revolution was the only way they would gain power. On the 26th of July 1953, Castro, along with an armed group of 123 men and women, attacked the Moncada Army Barracks, the strongest garrison at that time. This plan to overthrow Batista ended in a total disaster with several of the group killed during the attack, and most of the others captured.  

Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl Castro Ruz, were among those captured uninjured. They were charged with treason. Castro was lucky that the lieutenant who arrested him ignored orders to have him executed on the spot, and instead delivered him to the nearest civilian prison.

The exact number of rebels who were killed is debatable, Castro in his autobiography claims that only five were killed during the actual fighting and that an additional fifty-six were killed later by the Batista regime. These figures vary depending on who you talk to, or what book you read.

One of those among the confirmed dead was Abel Santamaría, who was second-in-command of the assault on the Moncada Barracks. Abel was captured, imprisoned, tortured, and executed all on the same day of the attack.

Castro would come close to death in prison. A certain Captain Pelletier was instructed to put poison in Castro's food. The man refused and instead revealed his orders to the Cuban people. Pelletier was Court-Marshalled, but concerned about world opinion Batista decided not to have Castro killed.

In a highly political trial, Fidel Castro spoke for nearly four hours in his defence, ending with the words; "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me." Fidel Castro was sentenced to 15 years in the Presidio Modelo prison, located on Isla de Pinos. His brother Raúl was sentenced to 13 years.  

In 1955, while under broad political pressure, the Batista regime freed all political prisoners in Cuba, including the Moncada Barracks attackers. Initially reluctant, Batista was persuaded to include the Castro brothers in this release after pressure from Fidel's Jesuit childhood teachers.

The Castro brothers then joined other exiles in Mexico to prepare a revolution to overthrow Batista. The revolutionaries soon gained support among the local peasants. They received training from Alberto Bayo, a leader of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. This was also where Fidel first met up with Ernesto "Che" Guevara, as the Argentine national had also joined the movement. Undoubtedly a bond formed between the two men as they trained together. 

After building up a stock of guns and ammunition, Castro, Che Guevara, Juan Almeida, and eighty other rebels arrived back in East Cuba aboard the ‘Granma’, in December 1956. This group became known as the July 26 Movement (the date that Castro had attacked the Moncada barracks). Their plan was to set up their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains. On the way to the mountains they were attacked by government troops. By the time they reached the Sierra Maestra there were only sixteen men left with twelve weapons between them. For the next few months Castro's guerrilla army raided isolated army garrisons and were gradually able to build-up their stock of weapons.

When the guerrillas took control of territory, they redistributed the land amongst the peasants. In return, the peasants helped the guerrillas against Batista's soldiers. In some cases the peasants also joined Castro's army, as did students from the cities and occasionally, Catholic priests. There were also many Latin American mercenaries arriving to join in the revolution. The revolution was growing fast and in 1959 they made their move against the Batista government. This time they were victorious and gained control.

The brutal Batista government was overthrown, and replaced by the brutal Castro government. Many Cubans left when it became clear that the revolution was a Marxist one.  Economic antagonism from the United States caused Castro to nationalise all American property. It also became the first and only Communist government in the western world.

The United States Government tried various schemes to assassinate Fidel Castro and continues to economically isolate Cuba.  During 1961 the CIA under direct orders from then President John F. Kennedy even tried to invade Cuba, resulting in the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion to try and remove Fidel Castro from power. However, the Cubans successfully fought off the invasion. Mainly because the Americans who had promised to help, believed the invasion would fail, and therefore abandoned it. This decision led to the invasion force being captured or killed.

This was also a time when Castro became paranoid with the idea that some of his former friends were looking to get rid of him and were seeking to replace him. It’s widely believed that when Che Guevara left Cuba to start another revolution in South America, it was the best move he had ever made. Because later he would have been on Castro’s death list, along with all his other one time comrades. It’s an old well tested idea that to protect your position the best thing to do is eliminate your opposition.

It was around this time that William Morgan found himself arrested and accused of plotting against the Castro regime. This was completely unfounded. However, it was also a well known fact that at that time William was an anti-communist and this was a time when Cuba was well on its way to becoming communist state. Castro had William put in jail and after a time both Fidel and Raul went to visit him. The visit was short and brief as Fidel ordered Morgan to be executed.

There are two versions of what happened next. One is that William was lined up in front of a single marksman, where he refused a blind fold. He was then ordered to kneel in front of him, to which he utterly refused shouting loudly that he kneels to no man. The marksman is then reported to have fired a single shot into his left kneecap, followed very quickly by another into his right kneecap. As William dropped to his knees the gunman is reported to have said, see we can make you kneel. He was then hit in the chest just in front of his shoulder blade followed by another shot into the chest on the other side of his chest. Finally a Captain is reported to have taken pity on him and emptied a magazine from a Tommy gun into his chest. The second version is that William once again refused a blind fold. Then two members of the firing squad shot at his kneecaps. Both missed only leaving flesh wounds. The remainder of the firing squad then opened fired riddling his body with bullets while still standing.

Castro became closely aligned with the Soviet Union. The Soviets bought large amounts of sugar from Cuba, and supplied Cuba with both economic and military assistance.  This money fuelled many of Castro's social programs, such as his war on illiteracy and free universal health care. Unfortunately, aligning Cuba with the USSR only led to more friction between Cuba and the United States.

Castro has also successfully assisted foreign revolutions in Angola and Ethiopia.  He was elected the head of the Nonaligned Nations Movement and has been a strong critic of US imperialism.  The destruction of the Soviet Union has left Cuba in a poor economic state and Castro less of an international figure, though he remains President of Cuba. “History will absolve me,” was rewritten as a blueprint for Castro's communist regime, and American-owned businesses in Cuba were nationalized. Castro kept many of his promises; Cubans have free health care, education, and a low level of homelessness, but the society has suffered both from the US embargo and the totalitarian regime. Castro's (and thus Cuba's) relations with the US have always been frigid, but became even colder after the US-backed "Bay of Pigs" attempted coup in 1962. To this day, Cubans who travel to America without permission risk forced repatriation, and Americans who travel to Cuba without official US approval risk hefty fines.

In 1965 Castro became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and led the transformation of Cuba into a one party socialist republic. In 1976 he became President of the Council of State as well as of the Council of Ministers. He also held the supreme military rank of Comandante en Jefe ("Commander in Chief") of the Cuban armed forces. Castro has always been portrayed as a dictator in spite of his disapproval of dictatorships. Although he had called himself Prime Minister from 1959-1976, and then called himself President, the change was purely superficial and he has always been completely autocratic.

© Copyright Terrance Aspinall. 2009