A Brief History of the Cuban Revolution

How a Group of Ragged Rebels Changed the World

March 5, 1960, in Havana, Cuba, memorial service march for victims of the La Coubre explosion.
Museo Che Guevara/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the final days of 1958, ragged rebels began the process of driving out forces loyal to Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. By New Year’s Day 1959, the nation was theirs, and Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and their companions rode triumphantly into Havana and history. The revolution began long before, however, and the eventual rebel triumph was the result of many years of hardship, guerrilla warfare, and propaganda battles.

Batista Seizes Power

The revolution began in 1952 when former Army Sergeant Fulgencio Batista seized power during a hotly contested election. Batista had been president from 1940 to 1944 and ran for president in 1952. When it became apparent that he would lose, he seized power before the elections, which were canceled. Many people in Cuba were disgusted by his power grab, preferring Cuba’s democracy, as flawed as it was. One such person was rising political star Fidel Castro, who would likely have won a seat in Congress had the 1952 elections taken place. Castro immediately began plotting Batista’s downfall.

Assault on Moncada

On the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro made his move. For a revolution to succeed, he needed weapons, and he selected the isolated Moncada barracks as his target. 138 men attacked the compound at dawn: it was hoped that the element of surprise would make up for the rebels’ lack of numbers and arms. The attack was a fiasco almost from the start, and the rebels were routed after a firefight that lasted a few hours. Many were captured. Nineteen federal soldiers were killed; the remaining ones took out their anger on captured rebels, and most of them were shot. Fidel and Raul Castro escaped but were captured later.

'History Will Absolve Me'

The Castros and surviving rebels were put on public trial. Fidel, a trained lawyer, turned the tables on the Batista dictatorship by making the trial about the power grab. Basically, his argument was that as a loyal Cuban, he had taken up arms against the dictatorship because it was his civic duty. He made long speeches and the government belatedly tried to shut him up by claiming he was too ill to attend his own trial. His most famous quote from the trial was, “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but had become a nationally recognized figure and a hero to many poor Cubans.

Mexico and the Granma

In May 1955 the Batista government, bending to international pressure to reform, released many political prisoners, including those who had taken part in the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raul Castro went to Mexico to regroup and plan the next step in the revolution. There they met up with many disaffected Cuban exiles who joined the new “26th of July Movement,” named after the date of the Moncada assault. Among the new recruits were charismatic Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November 1956, 82 men crowded onto the tiny yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba and revolution.

In the Highlands

Batista’s men had learned of the returning rebels and ambushed them. Fidel and Raul made it into the wooded central highlands with only a handful of survivors from Mexico; Cienfuegos and Guevara were among them. In the impenetrable highlands, the rebels regrouped, attracting new members, collecting weapons, and staging guerrilla attacks on military targets. Try as he might, Batista could not root them out. The leaders of the revolution permitted foreign journalists to visit and interviews with them were published around the world.

The Movement Gains Strength

As the July 26th movement gained power in the mountains, other rebel groups took up the fight as well. In the cities, rebel groups loosely allied with Castro carried out hit-and-run attacks and nearly succeeded in assassinating Batista. Batista decided on a bold move: he sent a large portion of his army into the highlands in the summer of 1958 to try and flush out Castro once and for all. The move backfired: the nimble rebels carried out guerrilla attacks on the soldiers, many of whom switched sides or deserted. By the end of 1958, Castro was ready to deliver the knockout punch.

Castro Tightens the Noose

In late 1958 Castro divided his forces, sending Cienfuegos and Guevara into the plains with small armies; Castro followed them with the remaining rebels. The rebels captured towns and villages along the way, where they were greeted as liberators. Cienfuegos captured the small garrison at Yaguajay on Dec. 30. Defying the odds, Guevara and 300 weary rebels defeated a much larger force at the city of Santa Clara on December 28–30, capturing valuable munitions in the process. Meanwhile, government officials were negotiating with Castro, trying to salvage the situation and halt the bloodshed.

Victory for the Revolution

Batista and his inner circle, seeing that Castro’s victory was inevitable, took what loot they could gather up and fled. Batista authorized some of his subordinates to deal with Castro and the rebels. The people of Cuba took to the streets, joyfully greeting the rebels. Cienfuegos and Guevara and their men entered Havana on January 2nd and disarmed the remaining military installations. Castro made his way into Havana slowly, pausing in every town, city, and village along the way to give speeches to the cheering crowds, finally entering Havana on January 9th.

Aftermath and Legacy

The Castro brothers quickly consolidated their power, sweeping away all remnants of the Batista regime and muscling out all of the rival rebel groups that had aided them in their rise to power. Raul Castro and Ché Guevara were put in charge of organizing squads to bring to trial and execute Batista era "war criminals" who had engaged in torture and murder under the old regime.

Although Castro first positioned himself as a nationalist, he soon gravitated toward communism and openly courted the leaders of the Soviet Union. Communist Cuba would be a thorn in the side of the United States for decades, triggering international incidents such as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States imposed a trade embargo in 1962 that led to years of hardship for the Cuban people.

Under Castro, Cuba has become a player on the international stage. The prime example is its intervention in Angola: thousands of Cuban troops were sent there in the 1970s to support a leftist movement. The Cuban revolution inspired revolutionaries throughout Latin America as idealistic young men and women took up arms to try and change hated governments for new ones. The results were mixed.

In Nicaragua, rebel Sandinistas eventually did overthrow the government and come to power. In the southern part of South America, the upswing in Marxist revolutionary groups such as Chile's MIR and Uruguay's Tupamaros led to right-wing military governments seizing power; Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is a prime example. Working together through Operation Condor, these repressive governments waged a war of terror on their own citizens. The Marxist rebellions were stamped out, but many innocent civilians died as well.

Cuba and the United States, meanwhile, maintained an antagonistic relationship well into the first decade of the 21st century. Waves of migrants fled the island nation over the years, transforming the ethnic makeup of Miami and South Florida; in 1980 alone, more than 125,000 Cubans fled in makeshift boats in what came to be known as the Mariel Boatlift.

After Fidel

In 2008, the aging Fidel Castro stepped down as president of Cuba, installing his brother Raul in power. During the next five years, the government gradually loosened its tight restrictions on foreign travel and also began allowing some private economic activity among its citizens. The U.S. also began to engage Cuba under the direction of President Barack Obama, and by 2015 announced that the long-standing embargo would gradually be loosened. 

The announcement resulted in a surge of travel from the U.S. to Cuba and more cultural exchanges between the two nations. However, with the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, the relationship between the two countries is in flux. Fidel Castro died on Nov. 25, 2016. Raúl Castro announced municipal elections for October 2017, and Cuba's National Assembly officially confirmed Miguel Díaz-Canel as Cuba’s new head of state,