The First Cuban Revolution

Fidel Castro outlines his “26th of July Movement” before the Rotary Club of Havana.

Fidel Castro outlines his July 26th Movement before the Rotary Club of Havana. Photo courtesy of The Rotarian, 1959.

Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”-Fidel Castro, from his four-hour trial defense speech following capture at the start of the Cuban Revolution.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, and it is an apt time to reflect on this pivotal moment in history. Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, was appalled by the misery of the Cuban people under the rule of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro petitioned the Cuban courts to oust Batista, accusing him of corruption and tyranny. When legal means proved unsuccessful, Castro decided to take up arms and overthrow the government. Fidel and Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara led the July 26th Movement as a vanguard organization intent on toppling the Batista regime. The Movement’s name originated from a failed attack on an army facility, named the Moncada Barracks, in the city of Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. Many of the revolutionaries were captured or killed in the battle. Shortly after the July 26th siege, Fidel Castro and his brother Raul were seized by Batista’s forces and put on a highly politicized trial. The men were convicted and sentenced to fifteen and thirteen years in prison, respectively. In 1955, growing political pressure forced the Batista government to free all political prisoners in Cuba. The Castro brothers joined other exiles in Mexico, regrouping and receiving training from Alberto Bayo, a leader of Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. In that same year, Fidel met Guevara, who agreed to join the July 26th Movement as one of its leaders.

On December 2, 1956, the revolutionaries arrived in Cuba. While traversing the Sierra Maestra mountains, they were attacked by Batista’s army and suffered devastating casualties. On March 13, 1957, the Revolutionary Directorate, a rival, anti-Communist group made up of mostly students, stormed Batista’s Havana palace hoping to kill him. The effort failed and most of the students were killed. The tide began to turn when Batista lost crucial U.S. military funding. Also, increased economic hardship throughout the country led former Batista loyalists to the revolutionary effort. With growing ranks, the July 26th Movement was able to win small, but decisive battles in the mountains. On August 21, 1958, after failed cease-fire negotiations, the Movement began its offensive and took over Havana and other important cities. The Movement’s advances caused Batista to flee to the Dominican Republic on January 1, 1959. Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba on February 16, 1959.

Flag of the July 26th Movement

Flag of the July 26th Movement

The Movement was recommissioned as the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965. In its first decade, the Castro government instituted various progressive social reforms. Laws were introduced to provide equality for Black Cubans and greater rights for women. Two other important policies of the new government were campaigns against illiteracy and widespread land reform. The revolutionary government nationalized lands held by foreign entities and Cuba’s upper classes, including large tracts of land owned by Castro’s family. By the end of the 1960s, all Cuban children were receiving some level of education, compared with less than half before 1959, unemployment and corruption were reduced and advancements were made in hygiene and sanitation.

Despite these reforms and the many successes of the revolution, the Castro-led government has also pursued repressive policies. In late September 1960, Castro created the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a surveillance organization designed to keep track of purportedly counter-revolutionary activity. This program detailed the spending habits of Cuban citizens, as well as, their contacts with foreigners, education, work history and other activities deemed “suspicious.” Such policies have continued since Raul Castro assumed power in 2011, and often those calling for revolution against the current government are imprisoned. In 2003, during a period known as the Black Spring, the government arrested and imprisoned a number of civil rights activists. Recent events suggest the international community is weakening its anti-Cuba stance, with the Organization of American States voting to re-admit Cuba in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama partially lifting the ban on Cuban-American travel and remittances and Cuba’s continued membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, the legacy of the Cuban revolution remains contested, and activists, government officials and international civil society groups are all vying to direct Cuba’s future.

by Sade Stephenson

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