Remembering the Cuban Revolution of 1959


Raúl (left) and Fidel Castro in the Sierra
It was in
the twentieth century that humanity took the first steps to free itself of
class rule, ending thousands of years of oppression and exploitation. The
October Revolution in Russia in 1917 was followed by the Chinese revolution in
1949. Both were big countries, mighty empires. The defeat of their rulers by
their own people caused the whole world to sit up. The world capitalist order
was panic stricken. It launched a vicious war of attrition against the
socialist camp and tried to crush communism elsewhere in the world.
But only
a decade after the Chinese revolution, in 1959, a tiny island in the Caribbean
Sea saw another people’s upsurge, which swept aside a hated military dictatorship.
The island was Cuba, located just 90 miles from the United States. Such was the
anger and panic among the ruling capitalist classes that they swore to destroy
this new revolution before it could take roots. They feared that it would serve
as a beacon to the whole of Latin America, which was treated as its backyard by
US imperialism.

Cuba had
been a colony for over four hundred years, initially of the Spanish, then of
the British and finally, since the beginning of the twentieth century, of the
United States. This meant that the vast majority of its people worked like
slaves in plantations and mines, filling the coffers of barons in Europe and
US. There were several attempts to get rid of colonial rulers, or their puppet
rulers in Cuba, but they were either failures or short lived.
The final
stage can be said to begin in 1952 when General Batista seized power as
installed himself as the president in Havana. His ruthless rule, his open
kowtowing with US corporations, and his greed in looting the country’s wealth
led to increasing public anger against him. In 1953, a group of about 180 men
attempted to storm the army garrison at Moncada, but they were badly defeated.
The leader of this attack was a fiery young man called Fidel Castro. He and his
comrades were imprisoned. In his trial, Fidel gave a famous speech that laid
bare the injustice of Batista’s rule. He ended by saying, “Condemn me, it does
not matter. History will absolve me.”
Fidel and
his comrades were released from prison in 1955 due to huge public pressure on
Batista. They went into exile in Mexico where another great Argentinian
revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara joined them. Secretly, they trained in the
jungles for taking on the well-equipped army of Gen. Batista. They called
themselves the 26th July Movement, after the date of the failed
attack on the Moncada garrison. Thus began the final preparations for throwing
out the dictator in Havana and freeing the people from neo-colonial yoke.
meanwhile continued to bleed under the jackboots of the dictatorship and the
exploitation of US corporations. Over three quarters of all arable land was
owned by US corporations. By the late 1950’s, American capital controlled 90%
of Cuba’s mines (mainly nickel and cobalt), 80% of its public utilities, 50% of
its railways, 40% of its sugar production and 25% of its bank deposits. They
paid a pittance to the labourers, and extracted enormous profits from their
labour. At the end of the fifties, US corporations were earning about $77
million in profit from Cuba – that would be about $560 million in today’s
value! Although there were several political groups actively fighting against
the dictatorship, there was no uniting thread, and, most importantly, the vast
mass of peasants in far flung villages were largely untouched by these
So, this
was the condition when, on 25 November 1956, 82 men set sail from the Mexican
coast on an old yacht called ‘Granma’. Their destination was Cuba and their
objective was to initiate an uprising to throw out the dictatorship. This band
of men included Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camillo Cienfuegos.
They landed on Cuban coast a week later, little knowing that a disaster awaited
them. Just three days after landing they were attacked by the army – only 15
men survived. They had only 7 rifles between them. Dispirited, tired and
hungry, they took to the SieraMaestra, a mountain range in the south of Cuba.
As Che said later, “we were able to continue on, owing solely to the enormous
confidence of Fidel Castro at those decisive moments, to his firmness as a
revolutionary leader and his unbreakable faith in the people”. 
In the
next two years – 761 days, to be precise – these men mobilized an army of about
9000 dedicated fighters, carried out a relentless guerilla war against an army
that boasted of 80,000 conscripts, armed with the latest weapons sent by Uncle
Sam across the sea, and ultimately liberated the whole country.
It was a
time of intense difficulties, as the guerrillas moved from village to village
in the mountains, hiding and attacking the army units that came after them in
ever increasing numbers. There were heroic battles in various places and all of
them had only one result – the rebels defeated the army despite being
outnumbered 10 to one. They seized the arms and vehicles of the troops and used
them in the next battle.
In 1958,
Batista received $1 million in military aid from the U.S. All of Batista’s
arms, planes, tanks, ships, and military supplies came from the U.S., and a
joint mission of the U.S. armed forces trained his army.
media often portrays this war in romantic terms, as if these 15 young men
single-handedly brought down a government. There could be nothing further from
truth. The role of the original band of men, who, alongwith some men and women
who later joined them, cannot be underestimated. They were the core leadership,
they provided the ideological framework, the military tactics, and the
indomitable will to complete the task. But could it have been achieved just by them
alone? Let us see what Che has to say about this.
peasant was the invisible collaborator who did everything that the rebel
combatant could not. He supplied us with information, kept watch on the enemy,
discovered its weak points, rapidly brought urgent messages, spied on the very
ranks of Batista’s army”, said Che, just a few weeks after the revolution
succeeded. The key to the success was the immense support that the Cuban
peasantry extended to the rebel army. And this came about not by a miracle but
because the rebels decided to keep the agrarian question in the forefront. They
seized land from the agents of the corporations and landlords, and distributed
it amongst the peasants. They seized 10,000 heads of cattle from large dairies
and distributed them among peasants. They set up schools where children of
villagers started learning. They set up small workshops for making or repairing
farm implements – and weapons when the need arose.
As Che
later described it, a massive shift took place in the peasantry – “For the
first time, the guajiros [peasants] of the Sierra, in this miserably poor
region, had their well-being addressed. For the first time, peasant children
drank milk and ate beef. And for the first time too, they received the benefits
of education, because the revolution brought schools along with it. In this way
the peasants in their entirety came over to our side”.
factor that helped the partisan war was the urban resistance. Although in many
places it was led by other political groups but as time passed it coalesced.
The assassination of Frank Pai’s, a leader in Santiago-de-Cuba, by Batista’s
thugs was followed by a huge 60,000 strong demonstration and strike. In 1958, a
general strike was called which did not succeed. But it led to a consolidation
of the urban resistance with the guerrilla war.
In other
words, the revolution succeeded because it became the revolution of all
oppressed people of Cuba. And when this massive strength was unleashed, the US
backed army was blown away.
It would
not be correct to think that the Cuban revolution ended with the victorious
rebels entering Havana on 1 January 1959. The Revolution still continues. In
the past fifty seven years, Cuba’s people have built a more just and free
society, defended themselves against economic and military attacks by
imperialism, helped struggling people all over the world and thus held out hope
for everyone. This building of a new society is the revolution. 
from Speech given by Fidel Castro Ruz
, first secretary of the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and president of the Councils of State
and Ministers, at the main ceremony for the 40th anniversary of the triumph of
the Revolution, in Santiago de Cuba, on January 1, 1999.
People of
Santiago: Compatriots in all of Cuba:
I am
trying to recall that night of January 1, 1959; I am reliving and perceiving
impressions and details as if everything were occurring at this very moment. It
seems unreal that destiny has given us the rare privilege of once more speaking
to the people of Santiago de Cuba from this very same place, 40 years later.
dawn on that day, with the arrival of the news that the dictator and the main
figures of his opprobrious regime had fled in the face of the irrepressible
advance of our forces, for a few seconds I felt a strange sensation of
emptiness. How was that incredible victory possible in just over 24 months,
starting from that moment on December 18, 1956, when – after the extremely
severe setback which virtually annihilated our detachment – we managed to
gather together seven rifles to resume the battle against a combination of
military forces which totaled 800,000 armed men, thousands of trained officers,
high morale, attractive privileges, a totally unquestioned myth of
invincibility, infallible advising and guaranteed supplies from the United
States? Just ideas which a valiant people claimed as their own worked a
military and political victory. Subsequent vain and ridiculous attempts to
salvage what remained of that exploiting and oppressive system were swept away
by the Rebel Army, the workers and the rest of the people in 24 hours.
fleeting sadness at the moment of victory was nostalgia for the experiences we
had lived through, the vivid memory of the comrades who fell throughout the
struggle, a full awareness that those exceptionally difficult and adverse years
obliged us to be better than we were, and to transform them into the most fruitful
and creative ones of our lives. We had to abandon our mountains, our rural
life, our habits of absolute and obligatory austerity, our tense life of
constant vigilance in the face of an enemy that could appear by land or air at
any moment of the 761 days of the war; a healthy, hard, pure life and one of
great sacrifices and shared dangers, in which men become brothers and their
best virtues flourish, together with the infinite capacity for commitment,
selflessness and altruism that all humans carry within them.

enormous difference in equipment and strength between the enemy and us forced
us to do the impossible. Suffice it to say that we won the war with rifles and
anti-tank mines, in every important action always fighting against the enemy’s
artillery, armored vehicles and, in particular, airplanes, which were always
immediately present in any military action.
We seized
rifles and other semi-automatic and automatic light infantry weapons from the
enemy in combat, and the explosives with which, in rustic workshops, we
manufactured the shells we used against armored vehicles and their accompanying
infantry always came from the rain of bombs which they launched against us,
some of which failed to explode. The infallible tactic of attacking the enemy when
it was on the move was a key factor. The art of provoking those forces into
moving out of their well-fortified and generally invulnerable positions became
one of our commands’ greatest skills.
Box 2

Excerpts from speech by Che Guevara at a ceremony
in Havana Jan. 27, 1959, sponsored by the cultural organization NuestroTiempo
(Our Epoch). Guevara had been asked to speak on the topic “The Social Aims
of the Rebel Army”.

into army of peasants
What is
of interest to me, and what is important, I believe, are the social ideas of
the survivors of Alegri’a de Pi’o. This was the first and only disaster that
the armed rebels suffered over the course of the insurrection. About fifteen
men, physically and even morally destroyed, were reunited, and we were able to
continue on owing solely to the enormous confidence of Fidel Castro at those
decisive moments, to his firmness as a revolutionary leader and his unbreakable
faith in the people.
We were a
group of city people who were thrown into the Sierra Maestra, but were not part
of it. We walked from hut to hut and touched nothing that did not belong to us.
We did not even eat anything we were unable to pay for, and often went hungry
as a result of this principle. The peasants looked with tolerance on our group,
but did not join it. This went on for some time. We spent several months
wandering through the highest peaks of the Sierra Maestra, making sporadic
attacks and returning to higher ground. We traveled from one peak to another, where
there was little water and living conditions were extremely difficult.
Little by
little the peasants’ view toward us began to change, spurred by the actions of
Batista’s repressive forces, who devoted themselves to murdering people and
destroying homes and who were utterly hostile toward those who even
occasionally had the slightest contact with our Rebel Army. The shift in the
peasants’ attitude translated into the incorporation of palm-leaf hats into our
ranks, as our army of city folk was becoming transformed into an army of
peasants yearning for freedom and social justice joined the armed struggle, the
great magic words agrarian reform began to mobilize the oppressed masses of
Cuba in their struggle for possession of the land. Thus emerged our first
pronouncement on a major social issue. Agrarian reform would later become the
banner and main slogan of our movement-although we passed through a stage of
considerable uneasiness owing to natural concerns related to the policy and
conduct of our great neighbor to the north.
strike in Santiago de Cuba
that time in Santiago de Cuba, a very tragic event occurred: the murder of our
companero Frank Pai’s, an event that marked a turning point in the entire
structure of the revolutionary movement. Responding to the emotional impact
caused by Frank Pai’s’s death, the people of Santiago de Cuba spontaneously
went out into the streets, producing the first attempt at a political general
strike. Although leaderless, the strike completely paralyzed Oriente and had
similar repercussions in Camaguey and Las Villas.
dictatorship crushed this movement, which arose without preparation or
revolutionary control. The massive character of the response made us realize
the necessity of incorporating into the struggle for Cuba’s liberation the
great social force constituted by the workers. Underground efforts in the
workplaces immediately began, to prepare a general strike that would help the
Rebel Army to conquer power.
That was
the beginning of an insurrectional campaign by underground organizations. Those
who gave encouragement to these movements, however, did not really understand
the mass struggle or its tactics. The work was conducted in completely mistaken
ways: a revolutionary spirit was not created, unity of the combatants was not
achieved, and attempts were made to lead the strike from above, without
effective roots among the ranks of the strikers.
victories of the Rebel Army and the difficult and painstaking clandestine
efforts stirred the country, creating a state of ferment so great that it
provoked the declaration of a general strike on April 9 of last year. That
effort failed precisely due to errors of organization, primarily lack of
contact between the mass of workers and the leadership, as well as the
leadership’s mistaken approach.
But the
experience was put to good use, and an ideological struggle arose within the
July 26 Movement that led to a radical shift in the organization’s view of the
country’s reality and its sectors of action. The July 26 Movement emerged
strengthened from the failed strike. That experience taught its leaders a
precious truth, which was-and is-that the revolution did not belong to any one
group, but had to be the work of the entire Cuban people. All the energies of
our movement’s members, both in the cities and in the mountains, were channeled
toward this end.
precisely this time, the Rebel Army began its first steps to provide a theory
and doctrine to the revolution, giving tangible proof that the insurrectional
movement had grown and therefore attained political maturity. We had passed
from the experimental stage to the constructive one, from trial and error to
definitive acts.
we began the work of creating small-scale industries in the Sierra Maestra. A
change occurred that our forebears had seen many years ago: we passed from a
nomadic life to a settled one; we created centers of production in accordance
with our most pressing needs. Thus we founded our shoe factory, our weapons
factory, our workshop to rebuild the bombs that the tyranny dropped on us,
giving them back to Batista’s soldiers in the form of land mines.
act of agrarian reform
The men
and women of the Rebel Army never forgot their fundamental mission in the
Sierra Maestra or in other areas, which was to improve the conditions of the
peasants and to incorporate them into the struggle for the land. Schools were
set up, in which improvised teachers went to the most inaccessible parts of
this region of Oriente.
There in
the Sierra we made the first effort at dividing up the land, with an agrarian
law drafted principally by Dr. Humberto Sori’ Mari’n(8) and by Fidel Castro,
and in which I had the honor of collaborating. The land was given to the
peasants in a revolutionary manner. The large farms belonging to servants of
the dictatorship were seized and divided up, and all state lands began to be
put in the hands of the region’s peasants. The moment had arrived in which we
identified ourselves fully as a peasant movement closely linked to the land,
and with agrarian reform as our banner.
This was
a war in which we always relied on the people, that priceless ally of such
extraordinary valor. Our columns were able to continually evade the enemy and
situate themselves in the best positions, thanks not only to tactical
advantages and the morale of our militiamen, but to a very large extent because
of the great assistance of the peasants.
peasant was the invisible collaborator who did everything that the rebel
combatant could not. He supplied us with information, kept watch on the enemy,
discovered its weak points, rapidly brought urgent messages, spied on the very
ranks of Batista’s army. This was not the result of any miracle; it was because
we had energetically begun to implement our policy of responding to the
peasants’ demands. In the face of the bitter attack and circle of hunger that
enveloped the Sierra Maestra, ten thousand head of cattle were taken from the
landlords of the surrounding region and brought up to the mountains. This move
was not intended to supply the Rebel Army alone; the cattle were also
distributed among the peasants. For the first time, the guajiros [peasants] of
the Sierra, in this miserably poor region, had their well-being addressed. For
the first time, peasant children drank milk and ate beef. And for the first
time too, they received the benefits of education, because the revolution
brought schools along with it. In this way the peasants in their entirety came
over to our side.
Box 3
Cuba – A chronology of key events
1492 –
The navigator Christopher Columbus claims Cuba for Spain.
 1511 – Spanish conquest begins under the
leadership of Diego de Velazquez, who establishes Baracoa and other
1526 –
Importing of slaves from Africa begins.
1762 –
Havana captured by a British force led by Admiral George Pocock and Lord
1763 –
Havana returned to Spain by the Treaty of Paris.
Wars of independence
1868-78 –
Ten Years War of independence ends in a truce with Spain promising reforms and
greater autonomy – promises that were mostly never met.
1886 –
Slavery abolished.
1895-98 –
Jose Marti leads a second war of independence; US declares war on Spain.
1898 – US
defeats Spain, which gives up all claims to Cuba and cedes it to the US.
US tutelage
1902 –
Cuba becomes independent with Tomas Estrada Palma as its president; however,
the Platt Amendment keeps the island under US protection and gives the US the
right to intervene in Cuban affairs.
1906-09 –
Estrada resigns and the US occupies Cuba following a rebellion led by Jose
Miguel Gomez.
1909 –
Jose Miguel Gomez becomes president following elections supervised by the US,
but is soon tarred by corruption.
1912 – US
forces return to Cuba to help put down black protests against discrimination.
1924 –
Gerado Machado institutes vigorous measures, forwarding mining, agriculture and
public works, but subsequently establishing a brutal dictatorship.
1925 –
Socialist Party founded, forming the basis of the Communist Party.
1933 –
Machado overthrown in a coup led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista.
1934 –
The US abandons its right to intervene in Cuba’s internal affairs, revises
Cuba’s sugar quota and changes tariffs to favour Cuba.
1944 –
Batista retires and is succeeded by the civilian Ramon Gray San Martin.
1952 –
Batista seizes power again and presides over an oppressive and corrupt regime.
1953 –
Moncada Attack – Fidel Castro leads an unsuccessful revolt against the Batista
1956 –
Castro lands in eastern Cuba from Mexico and takes to the Sierra Maestra
mountains where, aided by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, he wages a guerrilla
1958 –
The US withdraws military aid to Batista.
Triumph of the revolution
1959 –
Castro leads a 9,000-strong guerrilla army into Havana, forcing Batista to
flee. Castro becomes prime minister, his brother, Raul, becomes his deputy and
Guevara becomes third in command.
1960 –
All US businesses in Cuba are nationalised without compensation; US breaks off
diplomatic relations with Havana.
1961 – US
sponsors an abortive invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs; Castro
proclaims Cuba a communist state and begins to ally it with the USSR.
1962 –
Cuban missile crisis ignites when, fearing a US invasion, Castro agrees to
allow the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. The crisis was
subsequently resolved when the USSR agreed to remove the missiles in return for
the withdrawal of US nuclear missiles from Turkey.
1965 –
Cuba’s sole political party renamed the Cuban Communist Party.