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The Cuban Revolution

Sixty years ago, Fidel Castro’s victorious revolutionaries arrived in Havana. Nige Tassell revisits an armed rebellion that brought communism within 90 miles of the Florida coast
One was a lawyer, the other a doctor. Leaving those lives behind, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became the foremost figures of the revolution
ALAMY X1, GETTY IMAGES X1

"Time is a highly important factor in all things. !e revolution cannot be completed in a single day, but you may be sure that we will carry the revolution through to the full. You may be sure that for the first time the Republic will be truly and entirely free, and the people will have their just recompense.”

As he made his speech from the balcony of the city hall in Santiago de Cuba on 3 January 1959, Fidel Castro ruminated on what had passed, and what was to come. In his battle fatigues – and almost certainly with a cigar close to hand – he was talking about the rebirth of a nation. His nation. Little more than 48 hours earlier, the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled the Presidential Palace in Havana, never to be seen on the island again. His departure brought an end to the armed struggle that Castro and his rebels had been waging against Batista’s corrupt regime for more than half a decade.

As Castro spoke from the balcony his comrade-in-arms – the Argentinian freedom fighter Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara – had already marched his forces into Havana. Tey had gone unchallenged. Castro himself would arrive in the Cuban capital five days later. And as he finally entered the city limits, the bearded revolutionary couldn’t possibly have foreseen the significant role his impoverished Caribbean island would soon play in global affairs.

TURBULENT TIMES

The events of the late 1950s in Cuba were but the latest chapter in a turbulent narrative. For most of the four centuries since Christopher Columbus had landed there in 1492 – excepting a short period under British rule – it had been part of the Spanish Empire. After a number of failed rebellions in the latter half of the 19th century the end of the SpanishAmerican War in 1898 saw Cuba pass to United States control. A republic was declared in 1902, though that would not be the last involvement the US would have in Cuba’s domestic affairs.

TOP: Power struggles were not new to Cuba: these men are cheering the fall of President Gerardo Machado y Morales in 1933

Four decades of disputed elections and coups ensued, culminating in the drawing up of a new constitution in 1940. Batista, who had fronted a military coup in 1933, served as the elected president for four years – and proved relatively progressive – but constitutional law prohibited him from standing for re-election. So, in 1952, he led another successful coup, promptly outlawing the constitution and cancelling that year’s elections. Aligning himself to Cuba’s wealthier quarters, he also welcomed American domination of Cuban industry including sugar production. The weight of the US military was behind him too.

As a young lawyer, Fidel Castro had intended to stand for the Cuban People’s Party in the 1952 elections. Denied a democratic arena to undermine Batista’s regime, Castro elected to redraw the political landscape using alternative tactics. On 26 July 1953, he and a 160strong brigade of like-minded rebels made an armed raid on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

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About BBC History Revealed

Today, Che Guevara is best known as one of the 20th century's iconic images. But the events of the Cuban Revolution, in which he was a key figure 60 years ago, would have wide-reaching consequences - including almost bringing about a third world war. What made it such a global affair, with superpowers going eyeball to eyeball? Plus: Cousins Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots have an almighty falling out (leading to one losing her head), outlandish medical cures, Roman Emperor Constantine, the great Thames Frost Fairs of the Victorian era, and more.