A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past. -Fidel Castro
After graduating from the University of Havana in 1950, Fidel starts a law firm with two other recent graduates, Jorge Azpiazu and Rafael Resende, as his partners. The firm is an advocate for the poor, but soon ends up poorer than its clients and goes out of business for lack of funds. But his work with people on the lower rung of society stokes his loathing of inequality. He comes to despise American businessmen who, with all their wealth and power, seem to control and exploit the Cuban people.
The two immediately click. Not only does Natalia share Fidel’s passion for revolutionary politics, she also shares his passion for wild, uninhibited sex. Even though both are married at the time, they begin a torrid affair. The danger and intrigue of the political climate adds to the excitement.
On March 10, 1952, when former Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista stages a coup d’etat that returns him to power, Castro’s revolutionary ambitions shift into high gear. And Natalia is more than willing to participate, even against the wishes of her husband. She offers her home for clandestine meetings on nights when she knows her husband will be away. She gives Castro his own set of keys, which he uses frequently.
At the time of Batista’s coup, Fidel is a candidate for Congress on the Cuban People’s Party ticket. He capitalizes on his public speaking skills to build a strong following among the party’s younger members. However, because of the coup, the elections are never held. Fidel is so incensed by this action that he immediately begins planning an armed revolt against Batista. It will be financed in part by Natalia Revuelta’s jewels, which she hocks for the cause.
Without thinking his plan through carefully, Fidel launches an armed uprising against the Batista government. On July 26, 1953, Fidel leads an attack against the Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago, the second largest military installation in Cuba. Fidel’s “army” of 123 poorly trained men and women set off in a 16-car caravan headed for the barracks. The plan is to take over the hospital at the barracks, and then try to convince the troops stationed there to switch allegiances and join forces with Fidel’s rebel group. The operation is a disaster from the start.
Military grade weapons are hard to come by in Cuba, so Fidel turns to Jack Ruby in the U.S. However, Fidel does not have the budget for the big guns, even with Natalia’s jewels, so he settles for handguns and hunting rifles. They will prove to be no match for the weapons their adversaries will be using. And many of Castro’s rebels have to be left behind because there aren’t enough weapons to go around. As the caravan of vehicles travels through Santiago in the early morning, their cars are caught in a traffic jam. Only seven of the rebel cars clear the jam. There’s no radio communication between the cars, so Fidel is unaware that nine of his cars loaded with fighters are still stuck in traffic.
When the first group of rebels arrives at the barracks, Fidel’s car crashes through the front gate, alerting the troops inside that they are under attack. The soldiers swarm out of the barracks to engage the attackers. The troops are well-trained and well-armed and quickly kill or capture all the attackers. Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, are among the captured.
Eight of his fighters die in battle; eighty others are executed after being captured. Their bodies are then scattered around the area to make it appear that they died in the attack. By all rights, Fidel should have been among those who were executed. The only reason he wasn’t killed was because the army officer who arrested him disobeyed orders and took him to a prison instead of killing him. This would be the first of literally hundreds of times that Fidel Castro miraculously avoided being killed.
The next near-death experience occurs just a few weeks later. While Castro is in jail awaiting trial, prison officials plan to poison his food. However, the commanding officer of the prison vetoes the plan for fear of inciting an even greater uprising among the Cuban people.
During his incarceration before trial, Castro writes a four-hour speech and smuggles the pages out of jail in match boxes. At his trial, Castro acts as his own attorney and defends himself. During closing arguments, he delivers the speech that will later be the basis for a best-selling book of the same name. Although no there is no public record of the four-hour courtroom speech, Castro later reconstructs it, and it is released as a printed book titled “History Will Absolve Me.” The book makes Castro famous, but his speech doesn’t sway the presiding judge. Castro is found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In the court of public opinion, however, Castro is a hero, not a villain. With each day of his imprisonment, he becomes more and more a martyr. After serving only two years of his sentence, and in the midst of growing public unrest, Castro receives an ill-advised pardon from President Batista. One condition of Castro’s release is that he must leave Cuba and never return. Batista believes that once Castro is gone, his popularity will wane and the rebellion he started will quickly be forgotten. It is a colossal blunder on Batista’s part.
Even though Castro is no longer in Cuba, his mind is on nothing but Cuba. He goes to live in Mexico and immediately begins planning his return to Cuba and the resumption of the revolution. Fate also intervenes and brings together two fiery socialists who believe that the only way to effect change is through war and revolution. Fidel Castro meets Che Guevara.
The attack on the Moncada Barracks makes Castro a household name in Cuba. But it also severely damages his wife’s family, which includes a high ranking member of Fulgencio Batista’s cabinet. Mirta’s brother is deputy interior minister Rafael Diaz-Balart. Rafael had introduced Fidel to Mirta when the two men were friends at the University of Havana.
While Castro is in prison, Mirta is forced to accept financial assistance from her brother through his government ministry. When Castro finds out his wife is getting money from someone connected to Batista, he goes ballistic. He sees this as an attack on his honor. Never mind the financial needs of Mirta and his son Fidelito. It’s all about the great Castro’s pride.
When Mirta takes Fidelito to the Isle of Pines Prison to visit Fidel, he refuses to see them. Mirta is hurt, not only for herself, but also for Fidelito. To make matters worse, while she is there, Mirta discovers that Natalia Revuelta has been visiting Fidel. Mirta had earlier suspected that there was something between Fidel and Natalia. Mirta investigates further and discovers that not only are Fidel and Natalia having an affair, but that Natalia is pregnant with Fidel’s child. Now it’s Mirta’s turn to be angry.
Mirta files for divorce, and with her husband incarcerated for a treasonous act, it is no contest. Mirta is granted a divorce and custody of their son. Adding insult to injury, Mirta begins a romantic relationship with, Emilio Nunez Blanco, one of Fidel’s political enemies. Once again, Fidel is livid and vows to fight to the end for custody of his child. In a letter to his sister, Lidia, Fidel writes, “I do not care one bit if this battle drags on till the end of the world. If they think they can exhaust my patience and, based on this, that I am going to concede — they are going to find that I am wrapped in Buddhist tranquility and am prepared to reenact the famous Hundred Years War — and win it!”
In the months following the Moncada Barracks attack, public sentiment continues to tilt toward Fidel Castro, so in a magnanimous gesture to appease the Cuban people, President Batista grants amnesty to all the insurgents involved in the raid. They are released on May 15, 1955, even though they have served less two years of their sentences. This turns out to be a huge mistake, one that leads to Batista’s downfall.
When they leave prison, Raul immediately goes to visit their ailing father, Angel Castro, even though Angel isn’t Raul’s real father, and Raul knows it. He still has feelings for the man. Fidel, on the other hand, has no time for his sick father (Angel is in fact Fidel’s real father). Fidel has more important matters to attend to, namely the revolution. His father will die before Fidel has time for a visit.
Fidel quickly reverts to his old ways. He is as defiant and rebellious as he was before going to prison. However, the Cuban police are watching him closely and are able to intervene before he can regain the momentum he had before. Raul takes a more practical stance. Faced with the prospect of re-arrest or even death, Raul decides to leave, and late in May, 1955, moves to Mexico City.
Fidel Goes to Mexico to Plan an Invasion
By July, 1955, Fidel has violated all the provisions of his release and faces the very real possibility of going back to prison – or even worse, going in front of a firing squad. So Fidel follows Raul’s lead and makes a hasty departure from Cuba. He heads for Mexico where he links up with Raul and other revolutionaries. Fidel has tremendous respect and admiration for Mexico because of how that nation conducted itself during and after its own revolution 50 years earlier.
“Mexico was a country that had carried out a great revolution in the second decade of the 20th century, a revolution that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking and a stable government,” Castro later explains. “We did not choose Mexico merely for geographic convenience. Every other nation in the region was ruled by tyrants.”
Fidel leaves behind in Cuba his son, Fidelito, and his mistress, Natalia Revuelta, who is pregnant with his child. Within days, Fidel is in Mexico City, plotting a revolution and trying to raise money for the cause. He is burning with desire to return to Cuba and “liberate his people.” He also is still seething with anger over losing custody of his son, and at the same time he is plotting revolution, he is hatching a plan to get Fidelito back.
Fidel possesses amazing powers of persuasion. Somehow, he convinces Mirta to allow Fidelito to come to Mexico for a two-week visit. He promises faithfully to return Fidelito to Mirta, but when it’s time to return Fidelito, he reneges on his promise. Although he is not close to his son, Fidel forces him to remain in Mexico against his will, and, of course, against the wishes of his mother. It is all done to get even with Mirta for her involvement with Emilio Nunez Blanco.
Fidel is much too busy planning a revolution to worry about raising a son, so he pushes Fidelito off on, Maria Antonia, a kind Mexican lady he befriends in Mexico City. In fact, he and several of his comrades are staying in her small apartment on Emperan Street. The apartment also serves as command central were Fidel plots an invasion of Cuba while avoiding surveillance by Mexican police.
Fidel faces a number of challenges. He has to raise money to buy arms; he has to recruit and train a fighting force; and he has to secure a boat to transport his army from Mexico to Cuba. These tasks are daunting enough on their own, but they are made much more difficult by the Mexican government’s constant surveillance and harassment, and by Batista’s spies within Fidel’s ranks.
Fidel manages to scrape up enough money to go on a fund-raising tour to the U.S. He takes Fidelito with him in an attempt to gain sympathy and garner more support. They visit New York, Philadelphia, and Miami, where Fidel asks Cuban immigrants to support his cause. “It was hard to ask them for money since most were so poor, but they made small contributions,” Castro recalls. “The trip was a political success, but not much of an economic one because most of our audiences were poor, humble people. I think we collected about $1,000.”
Fidel Castro Meets Che Guevara
Shortly after Fidel returns to Mexico, Raul introduces him to Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a young Argentine doctor and poet who also was burning with anti-imperialistic fever. Guevara, who had earlier traveled throughout South and Central America by motorcycle, had witnessed the CIA-backed coup to overthrow Guatemala’s left-leaning president in 1954. The introduction takes place at 49 Jose de Emperan Street in Mexico City at the apartment of Maria Antonia, who is caring for Fidelito.
There is instant camaraderie between Che and Fidel. “I had been linked to him from the outset by a tie of romantic adventurous sympathy,” writes Guevara in Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, “and by the conviction that it would be worth dying on a foreign beach for such a pure ideal.”
Fidel is impressed with Che, even though the young radical is in poor health and suffering from asthma. When Fidel assigns several key responsibilities to Guevara, an Argentine, it causes some friction among the Cubans who don’t like taking orders from a foreigner. But as Fidel himself says, “In time, no one had any doubts about fighting alongside Che and taking orders from him.”
Guevara is accompanied by his girlfriend, a Peruvian Communist named Hilda Gadea, who is even more radical than Che. Her activities in the Communist movement got her exiled from Peru in 1948. She met Guevara in Guatemala in 1953, and they were drawn together by their devotion to Communism. But their politics cause problems for them in Guatemala, so they move to Mexico in 1955. Che and Hilda meet a number of Cuban rebels in Mexico City and get interested in their cause. When he meets Fidel in July, 1955, Che is already emotionally committed to the Cuban revolution.
Fidel soon connects with another person passionately dedicated to the cause. On December 28, 1955, Fidel first hears the voice of Celia Sanchez on a “ham” radio conversation from Cuba. Electricity is literally in the air as the two future soul mates introduce themselves to each other. Celia has eagerly assumed the role of chief organizer of all things related to the coming invasion. Although she has never met Fidel Castro, Celia is totally devoted to the man. She becomes one of his most ardent supporters after he is arrested and put on trial for attacking the Moncada Barracks in Santiago. While Fidel is imprisoned, she advocates for his release and eagerly joins the 26th of July Movement. She has excellent organizational skills and she quickly becomes one of the leaders.
Fidel also meets up with a Spaniard named Alberto Bayo who provides much needed expertise in military training. Bayo is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War who agrees to train the rebels in guerilla warfare. They have clandestine training sessions at the mammoth Chapultapec Forest in Mexico City in the summer and fall of 1956.
While Fidel and his comrades are in Mexico planning the invasion, Celia is busy in Cuba planning for Fidel’s arrival. She is actively raising money, stockpiling weapons and ammunition and recruiting peasant supporters to rise up in rebellion in a coordinated attack to support Fidel’s boat landing in Cuba. She is joined in her efforts by another dedicated ally, Frank Pais, who is organizing resistance cells all across Cuba.
Batista’s police have both Celia and Pais under surveillance, making their work far more difficult. It forces the rebel groups to devise innovative ways to communicate both within Cuba and between Cuba and Mexico. Celia comes up with an ingenious way to send messages disguised as butterfly cutouts in flower arrangements. Celia is responsible for choosing the site for Fidel’s rebel army to land in Cuba, so she and Fidel spend much time on the ham radio talking to each other. They become very close even though they are far apart.
Fidel has his own police problems. Batista’s agents pay-off members of the Mexican police to keep a close watch on Castro. It pays off. The Mexican police catch the Cubans stockpiling weapons in June, 1956. The police confiscate the weapons and arrest Fidel and his associates. The support of several Mexican politicians who are sympathetic to Fidel’s cause helps get them a light sentence. Fidel, Che and twenty-one of their comrades are sentenced to a week in a Mexico City jail. But Guevara aggravates the situation by arguing with the police and judges. That gets Fidel and Che two extra weeks of jail time.
When he is released from jail in July, 1956, Fidel returns to the apartment of Maria Antonia where he finds two coded messages waiting. One of the messages is from a representative of Carlos Prio, the former president of Cuba whom Batista had deposed in his 1952 coup. Prio is rumored to be plotting an uprising in Cuba that will return him to power. He wants to meet with Fidel to determine if the two can work together to achieve the same goal. Returning Prio to power is the last thing Fidel wants to do. He thinks Prio also is a political criminal who stole a large amount of money from the Cuban treasury during his time as president. The second message is from Jack Ruby, one of Fidel’s go-to guys for guns. Fidel earlier had contacted Ruby through his Cuban network in Dallas with regard to acquiring military grade weapons on the sly. Ruby suggests Castro might want to see a man named Antonio Del Conde who owns a gun shop right there in Mexico City and does a little gun smuggling on the side.
Fidel immediately goes to see Del Conde. It turns out to be very serendipitous. Del Conde agrees to help Fidel obtain weapons. And, as it just so happens, Del Conde has recently acquired a boat, a dilapidated old yacht named Granma that was washed ashore in a hurricane and is now rusting away on a marshy beach near Tuxpan, Mexico. Del Conde had discovered Granma while delivering arms to some other rebel group planning a revolt in some other country in South or Central America. Revolution was in the air, and business was booming for Del Conde. But Fidel isn’t just any old revolutionary. Del Conde is captivated by Castro and his mission to invade Cuba, and he goes above and beyond the call of duty and becomes an active participant. He not only helps Fidel acquire guns, he also helps recruit, train, and house Fidel’s rebel army. And he convinces Fidel that he should go see Carlos Prio. Del Conde is a businessman. He wants to sell guns, not give them away. To sell guns, the buyer must have money.
Thanks to Del Conde’s goading, Fidel decides to meet with Prio. However, that will not be easy since Prio is living in the U.S., where Fidel is persona non grata because of his assault on Batista’s government and suspected Marxist leaning. So Fidel does what thousands of Mexicans do. He swims the Rio Grande and enters the U.S. illegally.
Fidel Swims the Rio Grande
Late in August, 1956, Fidel goes by car to Reynosa, Mexico. In the early morning hours of September 1, 1956, dressed as a migrant farm worker, Fidel swims across the Rio Grande. A car is waiting for him on the U.S. side. They take Fidel to Bond’s Menswear in downtown McAllen, Texas, and fit him with new clothes suitable for meeting with an ex-president.
From there, Fidel is taken to Room 21 at the Casa de Palmas hotel to meet with Prio. The two men talk all day, hashing out the details of Castro’s planned invasion. At the end of the day, Prío promises Castro $100,000.
With a commitment of funds for his revolution, Fidel swims back across the river and returns to Mexico City. Fidel tells Che and Raul that he is humiliated to take money from Prio because he knows it had been stolen from the people of Cuba. But Castro holds his nose and takes the money.
Back in Cuba, several other anti-Batista groups are gaining momentum, mainly among militant student organizations. One of the most radical is the Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (DRE) founded by University of Havana student Jose Antonio Echeverria. Sometime in late September, 1956, Echeverria travels to Mexico to meet with Fidel. There is a clash of egos. Both want to lead the revolution; neither wants to be a subordinate. Echeverria returns to Cuba to launch his own uprising independent of Castro’s 26 de Julio Movement, while Castro remains in Mexico to continue planning his invasion.
The Invasion of Cuba Begins
Finally, the time is at hand. Fidel has managed to recruit and train 80 revolutionaries, including his brother, Raul, and Che Guevara. Through the resources of Antonio Del Conde, they have acquired 90 rifles, 3 machine guns, 40 pistols and two anti-tank guns. And they have a boat, albeit a decrepit one, to transport them 1,200 miles from Mexico to the southern coast of Cuba.
However, the boat is designed to accommodate 10 to 12 people. There are 81 revolutionaries crammed on board, plus the pilot and two crew members. There is also 2,000 gallons of fuel stored on deck in cans, because Granma’s fuel tanks aren’t large enough for a voyage of that distance. The seas are rough, and many on board are seasick.
Early Sunday morning, November 25, 1956, Fidel’s rebel army sets sail from Tuxpan, Veracruz. They have to sneak out of Tuxpan before sunrise to avoid the Mexican coast guard. They are bound for Las Coloradas on the southern coast of Cuba at a landing site chosen by Celia Sanchez (not far from where she was born and raised). They almost make it.
The plan is for Granma to reach Las Coloradas on November 30, 1956. Coinciding with Fidel’s invasion, Frank Pais is to lead an uprising in Oriente Province, which includes the city of Santiago, then meet up with Fidel’s forces and set up a base camp in the nearby San Maestra Mountains from which to launch guerilla attacks.
A Shipwreck, Not an Invasion
Everything goes as planned – except the invasion. Frank Pais leads the uprising on November 30, just as planned. But Fidel’s army doesn’t arrive until December 2 – two day late. So much for a well-coordinated attack. The entire plan turns into an unmitigated disaster. It falls on Celia Sanchez to save the day. But even that requires a miracle.
The rough seas off the Yucatan peninsula slow Granma’s progress, and they lose nearly an entire day. It’s 5:00 p.m., Thursday, November 29, before Granma reaches the western tip of Cuba. They’re supposed to land tomorrow morning, and they’re still nearly 300 miles west of the landing beach. They’ll never make it.
The next day, Friday, November 30, the radio on board Granma picks up a news report of Frank Paiz’s uprising in Santiago, the attack that was supposed to coincide with Fidel’s arrival. The uprising sets off a wave of arrests. Cuba’s military goes on alert.
Celia Sanchez Saves the Day.
On December 1, Cuban police order the arrest of Celia Sanchez, dead or alive. At that moment, she is just leaving the rebels’ operational headquarters at Ojo de Agua after waiting there throughout the day and night for Fidel’s arrival. She has no radio contact with the rebels aboard Granma, so she is totally in the dark about their situation. All she knows for sure is that Fidel never showed up, and now she has to do damage control to salvage as much of the operation as possible.
Celia goes by Jeep to the mill town of Campechuela to meet with an operative to find out if he knows anything about the Frank Paiz uprising and the fate of Fidel’s landing. It is Sunday morning, and the town is teeming with people coming and going to market and to church. The operative in Campechuela is Enrique de la Rosa who owns La Rosa Bar. The bar is in a building at the intersection of two busy streets, and there is an entrance to the bar from both streets.
Celia goes into the bar and takes a seat on the first stool by the door. The bar is almost empty except for two farm workers drinking coffee. Celia looks around cautiously before engaging Enrique in conversation. However, within minutes, two Cuban police cars speed up, and the police rush the bar and grab both Celia and Enrique.
Celia knows what happens to Batista captives. They usually are tortured and killed. She is resigned to her fate. However, she is surprised when the police take Enrique out, but leave her sitting at the bar. She quickly realizes that the two farm workers are actually plain clothes officers. They are using Celia as bait, hoping to ensnare other insurgents who come in to rendezvous with her.
After they have been waiting for more than an hour, there is a commotion on the street out front of the bar. When the two police officers go to the window to check, Celia seizes the opportunity and bolts out the same door she had entered.
Celia runs as fast as she can with the police in hot pursuit, firing their weapons at her in spite of the fact that the streets are crowded with pedestrians. People on the street scream in panic. Celia turns onto a side street and runs toward an open field with tall grass next to a briar forest. The two policemen continue to fire as they give chase.
Celia miraculously makes it to the field and the cover of the grass. The policemen come to the edge of the field and fire blindly into the grass, emptying their guns . Celia drops down and hugs the ground as bullets fly around her. One of the policemen goes for more ammunition while the other probes the field. Celia slowly inches her way toward the briar forest on the back side of the field, almost a hundred yards away. She hears the other policeman return and the two men continue to search the field. On one occasion, they come close but miss seeing her. Fortunately, she is dressed in brown which blends with the dead grass, affording her some degree of camouflage.
Eventually, she makes it to the briar forest as day is beginning to turn to night. She crawls on her stomach through the thick, thorny underbrush, shredding her clothes and scratching her head and hands. By the time she reaches the other side of the briar forest, her head, arms and hands are covered with scratches and puncture wounds. She eventually makes it to a road and flags down a car that takes her to safety.
While Celia’s drama is unfolding, Fidel is dealing with life and death problems of his own. On the night of December 1, they finally see a beacon light at Cabo Cruz, which is about 12 miles from their landing spot at Las Coloradas Beach, and they set course for it. As they make their way toward the shore at about 3:00 the next morning, they encounter rough seas, and one of their men, a guerilla named Roberto Roque, is knocked overboard. Even though it is pitch dark, Fidel decides to try to find Roque and rescue him. The effort seems futile as they zigzag slowly through the water looking for Roque, eating up time and burning up precious fuel.
Miraculously, they find Roque and pull him aboard. But the effort has left Granma’s pilot unsure of their exact location. The pilot finally orients himself and starts up the coast toward Las Coloradas Beach, but he realizes there is not enough fuel to make it there. He tells Fidel that they will have to land where they are, which is at Los Cayuelos, about three miles south of their landing spot. Unfortunately, it is just about the worst spot on the entire Cuban coast.
As Granma approaches the shore, it hits a sandbar and runs aground. Fidel orders everybody off the boat. Guevara comments dryly, “It’s more a shipwreck than an invasion.”
It’s about 5:30 a.m. on December 2. Dusk is not a good time. It’s hard to make out shapes and determine distance. At first, they think they are on the shore, but then they realize they are on a sandbar, and the shoreline is several hundred yards away. They will have to wade or swim through the water to reach the shore. They cannot carry all their equipment under these circumstances. To make matters worse, many of the men are sick or in weakened condition from a shortage of food on board.
When they get off the boat, they’re in water over their heads. Most of the men have to ditch their gear to keep from drowning. It takes nearly an hour to reach the shore, and when they do, they have another surprise waiting for them. They have landed not on a beach, but in a mangrove swamp. There’s no firm ground to walk on. They have to hold onto the trees and step on the roots rising out of the water. More gear has to be abandoned. They don’t make it out of the swamp until 7:00 a.m., and the troops are scattered up and down the mangrove swamp.
Fidel, Raul and Che manage to find each other, and with only six other guerillas, head inland. They come to the remote farm where Angel Perez Rosabal lives with his wife and four children. When he first arrives, Fidel tells Angel, “Hello, I’m Fidel Castro. We’re here to liberate Cuba.” The place is so remote, Angel Rosabal has never heard of Fidel Castro…and liberate Cuba from what?
Not long after they arrive at the farm, a Cuban Coast Guard plane flies over. This worries Fidel. He has not been able to locate his other fighters, and he fears that the Cuban army may show up before they can regroup and form into fighting units. So Fidel decides to head for the mountains. Angel gives them directions on how to reach the Sierra Maestra, and Fidel’s small band starts off down the road.
Along the way, they find a few other members of their group before they come to another farm, this one owned by Pedro Luis Sanchez (no relation to Celia Sanchez). Sanchez gives them food and water and lets them rest in the shade. When Sanchez goes back inside his farmhouse, he hears a radio broadcast issued by the military. It stated that forty members of the 26th of July Movement had been killed, among them, their chief, Fidel Castro. Their boat, the Granma, had been confiscated. Maps and other documents found onboard implicated a number of prominent Cubans, among them, Celia Sanchez.
Sometime around mid-morning on December 2, a Cuban naval vessel starts bombarding the invaders as they make their way along a dirt road toward the mountains. Several of Fidel’s fighters are killed. The next day, a detachment of Batista’s Rural Guard attacks, them and more rebel fighters die, and the group is scattered again. By the time they reach the mountains on December 5, 1956, Fidel has only 19 fighters left, including Raul, Che, and Camilo Cienfuegos. All the others have been killed or captured.
Guerilla Warfare in the Mountains
Fidel doesn’t waste time retaliating. His group sets up an encampment in the jungle, and they begin raiding small army posts to obtain weapons. On January 3, 1957, they overrun an outpost in La Plata. They capture then execute the local land company overseer, Chico Osorio. The local peasants hate Osorio who has been bragging about having killed one of the 26th of July members a few weeks earlier. The peasants generally despise all overseers for being enforcers for the wealthy landowners, most of whom treat peasants like slaves.
While there was some support among the peasants, most remain unenthusiastic and suspicious of the revolutionaries. Most new recruits come from urban areas, thanks in large part to people like Celia Sanchez. Celia works tirelessly to raise money, secure weapons and recruit new soldiers. She runs an underground network of bagmen, smugglers and drivers to keep money, guns and fighters flowing to Fidel’s forces in the mountains. Celia becomes Batista’s public enemy number one.
Fidel and Celia have worked together for almost two years, but the two have never met in person. Finally, on February 16, 1957, the two meet face-to-face. It occurs at a meeting with other senior members brought together to discuss strategy. The two become the closest of friends, some say lovers, but that is never confirmed. Whatever the case, Celia is totally devoted to Fidel and the cause he stands for. She remains his top aide and advisor up until the day she dies.
Thanks in no small part to Celia’s recruitment efforts, militant groups across Cuba rise up against Batista. Some ally themselves with Fidel, while others form their own resistance movements with separate agendas. One such group is the extremely radical Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil (DRE) founded by Jose Echeverria. They advocate the use of assassination and other violent tactics against Batista supporters.
On March 13, 1957, Echeverria leads a brazen attack on Batista’s presidential palace and the National Radio of Cuba station in Havana. Both attacks are thwarted by police. In a shootout with police near his apartment, Echeverria is killed, thus eliminating a charismatic rival to lead the revolution. With Echeverria dead, it is left to Fidel Castro to lead the revolution.
Echeverria’s death also will have a bearing on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. As an indirect result of Echeverria’s death, a sniper named Pilar is drawn into the revolution, and she will evolve into one of the deadliest killers to come out of the Cuban revolution.
On the day of Echeverria’s death, Pilar is on the way to his apartment to discuss the details of him tutoring her in math. She arrives at Echeverria’s apartment at the same time he and the police arrive following the raid on the Cuban radio station. Pilar gets caught in the middle of the shootout, gets mistaken for one of the attackers and is arrested by Cuban police. While she is being transported to jail, the two arresting officers try to rape her. She manages to kill them both and becomes a wanted woman. A sympathetic neighbor hides her from police and later introduces her to Celia Sanchez. Celia recruits Pilar to be one of Fidel’s fighters. After Pilar rebuffs Fidel’s sexual advances in his tent, Fidel assigns her to Camilo Cienfuegos’ group, and Camilo, in turn, trains Pilar to be a sniper. Following the revolution, Pilar continues her sniper duties, but on a larger stage. She will be sent to the U.S. to kill President John F. Kennedy.
Before that can happen, however, Fidel has to win the revolution. In order to gain the support of wealthy and middle-class Cubans, Fidel hides his Marxist leanings. He meets with mainstream political leaders Raul Chibas and Felipe Pazos and agrees on a post-revolution plan that calls for agrarian reform, a literacy campaign and fair and democratic elections. Many influential Cubans come on board after this plan is announced, although it takes several months for the news to get out because Batista censors the Cuban press.
But Batista is no match for Fidel Castro, the great manipulator, and his top assistant, Celia Sanchez. Both have a gift for working the media for their advantage. Fidel contacts the New York Times, and they send journalist Herbert Matthews to interview Fidel. While Matthews is in Castro’s camp, Celia stages a scene to make it look like Fidel commands a very large army. Celia has 20 soldiers march past. After they pass, they slip around behind Matthews, put on a different uniform and march past again. Matthews is fooled and writes that Castro commands an army of thousands.
When the Times publishes Matthews’ article on February 24, 1957, it dispels the rumor that Castro is dead. A year earlier, the Times had erroneously reported that Castro had been killed in the Granma invasion of December 2, 1956. Now the world knows that Fidel is alive, and his revolution is gaining momentum as more and more news organizations show up to cover the event. By the spring of 1958, Fidel’s forces control the entire Sierra Maestra region.
The tide is turning against Fulgencio Batista. His army is losing battles in the city and in the countryside. His press censorship has drawn the ire of influential Cubans and the international press. His use of torture and executions is strongly condemned in the U.S., so much so that the U.S. government stops supplying him with arms, leading him to turn to black market smugglers like Jack Ruby (Ruby is also selling arms to Castro).
In a desperate attempt to save his regime, Batista launches an all-out attack on Fidel’s forces. Dubbed Operation Verano, the offensive uses heavy bombardment of forested areas and villages to drive guerilla forces out into the open where they will come under attack by 10,000 soldiers under the command of General Eulogio Cantillo. His forces surround the Sierra Maestra and move north to the revolutionary camps in the mountains. But the general and his troops have no experience in guerilla warfare. Fidel’s forces avoid a direct confrontation with a numerically superior force. Instead, they rely on land mines and mountain trail ambushes to neutralize the offensive. Fidel’s forces number only 300, compared to the 10,000 soldiers under General Cantillo’s command. Cantillo’s forces suffer heavy losses. In June, 1958, one entire battalion surrenders to Fidel’s forces. Many of Batista’s forces defect and join Castro’s forces.
The Tide Turns
In the summer of 1958, Fidel’s forces launch a counter-attack and push Batista’s army out of the mountains. Using Che’s and Raul’s forces, they create a pincer movement and surround Batista’s troops in Santiago. By the fall of 1958, Castro’s forces have cut the nation in two and control most of the eastern half of the island. They gain the popular support of the people in the areas that come under their control.
The U.S. sees the handwriting on the wall. Batista is going to lose, and they don’t want Castro to replace him. The U.S. makes a deal with General Cantillo to use a military junta to remove Batista. However, Cantillo double-crosses the U.S. and has a secret meeting with Fidel to tell him of the U.S. plan. Castro and Cantillo agree to call an immediate ceasefire. Then they plan to arrest Batista and try him as a war criminal. But for some reason, Cantillo double-crosses Castro and goes to meet Batista to tell him of Castro’s plan.
Not wanting to risk being put on trial by Fidel Castro, Batista resigns on December 31, 1958, and immediately flies to the Dominican Republic with his family and closest advisors – and three hundred million dollars from the Cuban treasury. General Cantillo then appoints Supreme Court Judge Carlos Piedra as the new president of Cuba.
Fidel is furious about this turn of events. He immediately ends the ceasefire and goes back on the offensive. As news of Batista’s downfall spreads, there is dancing in the street. There is also widespread looting and vandalism. Fidel orders his followers to take charge of police duties to avoid a total collapse of law and order. They eagerly comply. Roving bands of vigilantes with 26 de Julio arm bands replace police officers. Justice is meted out without due process of law.
That will soon end, though. Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara march into Havana on January 2, 1959, and take charge of the city. Fidel does likewise in Santiago, where he also accepts the surrender of the garrison at Moncada Barracks. He gives a speech about wars of independence, and condemns the military junta of General Cantillo and his “puppet president” Carlos Piedra. He lays out his vision for the future of Cuba, calling for justice against human rights abusers and a better era for women’s rights.
Hail the Conquering Hero
Fidel then leaves for Havana. Along the way, he visits the mother of Jose Echeverria and offers his condolences for the sacrifice of her son. He is greeted by cheering crowds all along the way. He gives interviews to the press and gets good reviews from news reporters. The public adulation he receives is unprecedented in Cuba.
It takes Fidel more than a week to get to Havana. Before he arrives, he names lawyer Manuel Urrutia Lleo provisional president. Urrutia is an attorney who has been sympathetic to the 26th of July Movement from the beginning, and actually argued on behalf of some defendants in the Moncada Barracks trial. Most of Urrutia’s cabinet is made up of Fidel’s supporters.
Fidel finally arrives in Havana on January 8, 1959, to massive crowds and proclaims himself Representative of the Rebel Armed Forces of the Presidency. He and his close aides and family members take up residence in the penthouse of the Havana Hilton Hotel. Celia Sanchez is by his side, as are his brother Raul and comrade in arms, Che Guevara.
Although he has no official role in the provisional government, he wields tremendous influence because of his popularity and the rebel army he still controls. The congress elected under Batista is abolished, and all those elected were permanently banned from holding public office. Fidel meets with members of the Popular Socialist Party to discuss the establishment of a socialist government, all the while denying that he is a communist.
But the people of Cuba want justice for past crimes committed by Batista supporters, so Fidel pushes for trials to begin. Justice came swiftly. There are hundreds of executions following brief trials. The Cuban people approve, but many, including the U.S. press, argue that the trials are not always fair. Fidel argues in response that “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts but moral conviction.”
Fidel sets himself up as moral arbiter. If the verdict in a trial does not go his way, he orders a new trial and gets the verdict he wants. He organizes trials in front of mass audiences, in one instance in front of 17,000 people at a sports stadium.
Riding a wave of popularity in Latin America, Fidel travels to Venezuela to help commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of Marcos Perez Jimenez. Fidel meets with Venezuelan President-elect Romulo Betancourt and asks for a three-hundred million dollar loan (which he doesn’t get).
While Fidel is out of the country the Cuban government, with the blessing of Prime Minister Jose Miro Cardona, abolishes the National Lottery, closes casinos and forces brothels out of business, putting thousands of people in those businesses out of work. This enrages Castro. He forces Cardona to resign. Cardona goes into exile in the U.S. and joins the growing ranks of the anti-Castro movement.
While Fidel is very popular among members of the press, the same can’t be said of members of the Eisenhower administration. They had been concerned about Fidel’s leftist views and anti-American rhetoric from the outset, and he does nothing to set them at ease. In April, 1959, Fidel accepts an invitation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors to visit the U.S. Fidel hopes that while he is here, he will be received by President Eisenhower as the Cuban head of state. That doesn’t happen. Eisenhower avoids Castro, choosing to play golf instead.
Castro gives a speech to the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York. He does not hold back on his feelings about the United States, saying that Cuba will not beg the U.S. for financial assistance. Before heading back to Cuba, Fidel meets with Vice-President Richard Nixon. The meeting does not go well. Nixon concludes that Castro is “either incredibly naïve about communism or under communist discipline – my guess is the former.”
Relations between the U.S. and Cuba go downhill fast. President Eisenhower orders the C.I.A. to begin arming and training a group of Cuban exiles to attack Cuba in what will come to be known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The C.I.A. also begins planning the assassination of Fidel Castro. The animosity between the U.S. and Cuba is just beginning. It will lead to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.