On New Year's Eve of 1958 Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba
after ruling the Caribbean island for six years, nine months and 21
days. The Fidel Castro's Rebel Army, which had been fighting Batista
for two years, took control of Cuban largest cities, including Havana.
Batista, a sergeant who led a revolution against high-ranking officers
of the Cuban military in 1933, had ousted democratic-elected President
Carlos Prio on March 10, 1952.
Liberated from Spain in 1898 by the United States, Cuba had had two
constitutional republics: the first one began in 1902 with the election
of Tomas Estrada Palma as Cuba's first president; the second one began
in 1940, after a new Constitution and with Batista as an elected president.
The first republic ended in 1929, when President Gerardo Machado and
the Cuban Congress decided to allow an unconstitutional second term
for Machado, who fled the country in 1933 amid a strong opposition
from students, intellectuals and labor unions.
Batista led his army revolt only days after the fall of Machado, and
was seen as one of the 1933 revolutionaries.
Fidel Castro was born under the Machado regime, in 1926. Graduated
as a lawyer from the University of Havana, Castro became a revolutionary
leader in the late 40s. In 1953 he headed a military attack against
army barracks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second largest city. About
100 people from both sides died in the event. Castro was arrested
and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Freed two years later, he traveled
to Mexico where he trained a group of revolutionaries. He landed in
Cuba in 1956 with 82 members of the Rebel Army, including Argentinian
guerrilla fighter Che Guevara. Less than 20 survived an offensive
of the Batista's air force at their arrival in the eastern region
of Cuba. However, they continued the struggle.
The Revolutionary Victory
On January 2, 1959 guerilla commander Camilo Cienfuegos took over
Havana. On January 8, Castro arrived in the Cuban capital after a
long journey from the eastern mountains of Sierra Maestra, where he
had been leading the revolution against Batista.
Most Cubans supported the revolution as they wanted to restore the
1940 Constitution abolished by Batista in 1952. Some social promises
by Castro also brought support to the revolutionary regime. Promised
general elections never took place.
Since the very beginning, the Rebel Army used firing squads to execute
officials from the Batista regime. The most notorious executioner
was Che Guevara, who was in charge of La Cabana fortress in Havana.
He has been accused of ordering the execution of more than 500 political
prisoners there, including about 100 in one night.
But 1960 was a decisive year for the so-called Cuban Revolution. In
February, Cuba and the Soviet Union signed their first trade agreement.
In May both countries resumed diplomatic relations. By July, Castro
had confiscated all American properties valued at $1.6 billion and
Cuban largest businesses valued at $25 billion.
Also by the summer of 1960 the new revolutionary regime had closed
or confiscated all Cuban newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations.
Fundamental freedoms disappeared. Every Cuban with a political opinion
different from the revolutionary regime was considered a "counter-revolutionary,"
then sentenced to jail or executed.
In January, 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke diplomatic ties
with Cuba. In April a force of 1,200 Cuban exiles trained by the CIA
invaded Cuba but was defeated in less than three days. At the end
of the episode, Castro declared the "socialist nature" of
his revolution and became a closer "friend" of the Soviet
Union. Since then the Cuban regime played a leading role in the Cold
War. In October, 1962 the Cuban missile crisis was about to cause
a nuclear holocaust. The Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons in Cuban
soil aimed at the United States. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement to end the crisis.
Moscow agreed to withdraw the missiles and Washington promised not
to invade Cuba.
The U.S. controversial embargo on Cuba was immediately implemented.
Those who oppose the embargo say it has not hurt the Castro regime
but the Cuban people. With the embargo, defenders say, Castro cannot
get hard currency to implement more political repression or train
foreign guerillas. In 2002, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said
in Havana that he opposed the embargo because it hurts the good will
between the two nations. But he also said Cuba holds trade relations
with more than 180 countries and the Castro regime can buy anything
it needs from those partners at lower prices.
More than two million Cubans have left Cuba legally and also illegaly,
as they cannot leave their own country without a government authorization.
Some of them defected while in official trips. Others have crossed
the dangerous Florida Straits in home-made rafts to reach the United
States, where most of them live. The Castro regime calls exiles "traitors"
A Soviet Cuba
A Cuban military build-up followed the missile crisis. Fidel Castro
has publicly recognized that his regime trained and financed almost
all guerilla movements in the Western Hemisphere, except for those
of Mexico. During 30 years, the Soviet Union provided Cuba with arms
and military trainning, and heavily subsidized the Cuban economy with
up to $6 billion a year.
Since the mid 60s the Cuban government owned all production and service
industries, including all news media. It is still the only employer
in the Caribbean island.
For decades, Cuba has had a political system similar to the one which
existed in the now-defunct Soviet Union. Cuba's Communist Party is
the only legal political party in the small country.
In the early 90s, when the Communist bloc was dismantled and the Soviet
Union ceased to exist as a country, the Cuban regime legalized the
use of U.S. dollars as a relief for the country's weakened economy.
It also gave some signals of a possible political opening, but finally
decided to remain as a Communist dictatorship incarcerating peaceful
dissidents and not allowing fundamental freedoms. International human
rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch,
Pax Christi, Reporters Without a Border and others, continuously criticize
the Cuban regime, and Castro has been profiled as one of the worst
enemies of the press.
Castro, who stands as Cuba's First Secretary of the Communist Party,
President of the State Council, President of the Council of Ministers
and Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Armed Forces, is today the only
dictator alive who has been in power for 46 years, followed by Libya's
Muammar Khadaffi who has been a ruler for 36 years. In modern times,
only the late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung reached 47 years as
a dictator. Castro will break such a record in 2007.
(Hernandez Cuellar, Editor of ContactoMagaizne.com, has been
writing about Cuba and Latin America for the last 23 years. He was
a writer with Spain's international news agency EFE in Cuba, Central
America and the United States.)