In February 1959, a guerrilla fighter called Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba. What happened next is part of 20th Century political folklore: Castro the cigar-chomping leader of a Communist state right on the doorstep of the United States, dodging countless CIA assassination attempts, almost bringing the world to nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and generally being revered and despised in equal measure.
But how did this bombastic, bearded upstart go from an outlaw in the bushes to the world’s longest serving non-royal head of state? And what was the situation in Cuba before Castro took over that fateful February? These questions take us back to the man who ruled Cuba before him, and whose own tenure as the country’s dictator has been almost completely overshadowed by the strutting presence of Castro on the world stage. His name: Fulgencio Batista.
The reign of the strongman
Like his future nemesis Castro, Fulgencio Batista came to power thanks to a coup. This was in 1952, when Batista – who had been a major power player in Cuban politics for decades – put himself forward as a candidate in a general election. Trailing at third place in the polls, a disgruntled Batista decided to take more direct measures and launched a military coup, installing himself as Cuba’s dictator.
Batista’s Cuba became synonymous with hedonism, corruption and excess. A tourism magazine of the 1950s gushingly described the capital city of Havana as ‘a mistress of pleasure, the lush and opulent goddess of delights’, while playwright Arthur Miller saw it in a different light, describing it as ‘hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.’
‘[Batista] turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state,
All of which was completely accurate. Batista revelled in the glory and riches of power, welcoming in foreign investment to the point where the United States came to own almost all of Cuba’s mines and public utilities, as well as 40% of its super-lucrative sugar industry. Cuban workers themselves were oppressed by harsh conditions and low wages, and in the words of historian Louis Perez, ‘daily life had developed into a relentless degradation, with the complicity of political leaders and public officials who operated at the behest of American interests.’
Batista countered simmering resentment by cracking down on the press and torturing and killing rebels. Even some US politicians were aghast – including Senator John F. Kennedy, who would later face off against Batista’s successor Castro.
‘[Batista] turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state,’ Kennedy raged. ‘Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror.’
Batista also forged close friendships with some of the most notorious mobsters in the United States, including Meyer Lansky, whom he actually put on a Cuban payroll, effectively hiring the crime kingpin to become the nation’s gambling minister. Lansky and his underworld cronies raked in millions from casinos and hotels in the ‘Latin Las Vegas’ – a phenomenon that would inspire a key storyline in The Godfather Part II (Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone’s adversary in that film, was directly based on Lansky).
Rise of a new strongman
While Batista and the super-rich elites lorded it over an increasingly desperate and divided Cuba, a rebel movement was on the rise. Its leader was Fidel Castro, a former lawyer turned Marxist revolutionary who recruited angry young rebels from Cuba’s poorest and most marginalised communities. Castro was absolutely committed to an armed uprising, and in July 1953 he led a raid on the Moncada army barracks in Cuba’s second-largest city.
It turned into a blood-soaked fiasco, with numerous rebels and soldiers shot dead in the firefight, and Castro himself eventually captured and put on trial. He delivered a four-speech to justify his actions, calling Batista a ‘miserable tyrant’ and ending with the words ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.’
Castro was given a 15-year sentence for the attack on the barracks, but was released in 1955 after being considered no longer a serious threat to the regime. This was a baffling miscalculation by the Batista government, as Castro was able to marshal his forces and plan a guerrilla war with the help of a new, key recruit to his cause: a young doctor turned revolutionary called Che Guevara. Their partnership proved decisive in leading the rebels in a war of attrition against Batista’s forces, with Guevara gaining a reputation for steely ruthlessness and strategic brilliance. Castro, meanwhile, was interviewed by foreign journalists, becoming a poster boy for revolutionary zeal.
After years of desperate and bitter fighting across rural Cuba, Batista realised the game was up. On New Year’s Eve 1958, he decided it was time to flee the country, taking his family and top ministers with him, along with hundreds of millions of dollars. The one-time supreme leader of Cuba would die in exile in Spain in 1973. Castro, meanwhile, would live on for many more decades, behaving like an autocratic strongman in his own right, and generating debates over his legacy that still go on today.