New year, new era

As Cubans mark 50 years of Fidel, James Ferguson looks back at the day when Castro and Che Guevara first came to town

President of Cuba Fulgencio Batista giving a speech. Photograph by Stan Wayman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

It was to be a New Year’s Eve party with a difference. Fulgencio Batista, dictator of Cuba, traditionally invited his most trusted generals and political allies to his Havana home, near the military base of Camp Columbia, each December 31. There, among drinks, canapés and cigars, he would shake their hands, offer a small gift, and ensure that his circle of confidants and cronies remained loyal. He had been running Cuba since 1933, sometimes as army chief, sometimes as “elected” president, and he knew how to spot a potential usurper.

The gathering on New Year’s Eve 1959 was smaller and more subdued than usual. Batista’s power was visibly ebbing away, as guerrilla groups closed in on Havana and other major cities. Batista boasted that the Cuban army had routed the guerrilla forces at Santa Clara, but few believed him.

And, crucially, the US Ambassador had visited Batista on December 11 and told him that the Eisenhower administration could no longer prop him up. It was perhaps only a matter of time before the forces of Fidel Castro, after three long years of fighting, would be at the gates of the capital itself.

Even so, it came as a shock when Batista finally addressed the gathered guests and told them that he was resigning the presidency with immediate effect. It was to prevent further bloodshed, he said. Whether his hand was forced by his beleaguered generals is still not clear; but with a few words the dictator, who had presided over almost 30 years of corruption and repression, bade his farewell.

He was soon joined at the nearby airfield, where military DC-4 planes waited, by a coterie of cronies who sensibly thought it best to leave too. In all, about 180 military personnel and politicians jostled and fought their way onto the planes, in something approaching panic. Some, it seems, were in such a hurry that they forgot their wives. But Batista at least had the presence of mind to fill a plane with personal possessions, not least his stolen collection of fine art and anything between US$50 and US$250 million pilfered from the Central Bank.

Shortly afterwards, in the early hours of January 1, Batista and his entourage landed in Ciudad Trujillo, the name given to Santo Domingo by the dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. There, in the fiefdom of another sergeant-turned-president, Batista—and his fortune—would be made welcome. He was not so welcome in the United States, which by now had shunned its former protégé.

With a curious sense of constitutional propriety, Batista had named an interim president to replace him, but the hapless elderly judge, Carlos Piedra, did not stand a chance. As word spread through Havana, and then out into the provinces, that the hated Batista had fled, the old regime collapsed in spectacular fashion. At first it began slowly as the Cuban capital awoke to the unexpected news and to the eerie quiet of a New Year holiday. But then groups of men appeared on the streets, some armed, intent on attacking symbols of Batista’s power. Shops were looted; a newspaper office belonging to a Batista ally was torched, as was the mayor’s headquarters. As American tourists were hurried onto cruise ships, top supporters of Batista rushed to seek asylum in embassies. Throughout the day sporadic acts of violence flared up, but there was no full-scale celebration, as Havana’s people waited anxiously.

It was not until the next day that the guerrilla forces cautiously began to enter the city, having marched or ridden from Santa Clara during the night. Prominent among the long-haired, bearded and scruffy combatants were the rebel leaders Camilo Cienfuegos and the Argentine-born doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Following Fidel Castro’s instructions to take over key installations, Guevara headed at once to Camp Columbia, where 3,000 defeated regular troops were ready to accept the guerrilla leader’s command.

The unreal atmosphere was graphically reported by the Observer’s correspondent: “In the capital bearded heroes from the mountains are paraded into television studios one after the other to shout a patriotic phrase and blow a kiss to mamma. The commanders, chests stuck out but heads modestly bowed, allow themselves to be driven around the streets in vast honking Cadillacs. The whole thing becomes more like a mad samba…”

The real expression of popular joy was to wait until January 8, when Castro, who had made a leisurely and triumphal 600-mile journey from the city of Santiago de Cuba, finally reached Havana. At every village he had been greeted by jubilant crowds, and now the capital, festooned in the red and black colours of Castro’s 26 July Movement, awaited him. With the sense of theatre that would characterise the decades to follow, he stood atop a captured US Sherman tank as it rolled slowly through the streets. The crowd, estimated at a million strong, chanted “Gracias, Fidel” as the military convoy passed. Then, at the presidential palace, Castro made a speech to thousands of expectant supporters. “We cannot become dictators,” he said. “We shall never need to use force because we have the people, and because the people shall judge, and the day the people want, I shall leave.”

It took almost 50 years for Fidel to leave, forced out by illness and replaced by his brother Raúl, another veteran of the guerrilla campaign against Batista.

The events in Havana half a century ago put Cuba on the world map, transforming a classic “banana republic” into the western hemisphere’s first communist state and a player in the Cold War. Once a corrupt and glittering American playground, Havana began its half-century of isolation, crumbling through the economic blockade erected by a suspicious America.

Castro survived these 50 years, including innumerable assassination attempts, but Che Guevara did not, and neither did Batista. He soon grew tired of Trujillo’s Dominican Republic and moved on to Madeira and then to Portugal, where he died of a heart attack in 1973, a disappointed man. Soon after Castro seized power, Batista rather optimistically discounted his opponent’s chances of survival. “I give Castro a year,” he said. “No longer.”