Part 1: “Benevolent Uprising”
As our president tries to open the large and powerful arms of this country to embrace the Castro family and the Cuban dictatorship, those of us seeking the best path, even if a new path, crave a fair, open and realistic analysis of the the Castro family’s benevolence and brutality. To begin with a concluding summarizing line: The Castros came into power fighting against a shallow, ruthless greediness that many of us hate, realized very quickly that the Cuban people could not easily be controlled, and then began a campaign of bloodshed, oppression and manipulation that continues today. This is one story where the details matter much more than the outcome. I will tell the story quickly here, but links follow this article for a deep dive, if you wish.
To America and the much of the world , Cuba was a tropical heaven. Palm trees, live music on the beaches, umbrella drinks so good that New Yorkers would often skip the very popular Manhattan and ask for anything with rum. The US was just coming out of the fog of sorrowful post-war human loss and finding a new confidence and bravado that only the new dominant world power can get away with.
It was 1953, a decade past the second “War to End All Wars” and American teens were incubating an American dance global craze and Elvis Presley was still hoping to get into the studio for the first time. Just a short trip off the Florida shores, behind the beach music and rum drinks of the tourist areas, Cubans were in a bitter debate between tradition and a rising amount of foreign (mostly American) business-fueled enterprise that was slowly turning Cuba into a giant weekend getaway for the American and British wealthy. Add to that an oppressive and ruthless government and the seeds of revolution sprout quickly. That revolution began with a small attack in 1953 and ended instantly, or so it seemed.
The president of Cuba at the time, Fulgenecio Batista, had once been elected and was relatively popular, even somewhat populist, in his first tenure as president. He then came back years later and seized power in a military coup. This time, he was very different.
After grabbing power, Batista began running the country much like a massive business. He started dealing extensively with American organized crime figureheads and many American companies. Those that are familiar with The Godfather II movie or The Boardwalk Empire series might recognize this part of the story.
Batista, attempting to quiet a growing angry population eventually began a very powerful secret police structure that enabled him to disrupt or destroy many of those that wanted change.
Interestingly enough, one person who tried to initiate change legally, through the court system, was Fidel Castro. He challenged the Batista government but eventually lost in court. The seeming victory in the Cuban courts for Batista turned out to be a tremendous loss…of everything. This court ruling prompted the creation of the armed assembly that became a significant movement that attacked first on July 26th of 1953.
Only 123 people from the 1200-person strong movement were used to begin the revolution. The first wave of attacks were well planned, hit multiple military facilities and somewhat stunned the military. Ultimately, the small groups were not nearly enough to overcome the relatively well equipped soldiers. After the military smashed the rebels, they went to work determining exactly who and how to counter-attack.
For this, according to some accounts, they resorted to torturing and executing many of the captured. Possibly empowered with detail offered by the tortured, both Fidel and Raul Castro were captured and imprisoned.
This should have been the end of the Castro brother’s part of the revolution, but the Cuban government eventually freed many of the imprisoned attackers only a few years later, including the Castros, to try and appease a restless public. The Castro brothers then went to Mexico to join other Cuban rebels, regrouped, came back and eventually crushed Batista and the Cuban government.
Releasing the leaders of the July 26th attacks can seem extremely foolish to many of us today, especially given that it seems obvious that people who would risk their lives to destroy you once will continue, in some capacity, to continue their work if they are set free. It is important to really get a sense of then President Batista’s view of the immediate world around him and the reality of his total control of the most important forms of power: Money, political influence and extremely capable friends with a vested interest in the Batista government continuing. While the average Cuban might have been suffering from continued oppression, the many American gangsters, Mafia operatives, American businessmen and Cuban elite that had been profiting mightily from Batista’s Cuba very much wanted the status quo. Even the U.S. Government itself was seemingly firmly fixed in the ranks of Batista’s supporters. The relatively tiny and unsuccessful July 26th attacks could easily be seen, from this perspective at least, as nothing close to a revolution. It was a small and easily repelled temper tantrum by a group of inept and Ill-equipped dissidents. In fact, when the Castros and 80-or-so other rebels tried to come back to Cuba for a second rebellion, almost all were wiped out quickly with the few survivors, including the Castros, left with seeking refuge in the mountains.
Things change, and sometimes when things change the entire world around you can change with them – and change it quickly did for President Batista.
The U.S. abandoned the Batista regime and imposed an embargo on Cuba. Word of the Cuba that had existed for the average Cuban had spread and now America, along with American businesses whether they liked it or not, would have no part of the Batista government. This embargo so weakened the ability of the Cuban military, most notably the Air Force that the government found itself increasingly isolated and left with a population full of years of anger, outrage and determination. The revolution was neither easy nor quick, and it was not just the Castro brothers’ “July 26th Movement” band of rebels. Other groups lunged at the government and fought to see change – big change. When the dust settled, it was Fidel Castro that stood in Havana with an entire country hungry, ragged and looking for an answer. The weight of so many people in decades of decline now rested on the former rebel soldier…and he responded much like Vladimir Lenin in Russia had responded not too long before: An early attempt to create the dream people-centric government he had instilled in the hearts and minds of so many of his supporters, followed by the realization that he could be toppled just as Batista had been and then a campaign of human atrocities that only served the cause of maintaining power and control.
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Also published on Medium.