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This week in history: The Batista government falls in Cuba

This Oct. 12, 1979, file photo shows Cuban dictator Fidel Castro gesturing as he speaks at the United Nations.
This Oct. 12, 1979, file photo shows Cuban dictator Fidel Castro gesturing as he speaks at the United Nations.

On Jan. 1, 1959, dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba when it became apparent that he could not prevent Fidel Castro's 26 of July Movement from overthrowing his regime.

A military officer, Batista had risen to power through a military coup in 1933, and was elected president of Cuba in 1940. He served until 1944, then stepped down, moving to the United States for a time. He stayed active in Cuban politics and returned to run for president again in 1952. With the backing of the military, Batista launched a coup shortly before the election, and proclaimed himself president once again.

Batista's new government proved more heavy-handed than his earlier administration. Wishing to ingratiate himself with Washington, Batista became a hard-core anti-Communist and the regime soon resembled a police state. Batista not only wanted to draw closer to the U.S. politically, he encouraged U.S. businesses and even organized crime to invest in Cuba. The island became notorious for its drugs, gambling and corruption.

The island of Cuba had long captured the American imagination. While secretary of state in 1823, future president John Quincy Adams noted that the island held “an importance in the sum of our national interests with which that of no other foreign Territory can be compared.” In time, Adams believed, the United States would undoubtedly acquire Cuba from Spain.

During the Civil War, the Confederate States of America negotiated unsuccessfully to purchase Cuba from Spain. The United States aided Cuban rebels in their war for independence against Spain in 1898, yet domestic opposition to annexation meant that the United States was content merely to act as a mentor to the new republic in the early years of the 20th century.

In his book, “One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War,” historian Michael Dobbs describes this American infatuation with Cuba: “In the thirties, forties, and fifties, the island became a playground for rich Americans who flew in to lie in the sun, gamble, and visit (brothels). American money poured into casinos and hotels in Havana, sugar plantations in Oriente and copper mines in Pinar del Rio. By the 1950s, much of the Cuban economy, including 90 percent of the mining industry and 80 percent of utilities, was under the control of American corporations.”

Many Americans felt the pull of Cuba. Writer Ernest Hemingway, mobster Meyer Lansky and singer Nat King Cole all called Cuba home at one time or another, while a senator, John F. Kennedy, frequently visited Havana.

American domination of the Cuban economy and the rampant corruption of the Batista government caused much discontent among the island's poor. One Cuban who detested the regime was Fidel Castro, a 25-year-old lawyer when Batista launched his coup. After unsuccessful lawsuits failed to displace Batista and allow for free elections, Castro and his brother Raúl created the 26 of July Movement in 1953. The movement took its name form the brothers' first revolutionary act, an unsuccessful attack upon the Moncada army barracks.

For the next six years, the movement offered a rallying point for everyone with a grudge against the Batista regime and even drew idealistic foreigners to the cause like Argentine Che Guevara. Batista increasingly found himself fighting two battles: an increasingly more tenacious revolutionary movement, and the fight to convince the Americans and his supporters that he could prevail in the long run. As the guerrilla war intensified, both Batista and Castro's forces became more brutal.

By late 1958, the Batista regime was fighting for its life. Actions against Castro's forces that summer had backfired, and now the revolutionaries were moving west across the island. Batista hoped to make Santa Clara, which lay roughly in the middle of the island, a fortress against which Castro's forces would break. The situation was critical, however, as many elements of the Cuban army were falling apart everywhere as desertions and mutinies exploded.

Even as Batista dispatched his most capable officer, Col. Joaquín Casillas, to hold Santa Clara, other officers plotted against him, seeking to launch a coup and rule jointly with Castro. Castro rejected such offers, however, realizing victory was soon at hand. After intense fighting on Dec. 29, in which false reports of Guevara's death were circulated, most of the city was in revolutionary hands by the 30th.

In his book “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life,” biographer John Lee Anderson wrote: “At a News Year's party for his top officers and their families at Camp Columbia, Batista led his generals into a room adjoining that where most of his guests were gathered and revealed he would hand over the armed forces to (General Eulogio) Cantillo. Then, rejoining the party in the other room, he announced his decision to give up the presidency. … By three o'clock in the predawn darkness of January 1, 1959, Batista was in the air, en route to the Dominican Republic with 40 of his closest cronies ….”

While Batista's government was undoubtedly brutal and corrupt, it paled beside the regime that followed. Upon taking over the government, Castro was quick to assure the world, and in particularly the United States, that he was not a Communist. His actions proved him a liar. Castro's government soon launched a war against private property as land and industries were nationalized. All religion was attacked and homosexuals were sent to re-education camps. Neighbors began spying on neighbors and many who supported the Batista regime were put to death after show trials.

A few years after taking power, Castro admitted that he was in fact a Communist. Only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, a communist Cuba presented an important geographic threat to the United States, and in October 1962 proved the focal point of Cold War tensions when the Soviet Union shipped offensive nuclear missiles to the island.

To this day, Castro's communist government still rules Cuba, and in contrast to the early 20th century American infatuation with Cuba, today an American embargo strictly limits economic interaction with the island.

Batista died from natural causes in Spain in 1973.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: