On This Day

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Harold Valentine/AP
Fidel Castro addresses a crowd in front of the presidential palace in Havana, January 1959.

On This Day: Batista Flees Cuba as Castro Takes Power

January 01, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 1, 1959, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba as Fidel Castro’s guerrilla forces seized control of the country.

Batista Relinquishes Power

Fulgencio Batista, who had served as Cuban president between 1940 and 1944, seized control of the Cuban government in a 1952 coup d’etat. The Batista regime, which maintained close relation with the United States, was corrupt and unpopular with the Cuban population.

Fidel Castro led a nationalistic movement against Batista, launching an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953. The assault was put down and many of the revolutionaries—including Castro and his brother Raul—were imprisoned. Though the attack was a military failure, it helped spark the Cuban Revolution.

Batista released Castro in 1955 at the urging of the Cuban public. Castro retreated to Mexico to train his guerrilla force along with famed revolutionary Che Guevara. He returned to his homeland in December aboard the ship Granma, surviving a bloody encounter upon landing. He retreated to the Sierra Madre mountains and began military operations.

Over the next several years, Castro’s 26th of July Movement waged a guerilla war against the Cuban government, gaining widespread support of the Cuban people. In December 1958, guerilla forces led by Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos fought Batista’s forces in the provincial capital of Santa Clara. The guerillas seized Santa Clara on Dec. 31 and the Cuban army collapsed; Batista’s reign had become untenable.

In the early hours of Jan. 1, Batista and many of his aides escaped the country. “For the salvation of the republic,” declared General Eulogio Cantillo, “the military forces have decided that it is necessary for General Batista to withdraw from power.”

Celebration and rioting overtook the streets of Havana, as Castro’s forces gained control of the city. Castro descended from the mountains to Santiago, where he declared the formation of a new government. He triumphantly arrived in Havana on Jan. 8 and officially became Prime Minister a month later.

U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Castro

Castro’s revolution was rooted in anti-American sentiment, and his new government soon began nationalizing American companies in Cuba. As relations between the two countries deteriorated, the U.S. launched a failed invasion in April 1961 to remove Castro from power. Castro declared himself a Marxist-Leninist and aligned himself with America’s Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union.

As the only communist country in the Western Hemisphere, Cuba would play a central role in the Cold War. In October 1962, Soviet missiles were spotted in Cuba, leading to a crisis that nearly ended in nuclear war.

U.S.-Cuba relations have remained, writes the Council on Foreign Relations, “virtually nonexistent.” The U.S. has maintained an economic embargo and diplomatic isolation towards Cuba since the early 1960s.

Key Players: Batista and Castro

Fulgencio Batista
Batista became president of Cuba in 1940, after leading a rebellion against Gerardo Machado in 1933 and contributing to the resignation of provisional President Ramón Grau San Martín. Batista’s government drafted a new constitution and oversaw the legalization of the Cuban Communist Party.

Batista retired in 1944, when Grau returned to the presidency, but the years of corruption accompanying Grau's return prompted Batista to seek re-election in 1952. When little hope of winning, Batista seized power in a coup d'etat in March that year. The progressive views of his earlier rule fell away as he focused on enhancing his stature in society and building his personal fortune. He became hated by Cubans, who turned to Castro in hope of liberation.
Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro was born to a wealthy farming family. He became a political activist during his years as a student and gained the approval of the Cuban people when he promised to restore the constitution. Some of the more radical policies that followed his ascension to power disappointed his former sympathizers and opened rifts with the United States.

In February 2008, in ailing health, Castro officially ceded power to his brother Raul, ending his rule of nearly 50 years.

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