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Castro's revolution: forty-five years ago, a young firebrand took control of Cuba. Relations with the U.S. have been troubled ever since.

When the first truckloads of rebel troops rolled into Havana just two days into 1959, they were decorated with the black-and-red flag of the Cuban Revolution. After decades of political and social instability and seven years under the heavy-handed rule of General Fulgencio Batista, many Cubans greeted the rebels ecstatically. "Crowds overflowed into the streets to cheer the youthful, bearded warriors," wrote R. Hart Phillips in The New York Times. "There was sporadic fighting as the rebels sought vengeance on those who oppressed them."

One bearded "warrior" in particular was the star of the show: Fidel Castro, the 32 year-old lawyer turned revolutionary who led the insurgency. By day's end, he had named a new President, and a month later, he declared himself premier, solidifying a hold on power that has lasted 45 years.


Castro had been unknown to the outside world until July 26, 1953, when he and several dozen other rebels attacked an army barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Most of the rebels were killed and Castro was jailed.

The goal of Castro and his followers had been to oust Batista, who had himself overthrown the previous elected Cuban government hi a 1952 coup and rata a repressive and corrupt regime. Batista was backed by the U.S., which was concerned about American business interests, including extensive sugar plantations. Cuba was also a popular vacation spot for Americans.

After Castro's release from prison in 1955, he went to Mexico to organize his movement. There he was joined by Ernesto "Che" Guevara, an Argentina-born doctor who became one of Castro's most trusted lieutenants. In December 1956, Castro, Guevara, and 80 other rebels sailed back to Cuba and tried again to take over the government, with equally poor results. Most rebels were killed, but Castro, Guevara, and the other survivors retreated to the Sierra Maestra in eastern Cuba.

While Castro and his followers seemed to disappear, in fact they continued to build their movement from their mountain foothold. On Feb. 4, 1957, The Times ran the first of three exclusive stories: "Cuban Rebel Is Visited in Hideout," read the head line. "Castro Is Still Alive and Still Fighting in Mountains."

The reports were written by a foreign correspondent named Herbert L. Matthews, who had made his way to Castro by posing as an American sugar planter. By most accounts (including those critical of Matthews's reports as too sympathetic to Castro), the coverage was a shot of adrenaline for the rebel movement, helping it to draw new recruits and mobilize allies within Cuba and abroad. (Castro himself called the articles "really very helpful" in a visit to The Times in 1995.)

An engaging figure given to wearing army fatigues and puffing cigars, Castro relied on the fierce loyalty of his followers, who were mainly from cities, "largely students, professional people, idealists, and some dements of labor and the army," The Times said.

Within two years, under intense pressure from the guerrillas and after losing a battle with the rebels for control of the city of Santa Clara, Batista was gone. He tied Cuba on New Year's Day in 1959. The following day, the rebels triumphantly entered Havana, the capital.


The pace of change once Castro took power was dramatic. In short order, his government purged members of Batista's regime, took control of industry, expropriated foreign assets, and aligned itself with the Soviet Union. American leaders worried that Cuba would become a springboard for the spread of Communism across the Western Hemisphere.

In an attempt to apply economic pressure on Castro, the U.S. barred the purchase of Cuban sugar. Cuba then look control of the extensive American property holdings in Cuba and moved even further toward a socialist form of government. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 1961.

Later that year, President John F. Kennedy backed a plan to have armed Cuban exiles invade the island by boat at the Bay of Pigs. It was a disaster, with the exiles captured or killed, and a major embarrassment for Kennedy.

In 1962, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba--a policy that remains in effect 42 years later. That same year, the Soviet Union stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba (which is just 90 miles from Key West, Fla.) capable of reaching the U.S. Kennedy demanded that the missiles be removed, and on October 22, he announced a naval blockade of Cuba. A fearful world looked on, afraid that a nuclear war was about to break out. The tense standoff between Kennedy on one side and Castro and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev on the other lasted a week, until the Soviets agreed to remove the weapons.

In the four decades since, Castro--while initially making strides in education and health care for the Cuban people--created a repressive government of his own, in which human rights have been routinely violated and dissent is not tolerated. The socialist economy--long propped up by massive Russian subsidies--took a nosedive after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.


Tens of thousands of Cubans have fled to the U.S. since the revolution, with many settling in Florida, where they remain fast in their opposition to Castro--and a significant influence on American foreign policy and domestic politics. The continuing U.S. trade embargo and constant flow of people trying to escape has made Cuba a much larger presence in American life than an island the size of Kentucky would seem to merit.

In 1980, after Castro temporarily eased emigration restrictions, 125,000 Cubans made their way to the U.S. by boat from the port of Mariel, in what became known as the Mariel Boatlift.

In 1999, the two governments were at odds over the fate of Elian Gonzalez, a 6-year-old boy who survived a shipwreck that had claimed his mother's life as they fled Cuba for the U.S. Elian's father had remained in Cuba and demanded the return of his son, who was staying with relatives in Florida. After months of tension, U.S. authorities sent him back.

By the time he celebrated the 45th anniversary of his takeover in January, the 77-year-old Castro--now widely known as Cuba's "President for life"--had outlasted the administrations of eight U.S. Presidents.

Relations Between Cuba and the U.S. Have Been Troubled Since the Communist Takeover in 1959


* If you had the opportunity to travel to Cuba, what would you most like to learn about the people and their government?

* In years past, the U.S. repeatedly tried to assassinate Castro. Would you have supported that policy?


To help students understand why the relatively small country of Cuba continues to have such a dramatic influence on American foreign policy and domestic politics.


BACKGROUND: Cuba is a fairly small island (roughly the size of Kentucky), but its natural resources and strategic location just 90 miles south of Florida have for centuries attracted the attention of other nations, including Spain, France, England, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

INFLUENCING POLICY: Refer to the "Cuba Looms Large" section. Note that Cuban immigrants, most fervently anti:Castro, influence U.S. foreign policy and, domestic politics. This influence manifests itself at the polls in Florida and in national politics. Many politicians have not wished to anger the Cuban community by promoting trade or diplomatic relations with Castro's Cuba.

Ask: Why, if immigrants come to the U.S., do they want to influence U.S. policy toward their homeland? In what ways do they go about trying to influence government policy? (See Debate, next section.)

DEBATE: Tell students about a current foreign-policy debate. On one side are those who believe a continued economic embargo is the only way to unseat Castro. On the other side are those who argue that ff the U.S. can trade with China, which is also Communist and also a human rights violator, there is no reason not to open relations with Cuba.

Ask: Do open relations and trade encourage the free flow of democratic ideas? Or do they prop up dictatorships? Students should be prepared to defend their positions on the question.

WEB WATCH: Long before Castro, many Cubans bristled at U.S. influence over their country. Go to www.mtholyoke .edu/acad/intrel/platt.htm to see a copy of the 1903 Platt Amendment, a brief agreement that gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba's internal affairs.

FAST FACT: Although most Cuban immigrants support the embargo, they send millions of dollars to relatives in Cuba, thus, critics say, helping prop up Castro.

Upfront QUIZ 4

DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the best answer.
1. The White House approved a CIA plan to invade Cuba
 early in the administration of President
 a Dwight D. Eisenhower.
 b John E Kennedy.
 c Lyndon B. Johnson.
 d Richard M. Nixon.

2. The U.S. instituted a naval blockade of Cuba in 1962
 in response to
 a Fidel Castro's announcement that he was a Communist.
 b the seizure of American business property in Cuba.
 c the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.
 d a plea for aid from anti-Castro rebels in Cuba.

3. Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had the support of the
 U.S. government, which
 a depended on imports of Cuban Sugar.
 b sought to protect U.S. business interests on the island.
 c needed new U.S. military bases on the island.
 d needed the political support of Cuban immigrants
 to the U.S.

4. Articles in The New York Times about Castro's
 rebel activity in Cuba's eastern mountains
 a helped Batista's army track his movements.
 b helped enlist American military moves against Castro.
 c had no appreciable effect on the rebels' successes.
 d energized the rebels' movement, drawing recruits and
 mobilizing other allies.

5. U.S. policy toward Cuba was cool almost from the beginning
 of Castro's rule because Washington feared Cuba
 a would encourage Communism in the Americas.
 b wouldn't pay off its loans.
 c was not as democratic as Castro implied.
 d would not respect U.S. leadership of the Americas.

6. Castro's defenders might note that in spite of his repressive
 government and human rights violations, he has
 a made strides in education and health care.
 b significantly improved Cubans' income.
 c restored his country's honor in the world community.
 d stymied U.S. plans to colonize Cuba.


1. (b) John E Kennedy.

2. (c) the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

3. (b) sought to protect U.S. business interests on the island.

4. (d) energized the rebels' movement, drawing recruits and mobilizing other allies.

5. (a) would encourage Communism in the Americas.

6. (a) made strides in education and health care.

Eric Nagourney is a staff editor at The New York Times.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Times Past; Fidel Castro
Author:Nagourney, Eric
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Feb 2, 2004
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