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Revolution Strikes Cuba (1959)

The Cuban Revolution’s origins are found in 1952, when the democratically-elected president Fulgencio Batista seized power before elections, knowing he would surely lose.  The Cuban people were furious with the move, among them, a rising political star and law school educated Fidel Castro.  He and his band of rebels assaulted a barracks to gain weapons for their revolution, but it failed, and Fidel and his brother Raul were jailed.  In his trial, Castro famously stated that “History will absolve me”.  They were eventually released in 1955 and exiled to Mexico, and returned to Cuba the next year with a band of Cuban exiles and Argentinian doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara.                             

Castro’s men were able to defeat Batista’s men when they had moved into the highlands and tried to flush out the rebels.  Using guerilla warfare tactics, Castro and his forces were able to capture towns and villages as they moved towards the city of Santa Clara.  Batista’s inner circle realized that Castro’s victory was only a matter of time, and he and his associates fled the country.  Castro was greeted in Havana by a jovial crowd on January 9, 1959.

Following the revolution, Castro agreed to provide the USSR with massive amounts of sugar and fruit in return for crude oil and a $100 million loan.  The Soviet crude oil would be processed in U.S. controlled refineries (Shell, Standard Oil, and Esso), but the U.S. put its foot down.  In response, Castro nationalized all the U.S. controlled refineries.  The U.S. countered back by placing an embargo on Cuban sugar imports.  Cuba sealed its fate by nationalizing all U.S.-owned assests and handing them over to the people: banks, mines, and railroads which amounted to nearly $1.5 billion. This was seen as the first "nail in the coffin" for US-Cuban relationships.

What perhaps most perturbed Americans was Castro himself.  They viewed him as arrogant, defiant, and virulent, just about every dangerous trait a Communist leader could have.  US diplomat Daniel Braddock noted in February 1959 after his visit to Havana that, “There has not been a single public speech by Castro since the triumph of the revolution in which he has not shown some feeling against the United States, the American press or big business concerns in Cuba” (Perez, 2002). For such a small and seemingly insignificant country to invoke such rhetoric and blast the United States was certainly unprecedented. 

The Cuban revolution had greatly undermined the assumptions of US well-being in the Cold War.  Fidel Castro had totally given himself to the cause of the USSR, which was seemingly unthinkable to the mighty neighbor to the north.  For one, Fidel Castro challenged the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted US supremacy and create a sphere of influence for the US in Latin America.  More than anything, the revolution in Cuba was an extremely improbably event to North Americans, it severely blindsided Washington.  This was due to the pace of events in which the revolution took place, but also the fact that there was no precedent for events that took place.

After the revolution, Cuba remained fearful of a U.S. invasion or ochestrated-coup.  In 1959, Castro's regime coordinated with the French and Soviets to acquire $120 million of weaponry.  By the following year, Cuba's armed forces had doubled in size.  This was due in part to the creation of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, which was a civilian-based neighborhood spying system to snuff out heretics and counter-revolutionaries.  This CDR would eventually encompass 80% of Cubans.