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.
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