Almost immediately following Batista’s golpe, Fidel Castro began to plot Batista’s downfall. Castro possessed a vision of his place in Cuba’s future that seemed preordained. He was also ruthlessly focused. His plan: street protests and legal challenges to the Batista regime and a secret conspiracy simmering underneath.
He organized the movement and ran it with military discipline. The secret police came to arrest Castro within 24 hours of Batista’s coup, forcing him underground. Washington’s continued support of Batista ostensibly revolved around the issue of Communism—an entirely irrelevant question with regard to Cuba. Castro shunned the Communist Party, whose members were excluded from the Movement. Even Castro’s Communist brother, Raúl, was kept out for a time. Instead, political instruction centered on the nationalist philosophy of José Martí.
Castro, then 26 years old, launched his revolution on July 26, 1953, with an attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Unfortunately, everything conspired to go wrong the moment the attack began. It quickly collapsed in a hail of bullets. Batista declared a state of emergency. His propaganda machine went to work to convince the nation that the rebels had committed all kinds of atrocities. Unknown to Batista, however, the torture and assassination of 64 rebels who had been captured had been photographed. When the gruesome photos were published, a wave of revulsion swept the land. The Catholic hierarchy stepped in and negotiated a guarantee of the lives of any future captives.
Castro was eventually captured by an army detachment whose commander—a 53-year-old black lieutenant named Pedro Sarría—disobeyed orders to kill Castro on sight (Batista jailed Sarría, who would go on to become a captain in Fidel’s Revolutionary Army). Once in Santiago jail, reporters were even allowed to interview Castro—a public relations coup that sowed the seeds of future victory. Amazingly, Fidel was allowed to broadcast his story over the national radio to demonstrate how subversive he was. “Imagine the imbecility of these people!” Fidel later said, “At that minute, the second phase of the Revolution began.”
Castro, who acted as his own attorney, was sentenced in a sealed court that opened on September 21, 1953. Castro never attempted to defend against the charges leveled at him and his fellow conspirators. He relied solely on attacking Batista’s regime, and proudly defended his own actions in a mesmerizing oratory, citing history’s precedents for taking up arms against tyrants, and ending with the words, “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me!” (The Moncada attack parallels in many ways Hitler’s failed Rathaus Putsch in 1924. Indeed, Castro had studied and memorized Mein Kampf, and his “History Will Absolve Me” speech was closely modeled on the words of Adolf Hitler at the end of his Putsch trial, which ended with the words, “You may pronounce us guilty, [but] history will smile…. For she acquits us!”)
Castro was cheered as he was led away to serve 15 years in jail on the Isle of Pines (now Isla de la Juventud). José Martí had also been imprisoned on the Isle of Pines, adding to Castro’s symbolic association with the original revolutionary hero. Fidel was imprisoned with 25 other companions of the July 26 attack. The media gave wide coverage to Castro, whose stature increased with each day in jail. In May 1955 Batista bowed to mounting public pressure and signed an amnesty bill passed by congress. Castro and the Moncada prisoners were free. Nonetheless, Castro was forced to move constantly for his own safety. On July 7, 1955, he boarded a flight to Mexico.
Castro’s goal in exile was to prepare a guerrilla army to invade Cuba. Fidel’s enthusiasm and optimism were so great that he managed to talk Alberto Bayo, a hero of the Spanish Civil War, into giving up his business to train his nascent army—now known as M-26-7 (Movimiento Revolucionario 26 Julio)—in guerrilla warfare. (One of the foreigners who signed up was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentinean doctor and intellectual.)
In a brilliant coup, Fidel sent a powerful message to the congress of the Ortodoxo party, in which he called for the 500 delegates to reject working with Batista through congressional elections and to take the high road of revolution. The delegates jumped to their feet chanting “Revolution!” (The Communists continued to shun him—the “objective conditions” defined by Karl Marx didn’t exist.)
Castro also authored the movement’s manifesto, laying out the revolutionary program in detail: “The outlawing of the latifundia, distribution of the land among peasant families…. The right of the worker to broad participation in profits…. Drastic decrease in all rents…. Construction by the state of decent housing to shelter the 400,000 families crowded into filthy single rooms, huts, shacks, and tenements…. Extension of electricity to the 2,800,000 persons in our rural and suburban sectors who have none…. Confiscation of all the assets of embezzlers acquired under all past governments…”
Castro’s plan called for a long-term war in both countryside and urban areas, although he eschewed random violence against the public. To raise money for the endeavor, he toured the United States, speechmaking to thousands of Cuban exiles and Yankees alike.
Shortly after midnight on November 25, 1956, Castro and his revolutionaries set off from Tuxpán, Mexico, for Cuba aboard a 38-foot-long luxury cruiser. The Granma had been designed to carry 25 passengers. Battered by heavy seas and with a burden of 82 heavily armed men and supplies, the vessel lurched laboriously toward Cuba. One engine failed and the boat slowed, falling two days behind schedule.
At dawn on December 2, it ran aground, two kilometers south of the planned landing site at Playa Las Coloradas. The men had to abandon their heavy armaments and supplies and wade ashore through dense mangroves. Two hours later, just after dawn, Fidel Castro stood on terra firma alongside 81 men, with minimal equipment, no food, and no contact with the movement ashore. “This wasn’t a landing, it was a shipwreck,” Che Guevara later recalled.
Within two hours of landing, Granma had been sighted and a bombardment began. On December 5, the exhausted column was ambushed. Only 16 men survived, including Fidel and Raúl Castro and Che Guevara.
On December 13, Castro’s meager force finally made contact with a peasant member of the 26th of July Movement, and with that, word was out that Fidel had survived. Aided by an efficient communications network and support from the mounatin peasants, the rebel unit moved deeper into the mountains and to safety.