Revolt against the right wing regime of Fulgencio Batista led by Fidel Castro between 1956 and 1959.
The background of the Cuban revolution goes back to late 19th century when Jose Marti led a rebellion against Spanish Rule. Subsequently, however, Cuba was ruled by a series of military juntas or conservative oligarchs. The majority of Cubans were poor. Many depended on the annual sugarcane harvest, Cuba's biggest export. A latifundia system persisted in the countryside with peasants scraping a living from the land. Many squatted illegally on unused land. Their homes were often burned down by agents acting for the powerful landlords. A virtual racial caste system meant a white elite while mullatos and blacks were regarded as second class citizens. In the capital, Havana, the entertainment industry thrived. The United States maintained a base at Guatacama bay.
In 1952 Fulgencio Batista seized power. The following year, on July 26th, a group of radicals, among them Fidel Castro, attacked the Moncada barracks at Santiago. The participants were either executed by Batista or sent to a prison island. Eventually Fidel and his followers (now known as the July 26 movement) were released and fled to Mexico.
Mexico at the time was a hotbed of radical socialist activity. Many had fled from the CIA backed overthrow of the Arbenz socialist regime in Guatemala. Amongst them the adventurous Argentinian Ernesto Guevara (soon nicknamed 'Che' by his new Cuban friends). Neither Fidel or the July 26th movement were communist at this stage. In fact many of them were fervent anti-communists who wished to establish a real democracy in Cuba. Fidel Castro invited Che into the movement because of his medical knowledge and revolutionary zeal.
The putative rebels trained at a secluded farm near Mexico City but were betrayed and arrested. After release, Castro bought a small boat named the 'Granma'. 81 men set sail for Cuba with little ammunition and two anti-tank guns. Landing near the southwestern tip of the island, they were spotted by Batista's forces. Ambushed in a cane field, their numbers were decimated. About 15 men survived and fleeing into the harsh Sierra Maestra mountains.
Much of the Cuban Revolution was fought in this sparsely populated and remote Sierra, in the mountain passes and coastal villages. The guerrillas were aided by the peasants (guajiros) many of whom joined. The first successful assault was against a coastal barracks which was to be their last line of defence. The army regularly bombed their positions. Monetary reward was enough to induce many peasants to inform on them (these were known as chivatos). That the rebels survived was due to the indomitable spirits of the core leaders and the ineptitude of the Batista army.
Eventually the rebels numbered a couple hundred and had 'liberated' some mountain territory. Basic facilities were built, a revolutionary newspaper and radio and a military academy was started, revolutionary law held sway. Journalists braved the battle to interview Fidel (e.g. Herbert Matthews of the New York Times). Photographs of the guerrillas began to appear in fashionable magazines. All the while Batista's forces attacked. The rebels would retreat and advance when they had rebuilt their strength.
Politically, the rebels became distant from the July 26th movement who lived in the urban llano (lowlands). The communists Che Guevara and Raul Castro (brother to Fidel) began forging links with the Cuban communist party. Eventually, Fidel brought the July 26th urban leaders under his control and the communist connection deepened. Publicly, he expressed anti-communist views to avoid antagonising the Americans.
Batista sent 10,000 troops to the Sierra Maestra to finish off the rebels. However, at El Jique the rebels won a decisive victory which secured their position. Batista lost 1000 men. To widen their campaign, Fidel sent Che to the central Las Villas province and Camilo Cienfuengos to Pinar del Rio. Fidel would stay try to capture Santiago in the west. Che was successful in forging alliances with other rebel groups in Las Villas and towns began falling to him like dominos. In December 1958, Batista sent an armoured train full of ammunition and weapons to Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas. However, Che's forces succeeded in derailing the train and eventually Santa Clara surrendered. On New Year's Eve, Batista resigned and fled to the Dominican Republic. Fidel captured Santiago and marched on Havana triumphantly meeting no resistance.
Thus ended the first phase of the Cuban Revolution. However, the revolution includes the social and economic chages which were to follow.