Wednesday, December 31, 2008

50 years ago, Cuba's rebels took control

50 years ago, Cuba's rebels took control
Cuban history was made on New Year's Eve 1958 when Fulgencio Batista
fled and insurgents led by Fidel Castro declared victory.

Dec. 31, 1958, in Havana began as a subdued New Year's Eve, a reflection
of tense, unstable times. Explosions sometimes went off in theaters back
then, and police trying to quash an insurrection often stopped and
searched folks on the street.

Looking to avoid trouble, most Cubans celebrated safely by staying in.
That year, many of the people who would become Miami's top civic and
political leaders were teenagers huddled at home with parents afraid to
let them revel outside.

Rebel leader Fidel Castro was in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains,
preparing to attack the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba while he
negotiated with top military commanders and dictated memos through the
night. Argentine doctor and rebel leader Ernesto ''Ché'' Guevara had
just defeated the Cuban army in the central city of Santa Clara, and
Castro's younger brother Raúl was poised to take the far eastern city of

Castro did not know that dictator Fulgencio Batista had spent the day
gathering up cash and friends in preparation for leaving the country.
Top army generals frantically tried to come up with a new president by


'It's like a hurricane is coming: `I need to buy this and do that,' ''
said former Miami Herald journalist Roberto Fabricio, who with Miami
Herald staff writer John Dorschner co-authored the 1980 book Winds of
December, a recounting of Batista's final days. ``You know it's coming
some day.

``The hurricane had come.''

Fifty years ago, a new chapter emerged in Cuban history: A weary army
was no longer willing to die to support an unpopular regime. A growing
rebel militia was winning important victories as top generals secretly
negotiated with Castro and his men. With military aid from the United
States cut off, Batista found himself a defeated dictator presiding over
rivers of blood.

Seven years after taking power in a coup, it was time for the former
sergeant who dominated Cuban politics for three decades to go. He
gathered his allies for a subdued New Year's Eve party at Camp Columbia
base just outside Havana, where he shared the decision to flee with only
his closest advisors.

Winds of December describes ladies tripping over their silk gowns in the
rush toward waiting black limos.

At 12:35 a.m., Batista quit. At dawn, a plane with 44 people aboard,
including Batista, took off for the Dominican Republic, triggering a mad
scramble in Havana. Batista's allies fled by plane or yacht as the news
spread by shortwave radio. They were in mortal danger, and they knew it.

'I got a call about 3 or 4 in the morning saying, `The man has left,' ''
said Cuban historian Enrique Ros, father of Miami Republican U.S. Rep.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. ``I honestly thought Fidel Castro had withdrawn.
Everyone was surprised.''

Huber Matos was the rebel leader who led troops in Santiago de Cuba. He
had represented Castro days earlier in negotiations with Maj. Gen.
Eulogio Cantillo -- head of the army's Oriente forces, on the eastern
end of the island -- who had reneged on a deal to surrender.


Matos had orders to take Santiago by force. He had been up until 4 a.m.
mapping out plans to seize the city.

'I woke up at 7 in the morning after making plans all night and said to
the men, `Listen, the national radio is mute. Something is going on.'
Not a single station was transmitting anything,'' said Matos, who later
fell out of favor with Castro and was jailed.

With no time to consult Castro, former guerrilla journalist Carlos
Franqui, a member of Castro's July 26 Movement directorate and head of
Radio Rebelde, took to the airwaves.

Messengers ran to tell Castro, who was positioned in a sugar mill some
40 miles north of Santiago.

''I had to start making decisions that were the directorate's or Fidel's
to make,'' said Franqui, who left Cuba in 1968 and now lives in Puerto
Rico. ``It would have been fatal for Radio Rebelde to have been silent.
I decided to take responsibility and make logical decisions.''

Batista had fled, but the guerrilla war was not won.

Gen. Cantillo was busy in Havana finding a senior magistrate to take
Batista's place, as the constitution dictated. Cantillo enlisted an
unwilling judge in his bathrobe.

Castro wanted to fill the power vacuum himself. Furious and fearful that
the rebels would be shut out, he started barking orders.

''Naturally the first of January was also a terrible day,'' Castro said
in Franqui's 1976 book, Diary of the Cuban Revolution. ``We were
betrayed, and an attempt was made to snatch victory from the people. We
had to act very swiftly.''

Castro hustled to the eastern town of Palma Soriana to record radio

Guerrilla commander Camilo Cienfuegos went to Camp Columbia near Havana,
while Raúl Castro was sent to force Guantánamo's surrender. Guevara was
dispatched to the La Cabaña fortress in Havana harbor.

''Revolution, yes!'' Castro proclaimed over the airwaves. ``Military
coup, no!''

''It was a plan that was made and executed with such precision that
Batista fell practically on the day we thought he would fall, and
Santiago de Cuba was taken more or less on the day that we thought we
would take it,'' Castro said in the 1976 book.

``They attempted to snatch the triumph from us, and if there hadn't been
swift action, the consequences would have been serious.''

Some people in Havana acted fast, too: Jubilant crowds looted casinos
and ransacked the homes of Batista loyalists.

''I could see people running carrying drapes, lamps, air conditioners,''
Fabricio, then 12, recalled watching from his apartment building across
the Riviera Hotel on Havana's famed seawall. ``They took doors off the
hinges. The other unpopular part of the regime was the parking meters,
and people were taking bats to them.''

Brothers to the Rescue founder José Basulto, then 18 and heading off for
college, remembers people preparing Molotov cocktails at the
long-shuttered University of Havana while slot machines tumbled down
city streets.

'There was an atmosphere of trouble. Everybody was thinking: `What's
next?' '' Basulto said. ``I remember that I walked into a police station
and took a gun for myself. The police were there, looking at us. They
were on the job, but not acting on it.''

Matos' attack on Santiago never materialized, as military leaders easily
gave in. Raúl Castro took Moncada barracks without firing a shot.


That evening, Castro declared victory from the balcony of Santiago de
Cuba's City Hall. Franqui remembers the throngs of thousands who rushed
to greet Castro and touch his scraggly beard.

''It was a bit cultish,'' Franqui said. ``It disgusted me.''

With lawyer Manuel Urrutia named president, Castro began a weeklong trek
to Havana, where he was greeted like a messiah. He did not arrive until
Jan. 8, and did not officially appoint himself to the top job for
another 45 days.

''I don't remember anyone who was unhappy, or sad, or concerned about
what had just happened. It was just the opposite,'' remembers Miami Dade
College President Eduardo Padrón, who was 14. ``On that date, Jan. 1, we
really did not imagine the whole magnitude of what would transpire years
to come. At that moment, it did not occur to us that this would turn
into something we would dislike or actually hate or that it would last
this long.

``Fifty years is a long, long time.''

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