|Castro leads Cuban revolution|
On New Year's Day 1959, les barbudos (the bearded ones) led by their firey leader, Fidel Castro, took Havana, ousting the government of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled the day before, taking with him most of the national treasury. Under Batista -- dominant since 1933 and outright dictator from 1952 -- Cuba, the world's largest producer of sugarcane, had suffered brutal repression and gross exploitation.
The corrupt dictator crushed any opposition by either jailing or having them killed, siphoned away some $40 million from state coffers and sold the country to foreign capitalists. At the time of the revolution, Americans had a 40 percent stake in Cuban sugar, a 9 percent share in mineral wealth, and a whopping 80 percent interest in controlled public utilities as well as other interests in the oil refineries, banking and tourism industries. Investors made huge profits but little of the wealth trickled back to the six million island inhabitants.
In 1953, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro led a failed uprising and was jailed, where he famously announced, "History will absolve me." Cuban's admired his mettle and his campaign against Batista drew support from a broad cross-section of the population, including landless peasants, urban workers and middle-class businessmen.
When Castro was freed in a 1955 amnesty, he went to Mexico and plotted Batista's overthrow, finally returning in 1956 to wage a guerrilla war. The slogan of his insurrection was "Cuba for Cubans". Assuming total power in 1959, Castro began aggressive agrarian and industrial reform measures, eventually expropriating a billion dollars worth of American properties.
Opponents began to suspect that Castro was communist. In February 1960, Castro signed a five-million ton sugar deal with the Soviet Union; later, when U.S. refineries in Cuba refused Soviet oil, Castro seized them. U.S. President Eisenhower responded with trade embargoes and a year later severed diplomatic relations. Inevitably, Castro moved closer to the Soviets and after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the (embarrassing) failed invasion attempt by the U.S., declared that his revolution was indeed communist: the first in the Western Hemisphere.