60 years on, MHM Editor Neil Faulkner analyses the epic guerrilla struggle behind the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

Leaders of the Cuban Revolution march at the head of a victory parade in Havana, 1959. Fidel Castro (far left) headed the rebel guerrilla army that brought US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista to resounding defeat. Che Guevara (centre), was one of Castro’s three leading lieutenants and the key figure in the Latin American revolutionary movements of the mid-20th century. Image: Topfoto

For four tense years, at the height of the Cold War, an impoverished Caribbean sugar-island found itself at the centre of global politics. The Cuban Revolution of January 1959, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 were events of worldwide significance.

All three of these events were, in very different ways, remarkable military collisions. Marking the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, we take a detailed look at this epic struggle against the odds.

The Battle of Santa Clara was the largest pitched battle of the entire insurgency and the final decisive clash between the fidelistas – the guerrilla revolutionaries – and the batististas – the army of the military dictatorship.

Santa Clara is representative of the entire conflict, which involved a seemingly impossible victory against the odds. The guerrillas were outnumbered ten to one, and were equipped only with small arms, whereas the soldiers were defending a series of strongpoints with an armoury of heavy weapons.

A Cuban AA gun in action at the Bay of Pigs, 1961. Image: WIPL

This imbalance was characteristic of the war as a whole. Only 20 or so guerrillas survived a military ambush a few days after their initial landing in December 1956. At that moment, the Batista regime had tens of thousands of soldiers under arms and an arsenal of advanced Western weaponry, including artillery, tanks, and warplanes. Yet, not much more than two years later, the victorious fidelistas entered Havana.

The military power of the politico-social movement unleashed by the Cuban Revolution was evident again at the Bay of Pigs. However misconceived and mismanaged as a military operation, the speed and ease with which the incursion was liquidated – despite the surprise landing in a remote region, the serious fighting was over within three days – is further testimony to the inner strength of the Cuban popular movement.This raises important questions about the relationship between morale and materiel in modern warfare.

On the other hand, the US was largely successful in containing the Cuban Revolution and preventing it from turning into a Latin American conflagration, and this, as Che Guevara fully understood, meant not only isolation but also impoverishment for Cuba – which remains, after 60 years of US blockade, and especially since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, crippled by underdevelopment and poverty.

This is an extract from a 15-page special feature on the Cuban Revolution in the February issue of Military History Matters.

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