On New Year’s Day 1959, the Cuban people woke up to the shocking news that their president, Fulgencio Batista, had fled the country overnight. After officially resigning at 3am, he’d packed his family, friends and government officials onto a plane, and flew out of the military airfield for the Dominican Republic.
“Wake up!” my dad tells me, “Batista’s gone. He’s fled!” I said, “You’re lying.” He said, “No, I’m not. I swear to you, it’s true. He left!”
— Carlos Eire, Voices From Cuba
In the days and weeks before, rebel leader Fidel Castro and his band of bearded revolutionaries had won battle after battle, taking key cities like Santa Clara and Santiago. They had also won over much of the population. By December 31st, Batista and his men had seen the writing on the wall.
Luis Rodriguez was a soldier in the Cuban army:
On the night of the 31st of December we were under attack... in Banes, Oriente, in a very remote area. We had been under attack for two days. All of a sudden we get the call, “Hey, the president has left the country.” The mayor of the town comes to see us and say, “You guys are in trouble. I mean, the president has left and all the generals are gone, and all the ministers.” … Finally, the word comes from Havana, “Stop the shooting. The whole thing is over.”
Imagine a regular army, fully loaded, weapons ready, ammunition, I mean, the chain of command intact. And, you have to surrender to your enemy. I mean, for no reason whatsoever. You don’t have to surrender. You haven’t lost a battle. But that was the case on the 1st of January.
— Luis Orlando Rodriguez, Voices From Cuba
As the news spread, cheering crowds gathered onto the pre-dawn streets of Havana, and continued celebrating throughout the day.
Batista had been a corrupt dictator and an unpopular president. Mobs began destroying symbols of his regime - parking meters, slot machines, and even pay phones. But for the most part, the throngs were peaceful. People were excited and hopeful. For many Cubans, this looked like it could be a promising change, even though the power vacuum was unsettling.
The uncertainty as to what was going to happen was so intense. I remember very clearly my parents’ instructions. “Do not go outdoors today.” And, this is just a few days after Christmas. So, for heaven’s sakes, and I’m on Christmas break from school. And, now I’m trapped in the house on a beautiful day. Well, every day was beautiful. But I still remember my mom saying, “Don’t even stick your head out the door. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Carlos Eire, Voices From Cuba
Over the next days, varying factions jockeyed for power and position. But Castro and his 26th of July Movement would ultimately emerge as victors, and change Cuba more than anyone that day could have predicted. More on this in our next post.
Were you in Cuba on this infamous day 60 years ago? If so, please feel free to share your story in the comments below.
This blog is part of a series leading up to the release of the documentary film Voices From Cuba, directed by Thomas Miller, and narrated by Andy Garcia - coming in 2019. Would you like to learn more about the film and how you can see it? Stay in touch here, and we’ll keep you posted!
Written By Thomas W. Miller
Copyright © 2019 Voices From Cuba