Castro's Cuba Turns 50 Jan. 1, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Led by a young Fidel Castro, the revolution wrenched power from the American-backed Batista regime. Today, Cuba remains the only communist nation in the Western hemisphere, making Castro one of the most polarizing figures of modern times. NPR's Tom Gjelten, who spent decades reporting on Cuba, takes a look back.
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Castro's Cuba Turns 50

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Castro's Cuba Turns 50

Castro's Cuba Turns 50

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Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Led by a young Fidel Castro, the revolution toppled the Batista regime and thrust Castro into power, where he remains today, though out of the public eye. Today, Cuba remains the only communist nation in the western hemisphere, applauded by some for its nearly universal literacy rate and impressive health care, scorned by others for its suppression of human rights and civil liberties.

Here to tell us more about Cuba today is NPR's Tom Gjelten. He's reported extensively on Cuba since the 1990s. He's the author of a new book about Cuba, and he's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

TOM GJELTEN: Great to see you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, you just wrote a book about Cuba, as I mentioned. It takes us through modern Cuban history. If you would, take us back to that New Year's Day in 1959. How did this pretty ragtag group overthrow the Batista regime, which presumably had all of the resources of state power at its control?

GJELTEN: Michel, the key factor was that Fulgencio Batista had totally lost the support not only of the Cuban people, but of the Cuban military - the armed forces. He was a profoundly corrupt dictator. The CIA estimated at that point that 80 percent of the Cuban people had turned against him. His army was no longer willing to fight. It just sort of wilted away. So, yeah, even though Fidel Castro's army, guerrilla group was pretty small and not well-armed, they were facing an adversary that basically just crumbled.

A key point to remember, and it's one we often forget, is that, when Fidel Castro triumphed, he actually had the support not only of the working class, but he had the support of a lot of the more enlightened bourgeoisie that was all for the triumph of a revolution. They felt that reforms in Cuba were long overdue, and they were willing to go along with this project.

MARTIN: How did the U.S. initially view the Castro victory - or the victory of the revolution, I should say?

GJELTEN: Well, on December 31st, basically, 50 years ago late in the evening - late at night, about midnight, Batista flees the country. And then the next day, Fidel Castro and his men come down out of the mountains. Fidel shows up in Santiago, which is the city at the eastern end of Cuba, and gives a speech and designates a new government. He does not declare himself president. He designates a new government, which is full of moderates, basically liberals who had been supporting him, but people who were committed to democracy, free elections.

So the United States, even though it had supported Batista pretty close to till the end, figures, "Well, this is a guy who we can get along with." With one exception: the U.S. ambassador in Havana, a guy by the name of Earl Smith. He was a very conservative man, and he did not trust Castro. But most of the diplomats, the CIA, the State Department in Washington, the Eisenhower administration were all willing in the beginning to give Fidel Castro a chance.

MARTIN: So what happened? The embargo which persists to this day was imposed three years later in 1962. What happened?

GJELTEN: What happened, Michel, is that through the course of 1959, Fidel starts moving to the left. A lot of the moderates that he appointed to the cabinet were replaced by radicals. A real important turning point came in February of 1960, when a Soviet trade delegation visited Havana, and Fidel made clear that he really wanted to do business with the Soviet Union, and then he announced that he was going to be importing oil from the Soviet Union. And remember, at this time, the Soviet Union is the U.S.'s archenemy.

So once Fidel starts reaching out to the Soviet Union, things really go downhill fast. First, you see American oil companies saying they're not going to refine this Soviet oil. In response, Fidel expropriates the U.S. oil companies so that he can make them Cuban companies and order them to refine Soviet oil. In response to that, the United States begins to put sanctions on. In responds to the sanctions, Fidel expropriates more companies, and it's just one thing after another, and within a year, you do have these trade sanctions, the embargo in place against Fidel Castro.

MARTIN: Now, I think many Americans would be most familiar with Cuba through the exile community, which is centered in Florida but not exclusively there. What is it that led so many people to leave, and who are the people who did leave?

GJELTEN: Complicated question, Michel. Keep in mind, we're talking about something that's happened over the course of 50 years. So there have been different waves of exiles. In the first wave, which was right off the bat, 1960, 1961, basically two groups. First of all, obviously, all those who supported Batista left, and that did include many members of the upper class. But also moderates who supported Fidel in the beginning but then grew disenchanted with him - they left.

And then later on, as things in Cuba really started to deteriorate, and people became sort of just fed up with the economic failures and the lack of freedom, you got a second wave, particularly in 1980, when Fidel allowed boats to come to Cuba and take away any - basically any Cubans who wanted to get on the boat and leave.

Again in 1994, when there was a rush of rafters leaving Cuba, each of these waves were demographically different. The first wave, obviously in 1960, '61, were those people who were more privileged, a much whiter section of the Cuban population, much more upper class. Later waves were a lot more diverse - a lot more working class Cubans. Cubans of color began leaving. So you do see real differences demographically, racially, culturally, and also politically in these different waves of exiles.

MARTIN: I want to talk more about the demographics of Cuba, the exile community, and also what might be in store as the United States prepares to welcome a new administration. But we need to take a short break. We're speaking with NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten about the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. He's also the author of a new book about Cuba, "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba." We're going to continue our conversation in just a moment. This is Tell Me More from NPR News, I'm Michel Martin.

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, just in time for your New Year's eve celebration, another installment in our winter sipping series. It sounds like a contradiction, but our wine maven, Callie Crossley, says she has some bubblies that won't break your budget, and we will tell you about those in just a few minutes. But first, we going to continue our conversation with NPR's Tom Gjelten about the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. That's tomorrow.

Tom, we've just got a few minutes left. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the racial dynamics of Cuba. Cuba is a former slave society like the United States. It's multi-racial, predominantly African and European heritage, but in this country, we're mainly exposed to the white Cuban community as the people who are spokespersons for the community. Why is that?

GJELTEN: Well, it's because the leading members of the Cuban exile community - the ones that are - who are the ones who have been here the longest, and they are the ones whose departure from Cuba came in those early years 1960, '61, '62, and they definitely were predominantly white.

Now, there have been a few exile leaders in more recent years and dissidents who actually are Afro-Cuban. In fact, the leading dissident in Cuban today is a guy by the name of Oscar Biscet, who is black, and there are some Cuban exiles who are Afro-Cuban. But you're absolutely right. The leadership of the exile community, because they are the ones who have been here the longest, are predominantly white.

MARTIN: Now, Fidel Castro earlier this year handed power over to his brother, Raul, who's only a few years younger, due to Fidel's declining health. Has that made any difference at all in a politics to the island?

GJELTEN: It has. It hasn't made as much difference as I think people expected it would, and that's because I'm personally convinced that there's a lot of evidence that Fidel Castro continues to play an important role behind the scenes. But you are right. I mean, Raul Castro has opened the way to more criticism of the system, and he has made possible some significant economic reforms - not significant political reforms though.

MARTIN: And, of course, in the U.S., we are about to experience a new administration taking off in just three weeks from now. President-elect Barack Obama during the campaign signaled the he would take a different view of Cuba. We have a short clip from the campaign earlier this year.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: It's time for a new strategy. There are no better ambassadors for the freedom of the Cuban people than Cuban-Americans. And that's why I have said that I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island. It's time to let Cuban-Americans see their mothers and their fathers, their sisters, and their brothers. It's time to let Cuban-American money make their families less dependent on the Castro regime. That is a commitment that I'm making right here.

MARTIN: How significant a policy change would this be, and does this represent a ceiling or a floor for what we can expect in U.S.-Cuban relations in a change?

GJELTEN: I think it's more a floor, Michel. I think this is an opening step. It's a step you heard - that was a speech that he gave before a bunch of Cuban-Americans, and these reforms that he's talking about, loosening the restrictions on travel, family travel, and remittances are ones that are very popular within the Cuban-American community. So even though they are a departure from current U.S. policy, they're ones that are supported by a large percentage of Cuban-Americans. So he's starting here very consciously. However, if you take the fact that we now have a Democratic Congress, a Democratic president, a new leader in Cuba, we have the ingredients for a possible real revision of U.S. policy.

But I think over the next four years the chances of some real changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba - and let's also hope some changes in Cuba's attitude toward the United States - may come. Because one of the things that we can definitely say is that, at least as far as Fidel Castro was concerned, there are some really mixed feelings. Did he really want to have improved relations with the United States? The United States played this very useful boogeyman role in Cuba, and so I think, in order for there to be true change, we're going to need to see a change of attitudes on both sides.

MARTIN: One of the things many people who visited Cuba have remarked upon is how it seems in a way a society frozen in time. There are all these old cars because you can't get new ones. There are old parts. Actually, there are even still horse-drawn taxis running around and that's not because it's cute.

In a way, our policy seems to many people the same way. It seems that there's been this kind of 50-year-old Cold War era political fight that is ongoing on both sides. Did anybody all those years ago imagine that 50 years later we would still be - essentially 50 years later still have essentially the same relationship with this country that's so close to U.S. shores? And I don't know if you and I were to get together five years from now, 10 years from now - it's so unfair to ask you to speculate, but do you think we'll still be having the same conversation?

GJELTEN: Well, Michel, when George Bush leaves office on January 20th, Fidel Castro will have outlasted 10 U.S. presidencies, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower in 1959. You know, you can talk about the great achievements of Fidel Castro in education or health care or whatever. I think without a question the single greatest achievement of Fidel Castro has been that he has survived all these hostile U.S. governments.

But I do think that with Fidel Castro now disappearing from the scene, Raul Castro, 77 years old, with Barack Obama as president, with the world changing, I think change is going to come slowly in this relationship. Anything that has lasted for 50 years is by now so deeply ingrained, and there is so much inertia, and there are so much hardened feelings on both sides, I think the change is going to come slowly. And within, you know, I'd say five to 10 years, we're going to see a totally different relationship between the United States and Cuba.

MARTIN: NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten has reported extensively on Cuba. He's the author of a new book "Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause." And he was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios. Tom, thank you and happy New Year to you.

GJELTEN: Happy New Year to you, Michel.

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