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1959 - Fidel Castro Takes Charge

When Batista and his closest allies escaped to the Dominican Republic in the early hours of January 1, 1959, power lay in the streets. Of the several groups that fought the Batista regime, the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement had an almost undisputed claim to fill the vacuum left by the dictator. Castro's charisma and his revolutionary prestige made him, in the eyes of the Cuban people, the logical occupant of Batista's vacant chair; he was the man of the hour, the new messiah. The other insurrectionary organizations lacked the mystique, the widespread support, and the organized cadres of Castro's movement.

Castro had unquestionable qualities of leadership. Endowed with an extraordinary gift of oratory and an exceptional memory, he would speak extemporaneously for hours. Like Marti had done years earlier, Castro lectured the Cubans on the evils of their society and the need for profound and rapid changes. The overwhelming majority of the Cubans accepted his leadership enthusiastically. The atmosphere of gloom that had prevailed during the Batista era was now converted into euphoria and hope for the future. Even those who had failed to participate in the anti-Batista struggle fervently joined the revolutionary ranks with a feeling of guilt for their past behavior.

During the first few weeks in power, Castro assumed no official position except commander of the armed forces. His handpicked president, former Judge Manuel Urrutia, organized a government, appointing a civilian cabinet composed mainly of prominent anti-Batista political figures. Urrutia then proceeded to tear down Batista's governmental structure. Once installed in power, the Revolutionary Government started to dismantle all the neo-colonial political system, and all misappropriated properties and wealth were confiscated, thus eliminating such practice from the republican life. Batista's supporters and criminals were tried and sentenced.

It soon became clear that real power lay with Fidel and his youthful Rebel Army officers. In public addresses, Castro announced major public policies without consultation with the Urrutia cabinet and complained of the slowness of reforms. In mid-February 1959, Prime Minister Jose Miro Cardona resigned in favor of Castro. Fidel Castro's formal assumption of power initiated a period of increased radicalization. Some of Batista's more prominent military and civilian leaders were immediately and publicly brought to trial before revolutionary tribunals, and the proceedings were televised; hundreds were executed summarily. Faced with mounting criticism, the regime ended these public trials but continued them in private, while also confiscating property of Batista supporters or collaborators.

The designation of Fidel Castro as Prime Minister accelerated the adoption of measures for the benefit of the people. A reduction of house rents was passed, private beaches were placed at the disposal of the people and companies that monopolized public services were nationalized. A transcendental landmark during this period was the Agrarian Reform Act, passed on 17 May 1959. It required expropriation of farm lands larger than 404 hectares and forbade land ownership by foreigners. The law, together with a sharp reduction in urban rents, marked the beginning of the rapid confiscatory phase of the Revolution. This would definitely eliminate large estates through the nationalization of all properties over 420 ha and granted the ownership over the land to thousands of peasants who had been sharecroppers or leaseholders.

In July 1959, the "obstacles" created by President Manuel Urrutia against the revolutionary transformations caused Fidel Castro's resignation from his post of Prime Minister. A few days later, Fidel Castro returned to his position due to popular demonstrations on his support and at the same time determined the resignation of president Urrutia and his substitution by Oswaldo Dorticos Torrado (president, 1959-76), an obscure lawyer and former communist party member.

In October 1959, "military sedition" was aborted in Camagey, concocted by the military chief of the place, Commander Hubert Matos, charged with being "in open agreement with landowners and other local counterrevolutionary elements". Matos, a popular Sierra comandante and Army Chief of Camaguey Providence, was arrested and imprisoned in 1959 on charges of conspiracy against the Revolution. He, along with the other officers who defected symbolized the antagonism within the army toward the participation of communist sympathizers in the military especially in political education posts.

To fight against the wave of counterrevolutionary activities, the National Revolutionary Militia Troops and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were created. These two organizations, together with the Cuban Women Federation and the Association of Young Rebels and other organizations created during the next few months would allow a wider participation of the people in the defense of the Revolution.

In August 1960, after the decision by the government in Washington to cancel the sugar quota, Fidel Castro announced the nationalization of all US properties in the Island. A few months after, this measure would be followed by the decision to nationalize all the companies of the Cuban bourgeoisie that had finally sided with the US and with the sectors of the oligarchy and had also helped systematically to all actions aimed at economic sabotage and de-capitalization.

As a result of these actions and the Agrarian Reform Law, the upper classes were wiped out, and middle-class families lost most of their income-producing property. Many emigrated, particularly to the United States, or were absorbed into the larger proletariat created by the Revolution. A gradual takeover of the mass communication media and the educational system also took place, and both became powerful tools of the state apparatus. In addition, the government initiated a program of low-income housing and a massive literacy campaign, which, according to official claims, has wiped out the 30 percent illiteracy rate that existed prior to the Revolution.




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