First Look at Cuban Revolution, 1958

Many who criticize the communist regime in Cuba compare it with the halcyon days before the Revolution. However, Cuba of Colonel Fulgencio Batista was no picnic. In 1952, when he staged a coup, Cuba was relatively prosperous country, whose GDP per capita was roughly equal to that of Italy. However, the society was deeply unequal — as it was often the case in many one-crop economies.

Landlords, plantation owners, and union bosses controlled all the wealth and power. Batista addressed the issue by introducing a service economy in the form of legalized gambling. Havana became a centre of gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Meanwhile, Batista was never coy about his own extravagance or corruption; he used a gold-plated telephone presented to him by the United States. He and his wife were exempt from all taxes.

Fighting this kleptocracy was a group of guerrillas in Sierra Maestra mountains, for long a hotbed of insurgency; their leader was a bearded, bespectacled figure largely unknown to the outside world. Fidel Castro was an illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, who had already spent time in jail for an attack on a barrack. As Cuba’s press was censored, Castro had to rely on foreign media to spread his message. After 1957, his fame was on its ascendant; a New York Times journalist came to interview him for a story which would become widely publicized.


Also in Castro’s hideout was a young photographer from Madrid. Enrique Meneses spent a few weeks in Havana unsubtly asking about the rebels before finding someone to take him to the rebel-occupied area. He spent a month photographing the rebels; often sleeping in the same hut as Castro and attending rebel meetings. One of his favorite was that of Castro lying on a cot, writing an order by the light of a candle held, which he took without without flash or tripod. “Legs apart and that’s it. I took six photographs and all of them failed except this one,” he recalled.


A young woman smuggled his film out of Cuba to Miami in a petticoat. His editors at Paris Match were pleased. On the cover on the magazine on April 19, 1958 was a gun-toting Castro, taglined “the Robin Hood of the Sierra” and “Le Maquisard” (a French resistance hero during the Nazi Occupation). Batista and his feared secret police were less pleased; they arrested and beat Meneses.

But his sultanistic regime was now in its final months. The U.S. government ceased supplying him weapons. General strikes surrounded him, and many of his soldiers had defected to Castro. By November, the rebels controlled half of Cuba. On New Year’s Eve, Batista fled, taking with him $300 million from the treasury. 

Enrique Meneses died in January 2013. His work was credited with introducing the world to the Castro Brothers, Che Guevara, and the Cuban Revolution.

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