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A traveller's guide to Cuba's revolutionary trail

Learning about the history of a country before you land there is guaranteed to enhance your trip, putting into vivid context all of the things you're about to see and do. This is particularly true of Cuba: a country with an undeniably fascinating recent history. So before you jet off to the island nation, take a little time to learn about the Communist Revolution that sprung up there in the 1950s, forever changing the shape of the nation.

The statue of Che Guevara in Santa Clara

Brits are often introduced to the concept of the Cuban Revolution via the image of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who is often revered by young admirers of socialist or communist principles. Indeed, you've probably seen his portrait on many T-shirts on the streets of the UK. But who was Guevara, and what part did he play in Cuba's communist revolution?

Why and how did the Cuban Revolution happen?

In 1952, former soldier Fulgencio Batista - who had served as Cuba's elected president from 1940-1944 - seized power in a military coup, cancelling that year's elections. While he had established himself as relatively progressive during his first term in office, post-1952 he appeared dictatorial and seemingly unbothered by the challenges faced by ordinary Cubans.

Why did the Cuban revolution happen

Instead, he formed links to organised crime and allowed US companies to dominate the economy. All of this, alongside Batista's penchant for pampering himself with expensive foods and women, served to antagonise the people of Cuba. A young Fidel Castro - then an activist and lawyer - petitioned to overthrow the dictator. After it became clear Batista could not be taken down by legal means, Fidel and his brother Raul launched a paramilitary organisation called "The Movement" to take decisive action.

The rebels' first attack took place on July 26th 1953, striking the first blow at Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the barracks in Bayamo. However, they were defeated by government troops, losing approximately nine men in battle and 56 who were executed by Batista's forces afterwards. The Castro brothers were later caught and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences, only to be freed along with other political prisoners after roughly two years under increasing international pressure. They soon joined other exiles in Mexico to plot against Batista and his government once more, and it was here they met Argentine revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, who joined their cause. The revolutionaries then named themselves 'the 26th of July movement' in a nod to the date of their first attack.

Mural showing Fidel and Raul Castro and Che Guevara aboard the Granma yacht, Cuba

The rebels - including the Castro brothers and Guevara - set sail from Mexico in the now-famous yacht Granma on November 25th 1956. As a result of overloading, the ship arrived in Playa Las Coloradas too late for a planned coordinated attack, so the paramilitary group began to trek into the Sierra Maestra mountains. After three days of walking, an attack by Batista's troops killed most of those who had arrived on the Granma, but the Castro brothers and Che Guevara were once again among the survivors.

Once settled in the mountains, the remaining revolutionaries began to stage successful attacks, while support for Castro and his men grew among ordinary Cubans. On August 21st 1958, the rebels launched a comprehensive offensive against Batista's troops, taking place in Oriente province and Santa Clara, the capital of Villa Clara province. On December 31st that year, the famed Battle of Santa Clara took place. Hearing that the city had fallen to the rebels, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, and Castro began a long victory march to Havana, where he installed his initial choice of president, Manuel Urrutia Lleo.

The Cuban Revolution timeline

What did this mean for the people of Cuba?

At the core of Castro's government was the ideological principle of equality. During its first decade of power, the administration introduced a number of progressive social reforms designed to improve equality in Cuba. Notably, by the end of the 1960s, all Cuban children were receiving some level of education, compared to less than half before 1959. More money was also put into the arts, meaning Cuban music and theatre flourished.

El Capitolio, Havana, Cuba

Before the revolution, Cuba was a haven for American millionaires, movie stars, and mafia bosses, who would gamble in the casinos and drive around Havana in flash cars. However, when the US enacted sanctions on Cuba and the Americans left, Cubans ended up somewhat cut off from modern pop culture. In addition, at points Castro banned Cubans from consuming Western music and other cultural exports, compounding this effect. Even today, when sanctions have been relaxed a little, Cuba feels a little like a time capsule due to this singular lack of outside influence.

Driver and his car in front of Jose Marti Memorial Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba

Revolutionary highlights

So, what revolutionary attractions should you visit to really understand what Castro, his men, and the Cuban people went through back in the 1950s?

  • The Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara

    The Che Guevara Museum and Mausoleum, Santa Clara, Cuba

    A powerful place for Cubans, the Che Guevara Mausoleum is home to the remains of the revolutionary hero and 29 of his men, who were killed in 1967 when he attempted to launch an armed uprising in Bolivia. Inside the Mausoleum burns a single flame, lit by Fidel Castro, and the atmosphere is extremely reverent, making it clear just how much Guevara mean to the average Cuban even today.

    Adjacent to the Mausoleum, you'll find a museum housing many of the revolutionary's belongings, from water bottles and guns used during guerrilla warfare, to letters and photographs. This truly brings to life the Che Guevara story, making the soldier seem like a real person as well as the famous icon we're used to seeing in images.

  • Tren Blindado, Santa Clara

    Tren Blindado, Santa Clara, Cuba

    One of the stranger aspects of the Battle of Santa Clara was Batista's choice of weapon: an armoured train. Che and his men defeated the Tren Blindado by simply bulldozing some of the tracks, and ultimately won the battle.

    While in Santa Clara, you can go to see Tren Blindado, which is now a national monument and museum. Striking red train carriages have been transformed into mini-museums by Cuban sculptor Jose Delarra. Inside you'll find information about the battle, and the Revolution, as well as various artefacts including weapons, images, and clothing.

  • The Museum of the Revolution, Havana

    Museum of the Revolution, Havana, Cuba

    Housed poignantly inside the ornate Presidential Palace - home to all Cuban presidents from 1913 until the Revolution - The Museum of the Revolution tells the story of Fidel Castro and his men during the world-renowned uprising. There are also exhibits dedicated to what happened in Cuba after the Revolution. Behind the building you'll find the Granma - the iconic yacht that carried the rebels to Playa Las Coloradas from Mexico - as well as other vehicles and tanks used in the Revolution.

  • Revolution Square, Havana

    Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba

    In years gone by, Fidel Castro would address the people of Cuba from the vast Revolution Square. Measuring 72,000 square metres, Plaza de la Revolution is surrounded by government buildings etched with portraits of the revolutionaries. It's hard to believe given their revolutionary image, but Che Guevara and Fidel Castro used to go to work in these office buildings. The 109 metre-tall Jose Marti Memorial towers over one side of the square, marking the achievements of the patriot, while The National Theatre also sits on the perimeter.

  • Santiago de Cuba

    Moncada Barracks, Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

    Head to the east of the island to Santiago de Cuba, where you can visit the Moncada Barracks - Batista's military garrison, which Fidel and 100 of his followers attacked on 26th July 1953. The barracks are now home to a fascinating museum - Museo de la Lucha Clandestina - where you'll find a number of artefacts alongside models of the attack and images of those who died there.

    Head west from Santiago de Cuba to see the Sierra Maestra mountain range where the revolutionary guerilla army famously hid out during the 1950s. If you're feeling active, take the 4km hike up from Alto del Naranjo to Comandancia de la Plata - the rebel camp which remains just as it was left in 1959.

  • Bay of Pigs

    Museum Bay of Pigs, Cuba

    A place you'll certainly have heard of is the Bay of Pigs - or the Bahia de Cochinos - on Cuba's south coast. This area is notorious due to an unsuccessful CIA-backed invasion in 1961, which hoped to overthrow the newly established communist regime. You can visit this historic site on a day trip from Havana, and many visitors enjoy scuba diving here too.

Find out more about Cuba's revolutionary history

Government building at Revolution Square, Havana, Cuba

While there are plenty of historical attractions detailing Cuba's revolutionary history, you can also get a sense of how Fidel and his followers changed the way of life in the country just by wandering the streets. Look out for bold street art featuring Castro and Guevara, and pick up a copy of Granma, the newspaper published by the Communist party of Cuba.

Creatively maintained American cars, Cuba

Even Cuba's iconic classic cars are a colourful reminder of the country's recent history. The vehicles were left behind by Americans in the 1950s after sanctions were introduced, and after Castro banned car imports, locals commandeered these stunning motors. Unable to source new parts, Cuban car owners have painstakingly and creatively maintained the vehicles over the years, with 60,000 classic cars still running on the country's roads: an astonishing feat.

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Caroline Howley

Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

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