Dec. 31, 1958, in Havana began as a subdued New Year's Eve, a reflection of tense, unstable times. Explosions sometimes went off in theaters back then, and police trying to quash an insurrection often stopped and searched folks on the street.
Looking to avoid trouble, most Cubans celebrated safely by staying in. That year, many of the people who would become Miami's top civic and political leaders were teenagers huddled at home with parents afraid to let them revel outside.
Rebel leader Fidel Castro was in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains, preparing to attack the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba while he negotiated with top military commanders and dictated memos through the night. Argentine doctor and rebel leader Ernesto ''Ché'' Guevara had just defeated the Cuban army in the central city of Santa Clara, and Castro's younger brother Raúl was poised to take the far eastern city of Guantánamo.
Castro did not know that dictator Fulgencio Batista had spent the day gathering up cash and friends in preparation for leaving the country. Top army generals frantically tried to come up with a new president by lunchtime.
`LIKE A HURRICANE'
'It's like a hurricane is coming: `I need to buy this and do that,' '' said former Miami Herald journalist Roberto Fabricio, who with Miami Herald staff writer John Dorschner co-authored the 1980 book Winds of December, a recounting of Batista's final days. ``You know it's coming some day.
``The hurricane had come.''
Fifty years ago, a new chapter emerged in Cuban history: A weary army was no longer willing to die to support an unpopular regime. A growing rebel militia was winning important victories as top generals secretly negotiated with Castro and his men. With military aid from the United States cut off, Batista found himself a defeated dictator presiding over rivers of blood.
Seven years after taking power in a coup, it was time for the former sergeant who dominated Cuban politics for three decades to go. He gathered his allies for a subdued New Year's Eve party at Camp Columbia base just outside Havana, where he shared the decision to flee with only his closest advisors.
Winds of December describes ladies tripping over their silk gowns in the rush toward waiting black limos.
At 12:35 a.m., Batista quit. At dawn, a plane with 44 people aboard, including Batista, took off for the Dominican Republic, triggering a mad scramble in Havana. Batista's allies fled by plane or yacht as the news spread by shortwave radio. They were in mortal danger, and they knew it.
'I got a call about 3 or 4 in the morning saying, `The man has left,' '' said Cuban historian Enrique Ros, father of Miami Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. ``I honestly thought Fidel Castro had withdrawn. Everyone was surprised.''
Huber Matos was the rebel leader who led troops in Santiago de Cuba. He had represented Castro days earlier in negotiations with Maj. Gen. Eulogio Cantillo -- head of the army's Oriente forces, on the eastern end of the island -- who had reneged on a deal to surrender.
PLANS TO SEIZE CITY
Matos had orders to take Santiago by force. He had been up until 4 a.m. mapping out plans to seize the city.
'I woke up at 7 in the morning after making plans all night and said to the men, `Listen, the national radio is mute. Something is going on.' Not a single station was transmitting anything,'' said Matos, who later fell out of favor with Castro and was jailed.