The last time the government of Cuba changed hands, Fidel Castro was hundreds of miles away from the action, at a sugar mill in rural Oriente province.
The time: Jan. 1, 1959. In the early morning hours, President Fulgencio Batista and his closest followers had fled by plane from Camp Columbia in Havana.
About 8 a.m., Jose Pardo Llada, a veteran journalistpolitician, ran up to Castro as he started to eat breakfast. Pardo Llada shouted that Radio Progreso in Havana had announced a dramatic change was taking place.
Castro instantly sensed what had happened. His rebels were fighting Batista's soldiers throughout the central and eastern provinces and
he was confident that victory was near. But he also knew that whoever controlled Camp Columbia controlled Cuba.
With Batista gone, he feared, moderate anti-Batista fighters might take over the camp and gain power before he could get to Havana.
"This is a betrayal," he shouted at Pardo Llada. "A cowardly betrayal."
Castro decided to find a radio station so he could broadcast a message. Afterward, Castro's many critics would laugh that it was "just like Fidel" to give a long speech in a time of crisis, but in fact his voice was the only weapon he had that day.
About 11 a.m., Castro arrived in the town of Palma Soriano, where he found Radio Rebelde set up in a small house with French win
dows. The "station" was a table-model 120-watt Collins shortwave transmitter, but it was strong enough to send a signal throughout Cuba. BE ON THE ALERT!
"Revolution, yes! Military coup, no!" Castro shouted into a microphone as a crowd gathered in the street. "Snatching victory from the people, no, because it would only serve to prolong the war until the people obtain the total victory!
"After seven years of struggle, the democratic victory of the people has to be absolute, so that never again will there be in our country another 10th of March," he said, referring to the date of Batista's coup in 1952.
Castro ordered Camilo Cienfuegos, his commander in central Santa Clara, to lead his men to Camp Columbia. Che Guevara, also in central Cuba, was to rush to La Cabaña fortress, on the edge of Havana Harbor.
This shortwave message was picked up by commercial stations and rebroadcast throughout the day all over the island.
While Castro raced to take over Santiago de Cuba, the capital of Oriente province, the people of Havana celebrated in the streets. Some were Castro supporters. Others were simply ecstatic that Batista had fled after seven years of dictatorial rule. The one thing that almost everyone agreed on was that Cuba didn't need another militarycontrolled government.
The leaders of the army, seeing that they were getting no support, quietly went home. Havana was left in a political vacuum.
Slowly, triumphantly, Castro led a motorized parade across the island, reaching Havana on Jan. 8, a week after Batista fled.
MANY WERE ECSTATIC
Tens of thousands lined the streets, waving flags and applauding this bearded young man who was promising to lead them into a new era of democracy and freedom.
That night, at Camp Columbia, Castro gave a powerful speech, decrying other revolutionary groups for hoarding weapons and suggesting that only his group, the 26th of July, should have arms.
The people had nothing to worry about, he promised: "We cannot ever become dictators."
This account is based on 1959 documents and interviews with Fidel Castro, José Pardo Llada and others conducted by John Dorschner and Roberto Fabricio.