Ringing out the old: New Year's Eve in Havana, 1958

Cuban leader Fidel Castro after he took power in a 1959 file photo. (Miami Herald/MCT)
Cuban leader Fidel Castro after he took power in a 1959 file photo. (Miami Herald/MCT) Miami Herald / MCT

Dec. 31, 1958, in Havana began as a low-key New Year's Eve. Back then, explosions sometimes went off in theaters, and police trying to quash an insurrection often stopped and searched folks on the street.

Everybody looked to avoid trouble. Nobody expected history to unfold so most Cubans stayed in to celebrate safely at home. Many of the people who would become Miami's top civic and political leaders were teenagers huddled at home with parents too afraid to let them revel outside.

Rebel leader Fidel Castro was in the eastern Sierra Maestra Mountains, fixing to attack the city of Santiago de Cuba while he negotiated with top military commanders and dictated memos through the night. Argentine doctor and rebel leader Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara had just defeated the Cuban army in the central city of Santa Clara, and Castro's younger brother Raul was poised to take the far eastern city of Guantanamo.

Castro did not know that dictator Fulgencio Batista had spent the day gathering up cash and friends in preparation to leaving the country. Top army generals frantically tried to come up with a new president by lunchtime.

"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, 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 U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican. "I honestly thought Fidel Castro had withdrawn. Everyone was surprised.''

Huber Matos was the rebel leader who led troops in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. He had represented Castro days earlier in negotiations with Maj. Gen. Eulogio Cantillo, the head of the army's forces in Oriente, on the eastern end of the island, who had reneged on a deal to surrender.

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.

With no time to consult Castro, former guerrilla journalist Carlos Franqui, a member of Castro's July 26 Movement directorate and head of Radio Rebelde, took to the airwaves. Messengers ran to tell Castro, who was positioned in a sugar mill some 40 miles north of Santiago.

''I had to start making decisions that were the directorate's or Fidel's to make,'' said Franqui, who left Cuba in 1968 and now lives in Puerto Rico. "It would have been fatal for Radio Rebelde to have been silent. I decided to take responsibility and make logical decisions.''

Batista had fled, but the guerrilla war was not won.

Gen. Cantillo was busy in Havana finding a senior magistrate to take Batista's place, as the constitution dictated. Cantillo enlisted an unwilling judge in his bathrobe.

Castro wanted to fill the power vacuum himself. Furious and fearful that the rebels would be shut out, he started barking orders.

''Naturally the first of January was also a terrible day,'' Castro said in Franqui's 1976 book, Diary of the Cuban Revolution. "We were betrayed, and an attempt was made to snatch victory from the people. We had to act very swiftly.''

Castro hustled to the eastern town of Palma Soriana to record radio broadcasts.

Guerrilla commander Camilo Cienfuegos went to Camp Columbia near Havana, while Raul Castro was sent to force Guantanamo's surrender. Guevara was dispatched to the La Cabana fortress in Havana harbor.

''Revolution, yes!'' Castro proclaimed over the airwaves. "Military coup, no!''

''It was a plan that was made and executed with such precision that Batista fell practically on the day we thought he would fall, and Santiago de Cuba was taken more or less on the day that we thought we would take it,'' Castro said in the 1976 book. "They attempted to snatch the triumph from us, and if there hadn't been swift action, the consequences would have been serious.''

Some people in Havana acted fast, too: Jubilant crowds looted casinos and ransacked the homes of Batista loyalists.

''I could see people running carrying drapes, lamps, air conditioners,'' Fabricio, then 12, recalled watching from his apartment building across the Riviera Hotel on Havana's famed seawall. "They took doors off the hinges. The other unpopular part of the regime was the parking meters, and people were taking bats to them.''

Brothers to the Rescue founder Jose Basulto, then 18 and heading off for college, remembers people preparing Molotov cocktails at the long-shuttered University of Havana while slot machines tumbled down city streets.

"There was an atmosphere of trouble. Everybody was thinking: 'What's next?' '' Basulto said. "I remember that I walked into a police station and took a gun for myself. The police were there, looking at us. They were on the job, but not acting on it.''

Matos' attack on Santiago never materialized, as military leaders easily gave in. Raul Castro took Moncada barracks without firing a shot.

That evening, Castro declared victory from the balcony of Santiago de Cuba's City Hall. Franqui remembers the thousands who rushed to greet Castro and touch his scraggly beard.

''It was a bit cultish,'' Franqui said. "It disgusted me.''

With lawyer Manuel Urrutia named president, Castro began a week-long trek to Havana, where he was greeted like a messiah. He did not arrive until Jan. 8, and did not officially appoint himself to the top job for another 45 days.

''I don't remember anyone who was unhappy, or sad, or concerned about what had just happened. It was just the opposite,'' remembers Eduardo Padron, who was 14 at the time and is now the presdient of Miami Dade College. "On that date, Jan. 1, we really did not imagine the whole magnitude of what would transpire years to come. At that moment, it did not occur to us that this would turn into something we would dislike or actually hate or that it would last this long.

"Fifty years is a long, long time.''

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