Why you should care

Because being sprung from a Mexican jail isn’t always a good thing.

Fidel reached for his sidearm just as a Mexican policeman put a gun to the back of his neck. It was June 20, 1956, and revolutionaries Ernesto “el Che” Guevara, Cuban President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel would be arrested within hours. The three men spent weeks in jail, and might have been detained longer, had a former Mexican president not intervened to help gain their release.

Castro’s revolution eventually succeeded, but for a short time Mexican authorities unknowingly held the power to change history. Had Fidel or Che been killed in a number of narrowly averted shoot-outs, or if they had been extradited as the authorities intended — or even just prevented from securing weapons — ours would be a different planet.

But the days of Cuba’s dictatorial regime under Fulgencio Batista were numbered, because Lázaro Cárdenas, former general of the Mexican Revolution and Mexico’s president between 1934 and 1940, was himself a revolutionary, a Robin Hood for the poor. He supported labor movements and nationalized the oil industry, and he personally interceded with Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines to help free Castro’s group, says Renata Nicole Keller, a history professor at Boston University and the author of Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution.

“Without the political direction that emerged, it’s inconceivable” that the group would have survived the subsequent war.

Cuban historian Jorge Ibarra

The fact that Cortines was mulling their extradition was a huge “‘what if?’ moment,” Keller says. Without the intervention, she says, “it probably would have been impossible to launch the Cuban Revolution.” Cárdenas would continue to support Castro throughout the revolution, making him a popular figure in Cuba.

And while Fidel Castro, according to a biography by Katiuska Blanco, claimed the Mexican authorities had them confused with gangsters, classified intelligence reports that Keller later reviewed reveal that the secret police and multiple foreign intelligence services — including Cuba’s — were in hot pursuit. They knew Castro was trying to launch a revolution, Keller says, because “Castro told them everything” during his interrogation. The arresting officer, in fact, would eventually become the head of Mexico’s secret police, and declassified CIA documents show he was an informant.

That quickly led authorities to where most revolutionaries were hiding and training for their upcoming war, at the Santa Rosa ranch outside Mexico City. Fidel, who had arrived with the group in 1955, insisted that he go along with police to prevent a shoot-out with the group, which was led by Che. In all, 22 were arrested, but Fidel claims authorities failed to find 70 percent of the hidden weapons. Che, distrustful of authorities, turned their detainment into an ideological battle, Fidel told Blanco. “He complicated things, which delayed our release from prison,” Castro said.

Gradually the men were released — Fidel and Che were last. Cárdenas “not only got us out of prison, but covered us with an aura of a prestige and strong friendship,” Castro would later recount. It’s still a mystery why Castro, 29 at the time, and his group were allowed to complete their training and secure funding, troops and weapons, not to mention the Granma yacht they used to sail away in late November carrying 82 men.

Keller doesn’t think they were officially protected. But there might have been an understanding they had to go, she adds, noting that the gang “felt that they were on thin ice in Mexico.” Perhaps Castro was not a big enough priority at the time — there were, after all, other Cuban revolutionaries making waves, and Mexico had its own concerns about homegrown insurrection. In any case, Fidel suspected they were under surveillance, not just by Mexican authorities but also by Cuban government spies, especially after the arrest. He still managed to sneak across the U.S. border to meet former Cuban President Carlos Prío Socarrás in September, who gave him cash to finance the expedition aboard the Granma.

The yacht endured a treacherous voyage before landing in Cuba on December 2, 1956. Only 12 of the 82 passengers made it to the rendezvous point in Sierra Maestra, where Fidel launched the three-year guerrilla war that eventually toppled Batista; the others died while fighting Cuban troops. Their time in Mexico had a cohesive effect on the group, says Cuban historian Jorge Ibarra, who also took part in the embryonic insurgency. The transit through Mexico “was crucial for the triumph of the revolution,” he tells OZY. “Without the political direction that emerged, it’s inconceivable” that they would have survived the subsequent war, he says.

It wasn’t merely that they were freed and able to launch the revolution. Their success relied upon the tight bonds and commitment that grew from the trials they faced. Che, for example, had started the Mexican adventure as the group’s medic but emerged as one of its leaders. And it was their allegiance to the cause that propelled them into history. They had cheated all the odds, including a Mexican jail, to get there, and the dozen fighters who survived the Mexican saga and the Cuban landing — including Fidel, Raúl and Che — became the pillars of the Cuban Revolution.

And today it’s the Castro brothers — arrested that fateful June day — who are negotiating whether to embrace a new era of less-hostile relations with the West. Unless, of course, someone or something stops them in their tracks.

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