On 5 November 1956, 82 Cuban revolutionaries based in Mexico boarded a broken-down yacht named La Granma and headed for Cuba. Seven days later the yacht ran aground near the Los Colorados beach in Cuba's Oriente Province. The landing was well south of the force's link-up site, where 50 supporters awaited their arrival. Government warships patrolled the coast, and government planes flew overhead. The element of surprise was not a factor.
Three days later, soldiers, tipped off by a local peasant, surrounded the revolutionists and almost annihilated them. From 12 to 20 of the guerrillas survived and escaped to the Sierra Maestra Mountains to continue their fight against Cuban dictator and strongman Fulgencio Batista.1 Twenty-four months later the survivors formed the nucleus of a rebel army that marched to Havana to form a revolutionary government that continues to shape international relations in the Western Hemisphere.
How did this small group of guerrillas eventually defeat an army of 30,000 soldiers who were well equipped and had unchecked power over the Cuban citizenry? How did the United States, one of only two superpowers at the time, allow a nation 90 miles from its southern coast to slip from its grasp during the height of the zero sum game of the Cold War?
The answers to these questions lie in the guerrilla's use of propaganda and political warfare. The propaganda campaign that Fidel Castro and his followers waged set the conditions in Cuba and internationally. The campaign helped them gain Cuban society's favor and prevented an international (specifically an American) reaction to the insurrection and, ultimately, led to the rebels' victory. The Cuban Revolution's propaganda and political warfare, when examined in its original context, illustrates a well-planned and executed psychological operation (PSYOP) that influenced numerous target audiences and led to behavioral changes that helped Castro seize power while commanding a numerically and technologically inferior force.
Batista Seizes Power
On 10 March 1952, Batista seized power in Cuba for the third time in 19 years. He voided the results of the recent election and appointed himself chief executive, prime minister, and head of the Cuban Armed Forces. Political groups throughout Cuba rejected the coup, but none protested more vehemently than did student groups at the University of Havana. Castro, by then a practicing lawyer, legally challenged the coup and called for a 100-year jail sentence for Batista. However, Castro's brief was thrown out by the federal courts.2 Castro continued to work to unite the factions that opposed Batista. One student group, the Santamaria, published a mimeographed underground paper titled Son Los Mismos.3 Castro frequently published articles in the paper condemning the Batista government, and in May 1952 he suggested that the group change the name of the paper to El Acusador.
Castro's group of students and young leaders later became the nucleus of the 26th of July movement (M-26-7), which favored direct action against Batista's dictatorial government. The group began military training in 1953 and set its sights on direct military action against the Cuban government. The location of the action would be the Moncada Army Barracks of Santiago de Cuba.
On 26 July 1953, the group attacked the Barracks. The armed Revolution against Batista had begun. Government forces quickly defeated the attack, and Castro's group was forced to retreat. They headed toward the Sierra Maestra Mountains where they sought refuge and strengthened their numbers to continue the fight.
Government forces tracked the rebels and eventually captured all of them. Several were put to death while sheer "luck and public opinion spared the lives of Fidel, Raul [Castro], and some of [their] closest associates." Cubans were outraged at the summary execution without trial of many of the rebels. …