hen the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Havana in the early hours of 1 January 1959, Fidel Castro was 550 miles away, at the opposite end of the island. Batista's flight had caught him by surprise. While Castro was stuck in the south-eastern hinterland, his rivals for power – the regime's top brass and the commanders of partially-allied guerrilla forces – were headed north-west to the capital. Knowing he would lose the race, Castro turned his positional weakness into a strength and embarked on an eight-day, island-long victory parade or caravana. His task was to ensure he would be Batista's successor.
General Batista had been a progressive, democratically elected president in the 1940s, but returned to power in 1952 through a military coup. He cancelled elections, suppressed dissent and struck deals with the US Mafia for personal financial gain at ordinary Cubans' expense. With no electoral avenue to change the status quo, opposition groups turned to violent insurrection.