Few events in modern Latin American history have received as much attention from historians and social scientists as the Cuban Revolution. In scholarly books and articles they have described, discussed, and analyzed the manner in which the revolutionary government came to power in January 1959. These authorities agree that the guerrilla campaign waged by Fidel Castro contributed to the overthrow of the government of President Fulgencio Batista, but opinions differ as to the relative importance of rural insurgency, urban terrorism, and counter terrorism. Informed judgments supposedly are based on some knowledge of the extent of the guerrilla campaign in rural Cuba. An indicator of the extent of guerrilla activity is the number of persons involved in it. But there is wide disagreement as to the maximum numerical strength of the rebel army of the 26 of July Movement.

Table I provides a composite sampling of estimates by Cuban sources and by non-Cuban scholars. Obviously, some writers must be mistaken about an essential fact of the Cuban Revolution. Based on factual error, their analyses are hardly reliable. In the case of a momentous event like the Cuban Revolution, wrong interpretations can work great mischief. After twenty years, the time has come to set the record straight.

Among those who have estimated total Fidelista strength, the best informed would appear to be the rebel army’s Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro Ruz. However, on different occasions Fidel gave widely divergent figures (Table I, Items 6 and 7). In judging the accuracy of each figure, the concurrent political and military situation must be taken into account. Prior to the fall of the Batista government, Fidel is known to have exaggerated the size of his forces for tactical reasons. In February 1957 he sought to deceive the New York Times’ Herbert L. Matthews, giving him information which was soon published in the Times indicating that he had seen only a fraction of the rebel forces operating in the Sierra Maestra.1 Perhaps Fidel also misinformed Dickey Chapelle in December 1958. However, Chapelle, a distinguished war correspondent, whose career began in World War II and ended with her death in Vietnam, had more opportunity to verify Fidel’s information than her predecessor had. Unlike Matthews, who was in the Sierra for only twenty-two hours, Chapelle lived with rebel forces in Oriente province for more than four weeks, witnessed five major combat actions, and moved freely between sectors directly commanded by Fidel and by his brother, Raúl Castro Ruz.2 Also, by this time the rebel army had adopted a policy of supplying the public with accurate, if selected, military information deeming this to be an effective form of propaganda—especially when compared with the blatantly false communiqués issued by Batista’s army.3

In 1959, with Fidel Castro in power in Cuba, the Fidelista tendency was to stress the relative smallness of the rebel army and the popular nature of the victory over Batista. The new revolutionary government claimed to have a popular base and denied it had been imposed by the rebel army which was portrayed as too small to occupy the country and sustain an unpopular government by force of arms. While the rebel army was lauded for its military victories over an enemy with overwhelming numerical superiority, its success was attributed to the fact that it wielded the moral force of the people.4

The idea of the small guerrilla force destroying a large modern army was enshrined in the foco theory developed in the 1960s.5 From 1963 to 1968, the Cuban revolutionary government provided training, money and, at least in the case of Bolivia, cadres for guerrilla focos in various Latin American countries. The word went out from Cuba that great things could be accomplished with a minimum of combatants.6 The concept of the guerrilla as the instrument of the people, however, underwent some modification with Fidel’s commitment to Marxism-Leninism. The guerrillas were now seen as the vanguard of the masses. By engaging in rural guerrilla warfare, Cuban-supported insurgents could create the conditions which would induce the masses of a target country to fall in behind the revolutionary vanguard. To support the contention that only a handful of dedicated guerrilleros were necessary to bring off a revolution, Fidel pointed to the experience of his own forces in Cuba. He emphasized the disparity in numbers between his forces and those of the Batista government.7 The final victory was won, Fidel told Lee Lockwood in 1966, with approximately 3,000 guerrilleros, less than half the number he had reported to Dickey Chapelle in 1958 (Table I, Items 6 and 7).

Still, the lower of Fidel’s figures is higher than those usually given by anti-Castro Cubans and by Anglo-American academics. An exception is Hugh Thomas (Table I, Item 5), who, in a footnote, accepts the Fidel-Chapelle figure, but in the text gives the 3,000 figure.8 Others have tended to rely principally on Cuban exiles possessing little, if any, firsthand knowledge of the 26 of July rebel army. While anti-Castro Cubans may not have understated the number of Fidel’s guerrilla fighters in the struggle against Batista intentionally, they did have an interest in presenting the Fidelistas to the world, and especially to the people and government of the United States, as a small group, without significant military experience or capacity, and without mass support, which had “betrayed” a popular revolution. Some of these exiles had fought against the Batista regime in the urban underground or in the mountains of central Cuba as members of revolutionary organizations other than the 26 of July Movement. Beginning in late 1959, they sought the help of the United States in redeeming the “betrayed” revolution.9

After the debacle at Playa Girón in April 1961, prospects for further United States military support for anti-Castro Cubans diminished, but the concept of the “betrayed” revolution persisted in the exile-influenced literature of the 1960s. Cuban expatriates continued to insist that the Fidelista guerrillas played only a minor role in the struggle against Batista.10 The true revolution was supposedly democratic and essentially political, not the agrarian-based social revolution claimed by Fidel. Theodore Draper and Ramón E. Ruiz have perceived a connection between the size and composition of the Fidelista army and the extent of rural lower-class involvement in the revolutionary movement. “To cite Draper,” wrote Ruiz,11

the few peasants or guajiros in the Sierra Maestra “were utterly alien to” Castro and his cohorts. That guajiros later supplied the rebels with food, as Ernesto Guevara claimed, is true; but since Castro’s small band never numbered more than 300 guerrillas, only a fraction of the rural population participated directly in the armed conflict.

But, as Tables II-IV demonstrate, Fidel’s forces amounted to more than a “small band” and presumably involved many more guajiros in the armed conflict than Ruiz and Draper supposed. The presence of persons of rural lower-class origin in important leadership positions is another indicator of guajiro commitment to the Fidelista cause. Persons of rural lower-class background are found among the column and frente commanders in the tables.

The total number of Fidelista guerrilleros operating in rural areas may be calculated from the figures given for the various subdivisions of the rebel army. By May 1, 1958, there were two permanently established frentes—or focos as they would be redesignated in the theoretical literature of the 1960s—of the 26 of July Movement, both in Oriente province. The escopeteaos in Table II were poorly armed rebels, some of whom had preceded the Fidelista regulars in the sierras, who were brought under 26 of July military discipline. Some were mountain guajiros, while others were fugitives from the lowlands. Until they could be properly armed, the escopeteros were more a burden than an asset to the rebel army. However, it was not long before many of these escopeteros joined the ranks of the regulars and were issued military weapons flown into newly established airfields in the sierras or captured from the enemy during the intensive spring-summer campaign of 1958.

By November 1, 1958, the 26 of July Movement had frentes in Las Villas and Pinar del Río provinces, as well as new frentes in Oriente and neighboring Camagüey, as shown in Table III. The seven frentes were referred to by Dickey Chapelle as “columns,” perhaps to conform to North American military usage. She designated the Fidelista columnas as “battalions,” probably because they approached the size of a United States army or marine battalion, “about 500 men and 20-odd officers.” She praised Antonio Lussón as the most capable “battalion officer” she observed.12 Actually, Lussón commanded Column 17 (Tables III and IV).

The social origins of the commanders in Table III who do not appear in Table II are as follows: Gómez Ochoa and Escalona were from the provincial bourgeoisie, while Mora was a “mountain peasant.”13 It should be noted that the frente commanders were not necessarily the most important individuals in the rebel army. Escalona was expected to turn over command of his frente to the commander of Column 2, Camilo Cienfuegos, upon the latter’s arrival in Pinar del Río. Ramiro Valdés, as second-in-command of Column 8, had a more powerful position than that of three of the seven frente commanders. Others, commanders of neither frentes nor columns, were more important than some of those listed in Tables III and IV. They include, besides staff officers, combat commanders assigned to the major columns like Guillermo García, a guajiro from the Sierra Maestra who led troops from Fidel’s Column 1 in some of the decisive actions of December 1958.14 While they varied in size and combat effectiveness, the columns were the basic rebel units encompassing virtually all Fidelista guerrilleros. The Maximum Leader indicated that his army was composed of roughly two dozen columns; his communications chief gives the more precise figure of twenty.15 The numerical strength of the Fidelista army consisted of the combined total of these twenty columns. Table IV gives column-strength figures for December 20, 1958, on the eve of the rebel army’s major offensives in Oriente and Las Villas provinces which mobilized large numbers of local militiamen.16

The available figures total 7,250 Fidelista guerrilleros operating in rural areas of four of Cuba’s six provinces by December 20, 1958. Not included are 120 fighters of the Directorio Revolucionario, temporarily under 26 of July orders, or a larger number of guerrilleros of the Segundo Frente del Escambray, then loosely allied with the Fidelistas.17 This total is evidence of an extensive 26 of July guerrilla organization and indicates a significant involvement of rural people in the Fidelista revolutionary movement.

Approximately one-third of the rebel combatants in rural areas on December 20, 1958, had been living under the Fidelistas’ rigorous military discipline for at least seven months. They were the regulars and escopeteros of May 1 (Table II); from the ranks of these hardened veterans, most of the officers of the expanded rebel army were drawn. By mid-December the ratio of government to insurgent forces in Cuba had dwindled to less than seven to one, giving the rebels a decisive advantage in this type of conflict.18 The highly mobile guerrillas chose the battlegrounds and could achieve local superiority anywhere in the contested areas. Despite determined, even gallant, resistance by government forces (for example, at Maffo and Yaguajay), the contested areas continued to expand until at the end of December Batista realized that his cause was hopeless and abandoned the country. The remnants of the urban underground, shattered by government security forces the previous spring and summer, were unable to seriously challenge the 26 of July rebel army for control of Cuba after the collapse of the batistato on January 1, 1959. Nor were other anti-Batista groups, including the relatively small and poorly disciplined non-Fidelista guerrilla organizations and the “enlightened” elements of the now confused and demoralized Cuban army, able to compete for power with the 26 of July Movement, with its combat-tested army of more than 7,000 and its huge reserves of popular support from Oriente to Pinar del Río. The victory belonged to Fidel Castro and his rural-based guerrilleros. Supplement to Table IV: Sources and Bases of Calculation by Column.


Herbert L. Matthews, Fidel Castro (New York, 1969), pp. 106-107; The Cuban Story (New York, 1961), pp. 22-39.


Chapelle, “How Castro Won,” Marine Corps Gazette, pp. 36-44; Matthews, Cuban Story, p. 27.


Carlos Franqui, Diario de la revolución cubana (Barcelona, 1976), pp. 598, 732733.


Ibid., pp. 696-697.


The foco theory is elaborated in Régis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution? (New York, 1967).


This is the emphasis of the last two chapters of Carlos Franqui, El libro de los 12 (Havana, 1967), pp. 222-254.


Lockwood, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, p. 168.


Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, p. 1042. The footnote reads as follows: “Figure given by Castro in the third week of December 1958 to the U.S. correspondent Dicky [sic] Chapelle (Osanka, 327), and I have kept to it despite some claims to the contrary, e.g., Cienfuegos told Revolución (8 January 1959) that he reached Havana with about 7,000 men (ibid., 13 January 1959). Goldenberg (The Cuban Revolution in Latin America, 162) says he was told in February 1959 that there were 803 ‘officially recognized’ soldiers of Castro in December. Javier Pazos, prominent in the 26 of July Movement in Havana and in the Sierra for a time, speaks of ‘2000 well-armed rebels’ when Batista fled (Cambridge Opinion, February 1963). This is also Karol’s (Les guerrilleros au pouvoir, Paris 1970, 167 fn. 1).”

What Chapelle actually says in the source cited by Thomas, a reprint of her article in the Marine Corps Gazette, is: “Fidel estimated there were 7300 in uniform (blue or green cotton drill fatigues) by the third week of December.” She goes on to say, “At the climax of the revolution the personnel in the field under Fidel Castro’s direct orders numbered about 15,000, half in uniform.” Both of Chapelle’s figures are compatible with data furnished in 1976 by Carlos Franqui, director of rebel radio in 1958. Franqui, Diario, pp. 730-732; Dickey Chapelle, “How Castro Won,” in Franklin M. Osanka, ed., Modern Guerrilla Warfare (New York, 1962), pp. 327, 335.


An early statement of the “revolution betrayed” thesis is Theodore Draper, “Castro’s Cuba: A Revolution Betrayed?” New Leader, supplement, Mar. 27, 1961. The same interpretation is found in the white paper issued by the Kennedy administration to justify the Bay of Pigs invasion; U.S. Department of State, Cuba, Publication 7171 (Washington, 1961).


“Even late in 1958,” writes Edward W. Gude in 1969, “the total guerrilla force numbered about a thousand, with some 7,000 in the urban underground. It was this latter group that became the backbone of the revolutionary movement.” Gude, “Batista and Betancourt,” p. 582.


Ruiz, Cuba: The Making of a Revolution, pp. 14-15.


Chapelle, “How Castro Won,” Marine Corps Gazette, p. 38.


Franqui, Diario, p. 738; Neill Macaulay, Rebel in Cuba, p. 41.


Franqui, Libro, pp. 12-13, 56; Bohemia, Feb. 24, 1959, p. 96.


Franqui, Diario, pp. 574, 730.


“In the final days of the war,” Franqui writes, “the 20 rebel columns, initially composed of fewer than a hundred men, could count on six or seven thousand well-equipped men.… The rebel escopeteros, who were thousands, were armed with the taking of small army posts. The tens of thousands of militiamen and clandestine fighters took possession of the weapons of the police stations that surrendered all over the island.” Franqui, Diario, pp. 730-732.


The commander of the Segundo Frente claimed that his forces numbered “some 4,000 combatants” at the end of the conflict. Eighteen years later, Segundo Frente veterans interviewed in Miami put the number of their comrades in arms in December 1958 at “about 450.” Bohemia, Feb. 1, 1959, p. 142; John Dorschner to Neill Macaulay, Aug. 23, 1977.


In Vietnam in the 1960s, counterinsurgency specialists theorized that government forces needed a ten-to-one numerical advantage in order to prevail over guerrillas. W. G. Leftwich, “An Afternoon with Bernard Fall,” Marine Corps Gazette, 53 (Feb. 1969), p. 27.

Author notes


The author is Professor of History at the University of Florida, Gainesville.