Rear Window: When Castro took to sea in a two-bit boat: Rebel turned dictator

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'FREE land or death' was the slogan of Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution in the 1950s. Similar words were on the lips of the 'rafters' who have been putting to sea in inner tubes for the shores of Yankee imperialism, and they knew that death rather than freedom was their likely fate.

Castro must have felt a pang as he watched these young idealists braving the seas. On 26 November 1956, a veteran of the dictator Batista's jails, he set sail from the Mexican port of Tuxpan in the yacht Granma - which was built to hold about 10 people - with 81 comrades bent upon liberating their country. 'We will be free or we will be martyrs,' he declared.

They ran into a storm, the engine acted up, they were seasick, had to jettison supplies, got lost and finally landed at the wrong place, two days late. Meanwhile in the Cuban town of Santiago sympathisers had fought police and the army for 30 hours, in an uprising designed to coincide with the invasion, and then gave up.

Castro and his exhausted band waded through a mangrove swamp to dry land on 2 December and the future president announced to the first peasant he met: 'I am Fidel Castro and we have come to liberate Cuba.' Four days later they were ambushed and soon only 16 of them remained. They crept into the hillsides of the Sierra Maestra, where peasants sheltered them.

Over the next two years, peasant sympathisers grew into a rebel army in a guerrilla war that shaped the revolution. The 'liberated zones' were extended, Castro's guerrillas expropriated big landowners and passed laws that formed the basis of the revolution's land reform. 'Radio Rebelde' broadcast Fidel's electrifying oratory to the masses.

The Sierra Maestra was the birthplace of the romantic image of the bearded revolutionary in olive-green fatigues that was to inspire young people across the world. Fidel's closest comrades were his brother Raul, Camilo Cienfuegos and the asthmatic Argentine medic, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. Che left Cuba in 1965 to fight and die in a doomed guerrilla war in Bolivia. He was, mourned Castro, 'too brave, too rash'.

Support for the rebels grew as Batista's regime started to fall apart. In September 1958, Castro moved his main forces out of the Sierra Maestra and towards Santiago, capital of Oriente province. Guevara and Cienfuegos led two columns on a march to the centre of the island and made gradual headway against dispirited government troops.

On New Year's Eve, Batista fled the country. Castro called for a strike, and was enthusiastically answered. On 2 January 1959 he entered Santiago and two days later Guevara and Cienfuegos took control of Havana. Castro marched in triumph across the island to reach Havana on 8 January, hailed as a hero to rival the 19th-century nationalist leader, Jose Marti.

Castro installed himself as head of the armed forces and set up a ruling committee of his closest advisers. There followed show trials and executions by the hundred. By the end of the year his moderate supporters were sidelined.

He attempted to steer between the two superpowers. 'The world . . . must choose between capitalism - in which the poor starve - and Communism, which solves the problems of the economy but suppresses the freedoms man most needs. Cubans and Latin Americans want, and are trying to bring about, a revolution which can satisfy their material needs without sacrificing those freedoms. Our revolution is not red, but olive green,' he said in April 1959.

But Washington was not convinced, and Castro's behaviour helped precipitate a crisis. He later admitted: 'I may have been more abrupt, more aggressive, than was called for by the situation. We were all younger then; we made the mistakes of youth.' Thirty-five years on, as his own malnourished people flee his regime, he can no longer make such a claim.

Castro beat off a US- backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, survived isolation after the missile crisis, an economic blockade by the US and the withdrawal, after the fall of the Soviet Union, of the economic lifeline thrown by Moscow. His survival is a tribute to the heroic fervour of the early days.

(Photograph omitted)