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From jungle hut, Castro led final push to power

Image: Revolution at 50
Fidel Castro lived in this hut, now a museum, in Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains at the start of his revolution.Ismael Francisco / Prensa Latina via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Before he was Cuba's unchallenged "Maximum Leader," Fidel Castro was a guerrilla warrior who slept in a hut made of sticks and palm leafs, with a hole-in-the-ground outhouse at the bottom of a hill.

Castro was 31 when he arrived in 1958 at this hideout deep in the cloud-forest jungles of eastern Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains, and led a rebellion that would topple dictator Fulgencio Batista as New Year's Day 1959 dawned.

Among his few luxuries, in a camp where 250 fighters slept on the soggy ground, were his double bed, kitchen and deck.

His hut had a writing desk under wooden shelves lined with photographs of his childhood and books including Machiavelli's "The Prince." It was at this desk that he scrawled a note to Celia Sanchez, a top rebel fighter and his rumored mistress, after Batista's air force bombed a nearby village. "The Americans will pay dearly" for supporting Batista's military, he wrote.

"Once this fight is finished, I'll begin the real struggle of my life, the fight I will wage against them," he wrote, calling it his "true destiny."

The area is now a museum, and on display in the hut is a kerosene refrigerator that supporters brought to him — with a bullet hole inflicted during an ambush by government troops on the way up.

"Some say Fidel used it for beer, but he only used it for medicines," insisted Ebert Cartaya, 33, one of the government-mandated guides who leads visitors to the hut up a muddy, two-mile  trail cluttered with sharp rocks and smelly mule droppings.

A trained lawyer, Castro performed two marriages for rebel couples at the camp.

Batista flooded the Sierra Maestra with 10,000 troops, but the guerrillas knew the terrain better and could prevail in battle, bolstering their arsenal with captured weapons.

They continued to gain ground throughout the island until Batista, having just hosted a New Year's party at Havana's presidential palace, fled to the Dominican Republic with $40 million stolen from Cuba's treasury.

Behind the hut is a babbling creek from which only Castro was allowed to drink. Today, Cubans joke that it was his fountain of youth, given that Castro is 82 and was still making public appearances until nearly two and a half years ago when he took ill and dropped out of sight. In February, he ceded the presidency to his younger brother, Raul.