Castro was on the cover of the magazine three weeks after he seized control of Cuba
When Fidel Castro first ousted Fulgencio Batista at the turn of 1959, there weren’t many non-Cuban journalists there to see it happen — but TIME’s Bruce Henderson was there, and he was soon joined by Bernard Diederich, who would later cover the Caribbean for the magazine. Their presence meant that, throughout that January, TIME’s “Hemispheres” section carried up-to-the-minute news about the changes on the island.
As Diederich recalls in his book 1959: The Year That Changed Our World, the assignment was an unusual one:
Henderson assigned me to cover Fidel’s arrival in Havana. I leaped onto a tank with a group of 26th of July female fighters and rode in Fidel’s wake into Camp Columbia, once the bastion of Batista’s army. It was January 8. Rodríguez Echazábel was already at the camp headquarters when I arrived. My Santiago-issued laissez-passer did wonders too. I was introduced to bearded rebel comandante (Maj.)Maj. Camilo Cienfuegos to whom I explained my challenging assignment. Time would want a full description of Fidèl’s first night in Havana. Would the 26th of July leader choose to dance, date, or dive into bed after his arduous trip up the island from the Sierra Maestra to Havana. Camilo smiled broadly when I also told him that I needed to know the color of Fidèl’s pajamas—if he wore them!
Though those “female fighters” were the subject of a story in the Jan. 19, 1959, issue, Castro’s pajamas did not. (Actually, his blue cotton PJs did get their moment, but it wasn’t until that May.)
However, Castro got even more focus from TIME the following week, when he was featured on the cover of the magazine, in a story that focused on matters a lot more important than his sleepwear choices. Rather, the article opened with Castro pushing for the executions of those who had abetted the Batista regime:
…Castro was in no mood for mercy. “They are criminals,” he said. “Everybody knows that. We give them a fair trial. Mothers come in and say, ‘This man killed my son.’ ” To demonstrate, Castro offered to stage the courts-martial in Havana’s Central Park—an unlikely spot for cool justice but perfect for a modern-day Madame Defarge.
In the trials rebels acted as prosecutor, defender and judge. Verdicts, quickly reached, were as quickly carried out. In Santiago the show was under the personal command of Fidel’s brother Raul, 28, a slit-eyed man who had already executed 30 “informers” during two years of guerrilla war. Raul’s firing squads worked in relays, and they worked hour after hour. Said Raul: “There’s always a priest on hand to hear the last confession.”
Read the full 1959 cover story, free of charge, here in the TIME archives: The Vengeful Visionary