In return, Cuba got hedonistic tourists, organized crime and General Fulgencio Batista. In military power since the early 1930s, Batista appointed himself president by way of a military coup in 1952, dashing Cubans' long-held hope for democracy.
Not only was the economy weakening as a result of U.S. influence, but Cubans were also offended by what their country was becoming: a haven for prostitution, brothels and gambling.
"Daily life had developed into a relentless degradation," writes Louis Perez in his 1999 book On Becoming Cuban, "with the complicity of political leaders and public officials who operated at the behest of American interests."
In 1957, a group of students fed up with government corruption stormed the National Palace. Many historians consider this a turning point in the revolution.
Over the next few years, bursts of violence erupted throughout the city. Bombs exploded in movie theaters and nightclubs. Gunshots rang out. Dead bodies turned up on sidewalks and streets.
"There had been an idealization of the [Cuba's] War of Independence and of being a revolutionary," says Uva de Aragon, a Cuban academic now living in Miami. "In this climate, people thought revolution was a solution to problems."
Bloody battles ensued between Batista's troops and the rebels in the mountains. Still, Cubans tried to keep some normalcy in their lives, going to school, watching baseball games and taking cha-cha lessons.
"It was surreal," says de Aragon. "There was a lot of fear in those last two or three years." A teenager at the time, she was particularly aware of what was happening because her step-father, Carlos Marquez Sterling, had run for president against Batista and lost; Marquez wanted negotiation, but Batista's camp claimed power.
All classes of Cubans, including the very rich, looked to the young and charismatic Fidel Castro as their hope for democracy and change. Castro, a young lawyer trained at the University of Havana, belonged to a wealthy landowning family, but espoused a deep nationalism and railed against corruption and gambling. "We all thought this was the Messiah," says Maria Christina Halley, one of Uva's childhood friends. Her family later fled to the United States and now she teaches Spanish in Jacksonville, Florida.
When Castro's entourage finally arrived in Havana in January of 1959 after defeating Batista's troops, Batista had already fled in the middle of the night, taking more than $40 million of government funds.