News that Fidel Castro has resigned from the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party isn’t very surprising — slowed by chronic health problems, the 84-year-old has effectively been out of political life since passing over the reins to his brother Raul in 2006. He now looks more familiar to us in a loose track suit than his once iconic military fatigues. TIME was there, though, when the bearded revolutionary ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Below, an excerpt from TIME’s gripping Jan. 26, 1959 cover story on Castro’s rise to power.
Fidel Castro himself is egotistic, impulsive, immature, disorganized. A spellbinding romantic, he can talk spontaneously for as much as five hours without strain. He hates desks—behind which he may have to sit to run Cuba. He sleeps irregularly or forgets to sleep, living on euphoria. He has always been late for everything, whether leading a combat patrol or speaking last week to the Havana Rotary Club, where a blue-ribbon audience waited 4¾ hours for his arrival…
Castro has the Cuban moralistic streak in spades, showing no apparent affection for money or soft living. He considers himself a Roman Catholic but is also impressed by Patriot José Marti’s anticlerical tomes. He has to be cajoled into changing his filthy fatigue jacket. His only luxury is 50¢ Montecristo cigars…
Castro has confidence, physical courage, shrewdness, generosity and luck—qualities that will one day plant his statue in some Havana plaza. He won his long war not by fighting but by perching in sublime self-confidence on the highest mountain range in Cuba for more than two years, proving that Batista could be flouted. He became the symbol of his rebellious country, pulled quarreling rebel factions together and inspired them to face down a modern army.
“I was born in Oriente province. That’s like Texas for Americans,” says Fidel Castro, in explanation of his feats. “It is the biggest province in Cuba. We do the most work, we make the most rum and sugar, we make the most money too. We hate dictators.”