Batista Regime Embarrassed
On February 23, 1958 the people of Cuba were preparing for an exciting day of Formula 1 racing. President Batista had created a Cuban Grand Prix in 1957 to highlight Cuba and bring in international tourists. The embattled Batista regime was also hoping to improve his image amongst Cubans as he brutally battled the insurgency led by Fidel Castro. Batista’s leadership was becoming chaotic as he turned to military purges, election fraud, and brutal torture of suspected rebels to maintain power.
The race was scheduled to occur on February 24th on the Malecon roadway on the beautiful coast of Havana. The year before renowned Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fangio had won the race. Fangio was the record holding 5-time Formula 1World Champion. He was and international celebrity and odds on favorite to repeat his victory. This made him the perfect target for a plot to undermine the race and thereby the Batista regime.
Castro’s rebels had determined to cause Bautista embarrassment by kidnapping Fangio, and making his miss the race. On February 23, rebels waited in the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln in Havana. When Fangio came down for dinner they brandished a .45 caliber pistol and forced the racer into a waiting car.
Fangio would be held for 27 hours. Not exactly brutal hours, Fangio was treated very well. One of the kidnappers even went so far as to bring his family to a safehouse to meet the famous driver. They just wanted to embarrass Batista on the international stage.
The event was a disaster in more ways than one. After getting delayed for hours in the hopes that Fangio would show up, the race got under way. After only 6 laps, Cuban driver Armando Garcia Cifuentes had crashed his Ferrari into the crowd. Seven people were killed in the accident, which also made international headlines. The race was red-flagged after the accident and would not be run again during Batista’s reign as dictator. He would be forced into exile on January 1, 1959 and flee to Portugal.
Shortly after the race Fangio was released unharmed. He spoke of the graciousness of his captors, telling the world that they treated him very well. Fangio stated, “Well, this is one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.” His captors were never identified.