Cuba: Revolution time

Sixty years ago, Fidel Castro’s attack on the Moncada Barracks was a failure — but it set the stage for the Cuban Revolution not long after.

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Like him or loathe him, you can’t deny the fact that Fidel Castro is a survivor. As I write this, Cuba’s compañero comandante is eighty-six years old. He has escaped an estimated 638 CIA-inspired assassination attempts, including exploding cigars and bacteria-infested diving suits. He has outlived nine US presidents, and withstood events like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1962 Missile Crisis, the collapse of the Soviet Union and — most recently — the death of his friend, ally, and cheap oil supplier, fellow comandante Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Castro held the reins of power in Cuba for almost five decades before handing over the top job in 2008 to his younger brother Raúl (now a mere eighty-two). Raúl has recently announced that when he reaches the end of his second term of office in 2018, he will retire. The Castro brothers will then have run Cuba for just short of six decades.

Yet the whole adventure started badly, so badly that Fidel and Raúl were lucky to survive into their thirties. On 26 July, 1953 — sixty years ago — they led a disastrous and foolhardy assault on an army barracks that ended in bloodshed and imprisonment, but is remembered in Cuba today with a strange sense of reverence.

In 1953, Fidel was a university-educated and qualified lawyer, the son of a Spanish-born landowner. He had grown up in a country that had known little democracy or freedom, having been ruled by colonial Spain, US military administrations, or corrupt and repressive dictators. The latest among the latter was Fulgencio Batista, a former army chief who was dubiously elected in the 1940s, and then seized power through a coup in 1952. A friend of the US mafia who haunted Havana’s brothels and casinos, Batista ran a vicious police state.

The young Fidel Castro was attracted to the politics of Eduardo Chibás, a campaigning anti-corruption politician, who had shot himself while live on radio in 1951. Castro stood for Congress, but was frustrated by Batista’s 1952 coup, and then formed an underground movement dedicated to the overthrow of the dictatorship. Comprised of clandestine cells, the movement was not communist (Cuba’s communists at the time supported Batista), but strongly nationalist and anti-US in its ideology. It believed that fair and free elections were an impossibility.

Castro must have seemed an unlikely insurrectionary leader. Well-educated, charismatic, and fond of baseball, he had married the daughter of a wealthy family and was expected to become a respectable lawyer. Yet his loathing of Batista and his clique, together with a passionate dislike of “Yankee imperialism,” had already set him aside from his social peers and sent him on a very different trajectory.

The long-awaited action was scheduled for July 1953, and targeted the Moncada Barracks, named after an Independence hero, in the southern city of Santiago de Cuba. The idea was to storm the barracks while the garrison was still asleep, steal the weapons inside, and start a popular uprising against Batista. Other rebels, led by Raúl Castro, were to take control of Santiago’s Palace of Justice. To this end, they had assembled a motley band of about 150 fighters, mostly poor, unemployed urban youths who had been sympathetic to Chibás. The fighters had a dubious collection of firearms, uniforms “liberated” from an army laundry — and plenty of courage.

They would need it. From the outset, the attack was a fiasco. Pretending to be a military convoy, the would-be insurgents drove in the early hours of the 26th towards the barracks but somehow lost one vehicle that was carrying their best weapons. Another suffered a flat tire. The first car in the convoy, containing Castro, managed to get through the barracks’ gate, but the alarm was immediately raised. When the other vehicles arrived, Batista’s troops were waiting for them, and a heavy machine gun opened fire from a watchtower. The rebels were swiftly pinned down, and most of those in the first car were killed. Others crawled to relative safety outside the gates.

Realising the assault had failed, Castro ordered his men to flee, and he and Raúl — who had succeeded in his mission — escaped into the streets of Santiago. In all, nine insurgents were killed and eleven wounded (four, apparently, in “friendly fire”), while fifteen soldiers and three policemen died. Another group of twenty rebels, who had occupied the hospital next to the barracks, were summarily executed.

A massive manhunt took place over the next few days, and thirty-four of Castro’s group were tracked down and shot. The severity of the reprisals shocked Cuba and international opinion, and so when Fidel, Raúl, and other ringleaders were eventually apprehended, they were spared immediate execution and were instead charged with treason. Fifty-one defendants appeared in the Palace of Justice on 21 September, represented by twenty-four lawyers.

If Batista thought he could win a propaganda victory through the trial, he was soon disappointed. With his trademark oratory, Castro used his legal training to defend himself and his associates, delivering a blistering critique of the dictatorship and its human rights abuses — all in front of the foreign journalists Batista had invited. Cuban newspapers were full of Castro’s impassioned rhetoric, and the authorities duly tried to shut him up, claiming that he was too ill to stand trial. Finally he was tried alone, found guilty, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison — but not before he had delivered a four-hour speech in his defence. Other co-defendants were released for lack of evidence, while others were jailed for between three and thirteen years. Raúl Castro was handed a thirteen-year sentence.

It was a pyrrhic victory for Batista and his regime. While in jail, Castro turned his defence speech into a sort of written political manifesto, which was smuggled out of the prison on the Isle of Pines and circulated throughout Cuba. Known as La historia me absolverá (History Will Absolve Me) it heightened the jailed revolutionary’s reputation and weakened Batista’s. It also acted as the founding statement for the organisation that Fidel, Raúl, and others formed when they were released under an amnesty in May 1955. This organisation was baptised the Movimiento 26 de Julio, the 26 July Movement.

Nearly five years later and after a protracted guerrilla campaign, the M-26-7 engineered the overthrow of Batista and ushered in the Cuban Revolution. Now the date enshrined in the guerrilla group’s name is celebrated each year in Havana with a public holiday and military parade — at which, until recently, Fidel Castro took the salute. He may have reflected, among the gathered masses and revolutionary slogans, that his harebrained scheme in Santiago came perilously close to producing a very different history for Cuba and its people.