Who’s your granny?

Sixty years ago, a squadron of battle-hardened guerrillas landed on Cuba’s south-east coast, launching the revolution that would soon grip the world’s imagination. And the heroically leaky boat that got them there? It was named for someone’s grandmother. James Ferguson remembers the story of Granma

Illustration by Rohan MitchellA replica of the historic boat Granma, on display at Cuba’s Parque Nacional Desembarco del Granma. Phb.cz (Richard Semik)/Shutterstock.com

In the 1950s and 60s, when Marxism was still fashionable, communist newspapers had suitably stirring names: Pravda (“Truth”) in the Soviet Union, L’Humanité in France, L’Unità in Italy. Idealism and determination were evident in Il Liberatore (Tunisia) and Avante! (Portugal), while perhaps there was also some wishful thinking in Venezuela’s El Popular. All these titles projected conviction and optimism to their readers and the wider world. So one wonders what went through the minds of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party when they launched their daily paper in October 1965. The name they chose was Granma.

Granma? Why would bearded, battle-hardened revolutionaries like Fidel Castro name their paper after an elderly female relative? Why not Granny, or Nan? There is, of course, a logical reason, and one that dates back sixty years — to November 1956.

At that time, Castro and a number of his supporters were in Mexico, exiled by the unpleasant Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. One attempt to overthrow the Batista regime had ended in failure in 1953, and Castro was determined to launch another armed uprising, this time through a surprise landing on the coast of Cuba. All that was needed was a seaworthy vessel that would carry the small guerrilla band from the Mexican port of Tuxpan across the Gulf of Mexico to a landing site on the south coast. Once the insurgents arrived, forces on the island hostile to Batista would rise up and the revolution would commence — that, at least, was the plan.

Castro’s 26th of July Movement (the date of his previous abortive revolt) had tried to acquire various suitable modes of transport, including a high-speed naval rescue boat and even an amphibious American flying boat. But money was short, despite the best fundraising efforts by former President Carlos Prío Socarrás, who had not forgiven Batista for ousting him in a coup in 1952. Eventually, though, $15,000 was raised among the exile Cuban community in Florida.

This sum seemingly passed into the hands of a shadowy Mexican intermediary and alleged arms dealer, who purchased a sixty-foot cabin cruiser from an American doctor, who was apparently fond of his grandmother. What was more worrying, however, was that Granma, built in 1943, could accommodate no more than twelve crew and passengers, whereas Castro’s band numbered eighty-two. It had faulty gears, no radio communication, and its tank could not hold enough fuel to make the crossing (more than two thousand gallons of diesel had to be stashed on deck). Nonetheless, amid growing fears of surveillance by the FBI and Mexican and Cuban intelligence, the project took shape. According to Thomas M. Leonard in his biography of Fidel Castro, “The poorly conditioned Granma underwent an extensive, but necessary, overhaul in order to be seaworthy for its sail to Cuba. Tuxpan appeared a good choice as a point of departure. The coastal town was too small to warrant a customs or immigration officer.”

As rumours of an impending raid by the Mexican authorities intensified, the guerrillas decided to cut short their military training and set sail. Unfortunately the weather was appalling, and at the end of the hurricane season in a deluge of rain Granma edged quietly and discreetly out of Tuxpan at 2 am on 26 November. On board — and in considerable discomfort — were Fidel and his brother Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and one Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine doctor and motorbike enthusiast who had espoused the cause of revolution in Cuba. So crowded was the vessel, which also carried supplies and weaponry, that the eighty-two men were forced to take turns standing and sitting — and none could lie down.

As the boat pitched and tossed in the stormy sea, some of the fighters had to bail out water from the leaking vessel. Food supplies ran low, though most were too seasick to care. Once or twice it seemed as if Granma might capsize, and one of the group fell overboard but was pulled back onto the deck.

Finally, against the odds, on 2 December they reached the swampy and inhospitable Playa Las Coloradas on Cuba’s south-east tip, where Granma promptly ran aground. They were soon spotted and fired upon, and the planned meeting with comrades and vehicles was rapidly abandoned as they scrambled ashore. Little did they know, moreover, that the planned insurrection that was meant to coincide with their landing had already been crushed. Regrouping, they headed inland with Batista’s forces in hot pursuit. It was to be another ordeal, as Che Guevara recalled:

We reached solid ground, lost, stumbling along like so many shadows or ghosts marching in response to some obscure psychic impulse. We had been through seven days of constant hunger and sickness during the sea crossing, topped by three still more terrible days on land. Exactly ten days after our departure from Mexico, during the early morning hours of December 5, following a night-long march interrupted by fainting and frequent rest periods, we reached a spot paradoxically known as Alegría de Pío (Rejoicing of the Pious).

Of the original eighty-two combatants, only twelve survived to make it to the relative safety of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, from where the guerrilla campaign was eventually to gather strength.

 

We now know that this unlikeliest of campaigns culminated in Batista’s flight on 1 January, 1959, and Castro’s triumphant entry into Havana a week later. As for Granma, she had been pulled free of the sandbank and was soon on her way to Havana’s harbour, where Norberto Collado Abreu, an ex-navy officer who had captained the trip from Tuxpan and had been captured and jailed soon after the landing, was put in charge of conserving the boat. It duly became an object of revolutionary veneration, and in 1976 was added to the miscellaneous military hardware on display at the Museo de la Revolución, where it sits today in a glass annex. Most TripAdvisor reviews are complimentary.

So it was that the victorious revolutionary leadership named their newspaper after a second-hand and slightly leaky cabin cruiser. But it didn’t stop there. The area of Oriente province where the boat ran aground was renamed Provincia de Granma in 1976. On 2 December, a replica of the yacht is sometimes wheeled around Havana in the annual military parades commemorating the landing. Granma is ubiquitous and iconic in Cuba, and even beyond — with stamps, t-shirts, and even a clock bearing the boat’s image. One can only wonder what the American doctor’s favourite granny would make of it all.