The thought and action of Fidel Castro have their origin in Cuban liberationist and revolutionary history, and in the projections and hopes of the Third World in general and of Latin America specifically. In reference to the first aspect, the initiatives formed in the assault on the Moncada barracks, the landing of the Granma, and the war of national liberation, from the Sierra Maestra to Havana, show these origins from the start, over and over again.
Moncada and the Granma didn’t result from two different concepts, the second replacing the first, but instead were successive tactical solutions to the same strategic idea, and both had recent precedents in the political history of the country.
Before the coup d’état and tyranny of Fulgencio Batista, the disheveling of the corrupt democracy imposed by the intervention of the United States had buried the liberationist and revolutionary project of Jose Marti; the misery augmented and the country was converted into a neo-colony of the United States. With that, the government had earned the deception and repudiation of most people in the country.
Then the younger generation that celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Marti were agitating in the “movement”; the plurality of the spontaneous groups discussed how to remake the country more decently. After the coup d’état, sickened by the cowardice and opportunism of the politicians and their parties facing Batista, those groups began debating how and for what reasons to get rid of the tyrant and his accomplices. It didn’t make sense to run the risk of combating the backers of the coup to return to more of the same.
Fidel, at the beginning as a student and later as a young lawyer, led one of the bigger groups, the most organized and militant. From there came forth the idea that to overcome that situation required a revolution with two objectives: to recuperate Marti’s project of national liberation and radical democracy, and to make deep social reforms. To achieve that revolution through the institutional means existing before the coup was unthinkable, and after the coup it was impossible. It had to be done through an uprising that would culminate in a national rebellion to replace the existing political regime.
It was not the first time that a young generation of Cubans faced this problem. Marti had also confronted it, and called for a “necessary war.” He disembarked with a revolutionary expedition, and fell in combat encouraging that project. The same happened to the revolutionaries against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, “the donkey with claws,” that headed the short revolution of 1933, equally frustrated by the meddling of Washington with the complicity of Batista.
The initiative of Fidel and his group required training, weapons, starting an uprising and creating a guerrilla force. Nothing surprising, it was the continuance of the struggle: their grandparents were the generation of the hundredth anniversary of Marti, the Mambises and collaborators of the War of Independence, and their parents were the participants or sympathizers of the 1933 revolution.
How to obtain the means? The plan of attacking a barracks was important to seize weapons, in a city likely to support the movement and furthermore situated in an area appropriate to escape to the mountains and start a guerrilla force with urban and peasant support. This determined the objective: Santiago de Cuba, capital of Oriente Province, with a revolutionary tradition, and the location of the Moncada barracks.
The operation had to be organized in secret from Havana, province of origin of the majority of the group. The hardest part of the plan was carried out scrupulously: select the participants, train them, look for weapons, transport them from Havana to the other end of the island, and reunite at a point where they could go to the combat site. The weapons, obtained without the cooperation of politicians with money, were modest, mostly rifles and hunting shotguns, of short range and low caliber. Therefore the surprise factor was essential. In order to achieve the assault, it was planned for the early morning after a night of carnival, and the attackers dressed like army sergeants.
Nonetheless, a pair of fortuitous incidents frustrated this effort. This is not the place to analyze the rest of that operation nor the causes of its failure. Looking back, the objective examination of the action leads one to conclude that, given its circumstances, it was a good plan. If the group had had a little more experience it would have been successful.
As we know, that failure cost numerous victims, mainly prisoners assassinated after the combat. Some young men were able to escape with help from the population. Others were captured after the city and media had been alerted, so the prisoners survived and went to trial, where they denounced the crimes of the regime. Especially Fidel, whose intelligent defense before the tribunal became “History Will Absolve Me” which quickly come to be the call to revolution with its proposal for government.
In the following years, the mobilizations for the freedom of the political prisoners and the amnesty of the Moncada attackers achieved their liberation. Fidel and his companions constituted the 26th of July Revolutionary Movement, which many more young people joined from other revolutionary groups, including the one Frank Pais led in Oriente, which in the next stage would play a relevant role in the urban guerrilla and in the support of the cities for the future Rebel Army.
After Moncada, that option was not repeatable, but the subsequent objective was kept. Harassed by the regime, Fidel went into exile in Mexico, where there was already a group of moncadistas and revolutionaries. With them he organized the expedition of the Granma, whose landing in Oriente formed the kernel of the guerrilla column. Swelled with urban and peasant recruits, they formed the Rebel Army that led the war for national liberation. There is no space here either to examine the sociopolitical and military evolution of that war, in which a professional army of 100,000 men, well trained and equipped by the United States, was defeated eight years after Moncada by a popular force which, with ample social support, at its greatest moment mustered some 1,500 fighters.
How to explain that in those years, the Cuban society, after a half century of North American cultural penetration, of internal corruption and destruction of national values, could assimilate events like Moncada, the Granma, and the war? One of the first great merits of Fidel, thanks to the strength and courage of his convictions and leadership, was to culminate with success the experiences that already had deep roots in the collective memory of the people.
Before the Revolution of 1933, Tony Guiteras had supported the attack on the San Luis barracks to arm the guerrillas operating against the tyranny of Machado in Las Tunas area. And after the oligarchy, the U.S. Embassy, and Batista overthrew the revolutionary government, of which he had been the most progressive minister, Guiteras planned the assault on the Bayamo barracks to equip a guerrilla force he planned to bring from Mexico. He was killed in battle while waiting for the boat that would take him off the island for that purpose.
And before that, Julio Antonio Mella, exiled by the persecution of Machado, had also organized in Mexico the Cuban revolutionary emigres, to start an expedition destined to disembark in Cuba with the same purpose. He was assassinated in Mexico City, in broad daylight, by gunslingers paid by Machado, sometime before finishing the preparations.
In both cases, as later occurred with Fidel, these were inclusive projects, that unified nationalists and social reformers in one pluralist alliance with a progressive program that the majority of the population could understand, make it their own, and participate in, as in the case of “History Will Absolve Me.” When the political culture and the course of events demanded and permitted a more advanced proposal, the struggle evolved to contribute it.
In that perspective, the talent, the faithfulness to ethical principles, the political tenacity and the example of Fidel Castro made of him the historic personality and the leader that he will continue to be.
Traductora: Susan Lagos.