The following article by Eileen Whitehead is copied from the CPA’s Guardian Workers’ Weekly.
Although this initial uprising failed in its bid to dislodge the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, it was the beginning of a movement that changed the world forever. Sixty-seven years ago, a small band of courageous young Cubans stormed the Moncada Barracks in the city of Santiago, in Eastern Cuba.
Batista had ruled Cuba since 1933 when he’d taken power in what’s been called the “Sergeants’ Coup.” He remained behind the scenes for a while, but became self-proclaimed president in 1940. To begin with he carried out relatively progressive pro-worker policies, supported by the Cuban Communist Party and the unions, but in 1944 after leaving power and living in the United States for a while, he returned to Cuba running for president again in 1952. However, when it became clear he was going to lose, he organised an armed coup d’état, and proceeded to dismantle his former relatively progressive policies and became the corrupt tool of both the Cuban and US elite, as well as friend to the Meyer Lansky wing of the Mafia. Thousands of political opponents were murdered, leaving Cuba at the mercy of exploitation and vice.
Fidel Castro Ruz organised 174 young Cubans – 138 to carry out an assault on the Moncada Barracks, and twenty-seven to attack a smaller outpost in nearby Bayamo – with the intention to seize the military barracks and secure its arms before rousing the rest of the population against the Batista regime. Several cars were organised in the early morning of 26th July to pick up the rebels but, despite meticulous organisation, the operation was beset with problems and discovered almost immediately.
Seeing that the attack was doomed, Castro ordered a retreat and the remaining rebels quickly scattered. Batista’s henchmen murdered about seventy rebels captured at the scene or later, with many others tortured, or put on trial and sentenced to various prison terms: Fidel Castro and his brother Raul received sentences of thirteen years each.
At his trial, Fidel in what became known as his “History will Absolve me” speech, laid bare the crimes of the Batista dictatorship, the illegitimacy of its legal procedures, and the responsibility of all people of conscience to oppose such a regime in Cuba and, by implication, anywhere. Closing his speech to the court, he said: “I cannot ask freedom for myself while my comrades are already suffering in the ignominious prison of the Isle of Pines. Send me there to join them and to share their fate. It is understandable that honest men should be dead or in prison in a Republic where the President is a criminal and thief. […] But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of seventy of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Today the Isle of Pines is now the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), a centre of high quality education for Cuban and international youth.
A public outcry led to an early release for Fidel and Raul, who then exiled in Mexico to organise an expedition to invade Cuba, and in November 1956 they invaded on the motor yacht Granma in another attempt to oust Batista. Although that attempt also went seriously wrong, with only twelve men surviving, the movement grew, taking on the name of the 26th of July Movement in honour of the Moncada barracks event.
Eventually, on New Year’s Day 1959, the rebels were triumphant and insurgent troops headed by Ernesto “Che” Guevara seized the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba. However, Batista managed to escape and go into exile in Portugal where he died in 1973.
Ever since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Cubans have suffered both military and economic attacks by the United States and some of its allies, in an attempt to overturn it and restore the old regime to power. They have not succeeded. Cuba has implemented socialist policies of great benefit not only for its workers and small farmers, but especially for its women and minorities. Beyond that, Cuba punches above its weight with international health projects that have improved the lives of millions in the poorest countries in the world.