Cuba's July 26: 57 years of struggle without surrender

“I’d do it exactly the same all over again”, Fidel Castro insisted on July 24, making one of his first public appearances since a devastating intestinal illness in 2006 forced him from the public eye. The former president was referring to the failed 1953 attack he led against the Moncada Barracks in Oriente province, which proved to be the opening salvo in the Cuban Revolution. Castro was visiting the municipality of Artemisa to pay tribute to Cuba’s July 26 martyrs. He read a commemorative message to the crowd, describing July 26, 2010, as the “attainment of 57 years of struggle without surrender for the independence of our homeland”.


July 26 Movement enters Havana after victory over Batista's
forces, 1959.

The July 26, 1953, rebellion was precipitated by the military coup and ensuing dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Batista had seized power on March 10, 1952, ousting President Carlos Prio Socarras and cancelling planned elections. The US immediately recognised his illegitimate regime.

From the first moment of the coup, popular opposition sprang up everywhere, in a widespread political radicalisation. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. warned the US rulers at the time, “the corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the regime’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice ... is an open invitation to revolution”. Amidst this wave of radical opposition, Castro, a 27-year-old student leader, began organising a movement to bring down the dictator and transfer political power to the urban and rural masses.

Marti and Marx

Castro was a member of the anti-corruption Orthodox Party. As an influential leader of its radical youth wing, he was able to gather the forces necessary to carry out the attack. He set out determinedly to recruit these youth and educate them politically in the radical democratic traditions of Cuba’s national liberation hero, Jose Marti, and the revolutionary socialist ideas of Karl Marx. While these youth had what Fidel described as a “class instinct” — a natural abhorrence of the dictatorship — they needed to be raised to class-consciousness. That’s what his classes aimed at providing.

“If we hadn’t studied Marxism … if we hadn’t read Marx’s books on political theory, and if we hadn’t been inspired by Marti, Marx and Lenin, we couldn’t possibly have conceived of the idea of a revolution in Cuba, because with a group of men, none of whom has gone through a military academy, you can’t wage a war against a well-organised, well-armed, well-trained army and win a victory starting practically from scratch. Those ideas were the essential building blocks of the revolution.”

In the simmering political climate of the time, Fidel’s personal enthusiasm and his political program were able to recruit a 1200-strong cadre force in just months. According to Fidel, “the easiest thing in the world, under those circumstances, was converting someone to Marxism”.

Moncada attack

Organised into cells of 6 to 12 members, these cadres began preparations for the assault, adding weapons training to political discussions and Fidel’s classes on Marxism. Meanwhile, Fidel hammered out a carefully detailed plan of attack.

Essentially, the plan was to attack the Moncada garrison at dawn, surprise the troops stationed there, disarm them and distribute the weapons cache there to an insurgent Cuba hungering to topple Batista. As Fidel’s brother (and current president of Cuba) Raul explained, the Moncada attack “was not a putsch designed to score an easy victory without the masses … It was a surprise action to disarm the enemy and arm the people. [The attack] marked the start of action to transform Cuba’s entire political, economic and social systems and put an end to foreign oppression, poverty, unemployment, sickness and ignorance that weighed upon our country and our people.”

By chance, an extra foot patrol had been stationed at the garrison, unforeseen in Castro’s planning. The extra patrol threw out Castro’s plans, caused confusion among the ranks and forced a retreat. Six of Castro’s troops were killed in the fire fight. Batista’s regime, enraged by this surprise attack, captured, imprisoned, tortured and murdered 34 more of Castro’s Moncadistas. Castro himself was arrested shortly afterwards.

Political victory

The attack had been a complete military failure. But it was to turn out a political and symbolic victory. Not only did the failed attack raise the public profile and following of the rebels, but it helped steel the will of Castro’s new movement. The trial and imprisonment of Castro and his cadres captured the imagination of thousands of Cubans, who saw in these rebels an audacious leadership representing their interests.

Even imprisonment helped Castro cohere his leadership team. From behind bars on the Isle of Pines, Castro continued to organise for the next stage of the revolution, establishing a library of political literature and study circles for the imprisoned comrades. The experience was to weld together an ideologically coherent cadre force, hardened by battle and the rigours of prison.

Besides educating his comrades, Castro carefully reconstructed his courtroom defence speech from memory. To avoid the prison censors, he wrote it in lemon juice “invisible ink” between the lines of otherwise innocuous letters sent to his friends and supporters on the outside. These supporters painstakingly reassembled the fragments and published the finished work as a pamphlet. Hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed nationwide. Castro explained the pamphlet’s importance to a comrade, Melba Hernandez: “Propaganda must not be abandoned for a minute, for it is the soul of every struggle”.

The pamphlet was a masterwork of political literature, attacking the regime, examining Cuba’s most pressing social problems and setting forth the political program of Castro’s movement. It called for the restoration of the democratic rights annulled by Batista’s coup. It also called for a land reform; the right of workers to a 30% share in the profits of big companies and the confiscation of the ill-gotten wealth of the corrupt (a significant inroad on the widely corrupt Cuban capitalist class). None of these measures could be achieved, he explained, without the establishment of a workers’ government based on the mobilised revolutionary people, in place of the capitalist government. The pamphlet closed with the now famous lines, “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”

Exile

While the rebels were sentenced to 15 years in prison, an amnesty campaign grew strong enough to compel Batista to free them after just 20 months. Castro and his comrades walked free on May 15, 1955, and immediately returned to organising the revolution. They named themselves the July 26 Movement (M26J) in honour of the date of their attack on Moncada.

Their freedom was short-lived, however. Some M26J members were immediately rearrested, and the rebels’ freedom of speech and assembly was suppressed. The only way to continue the struggle in this context, reasoned Castro, was to organise in exile.

He and some of his cadres left for Mexico to organise an invasion force. It was in Mexico that Castro met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and where he assembled a force that would continue the revolutionary struggle, again by means of guerrilla warfare. This next stage of the struggle brought victory with the collapse of the Batista regime and the entry of Castro’s MJ26 and rebel army forces into the capital, Havana, on January 8, 1959.

The two years of guerrilla warfare leading up to the 1959 victory are best recounted in Che Guevara’s Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. It is this phase of the struggle that is most well known outside of Cuba. The lesser known attack on the Moncada barracks should be recognised, however, as the birth date of the Cuban Revolution, the emergence onto the political stage of a cadre organisation that would not only go on to revolutionise Cuba, but to change the face of world politics and offer hope for socialists world wide that truly, “another world is possible”. It is for this reason that workers in all countries should commemorate the July 26.