The Revolutionary Movement
The inertia and incapacity of the bourgeois political parties to fight against the military regime - even some of those parties joined the regime in one way or another - was in sharp contrast with the belligerence of the popular sectors, especially with that of the young generation which had just been born to political life. From its ranks a movement of new type was born and at its head was Fidel Castro (born in Birán in 1926), a young lawyer who had performed his first political activities within the University and the Orthodox party.
A small faction within the ortodoxos advocated violence as the correct tactic to combat Batista. Fidel Castro belonged to this group. After receiving his law degree from the University of Havana in 1950, he joined the party and was nominated to run as an ortodoxo candidate to the House of Representatives in the aborted 1952 election. Batista's coup thwarted Castro's ambitions for a parliamentary career.
Advocating a strategy of armed struggle against the dictatorship, Fidel Castro devoted himself to the silent and tenacious preparation for the struggle to come. Castro began organizing a small group of followers for his ill-fated attack on the Moncada military barracks in Oriente Province on July 26, 1953. Actions would start on July 26, 1953, when the army garrisons Moncada in Santiago de Cuba, and Céspedes in Bayamo were simultaneously attacked in an action meant to become the trigger for a vast popular insurrection.
Expecting army discipline to be low, Castro and his group planned a surprise attack to capture the Moncada barracks. The attack would coincide with a vigorous publicity campaign projecting the movement as an ortodoxo uprising supported by pro-ortodoxo army officers. Castro hoped for sufficient confusion to paralyze the army and thus prevent it from reacting against the rebels. Batista would then be forced to resign, and the ortodoxos would be catapulted into power with Castro as the party's undisputed leader. In reality, the party was not consulted, and its leaders were informed of Castro's plans only the day before the Moncada assault.
Castro's Moncada attack ended in disaster. The garrison's discipline was not relaxed, and the army fought back the attack. Some of the attackers failed even to enter the military barracks. Those who did were massacred. The attack was followed by the mass assassination of dozens of participants in the attacks who had been taken prisoners during and after combats. Castro himself escaped to the mountains, only to be captured and sentenced to prison. The survivors, among them Fidel Castro, were sentenced to long prison terms.
During the trial, the young revolutionary leader delivered a bright self-defense allegation - later known as History Will Absolve Me - in which he argued the right of the people to rebel against the tyranny and explained the causes, ways and objectives of the struggle they had planned to carry out. This allegation would become the program of the revolutionary struggle.
In "History Will Absolve Me," his speech before the tribunal that sentenced him, Castro outlined his political program. He associated his movement with the ideals of Marti and Chibas and called for reforms that were within the mainstream of Cuba's political tradition. At no time during his struggle against Batista did Castro outline a program that departed from Cuba's political tradition. Although the most radical elements of the revolutionary leadership thought that Cuba needed major economic changes that would cure the ills of monoculture, unemployment and underemployment, and dependence, most of the oppositionist leaders to Batista wanted political changes. None of these groups offered a program along Marxist lines. The great majority of the Cuban people who supported the anti-Batista struggle were hoping for a return to the constitution of 1940, honesty in government, and an end to violence.
The dictatorship was facing a critical situation because of the dramatic drop of sugar prices in the world market. By 1954 the tyranny intended to legalize its status by spurious elections that at least would serve to placate the bloody repression. The mock election of November 1954, from which Batista, running unopposed, emerged victorious, placed Cuba at a dangerous crossroads. Such circumstance was used by the mass movement, which in 1955 had significantly increased its pressure to obtain the liberation of political prisoners - including the participants in the Moncada Garrison attack. From jail, Fidel Castro exhorted his supporters to organize and to cooperate with other groups.
In 1956 Castro was released from jail and traveled to the United States seeking funds for the revolutionary cause and organizing his followers into the Twenty-Sixth of July Movement (Movimiento 26 de Julio), an organization named after his ill-fated Moncada attack. Once the possibility of any legal struggle against the tyranny was recognized as impossible, Fidel Castro travels to Mexico with the purpose of organizing an expedition to start the revolutionary war. On the other side, the opposing bourgeois parties were rehearsing another operation to make a compromise with Batista trying to find a "political" solution to the situation, but their failure would end up plunging them into disrepute.
In December 1956, Castro and a group of more than eighty young revolutionaries, including his brother Raul and an Argentine physician, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, left from Mexico in the small yacht Granma and landed in Oriente Province. There, underground commando groups had attacked several military installations, touching off a wave of sabotage throughout the province. Terrorism flared, and bombs exploded. Underground cells derailed trains and sabotaged power lines, blacking out entire towns.
On December 2 1956, Fidel Castro landed at the head of the Granma expedition in Las Coloradas, Oriente province. The members of the 26th of July movement in Santiago de Cuba, under the command of Frank País had prepared an uprising as a backup for the landing, but, as the landing had been programmed for two days before, the uprising had ended in an unfortunate failure. By the time that Fidel Castro landed on December 2, however, the uprising was well on its way to being crushed, and most of the leaders of Castro's Twenty-Sixth of July Movement were either dead or in jail. In response to the uprising, Batista suspended constitutional guarantees and established tighter censorship of news. The dreaded military police patrolled the streets of Havana day and night, rounding up suspected revolutionary elements. When Castro found that his actions were not supported by the general public, the army, or regular opposition parties, he and about a dozen survivors found refuge in the Sierra Maestra mountain range and from there began waging guerrilla warfare against the regime.
After the setback in Alegría de Pío, that dispersed the expeditionary forces, Fidel Castro and a group was able to reach the Sierra Maestra Mountains and create the initial nucleus of what would be the Rebel Army. The letter of introduction of the Rebel Army would be, barely a month afterwards, the attack and occupation of the small garrison "La Plata." This action would serve to refute the rumors spread by the dictatorship about the complete defeat and supposed extermination of the expeditionary forces.
On March 13, 1957, in one of the boldest actions of the anti-Batista rebellion, a group of forty men stormed the presidential palace in the center of Havana and almost succeeded in killing Batista. Fidel Castro, from his hideout in the mountains, criticized the students' attack. In a taped interview shown in the United States in May, Castro called it "a useless waste of blood. The life of the dictator is of no importance. Here in the Sierra Maestra is where to fight." Throughout his stay in the mountains, Castro opposed a military coup, the assassination of Batista, or any other violent act by a group not directly under the control of his Twenty-Sixth of July Movement.
The guerrillas had certain other advantages over the army. For years the peasantry in the Sierra Maestra had been terrified by Batista's Rural Guard (Guardia Rural), and they welcomed the protection and promises offered by Castro and his group. The knowledge of the terrain and the intelligence provided by these allies proved invaluable. In addition, the guerrillas operated in extremely mobile units in a vast and rugged terrain. The Cuban army was not trained in guerrilla tactics and also lacked the military leadership capable of carrying out this type of warfare against highly motivated guerrilla fighters. For many of the urban youth who joined Castro in the mountains, there was a sort of mystique in being a guerrilla, fighting for a just cause against an oppressive regime, and living in a rural environment. Finally, the guerrillas were supported by an urban network that supplied manpower, weapons, money, and other necessary aid.
When Batista and his closest allies escaped to the Dominican Republic in the early hours of January 1, 1959, power lay in the streets. Of the several groups that fought the Batista regime, the Twenty-Sixth ofJuly Movement had an almost undisputed claim to fill the vacuum left by the dictator. Castro's charisma and his revolutionary prestige made him, in the eyes of the Cuban people, the logical occupant of Batista's vacant chair; he was the man of the hour, the new messiah. The other insurrectionary organizations lacked the mystique, the widespread support, and the organized cadres of Castro's movement.
In 1957, while the Rebel Army was gaining experience through a series of actions - among them the battle at "El Uvero", in which a force of 59 soldiers was completely annihilated - the underground struggle was developing in all its force in the cities. On March 13, a group of members of the Directorio Revolucionario failed in their purpose to kill the tyrant during an attack to the Presidential Palace. In the actions the President of the University Students' Federation, José Antonio Echeverría was killed. To sabotage and other attempts the tyranny would respond intensifying torture, detentions and a wave of assassinations. In July Frank País was caught and assassinated in Santiago de Cuba, an act that would trigger a spontaneous popular strike and paralyze most of the nation. Shortly after that, in September, the uprising of the naval station in Cienfuegos shows how deep the division was within the armed forces. The army was unable to defeat the Rebel Army in an offensive launched against it in the mountains where already two guerrilla columns were increasingly strong.
At the beginning of 1958, the revolutionary movement decides to speed up the offensive against the tyranny by means of a revolutionary general strike that at the same time had characteristics of insurrection. Fidel Castro creates two new columns of the Rebel Army under the command of Raúl Castro and Juan Almeida respectively who are assigned the task to open respective guerrilla fronts in other mountainous regions in Oriente province. The strike of April 9 was unsuccessful and this was a serious setback for the revolutionary movement in the cities. Batista, on his part, considers that the time to put an end to the whole insurrection has come and decides to launch an offensive with 10 000 soldiers against the Sierra Maestra mountains. In ferocious battles - Santo Domingo, El Jigüe, Vegas de Jibacoa, and others - the rebel troops defeat and destroy the battalions of the tyranny that could enter the mountains and force them into retreat. This would be the final turning point. The parties in the opposition, which up to that moment had been maneuvering to capitalize popular rebellion, hasten to admit the undoubted leadership of Fidel Castro.
Several rebel columns start for different parts of the country. The columns under the command of Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos advance towards the province of Las Villas, where several groups of guerrilla fighters - from the Directorio Revolucionario and the People's Socialist Party (Communist) - are already operating. On November 20, under Fidel Castro's personal direction the battle of Guisa was launched, action that marks the beginning of the final revolutionary offensive. In coordinated actions, the now numerous columns integrating the II and III Oriental Fronts occupy several towns and close the circle around Santiago de Cuba. In Las Villas, Che Guevara occupies one after the other the towns alongside the central highway and gets ready for the final assault against the provincial capital, Santa Clara, while Camilo Cienfuegos obtains a resounding victory after a tenacious battle over the Yaguajay Garrison. On January 1 1959, Batista flees from the country and in a last minute maneuvering, with the blessings of the US Embassy in Havana, General Eulogio Cantillo tries to establish a "civic-military" government board. Fidel Castro forces the surrender of the troops in Santiago de Cuba and calls the people to a general strike that, with the support of all the population, will finally guarantee the triumph of the Revolution.
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