|THE MONCADA FORTRESS LIES just a short drive from Santiago's central
square. In the 1950s it stood on the outskirts of the city. A once
grey, two-storey battle-mented barracks, now painted bright yellow
picked out with white, its above-ground entrance is approached via a
row of concrete steps. The second largest barracks in the country in
the 1950s, second only to Havana's Camp Columbia, it was originally
designed to house the Rural Guard during the American occupation
after 1898, and often regarded subsequently as a symbol of government
repression. A hundred years later, its large courtyards are shared
between a number of classrooms and a dusty museum, for the
revolutionaries of the 1950s had promised that such barrack buildings
would be turned into schools. The cells and the interrogation rooms
remain as they once were, bleak testimony to past atrocities.
On 26 July 1953 an armed attack took place at Moncada, led by Fidel
Castro, the flamboyant figure then aged 26 who was to dominate Cuban
politics and history for more than half a century. The assault on
Moncada, and a simultaneous move against the barracks at Bayamo, was
designed to secure weapons from the arsenal, but its underlying
purpose was to overthrow the Batista government established after a
coup d'etat the previous year. The action itself proved to be a
disastrous failure, little more than an ill-prepared Putsch, as the
Communists described it, showing no more interest in the country's
insurrectionary traditions than they had done in the 1930s. Yet
Moncada was a challenge to the regime, and would lay the groundwork
for a revolutionary organisation, the July 26 Movement, that would
sweep to power ess than six years later. It also made the name of its
leader known across the island.
Castro was regarded at the time as the outstanding figure of his
generation, a brilliant student orator and a successful athlete, a
man marked for politics from early youth. He was born in August 1926,
the son of Angel Castro, a white settler immigrant from Galicia, and
his second wife, Lina Ruz, a woman from Pinar del Rio. Angel Castro
became a wealthy landowner in Oriente and had several children, but
only Fidel's younger brother, Raul, would play a major role in his
life's work. Their childhood was spent in and around their father's
estate at Biran in Oriente, close to Mayari and the Bay of Nipe.1
Castro was educated at a Jesuit college and trained as a lawyer at
the University of Havana, and in 1948 he married Mirta Diaz Balart,
the sister of a student friend and the daughter of a wealthy family.2
He appeared set for a conventional political career, and had been
preparing for the elections of 1952 as a possible congressional
candidate for the Ortodoxo party, when his plans were interrupted by
Castro became one of the more extraordinary political figures of the
twentieth century and Cuba's history will long be dominated by him.
His successful revolution made world headlines in 1959 and created
the Cuban nation, giving meaning to the struggles of the past and
transforming a troubled but essentially peripheral Caribbean island
into a player on the world stage. Under his leadership, the Cuban
people 'stood up' - in the vivid expression of Mao Tse-tung - and
understood for the first time who they really were. As a leading
international presence for more than 40 years, Castro dealt on equal
terms with successive presidents of the two nuclear superpowers. As
the most charismatic leader of the Third World during its heyday, his
influence was felt far beyond the shores of his island. Grey-bearded
in old age, he continued to exercise a magnetic attraction wherever
he travelled, with an audience as fascinated by the dinosaur from the
history books as they had once been by the vibrant revolutionary firebrand.
The Russians were beguiled by Castro from the start (Nikita
Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan in particular), European intellectuals
(Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) took him to their hearts,
African revolutionaries (Ahmed Ben Bella, Kwame Nkrumah and Agostinho
Neto) welcomed his assistance and advice, and Latin American
political movements were inspired by his Revolution. Only the leaders
of the United States, where nine successive presidents preserved him
as an eternal enemy, and of China, which for many years considered
his political behaviour to be irresponsible, refused to fall for his charm.
Castro became a world hero in the mould of Garibaldi, a national
leader whose ideals and rhetoric would help shape the history of a
continent. The ignored countries of Latin America, ruled for the most
part in the 1950s by narrow oligarchies inherited from the colonial
era, were brought into the global limelight, their governments rudely
challenged by the revolutionary rhetoric of the island republic.
Whether for him or against him, successive Latin American generations
were profoundly influenced by the figure of Fidel.
Cuba under Castro became a Communist country where nationalism was
more significant than socialism, where the legend of Marti proved
more influential than the philosophy of Marx. Castro's skill, and one
of the keys to his political longevity, lay in keeping the twin
themes of socialism and nationalism endlessly in play. He gave back
their history to the Cuban people, enabling them to see the name of
their island stamped firmly on the twentieth-century global story.
His timely invocation of the name and example of Marti, the hundredth
anniversary of whose birth had occurred opportunely in January 1953,
proved particularly felicitous.
For many Cubans, Batista's return to power had ruled out any further
journeys along the democratic road to political power. An impatient
Castro embraced armed insurrection without a second thought, and
began to organise in the wake of Batista's coup. Such a strategy was
a staple ingredient of Cuba's own troubled history, as well as in the
insecure countries that bordered the Caribbean. Nor was Castro alone.
Other small and independent groups, gathering secretly in Havana and
other towns, were dusting down the old tradition of political
violence and preparing for an assault on Batista's regime.
Castro's charisma, his strategic vision and his organising talents,
gave his group a powerful advantage. He assembled more than 150 men,
trained them, and raised the necessary funds. Most of them were
radicals rather than revolutionaries; most came from the youth wing
of the Ortodoxo party. Castro drafted a manifesto that outlined a
programme for government, invoking the name of Marti. He also made
preparations for guerrilla warfare in the countryside, like Guiteras
in the 1930s, lest his planned attack on the Moncada barracks should fail.
The preparations for the Moncada operation went ahead undetected. A
small farm was leased near Siboney, outside Santiago, and men and
munitions were gradually assembled there, the local peasants given
the impression that they were constructing buildings to hold battery
chickens. On the chosen day in July 1953, a hundred guerrillas
dressed in army uniforms set off from Siboney to Santiago in buses
and motor cars. They had surprise on their side, but the defenders of
the barracks had the advantage of a superior position. Castro's
guerrillas were obliged to fight uphill. Several soldiers were killed
in the battle, but the guerrillas were easily repelled. Castro's
makeshift troop retired in disarray, leaving more than half of their
number behind. Some were dead, while many were captured and
Fidel's younger brother, Raul, was among those taking part. His unit
successfully seized the Palace of Justice, adjacent to the barracks,
but was forced to withdraw when the rest of the plan collapsed. Raul
escaped into the countryside, avoiding the slaughter that followed,
but he was eventually captured and put on trial.
Fidel also escaped into the hills, only to be discovered a few days
later. His life was saved by a black lieutenant from the Rural Guard,
who had the wit to take him to the police station in Santiago rather
than to Moncada barracks, where he would certainly have been shot
along with the other prisoners. He was later transferred to the
hilltop jail of Boniato, outside the city.
The regime exacted its revenge. A senior general arrived from Havana
i bringing specific instructions from Batista that outlined what was
to be done, i It was 'humiliating and dishonourable for the army to
have lost in combat 1 three times as many men as the insurgents did,'
announced the general, according to Castro's account at his
subsequent trial. 'Ten prisoners must be shot for each dead
soldier.'3 That was Batista's order, and it was followed to excess.
The ensuing bloodbath, with more than 70 guerrillas shot in
captivity, did much to turn public opinion against his regime. Only
the intervention of the Catholic archbishop of Santiago called a halt
to the killings.
Castro was put on trial in Santiago in September, along with more
than a hundred defendants, many of them local leftists who had had no
connection with the Moncada attack. Castro, as a qualified lawyer,
took on their defence, basing his case on the illegality of the
regime and the inherent right of the citizen to rebel against an
illegal government. When asked who was behind the attack, he replied
that 'the intellectual author of this revolution is Jose Marti, the
apostle of our independence'.
His defence was so successful that only 26 prisoners were found
guilty and most were treated leniently. The Santiago judges still
retained their independence. Raul, however, as one of the leaders,
was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Fidel had not been on the first
list of defendants and was brought before a different court in
October, his own trial being held in the nurses' room of a civilian
hospital. According to legend, he made a two-hour speech, justifying
his actions and outlining his political programme, but since no
record was kept of his words, he had to reconstruct them later.
'Condemn me, it does not matter,' were his concluding words. 'History
will absolve me.'