On March 10, 1952, former dictator Fulgencio Batista seized power in Cuba again. This happened eighty days before the elections in which he would have received the least votes.
With one blow, he overthrew the president, abolished the constitution, disolved parliament, crushed unions, student and guild organizations, took control of the media, unleashed a brutal repression and set up a regime of corruption and plunder which C. Wright Mills characterized as “capitalism run by gangsters and the mafia”. Washington gave Batista quick recognition and always supported him, until the tyrant and his henchmen escaped on January 1st, 1959.
The 1952 coup d’état greatly shocked Cuban society. Beyond its political consequences, it cut deep into the national conscience. The overthrown president sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy, the political forces supporting him were paralyzed; the forces in the opposition, including those of Marxist inspiration, were not able to defend legality nor organize resistance; they became entangled in endless debates on strategy and tactics with only one thing in common: inaction.
Frustration and disbelief grew among the population. Their democratic aspirations were defeated once again. All the political parties had lost credibility and public trust. Only among the young people and students was there still a spirit of rebellion, seeking their own path outside the failed structures. To steer that rebelliousness they needed and exceptional leader. They found it in Fidel Castro.
Fidel chose a group of young people who looked to him as an example and prepared them for armed struggle. It was a group without a name or political affiliation. The action on July 26, 1953 was, in military terms, a double failure: the attempts to take by assault two main army garrisons in Eastern Cuba: Moncada in Santiago de Cuba and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes in Bayamo. In both, the assailants were defeated and most of them murdered after the battle.
The Movimiento 26 de Julio was born losing its first battles and under the almost unanimous attack of the political forces, the media and other institutions of Cuban society. But that day was, in true fact, a rebirth. It began a process of moral rescue which allowed the people to recover strength and start the long and difficult march to victory. The starting point was the recovery of trust. That day reached many, and gave impulse to the creation of a movement that would keep growing provided it could preserve faith.
Compelled by popular pressure, Batista was forced, in 1955, to give amnesty to Fidel and his comrades in prison. Fidel travelled to Mexico and promised to return before the following year was over to conduct the final battle. Once again he was betting on popular trust.
Meanwhile, the dictatorship launched a campaign to create distrust. This was supported by many sectors in the opposition which were against armed struggle. The pro-Batista media made fun of Fidel’s promise and kept publishing the countdown on their front pages. The arrival of the rebels took place on December 2, and it was another military catastrophe. The failure of the expedition made big headlines in the Cuban press and far beyond.
The 82 men who arrived in the Granma yacht faced a far superior military force equipped, armed and trained by The United States. The twelve survivors scattered in the forest with no weapons or resources, managed to regroup in the Sierra Maestra. Months of disinformation and anguish followed. In the remote mountains, backed by their followers in the city, the guerrilla contingent was formed step-by-step. In the cities, the clandestine fighters who supplied the guerrillas and resisted brutal repression also had to fight the permanent “peacekeeping” maneuvers of the political opposition.
Two years later, the movement had spread to the entire country and the dictatorship was defeated. This was five years, five months and five days after the foundational action.
Those were hard and difficult years. But they brought freedom and happiness to a people emancipated forever. As expressed in the lyrics of a song that we have all been singing for many years now: “The 26 is the happiest day in history”.
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada has served as Cuba’s UN ambassador, Foreign Minister and president of the National Assembly.
A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.