by Richard Roques
* On December 2 1956, Fidel Castro and 81 other combatants, including Che Guevara, landed in Cuba to begin the revolutionary war against the US-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista. Over the next two years, the Rebel Army conducted an ever-widening guerrilla struggle that won increasing popular support in the countryside and the cities, culminating in the revolution’s victory on January 1, 1959.
* On March 10, 1952, Batista led a bloodless coup on the island of Cuba. On July 26th, 1953, Fidel Castro led an attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba that marked the beginning of the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista regime. After the attack’s failure, Batista’s forces massacred over 50 of the captured revolutionaries. Castro and others were taken prisoner, tried imprisoned. They were released in May 1955 after a public defence campaign forced the regime to issue an amnesty.
* Che Guevara met Fidel Castro in Mexico. Fidel was sent in to exile and came to Mexico looking for neutral ground on which to prepare a group of men to begin a struggle to overthrow Batista. They began their training, fighting the Mexican government, agents of the FBI and of Batista. General Alberto Bayo gave classes in military tactics, Guevara became head of personnel. Fidel Castro was captured by a Mexican police unit on Batista’s payroll, the ranch on the outskirts of Mexico City where military training took place was captured and all of the July 26th Movement as it had been called were imprisoned. On their release they worked clandestinely, hardly ever going out in to public places. After several months they learned that a traitor in their midst had sold the yacht and transmitter. The Granma was prepared at short notice with uniforms, rifles and two antitank guns and hardly any ammunition. On November 25, 1956 at two o’clock in the morning they left the port of Tuxpan with their lights out in very bad weather. ‘We sang the Cuban national anthem and the July 26 Hymn for perhaps five minutes total, and then the whole boat took on a ridiculously tragic appearance: men with anguished faces holding their stomachs, some with their heads in buckets, and others lying immobile on the deck, in the strangest positions, with their clothing soiled by vomit.’ (Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution: Episodes in the Revolutionary War)
* On November 30 they heard on the radio that Frank Pais had started an uprising in Santiago de Cuba. The following day they set a course for the coast of Cuba. They had run out of water, food and fuel.
The Rebels land on the coast of Cuba
* It was daylight on 2 December by the time they reached the beach of Las Coloradas. A coast guard boat had spotted them and they were immediately attacked by enemy planes as they disembarked. They ran for cover and became lost in mangrove-covered swamps. It had been seven days of continuous hunger and seasickness. Exactly ten days after the departure from Mexico, after a night march interrupted by fainting, exhaustion, and rest for the troops, they reached a point known – paradoxically – by the name of Alegria [joy] de Pio. They stopped to rest for a day and continue the following night. ‘All that was left of our war equipment was our rifles, cartridge belts and a few rounds of ammunition. Our medical supplies had disappeared, and most of our knapsacks had been left behind in the swamps. The previous night we had passed through one of the canefields…We had managed to satisfy our hunger and thirst by eating sugarcane, but due to our lack of experience we had left a trail of cane peelings and bagasse all over the place. Not that the guards looking for us needed any trail to follow our steps, for it had been our guide – as we found out years later -who had betrayed us and brought them there.’ (ibid) A hail of bullets rained down on the 82-man troop. Che was hit in his chest and neck. Camilo Cienfuegos shouted ‘Nobody surrenders here!’ and Fidel vainly attempted to get everybody together in the shelter of the adjoining canefield. By the time they managed to reach the canefield many of them were dead and planes flying low straffed the field. Columns of flame and smoke began to rise as the canefield was set on fire. They walked until they were too exhausted to continue and threw themselves down to sleep, starving, thirsty and plagued by mosquitos. Only a handful of them were left.
* On January 14, 1957 they came across the La Plata army barracks. They staked out the barracks and at nightfall on the 16th the Rebel Army crossed the shallow La Plata river and took two peasants `into custody’. Reassured that they would come to no harm they told the rebels that there were only about 15 soldiers in the barracks and that one of the region’s most notorious foreman was about to ride by. ‘Shortly afterward, Chicho showed up, astride a mule, with a little black boy riding “double”. Chicho was drunk. Universo Sanchez gave him an order to halt in the name of the Rural Guards and immediately Chicho replied: “Mosquito”. That was the password. We must have looked like a bunch of pirates, but Chicho Osorio was so drunk we were able to fool him. Fidel stepped forward and, looking very indignant, said he was an army colonel who had come to find out why the rebels had not yet been wiped out…Sheepishly, Chicho Osorio admitted that the guards spent all their time inside the barracks, eating and doing nothing…He told us how he had killed two men…Fidel asked Osorio what he would do if he ever caught Fidel Castro and Osorio, with a very expressive gesture, replied “We’ll have to cut his____ off…Look,” he said, showing us his shoes…”these shoes belonged to one of those sons of _____ we killed.”…he agreed to accompany us to the barracks in order to surprise the soldiers and prove to them they were badly prepared and were neglecting their duties.’ (ibid)
* They had 22 weapons for the attack. They were so short of ammunition that if they failed to take the barracks they would have been left defenceless. The rebels’ Brazilian hand grenades failed to go off and they had to risk their lives by approaching close to the barracks to set the houses on fire. After initial resistance the rebels took the barracks with no casualties on their side. They freed all the prisoners and armed with the weapons they had captured started for Palma Mocha and from there they sought out the most inaccessible zones of the Sierra Maestra.
Guerrilla warfare and the Sierra Maestra
* Although the early period was one of great hardship, constantly moving from place to place, the rebels began to liberate the mountainous area so that they could openly live in the villages. None of this would have been possible without the active support of the people. The Sierra manifesto, dated July 12 1957, was issued which included freedom for all political prisoners, freedom of the press and individual and political rights to be guaranteed by a constitution. Castro knew that this was a minimum programme and that he had to carry the people with him. He wanted to include agrarian reform in the manifesto but was prevented from doing so by others who subsequently betrayed the revolution and issued the Miami Pact.
* The 26th July Movement divided into two parts, the Sierra and the Llano which means `plain’ and was the underground, urban wing of the movement led by Frank Pais. After a number of military victories and increasing insurrectionary upsurges, the 26th July Movement called a general strike to take place on April 9th 1958. The general strike was not a success and was followed by a period of retreat and growing repression. The regime was given breathing space and was able to move many of its troops in to the Oriente province, driving the rebel army from the plains, back in to the Sierra Maestra. On May 3rd 1958 a meeting took place in the Sierra Maestra at which the Llano leadership was criticised and the Sierra Group took control of the Movement. Fidel Castro was created commander in chief for the first time.
* The tasks ahead were the invasion of the plains, the seizure of the central provinces and the destruction of the regime’s entire political-military apparatus. It took seven months to complete these aims. On May 25th the regime launched a huge offensive, 10,000 armed soldiers against the rebels 200 usable rifles. In two and a half months of heavy fighting Batista lost 1,000 men, 450 of whom were taken prisoner and handed over to the Red Cross leaving 600 weapons in the hands of the rebels. In July at the battle of El Jigue a decisive Rebel Army victory marked the beginning of the Rebel counteroffensive. At the end of August two columns leave the Sierra Maestra, Camilo Cienfuegos leads his troops towards Pinar del Rio in the western end of Cuba and Che Guevara moves towards Las Villas Province in Central Cuba. They go through terrible hardships and setbacks. Hunger, thirst, weariness take their toll and Guevara’s men can hardly walk with the foot disease mazamorra which makes every step intolerable. By December, however, the two Rebel columns have captured a number of towns in Las Villas province and the island is effectively cut in half. Guevara’s column begins the battle of Santa Clara, the capital of the province and the centre of the island’s transport system. The political and ideological struggle went hand in hand with the military struggle against the dictatorship. Law no. 3 of the Sierra Maestra proclaimed on October 10, 1958 by the Rebel Army, granted tenant farmers, squatters and sharecroppers ownership of the land they worked, providing its total area was less than two caballerias (67 acres).
The triumph of the revolution
* On January 1st 1959 at 2 am Batista flees Cuba and a military junta takes over. Castro opposes the new junta and calls for the struggle to continue. Santa Clara falls to the rebels and the two columns advance on Havana. The next day Cuban workers respond to Castro’s call for a general strike. The country is paralysed and Guevara’s column enters Havana and occupies la Cabana fortress. On 8th January Castro arrives in Havana to be greeted by hundreds of thousands. On February 16th Castro becomes prime minister. There are many struggles ahead for the newly installed revolutionary government. Manuel Urrutia, the choice of the July 26th Movement had been installed as president on January 6th. On 16th July Castro resigns as prime minister because of Urrutia’s opposition to measures of the revolutionary government which include land reform, laws reducing rents by 30 to 50% and reduction in electricity rates. Urrutia is replaced by popular opposition and Castro returns to his post as prime minister on July 26th. Counterrevolutionary war and destabilisation continue for years. Without the involvement and support of the people the revolution would never have succeeded. Che Guevara summed up the future. ‘We are now in a position in which we are much more than simple instruments of one nation. We are now the hope of the unredeemed Americas. All eyes – those of the great oppressors and those of the hopeful – are firmly on us. In great measure the development of the popular movements in Latin America depends on the future stance that we take, on our capacity to resolve so many problems. And every step we take is being observed by the ever-watchful eyes of the big creditor and by the optimistic eyes of our brothers in Latin America…But what is Cuba’s main problem if not the same as of all Latin America, the same as even enormous Brazil with its millions of square kilometres and with its land of marvels that is a whole continent? The one-crop economy. In Cuba we are slaves to sugar cane, the umbilical cord that binds us to the large northern market…We must diversify our agricultural production, stimulate industry…so that within a short time the infant Cuban industries can compete with the monstrous ones of the countries where capitalism has reached its highest level of development…we shall struggle to the last drop of our rebel blood to make this land a sovereign republic with the true attributes of a nation that is happy, democratic, and fraternal with its brothers of Latin America.’ (ibid)