The Cuban communist revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro took part in the Cuban Revolution from 1953 to 1959. Following on from his early life, Castro decided to fight for the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s military junta by founding a paramilitary organisation, “The Movement”. In July 1953, they launched a failed attack on the Moncada Barracks, during which many militants were killed and Castro was arrested. Placed on trial, he defended his actions and provided his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech, before being sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in the Model Prison on the Isla de Pinos. Renaming his group the “26th of July Movement” (MR-26-7), Castro was pardoned by Batista’s government in May 1955, who no longer considered him a political threat. Restructuring the MR-26-7, he fled to Mexico with his brother Raul Castro, where he met with Argentine Marxist-Leninist Che Guevara, and together they put together a small revolutionary force intent on overthrowing Batista.
In November 1956, Castro and 81 revolutionaries sailed from Mexico aboard the Granma, crash-landing near to Los Cayuelos. Attacked by Batista’s forces, they fled to the Sierra Maestra mountain range, where the 19 survivors set up an encampment from which they waged guerrilla war against the army. Boosted by new recruits that increased the guerilla army’s numbers to 200, they co-ordinated their attacks with the actions of other revolutionaries across Cuba, and Castro became an international celebrity after being interviewed by The New York Times. In 1958, Batista launched a counter-offensive, Operation Verano, but his army’s use of conventional warfare was overwhelmed by Castro’s guerrilla tactics, and the MR-26-7 eventually pushed out of the Sierra Maestra and took control of most of Oriente and Las Villas. Recognising that he was losing the war, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic while military leader Eulogio Cantillo took control of the country. With revolutionary forces controlling most of Cuba, Castro ordered Cantillo’s arrest, before establishing a provisional government with Manuel Urrutia Lleó as President and José Miró Cardona as Prime Minister, ensuring that they enacted laws to erode the power of the Batistanos.
In March 1952, Cuban military general Fulgencio Batista seized power in a military coup, with the elected President Carlos Prío Socarrás fleeing to Mexico. Declaring himself president, Batista cancelled the planned presidential elections, describing his new system as “disciplined democracy”; Castro, like many others, considered it a one-man dictatorship. Batista moved to the right, solidifying ties with both the wealthy elite and the United States, severing diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, suppressing trade unions and persecuting Cuban socialist groups. Intent on opposing Batista’s administration, Castro brought several legal cases against them, arguing that Batista had committed sufficient criminal acts to warrant imprisonment and accusing various ministers of breaching labor laws. His lawsuits coming to nothing, Castro began thinking of alternate ways to oust the new government.
Dissatisfied with the Partido Ortodoxo’s non-violent opposition, Castro formed “The Movement”, a group consisting of both a civil and a military committee. The former agitated through underground newspaper El Acusador (The Accuser), while the latter armed and trained anti-Batista recruits. With Castro as the Movement’s head, the organization was based upon a clandestine cell system, with each cell containing 10 members. A dozen individuals formed the Movement’s nucleus, many also dissatisfied Ortodoxo members, although from July 1952 they went on a recruitment drive, gaining around 1,200 members in a year, organized into over a hundred cells, with the majority coming from Havana’s poorer districts. Although he had close ties to revolutionary socialism, Castro avoided an alliance with the communist PSP, fearing it would frighten away political moderates, but kept in contact with several PSP members, including his brother Raúl. He later related that the Movement’s members were simply anti-Batista, and few had strong socialist or anti-imperialist views, something which Castro attributed to “the overwhelming weight of the Yankees’ ideological and advertising machinery” which he believed suppressed class consciousness among Cuba’s working class.
Castro stockpiled weapons for a planned attack on the Moncada Barracks, a military garrison outside Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. Castro’s militants intended to dress in army uniforms and arrive at the base on July 25, the festival of St James, when many officers would be away. The rebels would seize control, raid the armory and escape before reinforcements arrived. Supplied with new weaponry, Castro intended to arm supporters and spark a revolution among Oriente’s impoverished cane cutters. The plan was to then seize control of a Santiago radio station, broadcasting the Movement’s manifesto, hence promoting further uprisings. Castro’s plan emulated those of the 19th century Cuban independence fighters who had raided Spanish barracks; Castro saw himself as the heir to independence leader and national hero José Martí.
Castro gathered 165 revolutionaries for the mission; 138 stationed in Santiago, the other 27 in Bayamo. Mostly young men from Havana and Pinar del Río, Castro insured that – with the exception of himself – none had children, and ordered his troops not to cause bloodshed unless they met armed resistance. The attack took place on July 26, 1953, but ran into trouble; 3 of the 16 cars that had set out from Santiago failed to get there. Reaching the barracks, the alarm was raised, with most of the rebels pinned down outside the base by machine gun fire. Those that got inside faced heavy resistance, and 4 were killed before Castro ordered a retreat. The rebels had suffered 6 fatalities and 15 other casualties, whilst the army suffered 19 dead and 27 wounded.
Meanwhile, some rebels took over a civilian hospital; subsequently stormed by government soldiers, the rebels were rounded up, tortured and 22 were executed without trial. Those that had escaped, including Fidel and Raúl, assembled at their base where some debated surrender, while others wished to flee to Havana. Accompanied by 19 comrades, Castro decided to set out for Gran Piedra in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains several miles to the north, where they could establish a guerrilla base. In response to the Moncada attack, Batista’s government proclaimed martial law, ordering a violent crackdown on dissent and imposing strict censorship of the media. Propaganda broadcast misinformation about the event, claiming that the rebels were communists who had killed hospital patients. Despite this censorship, news and photographs soon spread of the army’s use of torture and summary executions in Oriente, causing widespread public and some governmental disapproval.