Cuba: 50 years of revolution

Campaign News | Wednesday, 7 January 2009

By John Haylett, Morning Star

As Cuba commemorates the day 50 years ago when the Caravan of Liberty rolled into Havana, JOHN HAYLETT charts the fall and rise of a historic revolution.

CUBA'S capital will extend a tumultuous welcome today to a re-enactment of the 1959 Caravan of Liberty.

On this day in 1959, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro led Rebel Army members into Havana, consolidating the defeat of the Batista dictatorship.

Today's caravan, which set off on January 2, mirrors the commander-in-chief's route from Santiago de Cuba 50 years ago. It will culminate in a huge rally in the former Columbia military base, which is now an educational complex.

Each province has selected 50 caravan representatives from all sections of the population - school-age pioneers, students, artists, athletes, internationalist workers, soldiers and members of the respected old guard, the Association of the Combatants of the Cuban Revolution.

The caravan members have participated in commemorative events over the past week in every Cuban province.

As well as official meetings and rallies, they have visited historical sites, revolutionary combatants and relatives of martyrs who fell in the struggle.

Cubans celebrate not only their liberation from a brutal and corrupt dictatorship but also from an unequal neocolonial relationship with the United States.

Many commentators have speculated over when Fidel became a communist or when he became hostile to the US, but such speculation misses the point that the aims of every Latin American independence fighter will inevitably collide with Washington's insistence on hegemony over the entire western hemisphere.

The doctrine began as a warning in 1823 by president James Monroe to European nations, notably Spain, that any attempt to reassert control over newly independent states in the western hemisphere would be seen as an act of aggression and the US would intervene.

But it broadened over decades into a declaration of Washington's control over the whole of Latin America.

Certainly Fidel was not a member of the pre-revolutionary Communist Party in Cuba, which was known as the People's Socialist Party.

Raul had joined the PSP in 1953, six weeks before the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, having returned from an international youth rights conference in Vienna and been invited to take part in a meeting to organise the 4th World Youth and Student Festival scheduled for Bucharest.

However, it is clear that Fidel was already conversant with the works of Marx and Lenin and had encouraged Abel Santamaria and a small number of his close comrades to study Marxism.

Despite this, during his trial following the revolutionaries' failure to capture Moncada, Fidel restricted himself to citing the doctrines of Cuban national hero Jose MartÃ? and "the noble ideas of everyone who has defended the freedom of the people."

Batista, who had rushed back to Havana from his yacht off the coast of Varadero, claimed that the rebellion had been planned from abroad and that 400-500 rebels had taken part, rather than a quarter or a fifth of that.

Those rebels captured immediately were summarily killed, some being tortured first. Fidel himself and 13 rebels were fortunate to be captured by black Rural Guard lieutenant Pedro Manuel SarrÃ?a, who refused his men's demand to kill the prisoners, telling them: "You can't kill ideas."

After the triumph of the revolution, Lt SarrÃ?a, who had been held under house arrest since 1958 for refusing to fight the rebels, joined the people's army and was promoted to captain.

At his trial, Fidel delivered a masterclass in oration from the dock, ensuring that he and his cause would be recognised in Cuba and overseas.

"I know that jail will be as hard as it has ever been for anyone, filled with threats, with vileness and cowardly brutality, but I do not fear this, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who snuffed out the life of 70 brothers of mine," he declared.

And, in a ringing turn of phrase that would resound across the world, Fidel told the court: "Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me."

Even in the conditions of dictatorship, he was cheered by people in the street as he was moved from court to prison after being sentenced to 15 years.

The prisoners were incarcerated on the Isle of Pines, to the south of Pinar del Rio province, which was proclaimed an "open zone" in the 1950s. Many US citizens bought land there, setting up casinos and hotels.

It has been transformed in revolutionary times, with young volunteers planting around 65,000 acres of citrus fruit and schools set up for hundreds of thousands of students from developing countries.

The rebels spent barely two years in jail before being released in an amnesty, despite Fidel refusing to sign an undertaking not to foment insurrection. Indeed, he had already chosen July 26 Movement as the name for the organisation that would spearhead the next phase of the liberation war.

He moved to Mexico and also spoke at huge rallies of Cuban-American exiles in Miami and other US cities.

He told an 800-strong New York meeting in October 1955: "I can inform you with complete reliability that, in 1956, we will be free or we will be martyrs."

In Mexico, he met General Alberto Bayo, who had fought on the Republican side in the war against fascism in Spain, urging greater reliance on guerilla warfare to counter a better-equipped enemy, and persuaded him to teach his as yet unrecruited rebel army guerilla tactics.

Fidel was also introduced by Raul to Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who already considered himself a Marxist-Leninist. Che's diary noted Fidel as "a young man, intelligent, very sure of himself and of extraordinary audacity."

Che was taken on as doctor and was among the 82 members of the fledgling army to board the yacht Granma, which was meant for no more than 12 people, to leave Mexico on November 25 1956, hoping to spark a nationwide uprising on landing in Cuba and to liberate the island.

Everything went wrong - the weather was vile, almost everyone was seasick, the trip took two days longer than envisaged, the planned simultaneous Santiago de Cuba uprising took place prematurely and was crushed and a shambolic landing at the Playa de las Coloradas led to the loss of all equipment.

Things could only get worse. A civilian guide betrayed the whereabouts of the 82 comrades to the Batista forces and an ambush at Alegria de Pio, in a canefield belonging to the Niquero sugar mill, reduced the ranks of the Rebel Army to 12, all of whom were tired, hungry, blistered, wounded and exhausted.

The ambush at Alegria de Pio is described by Che in his Episodes of the Revolutionary War as "the only one with Fidel taking part in which our forces were not victorious."

But this first and only defeat was followed by the first victory of many, the relatively small engagement at La Plata barracks, which was overrun.

Two soldiers were killed, five wounded and three taken prisoner, together with eight Springfield rifles, one Thompson machinegun and about 1,000 rounds of ammunition.

Fidel's decision to hand over all medical supplies to treat the wounded soldiers appalled Che, but it was in line with the commander's instruction on treatment of prisoners prior to the failed assault on Moncada.

"Treat them humanely. Don't insult them. And remember that the life of an unarmed man must be sacred to you," he ordered.

This enlightened stance, which was entirely at odds with the dictatorship's approach, encouraged army units to surrender in subsequent battles just as the guerillas' correct attitude to the peasantry - approaching them decently, paying for food and treating women politely - earned first their respect and then their wholehearted backing.

A nucleus of a dozen poorly armed, inadequately trained but single-mindedly motivated guerillas developed into a rebel army of many thousands, surrounding and taking Cuba's cities and opening the way to a new life for the island's people.

Washington saw that Batista did not lack for anything, including planes and other military supplies.

But, while the dictatorship offered wealth and power for a tiny minority of US gangsters, businesses and their Cuban hangers-on, with a debased life of exploitation, brutality, prostitution and poverty for the many, the Fidelistas offered a new vision.

It wasn't simply new faces for old under tired empty slogans about democracy and freedom.

The new vision offered Cubans the opportunity to build a new society themselves, asserting total sovereignty over their own land and rejecting patronising ideas of US guidance or tutelage. In short, doing it their way.

The majority of Cubans have been born since the 1959 revolution, children of a free island, the first free territory of the Americas.

They understand and constantly pay tribute to the sacrifices of those who battled for their liberation.

And the welcome that they will give to the Caravan of Liberty re-enactment today will represent an ongoing statement that they will strive to live up to the standards set by the Rebel Army and will remain committed to the humane, self-confident, independent, revolutionary and internationalist principles of their revolution.

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