55 Anniversary of the Moncada Assault (updated)
While Cuba celebrates its 55 anniversary of the Moncada Assault that mrked its revolution, Raul Castro addressed the country in a televised message. According to BBC, during his speech Castro "warned that Cubans must be prepared for the consequences of the current global economic crisis".
But Castro did not unveil any dramatic economic and social policy measures in his televised address on Saturday to mark Revolution Day. "Despite some expectations from people, Castro did not mention reforms," Rachel Levin, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Havana, said.
55TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE MONCADA ASSAULT
The major success that was unknown
to the world
BY MARTA ROJAS (1)
THE assault on the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, was an event that the world was unaware of. The newspapers – with just one exception – noted that the young Cuban lawyer Fidel Castro together with a contingent of young men, had assaulted the country’s second military fortress, with the aim of reverting the situation of Cuba; in other words, to restore the crushed Constitution of the Republic by overthrowing General Fulgencio Batista who, barely one year earlier – on March 10, 1952 – had mounted a coup d’état to seize power from President Carlos Prío Socarrás, democratically elected at the polls.
Prío’s presidency was due to end normally that same year. That cunning coup was known as the "crack of dawn." Its executor and those who followed him did not have popular support. From 1933, Batista’s history was symbolized by dictatorial ambitions and crime.
From that time, he was recalled by his contemporaries and the people as the military chief who ordered the killing of revolutionaries Antonio Guiteras and Venezuelan Carlos Aponte. Guiteras formed part of the revolutionary government that took power after the fall of the dictator Gerardo Machado and, in the so-called 100 Days’ Government, acted as government minister and drew up the most advanced legislation of the 20th century to that point, including the nationalization of foreign companies established in Cuba, even though neither he nor the other members of that government were communists.
After these brief historical antecedents, it is obligatory to go back to that event unknown to the world, the Moncada assault. Only one reporter from a US news agency sent a cable from his office on the armed attack, but he never found out which newspapers published it apart from the Habana Post, an English-language newspaper in Havana.
Only the dailies in Santiago de Cuba – in what used to be Oriente province – and those of Havana, as well as national radio covered the news, and the "In Cuba" section of Bohemia magazine printed photographs. Other newspapers in the country reproduced the Bohemia photos. And that was it. That same day the Batista dictatorship, which was called the "de facto" government, decided to implement the harshest press censorship, given that it was not confined to an order but appointed censors in every newspaper and other media.
The only version of the event was the military information released by the Columbia Camp, headquarters of the Army General Staff that had executed the military coup, headed by the then senator Batista, who had just returned from exile in Miami to participate in the general elections on June 1, 1952 in which he aspired to be formally appointed as such.
Thus, the world was unaware that, on just one day, July 26 itself – a Sunday – 46 young combatants who were captured were extra-judicially tortured and finally murdered, and in the following days that figure rose to more than 60, although the military reports said that they had died in combat with the army. On July 26 only six revolutionary combatants fell in fighting at Post 3 of the Santiago de Cuba garrison.
The organization led by the young lawyer Fidel Castro came to be popularly known as the Centenary Generation, given that it emerged – after months of underground organization – precisely in 1953, with celebrations for the centenary of the birth of José Martí, leader of the Cuban independence struggle against Spanish colonialism and the national hero.
Martí’s thinking on full freedom and sovereignty, his revolutionary ethics and social ideas, among other fundamental values, was the doctrine assumed by that young contingent, almost all of them members of the youth wing of the Cuban Orthodoxy People’s Party, the majority political group in the country, and which would certainly have won the presidency of the Republic of Batista had not interrupted the constitutional process, and the elections scheduled for June 1 had taken place.
So that was why, during the trial of the Moncada assailants on September 21, 1953, when the prosecution judge asked Fidel who had masterminded the action, he emphatically replied that nobody should be concerned about being accused in that context, because the sole author of the Moncada assault was José Martí. It was already known via the Movement’s program and Fidel’s own words that they were the bearers of "the doctrines of the maestro."
That unknown event was a tactical setback, given that its prime objective was not achieved. It was to take the garrison by surprise and call on the people to fight against the dictatorship and restore the 1940 Constitution abolished by the coup d’état, a model in vogue in Latin America up until the days of Pinochet in Chile, always backed – in all cases – by the government in power in the United States, forgetting its fanatical defense of democracy and multi-party elections.
The tactical setback began to turn into a strategic victory from September 21 when the leader of the Revolutionary Movement and the assault on Moncada – Dr. Fidel Castro – appeared for the first time before the court in the Santiago de Cuba Palace of Justice, as the accused and defense lawyer for the Moncada assault. His statements and the interrogation process – as a lawyer – were so devastating to the fallacious versions circulated since July 26 by Batista and his military acolytes that, in 48 hours, the trial changed course and Fidel, the accused, became the accuser.
His arguments were so powerful that they crushed all the maneuverings of the court and the "de facto" government. His reasoning was so strong that a doctor from the Boniato (in Santiago) prison was summoned to certify that Dr. Castro was supposedly suffering from an illness, to prevent his return to the trial proceedings against him, the other survivors of the assault and a group of opposition politicians who had nothing to do with the Movement but whom the regime involved in the event.
There were many people listening, adding up more than 100 members of the armed forces, relatives of the prisoners, 25 lawyers, court employees and some 20 journalists, even though their newspapers, being censored, were unable to publish anything. The dictatorship certainly feared that, starting with Santiago de Cuba, the word would go from mouth to mouth and that the people would get to know the truth. They would discover the number of atrocities committed by the army under orders from on high that at least 10 assailants had to be killed for every soldier that died in combat.
The trial of the others continued under a protest from Fidel sent to the court via Melba Hernández, a lawyer who, with Haydée Santamaría, was one of the two women who participated in the assault. They were with the group commanded by Abel Santamaría, second-in-command of the Movement, localized in the service area of the Saturnino Lora Civilian Hospital. The young Raúl Castro was the leader of the contingent of the other rearguard, located on the flat roof of the Palace of Justice.
It was not until October 16 that Fidel Castro appeared before the court again. This took place in a nurses’ study room in the Civilian Hospital where, as he himself said in his plea, the public consisted of just six journalists in whose newspapers nothing could be published. Obviously, the censorship continued in place. It was here that Fidel gave his own defense plea that is now known everywhere as History Will Absolve Me, a speech that he himself reproduced in written form during his imprisonment in the former Model Prison on the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth).
Next October 16 will be the 55th anniversary of that event, virtually carried out in isolation, of which the world knew nothing at the time, but only later, in 1954, when History Will Absolve Me was published and distributed clandestinely in Cuba and reproduced by revolutionary friends in New York, and by a small publishing house in the Republic of Chile. In this last case, the book was on display in a bookstore window.
One of the aspects successfully concealed from the public attending the Moncada trial was the file of death certificates made by brave forensic surgeons who removed or autopsied the corpses of the revolutionary assailants. In some of them, the doctors noted as evidence of crime, that the fingers of the dead were stained with the ink used for taking their fingerprints before they were killed, plus many other details. It was from their notes that it emerged that the young Movement members who left the Civilian Hospital alive, including Abel Santamaría, were wearing hospital gowns or pajamas under khaki pants that showed no sign of bloodstains. But, in passing, the solidarity of the people, primarily expressed by the hospital nurses, was evident. They tried to hide the young assailants so that they wouldn’t be killed and made them put on hospital garb to pass them off as patients in different wards. Abel’s pajamas bore the initials of the Ophthalmology room; perhaps it was for that reason that during his torture they pulled out or crushed the bandaged eye.
Nevertheless, the forensic certificates of the soldiers killed in combat were very clear: orifice of the entry or exit of bullets. All the certificates in the files of Cause 37 of the Emergency Court are considered as irrefutable evidence. As if that were not enough, they include a photo of José Luis Tasende, a revolutionary combatant who was wounded at one of the posts and, as chief of the cell, wore sergeant stripes. He was mistaken for an injured soldier (the assailants wore the same uniforms but with civilian belts, for example, as a different or distinguishing feature) and was even treated at the Military Hospital. He had a sutured wound on one leg, was photographed by the Army as a hero and, when it emerged that he was fighting as an assailant, he was "killed in combat." The photo of a living Tasende is categorical evidence.
None of that was known to the world at that time.
However, the actions of July 26, 1953 were to transform the political map of Cuba and the rest of the Americas and constituted a solid example of how such a social, deep-rooted revolution was possible. The example given by that eminent group of Cubans -- followed by the struggle and victory of the amnesty; the Granma expedition and the battles of the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra; the uniting of the revolutionary groups; the general strike of January 1, 1959 called by Fidel himself, as commander in chief; and the 55 years of resistance of a people – is the guarantee of the significance of that day of which the world knew nothing.
(1) Cuban journalist and writer of testimonies and works of literature. In the form of a journalistic novel, her anthological testimony of the events described in this article can be found in detail in "El juicio del Moncada" (The Moncada Trial), with a prologue by Haydée Santamaría and Melba Hernández, as well as Alejo Carpentier