Red-letter day

Print edition : August 23, 2013

Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela (with his wife, Cilia Flores), Raul Castro, Jose Mujica of Uruguay (with his wife, Lucia Topolansky) and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua (with his wife, Rosario Murillo), and Prime Ministers Winston Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda and Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines at a wreath-laying ceremony at the mausoleum of the 19th century Cuban independence hero Jose Marti in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 2013. Photo: Alejandro Ernesto/REUTERS

July 26, 2006: President Fidel Castro at the Plaza de la Patria square in Bayamo, in the province of Granma, on the 53rd anniversary of the assault on the Moncada Barracks. Photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP

July 26, 2007: Raul Castro addresses a gathering, standing above a stone relief of his brother Fidel Castro. Photo: REUTERS

A poster with pictures of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez at an event celebrating Revolution Day, in Santiago on July 26. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP

A general view of the event celebrating Revolution Day in Santiago on July 26 this year. Photo: Ismael Francisco/AP

Cuba commemorates the 60th anniversary of the “July 26 Movement”, which became a defining moment in the history of the country.

CUBA and Latin America observed the 60th anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks in the country’s second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, on July 26. The attack on the military barracks signalled the beginning of the Cuban revolution. Though the attack ended in a temporary military failure, the “July 26 Movement” became a defining moment in contemporary Cuban history. Fidel Castro, who led the assault along with his comrades, was captured. Seventy young men fighting alongside Castro were killed; many of them were severely tortured to death. The Moncada Barracks was the second biggest military base in the country and was crucial to the military control of southern Cuba. The country was at the time governed by a venal authoritarian regime.

The goal of the revolutionaries was to capture the military base along with the weaponry to spark a countrywide uprising so that Cuba’s sovereignty could be regained. In the first half of the 20th century, the country was virtually run as an outpost of the United States. Havana, the capital, had become the preferred watering hole of the American mafia and Hollywood glitterati.

Fidel Castro, along with the captured fighters, was put on trial. A trained lawyer, he gave his stirring “History will absolve me” speech, which further generated nationwide support for his cause. In his defence, he comprehensively outlined the factors that motivated the youthful band of revolutionaries, representing the working class and the peasantry, to launch their audacious attack on the heavily fortified military barracks. The revolutionaries were all given lengthy prison terms. Castro was given a 15-year sentence and was sent to the infamous prison in the Isle of Pines.

All those involved in the assault on Moncada were, however, released in 1955 after the government of Fulgencio Batista gave a general amnesty to all political prisoners. The government caved in to pressure from the streets as there were nationwide protests demanding the release of Castro and his comrades. The rest is history. Castro and a close band of comrades, including his brother Raul Castro, went to Mexico in the same year to prepare secretly the blueprint for the revolution that would fructify a few years later.

Latin American revolutionaries such as Ernesto Che Guevara were deeply swayed by the July 26 Movement and the four-hour speech that Fidel Castro delivered in his defence during the court proceedings. Che joined forces with him in Mexico in 1955, where they began successfully organising a renewed effort to overthrow the Batista regime through an armed struggle. That struggle began in earnest in 1956, ending in the liberation of Cuba on January 1, 1959.

Latin America lauds

Many leaders from Latin America were present at Santiago de Cuba to mark the 60th anniversary. President Raul Castro, who had participated in the guerilla attack, addressed the Cuban people on the occasion. The citizens of Santiago, recovering from the after-effects of one of the worst tropical storms that hit their city late last year, packed the site that commemorated the events of July 26, 1953. A giant banner hanging from the barracks depicted Fidel Castro with a clenched fist. Fidel, who is now 86, was not present on the occasion. He is rarely seen in public these days but is reportedly leading an active life, writing and meeting visiting leaders and intellectuals from all over the world.

“The years have gone by but this continues to be a revolution of young people as we were on July 26, 1953,” Raul Castro said in his speech. The Cuban leader lauded the positive changes that had occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean since the success of the Cuban revolution in 1959. He observed that it had taken the Sandinistas in Nicaragua 21 more years to achieve their revolution but since then the revolutionary pace had quickened. Venezuela followed with its own revolution through the ballot box, and a “pink revolution” swept the continent in its wake in the last decade. The Presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua were in attendance at Santiago to mark the historic occasion. Many of the Latin American countries that were not represented by their heads of state chose to send their Foreign Ministers.

“Despite attempts to divide us, to continue sacking our countries, the process of integration within Latin America and the Caribbean is unstoppable,” Raul Castro affirmed in his speech. The Cuban President was lavish in his praise for the departed Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez. “Hugo Chavez was an outstanding pupil of the heroes of Latin American and Caribbean revolutions,” he said.

Chavez’s successor as President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, speaking on the occasion, said that the assault on the Moncada Barracks was the beginning of “the fight against the clutches of the empire”. He went on to add that the creation of regional groupings like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which are free from U.S. meddling, was possible because of the revolution ushered in by the people of Cuba. “Thanks to the people of Cuba, Latin America is what it is today,” the Venezuelan President said.

‘Revolution of dignity’

The President of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, said that all revolutionaries should draw lessons from the events that had taken place 60 years ago. “Basically there is no defeat. Only those who stop fighting suffer defeat,” Mujica told the assembled crowd. Mujica as a young man had participated in the revolutionary struggle in Uruguay in the 1970s and had suffered torture and imprisonment. The Cuban revolution had given Latin American countries “more confidence”, he said. “This was a revolution of dignity. It gave us dreams.”

The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, asserted that the Cuban revolution “is the mother of anti-imperialist revolutions in Latin America and the world”. He said that revolutionary leaders such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez were an inspiration to the new leaders in the region and “strengthened the democratic revolution in Bolivia”. The Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, echoed the sentiment, saying that the Cuban revolution was a source of inspiration “for our Americas and the world, lighting the inextinguishable flame of revolution”.

Domestic affairs

The Cuban President, in his speech, focussed quite a bit on domestic affairs. He emphasised the commitment of the revolution for “an orderly and gradual transfer of power” to a new generation. At the same time he warned that the success of the revolution would only be guaranteed if there was a commitment “to preserve the unity of all Cubans”. Raul Castro, in his speech, said that the “historic generation is giving way to the new one, with tranquillity and serene confidence, based on the preparation and competence to keep the flags of the revolution and socialism flying high”.

Raul Castro had announced in February that he would be demitting office in five years and had appointed 52-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canal as the First Vice-President. This makes Diaz-Canal the front runner for the presidency. Raul Castro had also said that he would get the Constitution amended to limit top officials to two five-year terms in office. He had stated that the announcement regarding Diaz-Canal marked a moment of “historical transcendence” at a time when Cuba was moving towards “a new leadership generation”. An electrical engineer by training, Diaz-Canal is a former Education Minister.

Raul Castro had announced wide-ranging reforms to the socialist system in 2011, drastically trimming the humongous state bureaucracy in the process. Cubans are now allowed to own land and engage in private enterprise in many sectors, albeit under strict state supervision. The President has rebutted charges that he was in any way giving up the socialist principles that have guided the revolution.

He had pledged that there would be no “shock therapies” like the kind that occurred in East European countries as they abandoned socialism. The President said that the ongoing reforms could make “Cuba less egalitarian, but more just”. In a speech to the National Assembly, Raul Castro asserted that he was “not elected President to restore capitalism in Cuba”. His job, he emphasised, was “to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism, not destroy it”.

In another recent speech, which has been widely appreciated by Cubans, Raul Castro lamented the loss of revolutionary values among the people, especially the younger generation. In a speech in the National Assembly in the third week of July, he lambasted his countrymen for indulging in activities inimical to the well-being of the revolution. The demeanours he mentioned ranged from illegal activities like petty corruption and “social indiscipline” like littering and urinating in public places. “When I meditate on these regrettable displays, it makes me think that despite the undeniable educational achievements made by the Revolution.... we are a society ever more educated, but not necessarily more enlightened,” he observed. He also referred to “the corrosive effect” of official corruption on Cuban society. He emphasised that “corruption” posed the biggest threat to the Cuban revolution.