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On the Moncada Army Barracks
near Santiago de Cuba
July 26 1953

An excerpt from the book:
"The Twelve"
by Carlos Franqui
Random House, New York

From the Introduction by Tana de Gámez

They were students, workers, young professionals, teachers, artists, clerks. Some were poor, a few were rich, most of them were sheltered sons and daughters of middle class families. The majority worked in Spartan clandestinity, a few with the knowledge and silent admiration of their trembling parents.

They were led and inspired by an articulate twenty-six year old rookie lawyer, himself the son of a wealthy planter and educated in one of Havana’s exclusive Roman Catholic schools, the College of the Marian Fathers. His had been the only voice which dared condemn publicly Batista’s military coup d’etat of 1952, three months before national elections. In fact, four days after the coup and ten days before the United States officially recognized the dictator, that lone voice went on record at one of Cuba’s highest civil courts, indicting the tyrant and asking for a public trial. His name was Fidel Castro y Ruz.

For nearly a year the young rebels trained secretly at the residence of a partisan in the fashionable Vedado district of Havana. It was not far from the local police precinct and only a few blocks from the interrogation cells of the dreaded Service of Military Intelligence. They trained without disrupting their normal activities in and out classes, jobs, homes, restaurants, stores, and in the middle of a busy modern city. (Can one imagine such goings on in Park Avenue, Mayfair, or Passy?)

They sold their books and jewelry, they took extra jobs and mortgaged their cars, properties, businesses, until they raised fifteen thousand dollars with which to purchase guns and uniforms. They had no outside help, no offers of support from powerful individuals, organizations, or foreign land. (Neither did they have to contend, as yet, with the antagonism of the then unsuspecting United States and the long-reaching arm of its CIA and Green Berets.) So meager was their arsenal that when time came for the uprising many anxious and well-trained partisans had to be left behind for lack of weapons. (“If only we had had twenty more hand grenades…!”)

At last, on July 26th of 1953, at the closing of Santiago’s yearly carnival, 150 rebels with two girls for nurses and a physician, disguised themselves in army uniforms and stormed the island’s second largest military encampment, the Moncada fort, headquarters of the 1,000 troops of the Maceo regiment. The plan was to infiltrate the installation, hold the soldiers at bay and seal the arsenal to prevent its being used against the people, while another contingent would take over the post’s radio station and broadcast an appeal to the citizenry urging them to join the insurrection.

But for a couple of mishaps they might have succeeded. For one, the car transporting their heavy weapons got lost in the departing throngs of carnival and failed to arrive in time. As it turned out, the attack on Fort Moncada was the Revolution’s first major setback and perhaps its finest hour. The magnitude of the enterprise and the courage and ideals which had inspired it shook the lethargic people out of their apathy and vulcanized them into protest, underground resistance, and eventually into overt action.

As in every revolution, the price was high. Half of the rebels died, not in combat, but under torture. Their captors were eager to pin the blame for the aborted insurrection on some high official or foreign instigator. The irate tyranny could not conceive that the near-defeat it suffered had been inflicted by a group of ill-equipped youthful civilians with no ties whatsoever to disgruntled politicians, army chiefs, or an exotic ideology. There simply was nothing to confess to, and the truth was too compromising for the government, too indicative of oppression and discontent to be admitted.

The revenge of the armed forces and the embarrassed dictator was to surpass the savagery of the Machado dictatorship of the twenties. One of the voices that speak to us in this book is that of a living martyr of the Moncada atrocities. From an adjoining cell she was forced to hear the agony of her brother and her fiancé as they died under questioning. At the end, in an effort to extract from her the information the victims had not revealed, she was shown the eyeball of one and the testicles of the other. Wanton murder of even innocent civilians became rampant in Cuba’s eastern provinces.

Castro arrested in July 1953

Castro under arrest in July 1953

Eventually, the fleeing hunted rebels and their leaders were caught and brought to trial. They received sentences ranging from five to fifteen years. But, from that defeat, the Revolution gained its Bill of Rights in the form of one of the most extraordinary documents of our time: Fidel Castro’s own defense. After being held incommunicado for 76 days, denied the use of books and legal papers and counsel, aided only by a privileged memory, he gave a devastating dissertation in which he reviewed the human and legal rights of men to rebel against tyrannical lords, from the struggles of Oliver Cromwell against Charles I, to the American and the French Revolutions. He quoted from the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, from the writings of Rousseau, Milton, Balzac, Locke, Saint Thomas Aquinas, José Martí… Turning against his captors he indicted them for abetting the inhumanity and corruption of the dictatorship. He reviewed Cuba’s chronic social injustices and economic ills; 33% illiteracy, 30% unemployment, the majority of the people living in hovels, sustaining themselves on a diet of roots and rice, unable to give their children shoes, medical care, a hope, a skill, a future. This in the middle of one of Latin America’s most prosperous ‘democracies,’ where customarily government officials took office as paupers and finished their term as millionaires.

In the presence of the 100 soldiers guarding him in that courtroom, Fidel Castro accused Batista of a reign of terror and illegality which left the people no other course to liberation than a civilian uprising. And instead of asking for an acquittal, he closed his defense by demanding to be sent to join his brother-rebels already serving jail terms in the Isle of Pines prison, ending with these prophetic words; “Sentence me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”

With the text of the speech circulating in Cuba and even abroad, with the Moncada atrocities coming to light day by day, public sentiment rose to a point that Batista was forced to yield to the cries demanding amnesty for the young prisoners or risk further unrest, the last thing he wanted his American sponsors to know. Before setting them free, every attempt was made by the regime to corrupt the rebels with offers of government jobs and private enterprises. Not one of them accepted. Instead they drafted and signed a joint statement asserting their position. (“It seems that there will be an amnesty for us if we make a tacit agreement to respect the illegal regime in power by force in the Republic. The cynics who suggest such things believe that after twenty months in prison we have lost our integrity under the hardships that have been imposed upon… We can be deprived of our rights by force, but nobody will succeed in persuading us to return to freedom by offering us an unworthy accord, gifts, or jobs… We will not yield one atom of our honor in exchange for freedom… We hereby refuse to accept an amnesty at the price of dishonor. Our spirit is undaunted. We will bear our fate with courage and remain as a living indictment of the tyranny.”) They won, on their terms. Shortly after the amnesty they went into self-imposed exile in Mexico, there to reorganize and begin training for another try.

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