On July 26, 1953, Cuba exploded into revolution when Fidel Castro and about 140 rebels attacked the federal garrison at Moncada. Although the operation was well-planned and had the element of surprise, the higher numbers and weapons of the army soldiers, coupled with some remarkably bad luck afflicting the attackers, made the assault a near-total failure for the rebels. Many of the rebels were captured and executed, and Fidel and his brother Raúl were put on trial. They lost the battle but won the war: the Moncada assault was the first armed action of the Cuban Revolution, which would triumph in 1959.
Fulgencio Batista was a military officer who had been president from 1940 to 1944 (and who had held unofficial executive power for some time before 1940). In 1952, Batista ran again for president, but it appeared that he would lose. Together with some other high-ranking officers, Batista smoothly pulled off a coup that removed President Carlos Prío from power. The elections were canceled. Fidel Castro was a charismatic young lawyer who was running for Congress in Cuba's 1952 elections, and according to some historians, he was likely to win. After the coup, Castro went into hiding, knowing intuitively that his past opposition to different Cuban governments would make him one of the “enemies of the state” that Batista was rounding up.
Planning the Assault
Batista's government was quickly recognized by various Cuban civic groups, such as the banking and business communities. It was also recognized internationally, including by the United States. After the elections were canceled and things had calmed down, Castro tried to bring Batista to court to answer for the takeover, but failed. Castro decided that legal means of removing Batista would never work. Castro began plotting an armed revolution in secret, attracting to his cause many other Cubans disgusted by Batista's blatant power grab.
Castro knew that he needed two things to win: weapons and men to use them. The assault on Moncada was designed to provide both. The barracks were full of weapons, enough to outfit a small army of rebels. Castro reasoned that if the daring attack were successful, hundreds of angry Cubans would flock to his side to help him bring Batista down.
Batista's security forces were aware that several groups (not only Castro's) were plotting armed insurrection, but they had little resources, and none of them seemed a serious threat to the government. Batista and his men were much more worried about rebellious factions within the army itself as well as the organized political parties that had been favored to win the 1952 elections.
The date for the assault was set for July 26, because July 25 was the festival of St. James and there would be parties in the nearby town. It was hoped that at dawn on the 26th, many of the soldiers would be missing, hungover, or even still drunk inside the barracks. The insurgents would drive in wearing army uniforms, seize control of the base, help themselves to weapons, and leave before other armed forces units could respond. The Moncada barracks are located outside of the city of Santiago, in the Oriente province. In 1953, Oriente was the poorest of Cuba's regions and the one with the most civil unrest. Castro hoped to spark an uprising, which he would then arm with Moncada weapons.
All aspects of the assault were meticulously planned. Castro had printed copies of a manifesto, and ordered that they are delivered to newspapers and select politicians on July 26 at exactly 5:00 am. A farm close to the barracks was rented, where weapons and uniforms were stashed. All of those who participated in the assault made their way to the city of Santiago independently and stayed in rooms that had been rented beforehand. No detail was overlooked as the rebels tried to make the attack a success.
In the early morning of July 26, several cars drove around Santiago, picking up rebels. They all met at the rented farm, where they were issued uniforms and weapons, mostly light rifles and shotguns. Castro briefed them, as no one except a few high-ranking organizers knew what the target was to be. They loaded back in the cars and set off. There were 138 rebels set to attack Moncada, and another 27 sent to attack a smaller outpost in nearby Bayamo.
Despite the meticulous organization, the operation was a fiasco almost from the start. One of the cars suffered a flat tire, and two cars got lost in the streets of Santiago. The first car to arrive had gotten through the gate and disarmed the guards, but a two-person routine patrol outside of the gate threw the plan off, and the shooting started before the rebels were in position.
The alarm sounded, and the soldiers began a counterattack. There was a heavy machine gun in a tower which kept most of the rebels pinned down in the street outside the barracks. The few rebels who had made it in with the first car fought for a while, but when half of them were killed, they were forced to retreat and join their comrades outside.
Seeing that the attack was doomed, Castro ordered a retreat and the rebels quickly scattered. Some of them just threw down their weapons, took off their uniforms, and faded into the nearby city. Some, including Fidel and Raúl Castro, were able to escape. Many were captured, including 22 who had occupied the federal hospital. Once the attack was called off, they had tried to disguise themselves as patients but were found out. The smaller Bayamo force met a similar fate as they too were captured or driven off.
Nineteen federal soldiers had been killed, and the remaining soldiers were in a murderous mood. All of the prisoners were massacred, although two women who had been part of the hospital takeover were spared. Most of the prisoners were tortured first, and news of the barbarity of the soldiers soon leaked to the general public. It caused enough of a scandal for the Batista government that by the time Fidel, Raúl and many of the remaining rebels were rounded up in the next couple of weeks, they were jailed and not executed.
Batista made a great show out of the trials of the conspirators, allowing journalists and civilians to attend. This would prove to be a mistake, as Castro used his trial to attack the government. Castro said that he had organized the assault to remove the tyrant Batista from office and that he was merely doing his civic duty as a Cuban in standing up for democracy. He denied nothing but instead took pride in his actions. The trials and Castro riveted the people of Cuba became a national figure. His famous line from the trial is “History will absolve me!”
In a belated attempt to shut him up, the government locked Castro down, claiming he was too ill to continue with his trial. This only made the dictatorship look worse when Castro got the word out that he was fine and able to stand trial. His trial was eventually conducted in secret, and despite his eloquence, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Batista made another tactical mistake in 1955 when he buckled to international pressure and released many political prisoners, including Castro and the others who had participated in the Moncada assault. Freed, Castro and his most loyal comrades went to Mexico to organize and launch the Cuban Revolution.
Castro named his insurgency “the 26th of July Movement” after the date of the Moncada assault. Although it was initially a failure, Castro was ultimately able to make the most out of Moncada. He used it as a recruiting tool: although many political parties and groups in Cuba railed against Batista and his crooked regime, only Castro had done anything about it. This attracted many Cubans to the movement who may have otherwise not gotten involved.
The massacre of the captured rebels also severely damaged the credibility of Batista and his top officers, who were now seen as butchers, especially once the rebels' plan - they had hoped to take the barracks without bloodshed - became known. It allowed Castro to use Moncada as a rallying cry, sort of like “Remember the Alamo!” This is more than a little ironic, as Castro and his men had attacked in the first place, but it became somewhat justified in the face of the subsequent atrocities.
Although it failed in its goals of acquiring weapons and arming the unhappy citizens of Oriente Province, Moncada was, in the long run, an essential part of the success of Castro and the 26th of July Movement.
- Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
- Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.