THIS DAY IN CUBAN HISTORY
The Moncada Attack. For Fidel Castro, the essence and purpose of his clandestine “movement” was power, therefore the mandatory rules to achieve total control were violence, terror and death. These were the dominant forces driving Castro’s criminal obsession with supreme authority of the government.
From the moment Fulgencio Batista became a military dictator, Castro knew that the doors for a violent revolution were open and did not waste any time forging what members simply called “the movement.” It was to be a disciplined vanguard, willing to obey Castro’s command. The members were committed to the ultimate sacrifice and behaved like monastic soldiers. To die a hero’s death was a welcome outcome. Castro was a persuasive communicator; his discourse was to remain always an apocalyptic call to death. “Patria o Muerte” (Fatherland or Death).
The movement was organized in small, self-sufficient cells. Secrecy was mandatory. Most members came from the ranks of the “Ortodoxo” youth. Castro’s trusted inner circle was small and included his brother Raul, the Leninist sympathizer Abel Santamaría, a Pontiac car dealer, his sister Haydee, Antonio López (Ñico), Jesús Montané, Renato Guitart and Pedro Miret. By the time of the Moncada assault, the movement had over 250 hard-core members, mostly from Pinar del Rio and Havana. They had raised $15,000 for weapons and materials to carry on the attack.
The Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba was the base for the Antonio Maceo regiment, with over 1,000 men. Castro targeted this army base believing that his small force of around 130 men and 2 women (the exact number of men remains impossible to verify) could take the fortress by surprise. The attack was to take place at dawn on July 26, the last day of Santiago’s Carnival. Castro was counting on the fact that the soldiers should have been sound sleep after three days of drinking and dancing. This immensely popular carnival was a radiant delight of joy, a syncretism festivity where Catholic saints and African deities came together at the sound of the “Conga” drums and Santiago exploded in a memorable festival of rum and music.
The military equipment of Castro’s poorly trained groups where a myriad of different arms, small caliber rifles, shotguns, some Winchester rifles, a machine gun and pistols. Their goal was to assault a force ten times larger and with better weapons. For security reasons, most of Castro’s men were not aware that their final destination was the Moncada barracks and went to Santiago believing they were on a training exercise at a farm rented by Renato Guitart on the road to Siboney Beach, about 10 miles east of the city. Guitart belonged to Santiago’s close-knit bourgeoisie family and was the only “Santiaguero” in Castro’s assault group.
On the eve of the attack Castro told them: “We will attack at dawn…when the guards are only half awake and the officers are still sleeping off their drunkenness. It will be a surprise attack and should not last more than ten minutes.” For a moment, there was complete silence. The specter of death had entered the room. For many, this was to be their last supper.
The details of the attack have been well researched by several scholars, therefore we will touch on some issues to illustrate the bloody disaster.
At around 5:00 a.m. they boarded several cars, divided in assault groups with specific objectives. The first major setback came early when one of the largest groups got lost on their way to the Moncada. They never accomplished their task.
Fidel Castro’s main group reached gate #3, at the Moncada. Wearing army uniforms, some men jumped from the first car shouting “Attention… The general is coming.” It worked. The sentries were captured, and their weapons taken but suddenly, another unexpected misfortune hit them when a roving patrol discovered the intruders and the shooting began.
At first the soldiers were bewildered since the attackers were wearing army uniforms. In the confusion some soldiers began shooting at each other, but after the initial rush the garrison mounted a successful response and repelled the attack.
The repression was brutal. From the assault group nine died in the fight and 56 were hunted down and murdered by orders from the Moncada’s commander Colonel Alberto del Rio Chaviano. The army suffered 22 deaths. Fidel Castro fled to the Siboney’s farm and with a small group hid near the mountains of “La Gran Piedra.”
On August 1, Castro and two companions were captured by a small patrol led by lieutenant Pedro Sarría. Some of the soldiers called for Castro and his men’s immediate execution, but Sarría recognized one of the prisoners as a fellow Mason and spared their lives. This fateful event was immediately followed by the arrival at the mountain site of the highly respected Archbishop of Santiago, Enrique Pérez Serantes, who had secured from Batista the guarantee of Castro’s life. The enraged soldiers insisted on killing Castro on the spot but were controlled by the Archbishop’s intervention.
After the Moncada, Castro survived as a prominent revolutionary leader, the intolerant inquisitor of ideological indoctrination, the vindicator of a totalitarian value-system, based on loyalty and obedience to the “Maximo Leader.” A case of bad luck for the Cuban nation.
* Pedro Roig is Executive Director of the Cuban Studies Institute. Roig is an attorney and historian that has written several books, including the Death of a Dream: A History of Cuba. He is a veteran of the Brigade 2506.