By Nuria Barbosa León
On July 26, 1953, the assault on the Moncada Garrison in Santiago opened a new stage in Cuba’s national liberation struggle, which concluded with the triumph of the Revolution January 1, 1959
Two rooms, one that served as a living-dining room and the other a bedroom, plus a tiny bathroom and kitchen, comprised apartment 603 in the building at 164 25th Street, between O and Infanta, in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado, where planning began for the armed actions that took place July 26, 1953.
On this date, assaulted by rebels were the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba and the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, in Bayamo, both in the east of the island, with the goal of capturing weapons to continue the struggle against the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista, who had cast the country into political, social, and economic chaos.
Abel Santamaría Cuadrado, one of the youth who joined the cause, lived in this apartment, and worked for a car agency. He rented it in January of 1952, since it was close to his workplace, and invited his sister Haydée to come live with him.
This is the story historian Seriozha Mora Candebat told us, at the Casa Abel Santamaría Museum. She has investigated the revolutionary ideas and conduct of the patriotic young man, born October 20, 1927, in the municipality of Encrucijada, Villa Clara province.
Abel moved to the capital in 1947, planning to become a professional. He won a competition to enroll in a commercial school and at the same time continued his studies to graduate from high school. He found work as an office assistant at Ariguanabo Textiles, and later at the Pontiac dealership, where he was responsible for the cash register and accounting. He joined the Orthodox Party, which could have won the elections, if this possibility had not been eliminated by Batista’s coup on March 10, 1952.
Abel Santamaría, like so many youth of the era, expressed his outrage in the face of such unconstitutional events, and it was enough for him to meet the young lawyer Fidel Castro – in Colon Cemetery – to seal his commitment to action.
It was May 1, 1952, when, after attending a commemoration for the Cuban revolutionary Carlos Rodríguez, who had played an outstanding role in the neocolonial republic’s years, the two met, becoming fast friends committed to social change in Cuba.
Over the following days, Fidel visited the apartment several times and organization of a movement began – later known as the July 26 Movement (M-26-7). On the basis of reflection, analysis, and different proposals during these meetings, it was agreed that it was necessary to take up arms to overthrow Batista, who had come to power using violence.
“Fidel appreciated the building’s privacy. Silence reigned here and the neighbors were quiet. Plus, it was a secure place, with two access doors, one onto 25th Street and another onto O, which facilitated meetings, contacts, and conspiring. Among those who came here frequently were Jesús Montané Oropesa, Melba Hernández, Raúl Martínez Arará, Ñico López, Boris Luis Santacoloma, Raúl Gómez García, and other youth from Pinar del Río and Artemisa, who would later sacrifice their lives in Santiago de Cuba,” the historian relates.
During a trip to Birán, the Castro family home in the eastern province of Holguín, Fidel and Abel discussed plans for the armed action. They decided on taking the military garrison in Santiago de Cuba, where the most important regiment in the eastern part of the country, with 909 armed troops, was housed. The rebel assailants were only 160, among them two women, Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaría.
“The days prior to the assault, the Havana apartment was very quiet and meetings were reduced. Discretion was paramount, to trick the dictatorship’s intelligence agents. On July 7, Fidel sent Abel to Santiago. It was his responsibility to finalize details with Santiagan Renato Guitar, in the Villa Blanca house on the Siboney farm, from which they would depart to complete their military objectives the night of July 25, during the dawn hours of the 26th,” Seriozha Mora explained.
By this time, other meeting sites had been established in the capital, like Jovellar 107, the home of Melba Hernández; the Mi Tío bar at the intersection of Infanta and 23rd Street; a house in the municipality of Marianao; and most often used, the building at 910 11th Street, where Natalia Revuelta lived, a great collaborator who had instructions to disseminate news of the assault, once victory was won.
The night of July 24, 1953, Fidel locked the apartment on 25th Street and left to write history. After the assault failed, Abel Santamaría was held prisoner in Santiago’s Saturnino Lora Hospital. He was savagely tortured. They killed him, gouged out his eyes, and showed them to his sister Haydée, thinking they could make her talk. Within a few days, the dictatorship’s intelligence services raided the apartment on 25th, looking for evidence, but found nothing.
In August, Abel’s mother, Joaquina Cuadrado, and her sister Aida removed the siblings’ belongings from the apartment in Havana, so the owners could rent it to another family. After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, Haydée Santamaría, by then director of the Casa de las Américas, recalled the days she lived with her brother in the apartment during conversations with artists and intellectuals, and the idea of making it a museum emerged.
On June 9, 1973, the apartment was inaugurated as an institution affiliated with the National Culture Council, later the Ministry of Culture. Given its place in Cuban history, the site was designated a National Monument in 1980, and is visited today by many persons interested in the history of the Moncada assault.
The Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba, during the revolutionary era. Photo: Granma archive
On July 24, 1953 José Ramón Martínez Álvarez kissed his mother, saying he was going to the beach in Varadero. Like him, many other young men in Artemisa, southwest of Havana, said goodbye to their families and departed for Santiago de Cuba.
Fidel had given José Suárez Blanco (Pepe), a member of the Orthodox Party’s national leadership, the mission of establishing the July 26 Movement in Artemisa, where his years of work allowed him to pull together financial resources, recruit individuals, and begin to think about the program that would be implemented after the victory. It was Fidel himself who explained to this group, during a meeting in 1952, the most significant components of the radical change that was needed in Cuba, which would address issues such as land reform, industrialization, housing, unemployment, education, and healthcare.
As the movement was consolidated, the inevitable need for armed action became clear. Shooting practice on nearby farms was stepped up, meetings became more discreet, and weapons here stored in caves near the houses. Time went by and the work of the Artemisa group became better organized and more disciplined. Thus their participation in the Santiago assault was earned.
Some 28 young men from Artemisa, among them Comandante de la Revolución Ramiro Valdés Menéndez, left their hometown for the Moncada.
“We were just a handful, but we took the spirit of the people with us, inspired by Martí’s call not to look toward the side where one can live better, but toward the side where duty lies,” Ramiro Valdés said in 2014, when the anniversary of the historic assault was celebrated in the province.
The rebels left Havana via several different routes – some by train, others on the bus, and a few in cars. On the 25th, blending in among carnival-goers, they were taken in small groups to the Siboney farm.
Remembering the events of the 26th, Fidel said in an interview with Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet, for his book A hundred hours with Fidel, “In the end, a car rescued me. I don’t know how or why, a car was coming in my direction, reached where I was, and picked me up. It was a boy from Artemisa driving a car with several compañeros, me among them, and he rescued me… I’ve always wanted to talk with this man, to know how he got himself into the hellfire that was going on there.”
In the July 26th actions, 14 young men from Artemisa lost their lives. Others continued on the long road, participating in the Granma landing, and the struggle in the Sierra Maestra. They are all honored in Artemisa’s Martyrs Mausoleum.
Inaugurated July 16, 1977 and dedicated to the youth of the Centenary Generation from Artemisa, the memorial today demands an obligatory visit by all who want to understand the heroism offered by this city to the revolutionary cause.
The tombs holding the remains of those who fell, some of their belongings and photographs can be seen at the site, where also buried, since 2000, are rebels from the province who participated in the Moncada and died after the triumph of the Revolution.
Displayed at the entry to the Mausoleum is a heartfelt remark made by Fidel in his celebrated defense statement, known as History will absolve me, “My comrades, moreover, are not forgotten or dead. They are more alive today than ever, and their murderers must be horrified to see how the victorious specter of their ideas rises from their cadavers.”
In the dawn hours of July 26, at the Siboney farm outside Santiago de Cuba, the Moncada Manifesto, written by Raúl Gómez García, was read aloud. The national anthem sung, and the armed rebels departed in small groups to assault the Moncada Garrison, the courthouse, and the Saturnino Lora Hospital in the city of Santiago. At the same time, in Bayamo, another group moved on the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Garrison.
Before the attack, Fidel spoke to his comrades: “Within a few hours, you may win or be defeated, but in any event – listen carefully, compañeros – in any event, the movement will triumph. If we win tomorrow, that to which Marti aspired will be done sooner. If the opposite occurs, the effort will serve as an example to the people of Cuba, to take up the banner and continue forward. The people support us in Oriente and throughout the island. Youth of the Apostle’s Centenary! As in 68 and 95, here in Oriente we give the first shout of “Liberty or Death!” You already know the objectives of the plan. No doubt whatsoever, it is dangerous and everyone who departs with me tonight must do so entirely voluntarily. You still have time to decide. In any event, some will stay behind, because of the lack of weapons. Those who are determined to go, take a step forward. The idea is to not kill, but to do so only as the last resort.”
The 131 combatants, dressed in Batista army uniforms, were organized in three groups. The first directed its efforts toward the main building, the Moncada Garrison. The other two, led by Abel Santamaría and Raúl Castro, would attempt to take the hospital and the courthouse, respectively.
The operation began. Fidel, leading the first group, reached its destination as planned, but the unexpected arrival of a patrol car led to premature gunfire that alerted troops inside the garrison. Abel and Raúl reached their targets, but the enemy, with more men and weapons, was able to repel the attacks.
Something similar occurred in Bayamo. The plan there was that a city resident, who was well known by officers at the garrison, would accompany the head of the assault forces to the site and they would be let in. Once inside, the soldiers on watch would be disarmed and forced to open the gates for the rest of the rebel group. The plan did not go are foreseen, since the guide failed to appear, and an alternative strategy was attempted.
Thus the planned attacks of the day were not victorious, but they did achieve the objective of initiating a new stage in the revolutionary struggle against the pro-U.S. general, Fulgencio Batista.
These actions led by Fidel Castro Ruz showed the Cuban people that the armed struggle was the route to victory. Later came the Granma expeditionaries, who landed December 2, 1956, to open a guerilla front in the Sierra Maestra.
On January 1, 1959, the revolutionary insurrection would culminate with the defeat of the dictatorship, and the taking of political power. The former Moncada Garrison is now a school, the “Ciudad Escolar 26 de Julio”, and part of the building has been remodeled as a museum, to ensure that these feats are never forgotten.
The above article was originally published here by Granma