On a par with the vulgar display of Lenin's embalmed corpse, the deliberate deification of Castro and his tiny band of disciples in the Sierra Maestra obscures the exploits of the mass of anonymous heroes and almost forgotten resistance groups who brought about the downfall of Batista.
After Castro's deservedly celebrated, ill-fated attack on the Moncada Barracks (July 26, 1953) the Matanzas garrison was stormed by a group of heroic young militants from the Autentico Party (April 1956). All the attackers were massacred and many have not yet been identified. There were many other incidents.
Now, Castro brazenly and falsely takes credit for the daring assault of the Revolutionary Student Directorate on the Presidential Palace to kill Batista (March 13, 1957) in which all the raiders (including the leader, Jose Antonio Echeverria) were massacred. Herbert Matthews. the pro-Castro journalist, reveals that:
. . . Fidel was not consulted and did not approve (he heard about it indirectly). Castro called it a useless expenditure of blood...he was afraid that Echeverria would become a rival hero and revolutionary leader...the issue of Bohemia for May 28, 1957, in which Castro expressed his criticisms, would be embarassing for him if resurrected, because Echeverria and other victims became martyrs of the Revolution. March 13 is commemorated every year as a glorious landmark of Castro's revolution...[Those who survived the attack on the palace set up an independent guerrilla force in the Escambray Mountains, the "Second Escambray Front"] (Revolution in Cuba; New York, 1975, p. 89; our emphasis)
One of the bloodiest battles of the anti-Batista rebellion took place on September 5, 1957. The Naval Base of Cienfuegos, 200 miles from Havana, was captured by navy mutineers and civilian underground group members. The sailors distributed weapons to the people in the area. There was supposed to be a simultaneous uprising in Havana, which miscarried probably for lack of coordination (although a dozen bombs were exploded). Air and ground reinforcement finally dispersed the rebels after bitter door-to-door fighting. An eyewitness reported that "...a common grave was dug by a bulldozer in the cemetery and I saw 52 bodies dumped into it. Officials said they were bodies of men killed in battle. . . " The revolt was crushed, but a second front had been opened near Sierra de Trinidad, only 60 miles from the vital communications center of Santa Clara.
The same observer graphically depicts the exploits of the spontaneously organized underground movement that blanketed Cuba with an intricate network of militant activities:
. . .the rebel underground stepped up its sabotage and terroristic activities throughout the country, including Havana. Homemade bombs would explode intermittently at different points in the Capital and people would be driven from motion picture "heaters and other places of amusement. Fire bombs were also employed, and show windows of stores suffered from the impact of the explosions. Rebel bands harassed army outposts and even ventured into towns to capture arms. [Havana was without water for three days and the airport was completely gutted by fire.] . . . buses, both in cities and on highways, trucks carrying freight and merchandise, passenger and freight trains, railroad and highway bridges, public buildings and homes and businesses of "Batistianos" were blown up or burned as part of the agitation and terror designed to maintain a constant state of alarm. . .
Real terror was answered by the government with tenfold reprisals. Bodies of men and boys were found hanging from trees or lamposts or lying lifeless in automobiles with grenades on their persons, to convey the impression that they were caught in terrorist acts . . . there was hardly a communist among those detained... (Jules Dubois: Fidel Castro; Indianapolis, 1959, p. 182, 183)
While Castro's guerrilla group was occupied 300 miles away, the Directorio Revolucionario opened the independent Second Escambray Front in the Escambray Mountains MANY MONTHS before Batista fled Cuba (Jan. 1, 1959). The city of Cienfuegos was this time besieged for weeks by the Second Escambray Front. This time the attack succeeded. The Batista troops surrendered Cavo Cayo Loco Naval Base and the rebels took over the whole city (population 60,000).
All Cuba was in the flames of revolt. Powerfully reinforced by massive expenditionary landings of war materiel, financed and manned by exiled Cuban militants, the fall of Havana, and all of Cuba was inevitable WITHOUT the intervention of Castro's little group of rebels. Castro's campaign undoubtedly expedited the fall of Batista, but his efforts were by no means the decisive factor.
The reasons are obvious. Out of 82 Castro guerrillas who landed from the Granma on Dec. 2, 1956, only about 20 escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains. Professor Maurice Halpern, an expert on Cuban affairs who spent six years in Castro's Cuba (1962-1968) sums up the situation:
. . .As Fidel himself explained on January 18, 1960, as late as June 1958 his 'army' consisted of 300 men; and when he began his final offensive in August he had 800 men. . . In fact what are termed 'battles' in the reminiscences of rebel leaders were skirmishes with rarely more than a score or two guerrillas involved and frequently fewer. This does not detract from the. . . heroism displayed by the men in combat, but does provide perspective on the [degree] of involvement. . . (The Rise and Decline of Fidel Castro; University of Calfornia, 1972, p. 37-38)
And K.S. Karol demonstrates the insignificant role of Castro's tiny band in the anti-Batista resistance as contrasted with the decisive role played by the great masses of the Cuban people:
. . . the urban front was by far the most important and the 'guerilleros'. . . played a subordinate part. It was the cities which supplied the 'guerilleros' with arms, money, information and provisions; and from start to finish the vast majority of 'guerilleros' were recruited in the towns. It was the towns which, in February 1957, launched a great publicity campaign in favor of the 'sierra' [mountain fighting bands] inflicting serious blows to Batista's prestige. . .and waged an efficient political and military campaign of their own. . . (Guerrillas in Power; New York, 1970, p. 164-165)
BEFORE Castro landed in Cuba, Dec. 2, 1956, while his boat, the Granma, was still at sea en route to Mexico, the 26th of July Movement led by Frank Pais, with little resistance, virtually took over Santiago de Cuba. Revolt flared all over Cuba. In April 1956, there was a Batista army uprising led by the Batista Minister of Education, Major Jose Fernandez, a captain in the regular army, and Colonel Ramon Barquin, Military attache to Washington. Julio Camacho Aquilar and Jorge Soto assisted by three Americans, staged a foray at the eastern end of the Sierra Maestra near the U.S. Guantanamo naval base.
There were already groups of rebels scattered in the Sierra de Cristal before Raul Castro arrived. They joined him later. Matthew tells that "...Che Guevara had the task of imposing Castro's authority over three or four groups of Guerrillas fighting on their own in the mountains south of Havana. . ." The Guerrillas were already fighting the Batista troops before Guevara "arrived to impose Castro's authority over them." In 1958, ". . . Roman Catholic priests and leaders were showing sympathy for Castro and opposition to Batista. The church hierarchy came out for Batista's resignation. Both Fidel and Raul had priests and protestant ministers with them. . . "
Raul Castro encountered no opposition when he came to the Sierra de Cristal in March 1958; bands of Guerrilla fighters were already there. And very effective groups from the Student Directorio were fighting in the Sierra de Trinidad. (Source: Matthews, ibid. pp. 73, 74, 76, 100, 102, 107)
Barely able to survive in the Sierra Maestra wilderness, Castro's isolated group could even with the greatest difficulty function only on the periphery of the vast popular resistance movement convulsing Cuba. Almost entirely shut off from the outside world, there could be no direct contact with the other anti-Batista organizations: not even with Castro's "own" 26th of July Movement, a fact which Castro's second-in-command Ernesto Che Guevara repeatedly deplores:
. . . we wanted closer contact with the 26th of July Movement. Our nomad existence made it practically impossible to contact the members. . . (p. 35) Fidel did not have a radio then and he asked a peasant to lend him his. . . (p. 51) Peasants were not yet ready to join the struggle, and communication with the city bases was practically nonexistent. . .(p. 18--all quotes from Episodes of the Revolutionary War; Havana, 1967)
It is necessary to correct the erroneous impression that either Castro's 26th of July Movement or the anti-Batista organizations, constituted a unified body based upon a clearly defined program and a common ideology. The fact is that Castro did not control the rank and file membership, and certainly deserves no credit for their achievements. What Theodore Draper writes about the composition of the 26th of July Movement is also true in respect to the rest of the anti-Batista opposition:
. . .The 26th of July Movement was never homogeneous, and the larger it grew in 1957 and 1968, the less homogeneous it became. It included those who merely wished to restore the bourgeois constitution of 1940 and those who demanded a 'real social-revolution.' It attracted those who admired and those who detested the United States. It took in fervent anti-communists and ardent fellow-travelers... (Castro's Revolution;New York, 1961, p. 75)
Guevara not only deplores " . . . the lack of ideological [but also] lack of moral preparation of the combatants. . . the men who would find the flimsiest excuses to justify their demand to be released, and if the answer was in the negative, desertion would follow. . . in spite of the fact that deserters [would be immediately] ...executed and desertion meant death...(p. 61)." In another place, Guevara complains that Castro's Sierra Maestra combatants "...had neither ideological awareness nor 'esprit-de-corps'..." (p. 35, 23) "...due to the lack of discipline among the new men. . .it was necessary to establish a rigid discipline, organize a high command and set up a Staff...(p. 91) Fidel addressed the troops urging a more strict discipline. . .he also announced that crimes of insubordination, desertion, and defeatism were to be punished by death. . . " (p. 23)
These, and similar remarks scattered throughout Guevara's book, reveal a great deal about the true nature of Castro's ARMY. We emphasize the word ARMY to demonstrate that an allegedly voluntary association of dedicated idealists, in which a member who avails himself of his right to resign is called a "deserter" and shot on sight differs in no essential respect from any other traditional army of disciplined conscripts. Castro's military conduct is wholly consistent with his domineering personality. Commandante (now General) Castro and his officers, true to form, have turned Cuba itself into a MILITARY STATE.
With the flight of Batista, Castro moved swiftly to consolidate his own power and neutralize or eliminate the other revolutionary organizations with whom he did not want to share power. The other rebel groups anticipated this and acted accordingly. Before Castro arrived in Havana from the Sierra Maestra, the Revolutionary Directorate, with 500 rifles, 5 machine guns and armored tanks taken from the San Antonio de Lo's Banas los Baños Arsenal near Havana, occupied the University of Havana Campus and turned it into an armed camp. (See the eyewitness account of Jules Dubois, Fidel Castro, p. 353) Together with the fighters of the Second Escambray Front, the students also occupied the Presidential Palace--the seat of government.
When Castro and his escorting force arrived in Havana, the rebels refused to evacuate the Palace and turn it over to his newly-appointed President of the Republic, Manuel Urrutia. They were outraged because Castro had set up his own "Provisional Government" in Santiago de Cuba without consulting and without the consent of other revolutionary groups which had been fighting against Batista. They did not trust Castro. His verbal assurances that he would not seize power and would respect the rights of other anti-Batista groups and tendencies were not enough.
Castro made united front agreements when it suited his purposes, and broke them when he saw fit. In speaking of the Pact, based on the Sierra Manifesto, Guevara contends that Castro was justified in breaking it because some of the provisions were rejected by the other groups. The Pact was broken only five months after it was signed because the other organizations (which Guevara calls the enemy) " . . . broke the Pact when they refused to acknowledge the authority of the Sierra [of the Castro band]" (ibid. p. 88).
According to Guevara and Castro the phrase "...here in the Sierra Maestra we will know how to do justice to the confidence of the people, meant that Fidel and only Fidel knew how. . . " (ibid. p. 88) Guevara cynically acknowledges that Castro & Co. did not intend to honor the agreement in the first place. (p. 86)
Castro brazenly arrogated exclusive monopoly of power to his own 26th of July Movement (which Castro identified with his own person): " . . . Iet it be known, [he proclaimed] that the 26th of July Movement will never fail to guide and direct the people from the underground and the Sierra Maestra. . ." (Dubois, p. 206)
After he came to power, Castro liquidated all resistance groups which he could not control. He disbanded the Directorio and the Second Escambray Front by persecuting its members or mollifying some of its leaders. (Castro appointed Faure Chomon, one of the leaders of the Directorio, Ambassador to Russia and later other posts) He disbanded the Civic Resistance Movement, headed by his once close friend Manuel Ray, who later left his post as Minister of Public Works in Castro's Government. Through his stooge, Rolando Cubela, Castro dominated all groups who questioned his dictatorship, accusing them of "counter-revolution."
Castro finally ended by purging "his" own party, the 26th of July Movement. One of Castro's vociferous apologists at that time, the French writer Simone de Beauvoir, explained that Castro purged his own party " . . . because it was petty bourgeois and could not keep pace with the Revolution after Castro took power. . .the party had to go, to be replaced by reliable elements. . . " (See Yves Guilbert: Castro L'Infidele; Paris, 1961, p. 170) These elements, of course, were the Communist Party and Castro's entourage of sycophants.
The mass exodus from Cuba, before emigration almost was cut off, reached the staggering figure of more than half a million and included tens of thousands of anti-Batista workers and peasants. Thousands of political prisoners who fought against Batista overflow the jails of Cuba. Absenteeism, slowdowns on the job, sporadic protests, instantly squelched, and other manifestations of popular discontent, demonstrate that the revolt of the obscure anonymous masses against tyranny cannot be permanently stamped out by Batista, or his successor, Fidel Castro.
Ingrained legends are exceedingly hard to dispel. But historic justice should still be accorded to the neglected and persecuted fighters fought and continue to struggle so valiantly for the freedom of Cuban people.