Moncada: from military defeat to political victory

Jul 25, 2008

Santiago de Cuba, Cubans celebrate the anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks that launched the Revolution.

First published in Socialism and Liberation magazine, July 2004.

Some historians—particularly opponents of the Cuban Revolution—treat the July 26, 1953, Moncada rebellion in Cuba as an impetuous act of 132 idealistic radicals. They see an outnumbered, poorly armed group that decided to attack the barracks of the U.S.-backed Batista regime.

But history shows that a military defeat can sometimes result in a profound political victory. The heroic survivors of that attack—including Fidel Castro and other future leaders of the Cuban Revolution—went on to form the July 26th Movement. On January 1, 1959, they victoriously rode into Havana, toppling the hated U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Fifty-one years ago, these revolutionaries had hoped to rush the army base, seize the radio transmitters and call for the Cuban people to rise up and support the insurgency. An exchange of fire outside the barracks eliminated the element of surprise, and government troops captured practically all the revolutionaries. Fifty-five were viciously tortured and then killed in the Moncada barracks.

‘This movement will triumph’

Raul Castro, himself a hero of the Moncada attack, has articulated the fundamental meaning of the July 26 action. First, the attack initiated a period of armed struggle, which, drawing from the lessons of Moncada, ended in victory. Second, their actions created an uncompromising revolutionary organization, along with a new leadership, personified most clearly in Fidel Castro.

Moments before attacking, Fidel spoke. “This movement will triumph,” he said. “If we win tomorrow, we will achieve that much faster what José Martí aspired to. If the opposite were to occur, the action will serve as an example to the people of Cuba, to raise the flag and continue forward.” Indeed, a movement quickly developed demanding amnesty for the jailed participants, encouraged by the spirit of Moncada.

Fidel faced 60 days of solitary confinement. He was forced to come to his trial in tattered clothes, without a case summary, without an attorney, without a jury of peers and even without notes. Yet Fidel became the accuser, delivering a devastating and thorough indictment of the Cuban comprador bourgeoisie which for decades had subordinated the needs of the Cuban people to the interests of U.S. imperialism.

Fidel cited the country’s widespread poverty and illiteracy, its landless peasants and ruthless state violence. He justified revolutionary violence as a continuation of the nation’s struggles for independence. He credited 19th Century Cuban independence leader Jose Martí as the intellectual father of Moncada. He called on the people, as the real makers of history, to rise up. He ended with the prophetic message: “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”

Activists immediately began reprinting and distributing Fidel’s speech. It was much more than a defense; it was a political program for the first stage of the Cuban revolution.


Today the Moncada Barracks is an elementary school. Photo: Bill Hackwell

From insurrection to revolution

For Fidel, insurrection was a valid tactic even in the early stages of the struggle in Cuba. He argued that “a small engine is needed to help start the big engine.” Socialists understand that armed uprising can be a necessary reaction to the brutal violence of capitalism, and that in certain circumstances it can serve as a spark for working-class revolutionary struggle.

The military defeat at Moncada was a truly profound political victory. Last year, at the 50th anniversary of the rebellion, Fidel listed the monumental achievements of socialist Cuba. Fifty years earlier, in his “History Will Absolve Me” speech, he had also catalogued the Cuban people’s abysmal living conditions.

In 2004, with a social system that boasts a 99 percent literacy rate, affordable housing and free education, as well as an advanced health care system, the Cuba of 1953 must have seemed like ancient history. As Fidel noted, those very dreams that inspired the Moncada rebellion were not only fulfilled by reality, but in fact “over-fulfilled” by a half century of tremendous social progress.

Facts concerning the Moncada attacks are taken from “History of Cuba: The Challenge of the Yoke and the Star,” by Jose Canton Navarro (2000).