By Owei Lakemfa
In March 1952, three months before the general elections, soldiers in a small country, Cuba, overthrew the government. The coup was led by a candidate and former military dictator, Colonel Fulgencio Batisa. Cuba then was essentially a gambling and tourist country for fun-loving Americans, whose mafia, led by Charles Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, also ran the gambling and prostitution rings.
The coup, which enjoyed the approval of America, seemed a settled matter. But some young Cubans, including students and ladies, decided that enough was enough; no longer would their country be played around like football. They decided to arouse the populace to an insurrection. For this, they sold their school books, trinkets and dresses to train and buy guns. On July 26, 1953, the youth, numbering 150, carried out a failed attacked on the Moncada Barracks. Many were summarily executed as a fallout of this. One of the captured youth, Haydee Santamaria was kept in a cell, while in the adjacent cell, she could hear the cries of her brother, Abel, and fiancé Boris Santa Coloma, as they were tortured to death. In order to extract information from her, the torturers brought her the eyeball of her brother and the testicles of her fiancé.
Those who survived were brought to a show trial that was made public. That was a grave mistake, as the October 16, 1953 defence speech of the 26-year old leader of the rebels, Fidel Castro became the rallying cry of the opposition. Rather than make a case for his acquittal, Castro accused Batista and his government of being the real criminals who should be on trial for treason and that the illegal acts of the government left the people with no alternative but to revolt. On a defiant and prophetic note, he told the court: “Sentence me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.” The defendants were sentenced to various prison terms but they had become so popular that the regime had to grant them amnesty.
Many of them left for exile in Mexico, where they regrouped, trained and on December 2, 1956, 82 of them packed into a rickety yacht “Granma” to make a landing at Belic, Santiago, Cuba, with the aim of climbing to the summit of the Sierra Maestra Mountains and begin a guerrilla warfare to oust the Batisa regime. But their landing was compromised and the military had a ‘welcome party’ to receive them. The rebels were nearly wiped out; only 12 of the 82 survived the landing. Four of them were to become famous and iconic figures for youth across the world. There was the charismatic Camilo Cienfuegos, who in November -December 1958, led his column across three provinces to reach the northern part of central Cuba. His handsome, young, bearded face in cow boy hat is etched in the memory. There was the romantic figure, Ernesto Che Guevera, a medical doctor from Argentina who had joined the Cuban rebels in Mexico. For him, there were no boundaries when fighting injustice; he went on to fight for peoples’ emancipation and liberation in other skies, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Bolivia. He famously said: “Whenever death may surprise us, it is welcome provided our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear and another hand reaches out to pick up the gun.”
It was the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution, the Cubans and their friends across the world, marked this past Tuesday.
He was fearless and audacious in battle. It was his punishing blow on December 29, 1958 that heralded the final triumph of the Cuban Revolution. On that day, he led a band of rebels to seize the city of Santa Clara. The Batista regime sent a huge contingent of soldiers in a train full of ammunitions. Che led the seizure of the train and secured the surrender of over 1,000 soldiers. Two days later, President Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. On January 1, 1959, the rebels poured into Havana as the country erupted in celebration. It was an earthquake that was felt in many parts of the world. The after effects were felt around the world for decades as youths across races, continents and beliefs drew inspiration from it. For the religious, it could only have been a miracle for twelve stranded youth, surrounded by enemy soldiers, doubled by hunger and with no international help, to defeat the armed forces of their country in two years. It was the sixtieth anniversary of the revolution, the Cubans and their friends across the world, marked this past Tuesday.
The U.S. refused to accept the reality that a country that used to be part of its backyard playground was now independent. The Americans, who thought the Cuban example was quite dangerous, set out to stamp out the revolution. On October 19, 1960, it imposed an embargo on Cuba, which is still in place till date. On April 17, 1961, an American-trained, funded and armed force of 1,500, eight B-26 Bombers and five supply ships, invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron). But within three days, the Cubans had roundly defeated the invaders, killing 122 of them, including four Americans; shooting down two of the B-26 Bombers and destroying two of the ships, while taking 1,202 as prisoners. Only 120 of the invaders escaped.
As the Americans prepared more invasions, the Cubans appealed to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for military assistance, which led to the deployment of missiles to the island. This resulted in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. President Kennedy threatened to begin what promised to be the Third World War if the missiles were not removed. The USSR agreed to remove the missiles provided America made two promises. First, that it will never invade Cuba, and secondly, that it will remove missiles trained at the USSR from Turkey. With these agreements, the missile crisis ended.
Cuba went on to become perhaps the most literate country in the world with the best all-round healthcare delivery of any populace. Raul Castro, who was with Fidel from the Moncada Barracks invasion and succeeded his brother as president, is alive. He married the guerrilla fighter, Vilma Espin. Camilo Cienfuegos died in a plane crash in the year of the revolution. He was 27. Haydee Santamaria passed away at 58 in 1980, while Fidel was 90 when he passed on in 2016. The most romantic of them all, Ernesto Che Guevera was summarily executed in 1967, while leading a revolt in Bolivia. He was 39. Che prophetically said: “I have a wish. It is a fear as well – that my end will be my beginning.” He became more famous in death and today, continues to inspire the youth across the world.
A lesson the Cuban revolutionaries taught humanity is: If you know what is right and just, pursue it; no matter the sacrifice, never give up.
Owei Lakemfa, former secretary general of African workers is a human rights activist, journalist and author.