Fidel Castro, the son of a rich landowner, was a student at Havana University between 1945 and 1950. He later said:
At university, which I arrived at with only a spirit of rebelliousness and some elementary ideas about justice, I became a revolutionary, I became a Marxist-Leninist, and I acquired sentiments and values which I hold today and for which I have struggled throughout my life.
He became active in student politics. He was elected by his fellow students as a class representative, and became increasingly involved in a struggle for control of the FEU between supporters and opponents of the Grau government. The FEU leadership, which at the time was pro-government, at one stage threatened Castro with death if he set foot on campus. He defied these threats and his opponents backed off.
Castro, influenced by the ideas of Jose Marti, was interested in democratic and anti-imperialist struggles throughout Latin America. He became chairperson of the FEU’s committee for Dominican democracy, which campaigned against the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. He did not confine himself to propaganda against Trujillo, but when he heard about a proposed expedition of armed Cuban and Dominican democacy fighters to overthrow the dictator, he joined up and participated in military training on an island off Cuba’s coast. The expedition was a fiasco, but the experience helped him develop his idea on how to carry out an armed insurrection against a dictatorship.
Castro became involved in efforts to build links with students in other Latin American countries, with the aim of establishing a Latin America-wide student federation. In pursuit of this goal, he visited Venezuela, Panama, and Colombia. He happened to be in Colombia in 1948, at the time when that country’s most popular political leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was murdered. This provoked a popular uprising in Bogota. Crowds stormed police stations and seized weapons. Castro joined in the uprising.
Castro graduated as a lawyer in 1950. However, practising law was not his main interest.
While at university he had joined the Cuban Peoples Party (also known as the Ortodoxos). Over time, as Castro studied Marxism, he began to recognise the limitations of the Ortodoxo Party. Nevertheless, he maintained links with it, became many of its members and supporters were radical-minded workers, students and poor people, whose support Castro wanted to win.
Castro was chosen to be a parliamentary candidate of the Ortodoxo Party in elections planned for May 1952. (These elections were cancelled after Batista’s coup of March 1952)
When the elections were cancelled, Castro began preparing for an armed uprising. He recruited 1200 young people, mainly drawn from the Ortodoxo youth, and gave them some very elementary military training.
Castro says that during this period, he was a “professional revolutionary … I was devoting my full time to the revolution”. As a lawyer, he defended some poor people in court, but did not charge them a fee. He was financially supported by his comrades in the revolutionary movement.
During this period Castro organised “a small circle of Marxist studies” for some of his closest collaborators.
The Attack on the Moncada Barracks
On July 25, 1953 Castro called on 160 of the members of his group to gather at a farm outside Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city. Early next morning they carried out an attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago, as well as on a barracks in the city of Bayamo.
Castro hoped that with the advantage of surprise his forces would take the Moncada barracks with little or no bloodshed, then use the army’s own internal communications channels to promote rebellion, or at least cause confusion, among soldiers around the country. He also planned to issue a call for a general strike against Batista. He was hopeful that the combination of a general strike and rebellion by sections of the army would be able to overthrow Batista.
The attacks failed. Some of the attackers died in the fighting; others were murdered by Batista’s forces after being captured. Others, including Castro, were taken prisoner and put on trial.
There is a commonly held view in the Trotskyist movement that Castro was just a radical bourgeois democrat at the time of the struggle against Batista. Even Joseph Hansen, one of the best Trotskyist writers on Cuba, asssumes Castro was not a Marxist prior to 1959.
However, Castro was very much influenced by Marxist at the time of the attack on the Moncada barracks. In his 1985 interview with Frei Betto, Castro stated:
I had already acquired a Marxist outlook when we attacked the Moncada garrison. I had fairly well-developed revolutionary ideas, acquired while I was university through my contact with revolutionary literature.
This revolutionary literature included some of the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Castro added that
my contribution to the Cuban revolution consists of having synthesised Marti’s ideas and those of Marxism-Leninism and of having applied them consistently in our struggle.
Castro explained his decision not to join the PSP, but to work initially in the framework of the Ortodoxo Party, as follows:
I saw that the Cuban communists were isolated due to the pervasive atmosphere of imperialism, McCarthyism and reactionary politics. No matter what they did they remained isolated …
So, I worked out a strategy for carrying out a deep social revolution – but gradually, by stages …
I realised that the masses were decisive, that the masses were extremely angry and discontented. They did not understand the social essence of the problem; they were confused. They attributed unemployment, poverty, and the lack of schools, hospitals, job opportunities and housing – almost everything – to administrative corruption, embezzlement and the perversity of the politicians.
The Cuban Peoples Party harnessed much of that discontent, but they did not particularly blame the capitalist system and imperialism for it …
The people were confused, but they were also desperate and able to fight … The people had to be led along the road of revolution by stages, step by step, until they achieved full political consciousness and confidence in their future.
I worked out all these ideas by reading and studying Cuban history, and the Cuban personality and distinguishing characteristics, and Marxism.
Trial and Imprisonment
Castro used his defence speech at his trial for thr attack on the Moncada barracks to explain the goals for which he was fighting. The speech, later published under the title History Will Absolve Me!, outlined his program.
Castro called for the “restoration of civil liberties and political democracy”, which had bee suppressed by Batista’s coup. He also advocated granting land to landless tenant farmers, making this land “not mortgageable and not transferrable”. For wage workers, Castro proposed “the right to share 30% of the profits of all large industrial, mercantile and mining companies, including the sugar mills”. He advocated “the confiscation of all holdings and ill-gotten gains of those who had ommitted frauds during previous regimes, as well as the holdings and ill-gotten gains of their legatees and heirs”. To implement this, he advocated special revolutionary courts to look into the records of all corporations and banks.
Castro advocated the “nationalisation of the electric power trust and the telephone trust [which were US-owned], refund to the people of the illegal [excessive] rates these companies have carged , and payment to the treasury of all taxes brazenly evaded in the past”.
He also advocated setting a maximum amount of land to be held by each type of agricultural enterprise, and redistributing the remainder amongst peasant families; promoting agricultural cooperatives; cutting all house rents in half; and building new houses for city residents.
This was not a socialist program, but a radical democratic program. Castro later said that if the program had been more radical, “the revolutionary movement against Batista would not have obtained the breadth that it achieved and that made victory possible”.
Castro was sent to prison on the Isle of Pines, where has was able to read the writings of Marx and Lenin much more extensively, and deepen his understanding of Marxist theory.
Meanwhile Castro’s supporters outside the prison defied Batista’s repressive laws by publishing History Will Absolve Me! and distributing tens of thousands of copies. They built a mass movement demanding freedom for all political prisoners, including the Moncada veterans.
The July 26 Movement
Fidel Castro and 18 other Moncada veterans were released from prison under an amnesty on 15 May 1955. Castro immediately set to work creating a new revolutionary organisation, the July 26 Movement. He aimed to united those willing to carry out revolutionary struggle against the dictatorship, and succeeded in winning the support of many, including veterans of the the MNR, such as Armando Hart and Faustino Perez, as well as Frank Pais, who led a revolutionary organisation based in Oriente province in eastern Cuba.
Castro continued to believe in the need for an armed insurrection to overthrow Batista. Nevertheless, before launching an armed struggle, he tested out the possibilities for peaceful methods of struggle.
The government soon showed that it had not changed. It banned a proposed mass rally. It banned Fidel Castro from appearing on radio and television. It closed down a newspaper that printed revelations about the army’s murder of prisoners following the attack on the Moncada barracks. It began once again making mass arrests of opponents of the regime. And it began again to murder its opponents. Jorge Agostini, an army officer who had resigned following Batista’s coup and become a campaigner against his regime, was murdered in June 1955 by Batista’s thugs.
After two months of growing repression, it was clear that the removal of the Batista regime by peaceful means was not possible. On July 7 Castro left Cuba and went to Mexico. There he has his followers carried out military training in preparation for a return to Cuba to overthrow the dictatorship. While in Mexico Castro met Che Guevara and persuaded hiim to join the planned expedition.
In August 1955 Castro issued a manifesto containing a 15-point program of reforms, including distribution of land among peasant families, nationalisation of public services, mass education, and industrialisation.
Meanwhile in Cuba itself the July 26 Movement was being built as an underground organisation throughout the country. Armando Hart, a key leader ot this work, comments that:
All over the country, the organisation of the Movement continued to advance. In the weeks preceding the Granma [which reached Cuba on December 2, 1956] there was no municipality or corner of the island without its underground leadership and cell.
In May 1956 the J26M began publishing an illegal newspaper, initially called Aldabonazo, then Revolucion. The first editorial said:
For the July 26 Movement, only those who aim at something more than simply toppling the dictatorship are capable of really eliminating it … The July 26 Movement asserts that the current government is not the cause but the result of the republic’s fundamental crisis … It would hardly be worthwhile to confront the dictatorial, corrupt and mediocre regime we suffer without aiming for a revolutionary transformation of the moral, political, economic and social causes that made possible the criminal act committed by the seditious group (i.e. Batista’s coup).
Thus the J26M aimed at radical social change. But most of its activists did not regard themselves as Marxists. They were radical democrats. They were concerned about social justice, not just formal political democacy. But in the beginning most did not have a clear socialist perspective.
Over time, many of them evolved towards socialist ideas. But some did not. Some later turned against the revolution as it began to enter the socialist stage.
Fidal Castro, the central leader of the J26M, was a Marxist, but did not say so publicly. Some other leaders such as Raul Castro and Che Guevara were also Marxists. But the J26M also included people who were strongly anti-communist. US author Julia Sweig notes that
Anti-communism within the 26th of July cadre itself was common, both because of the Cold War climate of the 1950s and because the PSP, officially banned in 1952, had a reputation for having collaborated with Batista from the 1930s.
Strategy of the J26M
While the program of the J26M was bourgeois-democratic, its methods of struggle were militant. The J26M’s perspective was to build up towards a general strike and popular insurrection. The second manifesto of the July 26 Movement to the Cuban people, issued in 1956, called for workers to be organised from the bottom in revolutionary groups in order to declare a general strike.
Fidel Castro was strongly committed to this perspective, and spoke or wrote about it many times. In a message dated December 14, 1957, Castro said
The workers section of the July 26 Movement is involved in organising strike committees in every work centre and every sector of industry, together with opposition elements from all organisations that are prepared to join the strike …
Che Guevara was also enthusiastic about the goal of a general strike. He wrote that
The revolutionary general strike is the definitive weapon, the intercontinental rocket of the peoples.
But when the July 26 Movement was launched in 1955, it was still a long way from being able to put into practice the plan for a revolutionary general strike. This was due both to its still limited roots in the working class, and to the political limitations of many of its cadres.
Mujal’s control of the trade union movement made it difficult for the J26M to build a strong base in the unions. Nevertheless the J26M did participate in strike action and strike solidarity where possible.
In September 1955 there was a series of bank strikes led by opponents of Batista, including the J26M member Enrique Hart, who was arrested and kept in prison until after the strikes were over.
In December 1955 there was a strike of over 200 000 sugar workers, in protest at a government move that would have reduced their wages. Strike leaders included members of he PSP and the J26M, and even some pro-Mujal union officials who felt the need to support the strike to maintain some support in the rank and file.
The strike received broad solidarity, including from the students. According to J26M leader Armando Hart,
A number of towns were virtually taken over by the strikers and supporters. Virtually all economic activity in these towns was paralysed, leading them to be termed ‘dead cities’.
Batista was forced to concede to the striker’s demands.
Fidel Castro and 81 supporters set sail for Cuba on 24 November, 1956 in the yacht Granma, reaching the Cuban coast (later than expected) on December 2.
On November 30, the J26M underground carried out armed attacks on army and police buildings in Santiago. There was also industrial action by some workers in Oriente province, including a 24 hour strike in the town of Guantanamo. These actions were intended to coincide with the landing of the Granma, thereby distracting Batista’s army from attacking Castro’s foces before they could reach the relative safety of the mountains.
However, the Santiago uprising was crushed before the Granma reached the Cuban coast. Most of Castro’s fighters were killed or captured shortly after the landing. Castro and a few others survived, and a guerilla front was established in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
The guerilla force gradually expanded. J26M activists, including survivors of the Santiago uprising, came from the cities to join the guerillas. The peasants increasingly supported the guerillas, and some joined the Rebel Army. But it did not become simply a peasant army. It included a large proportion of workers, including both agricultural labourers from the sugar and coffee plantations and workers who had come from the cities to join the guerillas.
The J26M continued to build a strong urban underground network, which sent supplies, money, and recruits for the guerillas; carried out propaganda in the cities; organised strikes and protests; and carried out acts of sabotage and armed attacks on Batista’s police and army in urban areas.
The J26M urban underground organised protests against police murders. For example, on January 2, 1957 the body of William Soler, a teenager, was found in the streets of Santiago. He had been murdered by the police after being arrested. Underground activist Armando Hart describes what happened:
This crime caused great popular indignation, and Santiago became a boiling pot. The idea was raised of holding a women’s demonstration along Enramada Street at the beginning of 1957, and we all went to work organising it. It was an event that showed the strength the July 6 movement already had among the masses. The men lined the sidewalks, and the women marched through the streets. There were huge banners denoucning the intolerable situation and demanding there be no more murders.
The J26M also used public protests, or the threat of them, to prevent the police and army murdering captured activists. When Armando Hart and two others were arrested by the army in January 1958, the J26M took over a radio station and broadcast the news so the army could not kill them secretly in a fake “battle”, as they had been planning to do.