At dawn on July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro, a young lawyer, told a group of young people, “Comrades, within a few hours, we will either succeed or be defeated. But regardless of the outcome, listen well, comrades, this movement will triumph.”
Losing would be acceptable. “The action will serve as an example to the people of Cuba, to raise the flag and continue forward.”
They lost. Of the 134 rebels who attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, regional headquarters for the Cuban Army, and 30 more who fought in Bayamo, 78 were killed.
Eight years later, on July 26, 1961, Fidel Castro spoke at the first mass celebration of the day designated as the beginning of the revolution that took down the tyrannical and corrupt Batista regime. Since then the holiday has begun the night before with neighborhood parties throughout the island. A city is selected to host the day’s major rally.
On that first occasion, Fidel Castro spoke of struggle “to give to the men who had nothing, everything, and everything for a man is bread, bread to nourish him and bread to nourish his mind — knowledge.” The theme of the battle of ideas thus emerged.
Struggle then, and now, meant defense against “direct and indirect attacks organized against us by the imperialist government of the United States. For this reason we, the Cubans, must have nerves of steel.” Fidel Castro’s long speech was replete with history, analysis, and ideals, but above all else, it signified combativeness.
The revolutionary government, Castro explained, results from “a long process of struggle, the culmination of a great desire of all of our people, who began to struggle in the past.” The notion of the long haul is one that would resonate later.
Or it seemed 50 years later, on July 26, 2003. That year President Castro delivered the main speech of the day at the Moncada Barracks, now a school and museum. To remind Cubans of prerevolutionary horrors, he quoted from his famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech given as legal defense at the trial following the Moncada attack.
In the speech, Castro described describing “six hundred thousand Cubans without work … five hundred thousand farm laborers who work four months of the year and starve the rest.” Castro noted “retirement funds embezzled,” “wretched” housing, “productive land in foreign hands,” “starving children” and “mass murder of so many thousands of children.”
Fifty years later, Fidel Castro catalogued the social achievements of the revolution he led. For one such as the present author, a Cuba watcher then for almost 50 years and present in the audience that day, this was icing on the cake. History was unfolding in front of me.
But — surprise — history did not stop. Fidel Castro castigated the European Union for sanctioning Cuba that month, withholding its scant humanitarian aid. (The sanctions had been imposed in response to the jailing earlier that year of 75 counterrevolutionaries convicted of taking U.S. money. They were lifted this year.)
Yes, the July 26 event serves as an educational forum and an occasion for rededication. But it seemed that day to grab onto the present moment. In Cuba, immediate realities are always on the agenda, and combativeness never far below the surface.