On July 26, 1953, exactly 61 years ago this Saturday, a small band of courageous and principled young Cubans stormed the Moncada Barracks in the city of Santiago, in Eastern Cuba. Though that uprising failed to dislodge the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, it was the beginning of a movement that has changed the world forever.
Batista had originally taken power in the "Sergeants' Coup" of 1933. He ruled Cuba behind the scenes for a while, but made himself president in 1940. In his first term, Batista carried out relatively progressive pro-worker policies, and thus was supported by the Cuban Communist Party and the labor unions.
After leaving power in 1944 and living in the United States for a while, Batista returned to Cuba and ran for president again in 1952. When he saw he was going to lose, he organized an armed coup d'état. The second time around, Batista ditched his former relatively progressive policies and showed himself as the corrupt and violent instrument of the Cuban and U.S. wealthy classes, and an enthusiastic ally of the Meyer Lansky wing of the Mafia. Thousands of political opponents were murdered and Cuba was left wide open for every kind of exploitation and vice.
Many brave Cubans tried to stand up to this monstrous dictatorship. The bravest of the brave were the group of 135 young Cuban men and women who were recruited by Fidel Castro Ruz to carry out the Moncada Barracks assault. Their plan was to seize the military barracks and the arms it contained, and use this as an organizing center to rouse the entire Cuban population against the Batista regime, which at that point had only been in power for about 16 months. .
But everything imaginable went wrong, and the uprising was defeated. Batista's henchmen murdered about 70 of those they captured at the scene or managed to round up later. Others were put on trial and sentenced to various prison terms (Fidel Castro and his brother Raul to 13 years each). Many were tortured.
At his own trial, Fidel drew upon his vast erudition, his sharp wit and his skills as a practicing lawyer to turn the tables on the regime. In what became known as his "History will Absolve Me" speech, Fidel laid bare the crimes of the Batista dictatorship, the illegitimacy of its legal procedures, and the responsibility of all people of conscience to oppose such a regime in Cuba and, by implication, anywhere.
Fidel closed his speech to the court: "I can not ask freedom for myself while my comrades are already suffering in the ignominious prison of the Isle of Pines. Send me there to join them and to share their fate. It is understandable that honest men should be dead or in prison in a Republic where the President is a criminal and thief.... But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me."
Sixty-one years later, the Isle of Pines is now the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), a center of high quality education for Cuban and international youth.
A public outcry led to an early release for Fidel and Raul. They went to Mexico and organized a new expedition to invade Cuba on the motor yacht Granma and start another movement to oust Batista. That too went seriously wrong, and only 12 men survived to keep on fighting. Their movement grew and took the name of the 26th of July Movement to honor the Moncada barracks event.
On New Year's Day 1959, insurgent troops headed by Ernesto "Che" Guevara seized the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba, and Batista, seeing the writing on the wall, decamped with his cronies and loot, to go into exile in Portugal where he died in 1973.
Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the United States and some of its allies have done their level best to overturn it and restore the old regime to power. They have not succeeded. Cuba implemented socialist policies of great benefit to its workers and small farmers, and especially to its women and minorities. Beyond that, Cuba has carried out, and continues to carry, international solidarity projects that have improved the lives of millions in the poorest countries in the world
Many of the heroes of July 26 have passed on. Fidel and Raul are still with us, and have not budged a millimeter from the resolve they have always shown.
History has absolved! Now it is up to us to learn from the heroic story of the 26th of July, and never let it be forgotten by future generations.
Photo: Young students at a celebration to mark the anniversaries of the Organization of Cuban Pioneers at the Angela Landa elementary school in Old Havana, Cuba, April 4. The organization was founded in 1961 to encourage the values of education and social responsibility among Cuban children and adolescents. Franklin Reyes/AP