|ALDABONAZO: INSIDE THE CUBAN REVOLUTIONARY UNDERGROUND, 1952-58|
This week we reprint an article by Frank País on the Nov. 30, 1956, popular uprising in Santiago de Cuba against the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship. País, the central leader of the July 26 Movement in Cubas Oriente province in the east, was the main organizer of the uprising, which was timed to support the landing on Cubas southeastern coast by Fidel Castro and dozens of other revolutionary combatants who had traveled from Mexico on the yacht Granma to launch the revolutionary war against the Batista tyranny. Written in February 1957, the article was printed in Revolución, the clandestine publication of the July 26 Movement, during the first half of that year. País was murdered by Batistas forces on July 30, 1957.
Copyright © 2003 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission
On the 28th we met to finalize details and discuss plans. We had already received the message saying that Fidel and the compañeros from Mexico had left for Cuba.
Fidel arrives tomorrow, Pepito Tey stated. We have only one night to prepare everything.
Does anyone object? he then asked.
No! we all answered.
When we were later informed we had another day for preparations we were very happy. On the 29th we worked frantically to prepare the houses and distribute the arms and uniforms.
In the evening we settled down in barracks. The city seemed normal. But during the night many families began noticing the absence of their sons, husbands, or brothers, and the population was overcome with fear, with the premonition that something was about to happen.
The attack had initially been set for 6:00 a.m., but it was postponed until 7:00 to avoid the changing of the guard. At 5:00 the alarm clock rang, although almost all the combatants had spent the night wide awake and were understandably nervous. Café con leche and biscuits were distributed, but almost no one ate or drank a thing. With intense emotion we put on for the first time our July 26 uniformsolive green, black armbands with red letters on them and military insignia.
Needless to say, the moment was dramatic and we were all so moved by this beautiful crusade for freedom that our fervor grew and overcame us completely. In my group the weapons were divided up. We were informed that since there were many more men than weapons, the leadership was ordering married men or those with family responsibilities to stay in the reserve force until called.
No one can deprive me of the right to fight for Cuba! Tony Alomá shouted nervously. Ive waited too long to remain still now.
No, Tony, youve just become a father this very night. If we fall, youll take our place.
Then how come Ottos going? he said, referring to Otto Parellada, married just like he was and with children.
Hes a group leader.
One way or another Im going, said Tony.
We sang Cubas National Anthem. Pepito spoke a few fiery words to us:
Were going off to fight for Cuba! Long live the revolution! Long live the July 26 Movement!
Our group was composed of 28 men. This included 20 in uniform headed by Pepito Tey, who were to attack the police headquarters from the front. Prior to the attack, eight men in civilian clothes headed by Parellada were to move in and take positions behind the building.
Time passed at a dizzying speed. Before leaving we embraced one another. We carried hand-held machine guns, rifles, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and a .30-caliber machine gun. We had some cars but we needed more. So we stopped several that were passing in front of the place we were leaving and told the owners:
At this very moment the revolution in Cuba is beginning. The homeland asks you to sacrifice your car. On behalf of the July 26 Movement, were going to fight the dictatorship. Were sorry, but its necessary.
Amazed, naturally, they gave us their vehicles. I remember one man said to me: Be careful, boys. Cuba greatly needs you.
The first battle begins
Parelladas group came down Padre Pico Street, entered the School of Visual Arts, crossed the courtyard, and reached the roof overlooking the rear of the police station. But a sentry saw us and opened fire, starting the unequal battle: 28 revolutionaries against 70 policemen and 15 soldiers.
Those of us with Pepito were going up the hill toward the station when the enemy opened fire with a machine gun they had set up on top of the building, preventing us from reaching the door in the cars we had seized. Pepito jumped out of the car, shouting fiery words to us. We took positions and began firing. A tremendous machine-gun duel ensued. Our war cries were heard in the midst of the intense exchange of fire:
Long live the revolution! Down with Batista! Long live the July 26 Movement! Long live Fidel Castro!
Moments later, uncontrollable flames swept through the headquarters building.
In silence the enemy fired back. The compañeros at the back of the building inflicted several casualties on the policemen running in the courtyard. Smoke and flames began to rise very slowly. Pepito saw Tony Alomá fall with a shot to the head and became very agitated, since he had been the one who had tried the hardest to stop Tony from coming. In this state, he got up and gave the order to advance. As we followed, Pepito fired his m-1 to protect the rest of the column behind him. When he turned the corner, a burst of fire wounded him in the leg. Leaning against the wall he continued advancing, firing nonstop. Another burst knocked him down forever.
In the meantime, Parellada, seeing that we had not been able to reach the main door, tried to draw the enemys fire onto his group. He attempted to reach the courtyard, but fell to the ground face up, with a shot in the head. Having lost the surprise factor, with heavy fire raining down on us and two leaders killed, we began an organized retreat, with cover provided by the firing of our .30 machine gun. Three of our comrades had fallen. The enemy had lost five.
Moments later, the uncontrollable flames swept over the station completely. Had we waited before advancing on the station, we would have wiped out all the defenders of the Batista stronghold.
Something occurred at the police station that we do not wish to pass over. A policeman who was retreating while the flames were gaining force wanted to open the door to the jail where several young men from Santiago had been kept since the previous night. The cop wanted to prevent those arrested from being burnt to ashes. But Lieutenant Durán, expelled from the army for being a criminal and restored to his post by Batista, gave the following order:
Retreat! Let them all burn so they wont make any more revolution!
In desperation, the young men watched the flames do their macabre dance around them. Abandoned by the policeman who had the keys, they began to be burned. In terror, with legs, arms, and other parts of their bodies covered in flames, some tried to force open the padlock, already reddened by the fire, while others prayed. Endless minutes went by until the firemen arrived and opened the cell door.
The harbor masters office falls
We were more fortunate in the action at the harbor masters office. Several armed compañeros, wearing workers clothes, took three posts by surprise and disarmed them. Wearing uniforms, the rest of the men drove cars right up to the very door of the office and went in. When the sentry attempted to open fire, he was cut down by a burst of our fire. Two more cops fell dead. The lieutenant in charge, wounded, shouted:
Dont shoot, boys, were with you!
Down with Batista! shouted other frightened policemen, in unison with us.
We had instructions from our general command to respect the lives of our prisoners. We took the weapons of those we captured. Meanwhile, on the ground floor the police opened fire but were silenced by our sharpshooters, stationed on nearby roofs.
Finally they surrendered and the position fell into our hands.
Amid cries of happiness and revolutionary curses against Batista and the tyranny, we began to pick up the ammunition, the weaponssome 20 riflesand to take care of the wounded cops. They had 4 dead. We came out unscathed from this first encounter, but two trucks arrived with 70 soldiers from the Moncada garrison carrying heavy weapons, and an unequal battle began. Finally we retreated, under the cover of a curtain of lead. We withdrew to our command post. The barrel of one of our machine guns nearly melted, such was the trial by fire to which it was submitted. The leader of our group fired nonstop while another fed it more ammunition.
After retreating two blocks, a brave comrade realized he had left behind a handkerchief of his girlfriend and other documents. So with the .30 machine gun loaded and blazing he returned to the line of fire. He recovered the items, and withdrew once more.
The army was so frightened they did not pursue us. . . .
At Corona Street there was another battle when a group of compañeros attempted to reach us, amid intense fire from the army. Several soldiers were wounded and picked up in military trucks.
A fundamental objective: Moncada
With our mortar battery failing to fire, and having been located by the enemy, it was not possible to carry out the assault on the Moncada garrison, where the Cuban revolutionary youth wrote a beautiful page of courage and idealism on July 26, 1953.
The plans for the attack were to blockade it, torch it, and carry out other simultaneous actions. As the army fought to break through the blockade at several points, an intense exchange of fire occurred between our forces and Batistas. Our people, posted nearby, intercepted the soldiers who fell wounded or dead facing our barricade.
Many soldiers at Moncada refused to fight against the revolutionaries. Sixty-seven were arrested and court-martialed afterwards.
A .30 machine gun was set up opposite the frigate Patria, which was in port. The ship withdrew to the entrance of the bay, with its crew at battle stations.
The people of Santiago
Four compañeros arrived at the Dolores hardware store and pointed their guns at the owner, saying to him: Pardon us, but we need these weapons to fight for Cubas freedom.
A soldier who was having coffee at a nearby cafeteria threw himself to the floor on his stomach.
The streets were being guarded by members of the Revolutionary Army. A citizen asked:
Can we get through?
Of course. Just stay close to the sidewalk. This is yours!
A soldier who was traveling in a bus attempted to fire at the revolutionaries standing guard, but they closed in on him. Without our having to fire, he decided to flee.
We installed our command post at an appropriate location. We surrounded a house and asked to speak to the owner.
We need this house for the revolution. Were sorry to bother you, but we want your permission and we ask you to leave with your family. Take all your jewelry and money. We trust our comrades, but if we have to withdraw, these things could be in danger from the other side
Those were hours of enormous tension. With guards stationed outside, we prepared all the details in that house. After 6:00 p.m. Santiago became a hell. The city became a generalized crossfire. Weapons of all calibers spewed out fire and shrapnel. Alarms and sirens from the firefighters at the Moncada garrison, and at the Navy. The sound of low-flying planes. Fires all over the city. The Revolutionary Army controlled the streets, and Batistas army intended to take away that control. The shouts of our comrades, repeated by the people, and a thousand other indescribable events and emotions.
The entire population of Santiago, emboldened and allied with the revolutionaries, cooperated with us as one. They cared for the wounded, hid the armed men, safeguarded the weapons and uniforms of those being pursued, encouraged us, lent us their houses, and watched out from place to place, letting us know of the armys movements. The sight of a people cooperating courageously during the most difficult moments of the fight was beautiful. When the first plan basically faileddue primarily to the fact that the mortar battery would not fire, preventing the attack on Moncadaour forces began to retreat to the command post.
These were difficult and anguished moments. Three of our best comrades, brothers of ideals, had left their generous blood on the streets of heroic Santiago. We were no longer nervous or frightened, as we had been before going into combat. We were now battle-hardened, and inside us burned the desire to continue fighting, so that our goal of liberation would not be cut short.
Plan no. 2
We put Plan no. 2 into effect, which we had studied beforehand in order to take contingencies into consideration. It consisted of withdrawing, taking control of the citys heights, and beginning a war of snipers. There was a battle at the high school, where our comrades fought heroically. All day Friday the shooting was intense. Planes flew very low. We fired at them from wherever we were, and pierced the gasoline tank of one that had to land, damaged.
On Saturday the battles continued. The army, frightened, fired at anyone, killing several passersby, as in the well-known case of the two cars that collided.
On Sunday, given the uselessness of continuing the fight under such disadvantageous conditions, we ordered a retreat. Weapons were to be put away. We would await another opportunity to relaunch the struggle until victory or death.
At the Elia sugar mill our comrades captured the Rural Guard garrison, taking it by surprise, setting the prisoners free. Singing revolutionary songs and shouting revolutionary slogans, they walked through the town shooting at the Guantánamo garrison and then withdrawing to the countryside. The city backed the general strike, stopping all activities, closing shops, and reviving its tradition as one of Cubas most combative towns.
Meanwhile, our armed fighters took over the hills, interrupting public services. When the army arrived with workers who had been brought in by force to work or restore the services, our comrades gunfire forced the soldiers to retreat.
In the hills our fighters set an ambush, killing several members of the military by throwing hand grenades.
Plan no. 3
Plan no. 3 began to be carried out immediately: sabotage of public services, burning of sugarcane fields, setting fire to large estates, etc. Fifty days after the heroic November 30, the situation is extremely violent in Santiago de Cuba and throughout the eastern province. The forces of public order, incapable of controlling the situation, began to carry out a barbaric massacre. More than thirty murders are public knowledge, making the entire citizenry tremble with rage. They protest not only the Batista regimes fury, but have together risen up against the acts of the vandals and of the tyranny that provokes and directs them.
In Oriente even the women have gone out into the street ready for battle. The mothers, just as in the great demonstration of days past, marched in a challenge to the janissaries represented by the evil officers Díaz Tamayo, Cruz Vidal, and Cowley. The mothers of all Oriente shouted with all their might:
STOP THE MURDERS OF OUR CHILDREN! DOWN WITH THE MURDERERS!
And when the mothers raise their voices like that, it does not take long before they see their promises fulfilled.
The eastern rebellion will not end until the tyrants have disappeared.
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