Written By: Feryal Ali Gauhar
If there is in your hearts a vestige of love for your country, love for humanity, love for justice, listen carefully. I know that I will be silenced for many years; I know that the regime will try to suppress the truth by all possible means; I know that there will be a conspiracy to bury me in oblivion. But my voice will not be stifled – it will rise from my breast even when I feel most alone, and my heart will give it all the fire that callous cowards deny it….
(Fidel Castro Ruz, “History Will Absolve Me” Santiago de Cuba , 1953)
On July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro Ruz, along with an armed group of 123 men and women, attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba in Guantanamo Province. The plan was to overthrow General Fulgencia Batista who, with the support of the armed forces, had forcibly taken control of Cuba in 1952. Fidel had intended to continue the struggle in the mountains in case the attack on the barracks failed. Some of the men were killed in the first attack; others surrendered. With eighteen men and with what arms and ammunition were left, Fidel retreated into the mountains. The terrain was completely unknown to the guerillas. For a week they held the heights of the Gran Piedra range and the army occupied the foothills. Fidel and his men could not come down; the army didn't risk coming up.
It was not force of arms, but hunger and thirst that ultimately overcame the rebel’s resistance. Fidel divided the men into smaller groups. Some of them managed to slip through the army lines; others surrendered. Finally, only two comrades remained with Fidel. While the three men slept, totally exhausted, a force led by Lieutenant Sarría surprised them at dawn. Fidel recalled that “this was Saturday, August 1st… This officer, a man of honor, saved us from being murdered on the spot with our hands tied behind us...”
The lieutenant who arrested Fidel ignored orders to have him executed and instead delivered him to the nearest civilian prison. In prison Fidel came close to death when his food was meant to have been poisoned. The captain entrusted with this task refused and instead revealed his orders to the Cuban people. He was court-martialed but, concerned about world opinion, Batista decided not to have Fidel killed. Instead, Fidel was put on trial charged with organizing an armed uprising.
Isolated and denied right to an attorney, Fidel prepared his own defense and spoke about the tyranny and injustice of dictatorial rule, testifying that “…only one who has been so deeply wounded, who has seen his country so forsaken and its justice trampled so, can speak at a moment like this with words that spring from the blood of his heart and the truth of his very gut… The fact is, when men carry the same ideals in their hearts, nothing can isolate them – neither prison walls nor the sod of cemeteries. For a single memory, a single spirit, a single idea, a single conscience, a single dignity will sustain them all…”
Fidel’s defence in court did not absolve him of the charges of armed insurrection. Instead, it earned him fifteen years in prison, and infinite respect as a man of deep commitment and integrity, a man with a vision and a purpose which could not be thwarted by tyranny. Fidel’s speech has been immortalized as a publication titled History Will Absolve Me. Fidel resisted despotism of all kinds, enduring the wrath of the world’s mightiest power which has attempted to assassinate him over six hundred times.
Fidel Castro Ruz was born on August 13, 1926 to a prosperous farmer and a servant, on a sugar plantation in the province of Holguín. Even as a child, Fidel was rebellious and at the age of thirteen he helped to organize a strike of sugar workers on his father's plantation. Fidel received a rigorous and disciplined Jesuit education and in 1950 graduated from Havana University with a doctorate in law.
As a young lawyer, Fidel took on cases for those who could not afford to pay for justice. It was possibly here that he came across the desperation and despair that stalked his country. In 1947 Fidel joined the Cuban People's Party, believing in this new party's campaign against corruption, injustice, poverty, unemployment and low wages. The Cuban People's Party accused government ministers of taking bribes and running the country for the benefit of the large American corporations that had factories and offices in Cuba.
In 1952, Fidel Castro became a candidate for Congress for the Cuban People's Party. He was a superb public speaker and soon built up a strong following amongst the young members of the party. The Cuban People's Party was expected to win the election but during the campaign General Batista usurped power, compelling Fidel to believe that the revolution was the only way to take power to the people.
Following his trial and imprisonment in 1953, pressure from the Cuban people compelled Batista to release Fidel after he had served only two years of his sentence. Batista also promised elections but when it became clear that they would not take place, Fidel left for Mexico where he began to plan another attempt to overthrow the Cuban government.
After building up a stock of guns and ammunition, Fidel, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and eighty other rebels arrived in Cuba in 1956. This group became known as the July 26 Movement. With only 300 men ready to face ten thousand soldiers, the group planned to set up their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Despite fierce attacks which diminished Fidel’s forces to only sixteen men and twelve guns, the guerrillas took control of territory and redistributed the land amongst the peasants. In return, the peasants helped the guerrillas against Batista's soldiers. In some cases the peasants also joined Fidel's army, as did students from the cities and occasionally Catholic priests.
Batista’s need for information about Fidel's army led to the torture and deaths of innocent people who were publicly executed and then left hanging in the streets for several days as a warning to others, ironically increasing support for the guerrillas. In 1958, forty-five organizations signed an open letter supporting the July 26 Movement. National bodies representing lawyers, architects, dentists, accountants and social workers were amongst those who signed.
Seeing their interests threatened, the United States supplied Batista with planes, ships and tanks, and the latest technology such as napalm. In March 1958, the United States government, disillusioned with Batista's performance, suggested he held elections. This he did, but the people showed their dissatisfaction with his government by refusing to vote. Over 75 per cent of the voters in the capital Havana and 98 per cent in Santiago boycotted the polls.
On January 1, 1959 General Batista fled Cuba and Fidel Castro marched victoriously into Havana, taking control over the country. In 1960, Cuba's private commerce and industry were nationalised and U.S. businesses expropriated, leading to the severing of America’s economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba. In April 1961, Cuba was declared the first communist state in the western hemisphere, uncomfortably close to mainland USA. This small island proved to be a thorn in the side of the greatest capitalist economy of the world, and in order to protect itself, Cuba began acquiring weapons from the earstwhile Soviet Union, leading to the October 1962 missile crisis.
For over half a century, Fidel had struggled to give to the Cuban people what he believed were their inalienable rights to basic services, health and education, employment, ownership of and access to land and justice, and a sense of well-being and dignity. Reviled, attacked, scorned and feared by the leaders of the so-called Free World, Fidel remained steadfast, lifting millions of Cubans out of poverty and the state of subjugation.
Today Cuba has perhaps one of the most effective healthcare systems in the world. Cuba has 596 physicians per 100,000 people, while 95-100 per cent of the population has sustainable access to affordable essential drugs. Ninety-nine per cent of all children under the age of one are immunized against tuberculosis and measles. Over 90 per cent of Cubans have sustainable access to improved water sources and sanitation. Life expectancy of Cubans is 76 years. Only 7 infants die out of a total of 100,000 live births. Thirty-three mothers out of a 100,000 die in the process of giving birth. Cuba enjoys 96 per cent literacy.
Sixty-three years ago, Fidel Castro defended himself in the Moncada trial. Today his words are a beacon of light: In the world there must be a certain degree of honor just as there must be a certain amount of light. When there are many men without honor, there are always others who bear in themselves the honor of many men. These are the men who rebel with great force against those who steal the people's freedom, that is to say, against those who steal honor itself. In those men thousands more are contained, an entire people is contained, human dignity is contained...
Fidel Castro died at 90. Viva Castro. May his ideas live forever!
The writer studied Political Economy at McGill University, Montreal, Media Education at the University of London, Development Communication at the University of Southern California, and Cultural Heritage Management at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She teaches at apex institutions, writes columns for a leading daily, makes documentaries, and has published two best-selling novels.