The first day of
LUIS BÁEZ & PEDRO DE
IT was night in Santiago de Cuba.
Not one more soul could squeeze into Céspedes Park
or the surrounding streets. For the first time in
quite a while people were breathing easier in the
indomitable city – no more sirens announcing crimes,
no more mothers mourning in funeral processions
through the streets, no more fury unleashed by the
dictatorship against youth.
This was the city where five years,
five months and five days earlier the struggle for
freedom and justice had begun with an assault on the
Moncada Garrison. The first city to hear Fidel’s
‘History will absolve me’ speech. The city which
rose up on November 30, 1956 to support the
expeditionaries landing from the yacht Granma. The
city where Frank País stood firm until death.
Shortly after 11:00 pm on Thursday,
January 1, a figure emerged on a City Hall balcony,
radiating energy and determination, despite not
having slept for days, focused on assessing events
and making rapid, urgent decisions to secure the
triumph of the Revolution.
It was Fidel Castro Ruz, principal
leader of the Moncada, hero of the Sierra Maestra.
His last name would no longer be necessary among
Cubans. He would be Fidel and the invocation of his
name enough to move people to follow his steps and
recognize him as Comandante en Jefe, brother, father,
irreplaceable guide, principled, intimate friend.
Only a few hours earlier, an appeal
had been broadcast on radio convoking Santiago’s
people to the site. The announcement had been passed
from person to person, from house to house, to all
corners of the city.
The plot hatched by the Batista
military and U.S. authorities to obstruct the
triumph of the revolutionary forces was frustrated
by the rebel leader’s strategic thinking and the
outpouring of popular support for the Revolution.
On December 31, 1958, just as the
dictator Fulgencio Batista was departing, the U.S.
State Department and the CIA described the 26th of
July Movement as an organization "lacking the
necessary responsibility and capacity to govern
The United States was counting on
the complicity of General Eulogio Cantillo who had
met with Fidel on December 28 in Palma Soriano,
promising he would not allow Batista to escape, not
obstruct the evident triumph of the popular
insurrection by attempting a military coup and not
appeal to the U.S. embassy for mediation. The
officer broke his word and lent himself to maneuvers
to produce a spurious succession, accompanied
Batista to the plane in which he left the island and
made agreements with the U.S. in an attempt to
thwart the imminent revolutionary victory.
Learning of Batista’s departure,
Fidel took firm action. An exceptional witness to
the event, Luis Buch, described his experiences in
the book Gobierno Revolucionario: primeros pasos
(The revolutionary government’s first steps).
"I was at Radio Rebelde, from where
certain appeals had been broadcast to the workers
and the population in general – to keep calm, not
destroy anything that could affect the welfare of
the people. It was announced that Fidel would speak
shortly. At that moment they were calling from
Havana. It was General Cantillo. When Fidel arrived
we told him, ‘Cantillo has been calling insistently
to speak with you.’ (…) All of us present agreed
that Fidel should respond, talk with Cantillo,
discuss the situation created. Fidel looked at us
and said, ‘I am not crazy. You haven’t noticed that
only crazy people talk about nonexistent things?
Since Cantillo is not the Chief of the Army’s
General Staff, I am not going to talk with the
nonexistent, because I am not crazy. The Revolution
has all the power.’ (…) I remember that Fidel was
holding a draft in his hands and strode around the
room for a while, leaning against a piece of
furniture, he reviewed the text. (…) That moment,
seeing how Fidel managed that historic moment, was
when I realized that the Revolution had triumphed."
During the commemoration of the 45th
anniversary of the Granma landing and the creation
of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Fidel recalled, "On
the first of January, with your decisive support to
the unstoppable advance of the Rebel forces, the
oligarchy and imperialism’s last attempt to prevent
the triumph of the Revolution was squashed, the coup
d’état in the capital. Revolutionary troops were
instructed to continue their advance on the capital
without accepting a cease-fire and the call for a
general strike was the immediate response. The
country was paralyzed from one end to the other.
Radio stations linked up with Radio Rebelde and
broadcast instructions from the Revolutionary
command. Thus a devastating counter-blow was
delivered to the brazen attempt to derail our
victory. Within 72 hours, all of the cities were
occupied; 100,000 weapons - a number also to be
verified by historians – all heavy military
equipment for use on land, sea or air, were in the
hands of the people."
Fidel prepared to enter Santiago on
the first day of the New Year, He had ordered the
columns commanded by Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto
Che Guevara, which had been victorious in the center
of the island, to advance toward Havana and take
possession of the country’s capital. Camilo was to
take the Columbia base and Che the Cabaña Fortress.
Radio Rebelde and all the radio stations joining its
transmissions announced, "Citizens of Santiago, the
Santiago garrison is encircled by our forces. If at
6:00 pm today they have not laid down their weapons,
our troops will advance on the city and take the
enemy positions by force.
"As of 6:00 pm today, all air and
maritime traffic in the city is prohibited.
"Santiago de Cuba: the dictatorship’s
henchmen who have murdered so many of your sons and
daughters will not escape as Batista and other
criminals have, with the collaboration of officers
who led an attempted coup last night.
"Santiago de Cuba: You are not yet
free. Still walking the streets are those who have
oppressed you for seven years, the murderers of your
finest sons and daughters. The war is not over
because the murderers are still armed.
"Military officers, organizers of
the coup, presume to determine that the rebels
cannot enter Santiago de Cuba. Our entrance is
prohibited to a city we can take with the valor of
our combatants as we have taken many other cities.
They would like to deny access to Santiago de Cuba
to those who have liberated the homeland. The
history of ’95 will not be repeated. This time,
today, the mambises will enter Santiago de Cuba."
In fact, in the final stage of the
emancipation struggle organized by José Martí at the
end of the 19th century, nascent U.S. imperialism
intervened to prevent independence. Precisely just
outside of Santiago de Cuba, in 1898, the last
battles of the mambises and U.S. troops against the
defeated Spanish colonial forces took place.
Nevertheless, when the time came to enter the city,
only the occupying U.S. forces did so. The supreme
command of the intervening troops thought the
mambises might take excessive action against the
Spanish and were therefore not trustworthy. That
humiliation was forcefully denounced by Major
General Calixto García.
With Fidel in the lead, the mambises
of the 20th century did enter Santiago on January 1,
1959 and set about establishing a free and sovereign
Republic, based on new foundations.
Without the need for any military
action whatsoever, the garrison in Cuba’s second
city surrendered. Raúl Castro went to the Moncada,
where the regiment laid down its weapons.
Fidel arrived at Céspedes Park well
into the night. Comandante Juan Almeida eloquently
described the event in the heart of Santiago on the
first night of the New Year, "We were in City Hall
across from Céspedes Park. Before that we had been
at the CMKC radio station. A rumor began to
circulate among people in the area. When asked what
was happening, they answered that the Chief of
Police had been seen, that criminal representative
of the dictatorship, that murderer, was wearing a
red and black 26th of July Movement arm band on one
of his arms. Everything was so strange during those
first moments of jubilation… From one of the
balconies we saw a Cuban flag being raised and heard
the first chords of the national anthem, as was
customary during the traditional [New Year’s]
patriotic event, which of course had been canceled…
Several speakers approached the improvised podium on
the City Hall balcony. Representatives of various
sectors expressed the popular jubilation welcoming
the victory. The Revolutionary Government introduced
its cabinet which had been formed just days before
while operations were still underway. But everyone
wanted to hear Fidel in person, live. ‘At last we
have arrived in Santiago! The road has been long and
hard but we have arrived,’ were his first words."
Time and again, cheers and ovations
interrupted the Comandante en Jefe’s comments. More
than a speech, it was a frank and open dialogue with
Santiago’s people. Left behind were the days of
politicking. A new day had dawned, of direct words,
reason and the truth.
(Excerpts from the book Caravana
de la Libertad, 2009).