The M26 and The Cuban Revolution

7 min read

Introduction

The story of the Movimiento 26 de Julio (M-26-7, or the M26) in Cuba before the Cuban Revolutionary War of 1956-59 is one that is not commonly told outside of Cuba.  Most history tends to focus on what happened after Fidel Castro and his army of guerrillas seized power, and the response of the world to that event.  But such a revolution would not have been possible without the M26 paving the way for revolutionary organization of the society.  The steps taken by the M26 were responsible first, for raising revolutionary consciousness within a largely passive Cuban society, then agitation of that society toward the adoption of an ultimately successful revolutionary program and the opposition to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, and then finally the very practical matter or supplying arms, cash, and recruits for Castro’s rebel groups who were fighting the forces of the dictatorship in the mountains of Oriente Province in Cuba.  Without the action of the M26, it is doubtful that Castro’s revolution would have succeeded.

From the M26, modern revolutionaries can learn valuable lessons about the necessity and importance of having a dedicated organization designed to specifically support the revolutionary actions we take in making fundamental change in our country and in our world.  While M26 is not the only model and in and of itself may not be directly translatable to the American experience in the early 21st century, nonetheless it certainly shines some light on what sort of organization would be necessary to coordinate and sustain widespread and prolonged revolutionary activity in a context like our current one.  The populist, decentralized model of social protest organizing, which eschews any sort of overarching organizational structure and would rather dissolve than accept leadership, is easily marginalizable and defeated.  If our goal really is to fundamentally alter the structure of our society, rather than merely pointing out the system’s flaws and criticizing anyone who dares attempt to organize the opposition therein, a dedicated organization with its goal to end tyranny is the only thing which stands a chance at having any sort of demonstrable success.

Origins and Moncada

The origins of the M26 lie in the days immediately following the Batista golpe of 1952.  Fidel Castro, a law student and a campus organizer and legislative candidate from Cuba’s Orthodoxo Party, supported populist-nationalist leader Edwardo Chibas in the 1952 elections.  However, Batista’s golpe ended any hope for the successful conduct of democratic elections, and demonstrated, for Castro as well as many Cubans, that any pretense to democracy in Cuba had now been entirely ended.  Castro immediately called for opponents to Batista to begin working toward the overthrow of the regime and a reinstitution of the 1940 Constitution that had been suspended following the golpe.  His call was initially and enthusiastically answered by brother and sister Abel and Haydee Santamaria, who knew of Castro from his work with the Orthodoxo Party.  Together this small group set about gathering some weaponry, raising funds, printing propaganda, and recruiting others to the cause.

The first significant action of the M26 was to attack two national guard barracks near Santiago de Cuba on the morning of July 26, 1953, a date that was forever memorialized in Cuba after the Revolution and from which the group gets its name.  The goal of the attacks was to acquire weaponry that could be passed out to the population in an effort to spark a popular uprising against Batista.  Castro’s program for the M26, which he intended to issue following the attacks on the Moncada and Bayamo barracks, contained the following five points:  1)  Restoration of the 1940 Constitution and the protections of basic civil liberties it contained, 2) Agrarian reform that would remove idle lands from large landowners and transfer them to the planters and peasants with compensation to former owners, 3) Profit sharing at sugar mills and large corporations operating in Cuba between producers and workers, 4) Sugar growers would have rights to sell 55% of the sugar they cut, rather than being forced to accept low wages for their time, and 5) Illegally or fraudulently obtained land would be confiscated.  At its core, the M26’s demands were for modest and moderate civil and agrarian reform meant to ameliorate the suffering of the deeply impoverished peasants who were treated as virtual slaves by property owners.

The attack on the barracks was a spectacular failure.  The M26 forces were betting on surprise of the defending force, who were expected to be drunk and exhausted from Carnivale celebrations on the previous day, but the insurgents botched a number of key actions and soon wound up disoriented, disorganized and easily defeated.  Most of those who took part in the actions were captured and imprisoned; many were tortured on the spot and killed.  Abel Santamaria had his eye taken out during torture and the dismembered eye was shown to Haydee Santamaria, who herself continue to refuse to divulge information.  Fidel and his brother Raul, who had recently joined the group were eventually captured.  During Castro’s trial he delivered his famous vindication “History Will Absolve Me” that was transcribed and published across the country.

The M26 and the Cuban Revolution

During Castro’s incarceration, the M26 was instrumental in continuing to agitate for the Moncada veterans’ release.  They began fundraising and organizing resistance to Batista across the country, using printed copies of Castro’s courtroom defense, among other things to raise money and build links with other organizations in the anti-Batista opposition.  They eventually secured the Castros’ release and exile to Mexico.  As soon as Castro arrived in Mexico, he immediately began organizing a revolutionary invasion of Cuba.  During this period, M26 was instrumental in keeping fresh recruits flowing to Castro, along with money and information.  And when Castro returned to Cuba in December of 1956, the M26 was in a position to arm and supply the guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra, while organizing civil disobedience and direct action across Cuba.

Because the military struggle was being carried out far from most population centers in Cuba, the M26 began performing revolutionary sabotage and selective terror within the cities.  The aim of this activity was to constantly force the Dictatorship to both increase its repression, which Batista’s government did willingly, but also to create a sense of chaos throughout the country that was aimed at undermining support for the Dictatorship.  The M26 also served as the propaganda front for the guerrilla army, establishing Radio Rebelde as a source for news of the revolution that was not controlled by the dictator’s censors.  This propaganda aimed at generating support in the nation for the revolution, as well as undermining support for competing revolutionary factions who opposed both Batista and Castro.

Major actors in the “llano” section of the M26 during the revolutionary period were Frank Pais, who was the coordinator of the urban arm of the M26; Huber Matos, whose connections with arms dealers allowed him to supply the guerillas with heavy weapons; and Celia Sanchez, who was a tireless organizer and fundraiser for the Movement.  Pais’ public assassination in 1957 shocked the nation and served as a rallying cry for the Movement, as mass protests turned into a nation-wide General Strike.  Matos and Sanchez eventually moved to the Sierra and fought alongside Castro.  The Rebel Army under Castro formed the “sierra” section, and there was occasionally disagreement on tactics and strategy between the two sections, though ultimately Castro was recognized as the final authority over the group, especially after Pais’ death and rebel military successes in the summer of 1958.

The M26 as a whole gradually moved to the foreground of the political struggle within Cuba, and slowly obtained concessions and then submission to Castro as the ultimate leader of the anti-Batista revolution from other anti-Batista groups.  Their political program remained largely unchanged from Moncada, and Castro’s forces began implementing the program in areas they controlled.  Guerillas collected revolutionary taxes from landowners, burned sugar mills and redistributed land held by absentee landlords to the peasants who worked it.  Additionally, under the direction of Ernesto Guevara, guerrillas began teaching peasants how to read and offering basic medical care:  in many cases, Guevara was the first doctor they had ever seen.  Castro and Guevara both saw the provision of these very basic services as revolutionary propaganda, while Guevara eventually came to see it as his entire motivation to be a revolutionary.

Legacy and Conclusion

Following the successful conclusion of the Revolution, the M26 remained as an activist organization within Cuba, though were gradually folded into what would eventually become the Communist Party of Cuba after it aligned with the Soviet Union in 1960.  The M26 remained in the Revolutionary consciousness of Cuba:  the failed attack on the Moncada is still commemorated annually, the Flag of the M26-7 remains a symbol of the Revolution in Cuba, and slightly altered forms of the flag are used as symbols of revolution around the world, and the Hymn of the M 26 de Julio is still used as a station identifier by Radio Havana Cuba.  But its function as an organizational body in service to the overthrow of Batista ended when Batista was out of power, and so it is now more historical and nostalgic than functional.

Without the M26, there would have been no revolution:  It was instrumental in organizing, funding, arming and supplying the Revolution.  It was by far the most organized group on the Island during that period, and its actions led directly to a shift among the people of Cuba to the support of Castro’s revolution.  It was necessary to build domestic and international support for the Revolution, to raise money and purchase arms and supplies for the Revolutionaries, and to undermine Batista’s grip on Cuban society.  Without it, Castro would certainly have failed.  Whether or not this is a good thing is up to individuals to debate, but few will argue that the M26 was essential to Castro’s success, and it serves to show socialists one possible model of organization that can lead to revolutionary change in our own country.

Sources

Anderson, John Lee.  Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. 1997.  New York: Grove Press.

Gott, Richard.  Cuba: A New History. 2004.  New Haven, CT:  Yale Nota Bene.

Perez-Stable, Marifeli.  The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course and Legacy. 1999. New York: Oxford University Press.Thomas, Hugh.  Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. 1971.  New York:  Harper and Row, Publishers.