Cuban Revolution: The Assault on the Moncada Barracks
On July 26, 1953, Cuba exploded into revolution when Fidel Castro and about 140 rebels attacked the federal garrison at Moncada. Although the operation was well-planned and had the element of surprise, the greater numbers and weapons of the army soldiers, coupled with some remarkably bad luck afflicting the attackers, made the assault a near-total failure for the rebels. Many of the rebels were captured and executed, and Fidel and his brother Raúl were put on trial. They lost the battle but won the war: the Moncada assault was the first armed action of the Cuban Revolution, which would triumph in 1959.
Fulgencio Batista was a military officer who had been president from 1940 to 1944 (and who had held unofficial executive power for some time before 1940). In 1952, Batista ran again for president, but it appeared that he would lose. Together with some other high-ranking officers, Batista smoothly pulled off a coup that removed President Carlos Prío from power. The elections were cancelled. Fidel Castro was a charismatic young lawyer who was running for Congress in Cuba’s 1952 elections and according to some historians, he was likely to win. After the coup, Castro went into hiding, knowing intuitively that his past opposition to different Cuban governments would make him one of the “enemies of the state” that Batista was rounding up.
Planning the Assault
Batista’s government was quickly recognized by various Cuban civic groups, such as the banking and business communities. It was also recognized internationally, including by the United States. After the elections were cancelled and things had calmed down, Castro tried to bring Batista to court to answer for the takeover, but failed. Castro decided that legal means of removing Batista would never work. Castro began plotting an armed revolution in secret, attracting to his cause many other Cubans disgusted by Batista’s flagrant power grab.
Castro knew that he needed two things to win: weapons and men to use them. The assault on Moncada was designed to provide both. The barracks were full of weapons, enough to outfit a small army of rebels. Castro reasoned that if the daring attack were successful, hundreds of angry Cubans would flock to his side to help him bring Batista down.
Batista’s security forces were aware that several groups (not only Castro’s) were plotting armed insurrection, but they had little resources and none of them seemed a serious threat to the government. Batista and his men were much more worried about rebellious factions within the army itself as well as the organized political parties that had been favored to win the 1952 elections.
The date for the assault was set for July 26, because July 25 was the festival of St. James and there would be parties in the nearby town. It was hoped that at dawn on the 26th, many of the soldiers would be missing, hung over, or even still drunk inside the barracks. The insurgents would drive in wearing army uniforms, seize control of the base, help themselves to weapons, and leave before other armed forces units could respond. The Moncada barracks are located outside of the city of Santiago, in the Oriente province. In 1953, Oriente was the poorest of Cuba’s regions, and the one with the most civil unrest. Castro hoped to spark an uprising, which he would then arm with Moncada weapons.
All aspects of the assault were meticulously planned. Castro had printed copies of a manifesto, and ordered that they be delivered to newspapers and select politicians on July 26 at exactly 5:00 am. A farm close to the barracks was rented, where weapons and uniforms were stashed. All of those who participated in the assault made their way to the city of Santiago independently, and stayed in rooms that had been rented beforehand. No detail was overlooked as the rebels tried to make the attack a success.