In the early morning of July 26, several cars drove around Santiago, picking up rebels. They all met at the rented farm, where they were issued uniforms and weapons, mostly light rifles and shotguns. Castro briefed them, as no one except a few high-ranking organizers knew what the target was to be. They loaded back in the cars and set off. There were 138 rebels set to attack Moncada, and another 27 sent to attack a smaller outpost in nearby Bayamo.
Despite the meticulous organization, the operation was a fiasco almost from the start. One of the cars suffered a flat tire, and two cars got lost in the streets of Santiago. The first car to arrive had gotten through the gate and disarmed the guards, but a two-man routine patrol outside of the gate threw the plan off and the shooting started before the rebels were in position.
The alarm sounded and the soldiers began a counterattack. There was a heavy machine gun in a tower which kept most of the rebels pinned down in the street outside the barracks. The few rebels who had made it in with the first car fought for a while, but when half of them were killed they were forced to retreat and join their comrades outside.
Seeing that the attack was doomed, Castro ordered a retreat and the rebels quickly scattered. Some of them simply threw down their weapons, took off their uniforms, and faded into the nearby city. Some, including Fidel and Raúl Castro, were able to escape. Many were captured, including 22 who had occupied the federal hospital. Once the attack was called off, they had tried to disguise themselves as patients but were found out. The smaller Bayamo force met a similar fate as they, too were captured or driven off.
Nineteen federal soldiers had been killed and the remaining soldiers were in a murderous mood. All of the prisoners were massacred, although two women who had been part of the hospital takeover were spared. Most of the prisoners were tortured first, and news of the barbarity of the soldiers soon leaked to the general public. It caused enough of a scandal for the Batista government that by the time Fidel, Raúl and many of the remaining rebels were rounded up in the next couple of weeks, they were jailed and not executed.
Batista made a great show out of the trials of the conspirators, allowing journalists and civilians to attend. This would prove to be a mistake, as Castro used his trial to attack the government. Castro said that he had organized the assault in order to remove the tyrant Batista from office, and that he was merely doing his civic duty as a Cuban in standing up for democracy. He denied nothing, but instead took pride in his actions. The people of Cuba were riveted by the trials and Castro became a national figure. His famous line from the trial is “History will absolve me!”
In a belated attempt to shut him up, the government locked Castro down, claiming he was too ill to continue with his trial. This only made the dictatorship look worse when Castro got word out that he was fine and able to stand trial. His trial was eventually conducted in secret, and despite his eloquence, he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Batista made another tactical mistake in 1955 when he buckled to international pressure and released many political prisoners, including Castro and the others who had participated in the Moncada assault. Freed, Castro and his most loyal comrades went to Mexico to organize and launch the Cuban Revolution.
Castro named his insurgency “the 26th of July Movement” after the date of the Moncada assault. Although it was initially a failure, Castro was ultimately able to make the most out of Moncada. He used it as a recruiting tool: although many political parties and groups in Cuba railed against Batista and his crooked regime, only Castro had done anything about it. This attracted many Cubans to the movement who may have otherwise not gotten involved.
The massacre of the captured rebels also severely damaged the credibility of Batista and his top officers, who were now seen as butchers, especially once the rebels’ plan – they had hoped to take the barracks without bloodshed – became known. It allowed Castro to use Moncada as a rallying cry, sort of like “Remember the Alamo!” This is more than a little ironic, as Castro and his men had attacked in the first place, but it became somewhat justified in the face of the subsequent atrocities.
Although it failed in its goals of acquiring weapons and arming the unhappy citizens of Oriente Province, Moncada was, in the long run, a very important part of the success of Castro and the 26th of July Movement.
Castañeda, Jorge C. Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara . New York: Vintage Books, 1997.
Coltman, Leycester. The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: the Yale University Press, 2003.