In November 1956, 82 Cuban rebels piled onto the small yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba to touch off the Cuban Revolution. The yacht, designed for only 12 passengers and supposedly with a maximum capacity of 25, also had to carry fuel for a week as well as food and weapons for the soldiers. Miraculously, the Granma made it to Cuba on December 2 and the Cuban rebels (including Fidel and Raul Castro, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos) disembarked to start the revolution.
In 1953, Fidel Castro had led an assault on the federal barracks at Moncada, near Santiago. The attack was a failure and Castro was sent to jail. The attackers were released in 1955 by Dictator Fulgencio Batista, however, who was bowing to international pressure to release political prisoners. Castro and many of the others went to Mexico to plan the next step of the revolution. In Mexico, Castro found many Cuban exiles who wanted to see the end of the Batista regime. They began to organize the “26th of July Movement” named after the date of the Moncada assault.
In Mexico, the rebels collected arms and received training. Fidel and Raúl Castro also met two men who would play key roles in the revolution: Argentine physician Ernesto “Ché” Guevara and Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos. The Mexican government, suspicious of the activities of the movement, detained some of them for a while, but eventually left them alone. The group had some money, provided by former Cuban president Carlos Prío. When the group was ready, they contacted their comrades back in Cuba and told them to cause distractions on November 30, the day they would arrive.
Castro still had the problem of how to get the men to Cuba. At first he tried to purchase a used military transport, but was unable to locate one. Desperate, he purchased the yacht Granma for $18,000 of Prío’s money through a Mexican agent. The Granma, supposedly named for the grandmother of its first owner (an American), was run down, its two diesel engines in need of repair. The 13 meter (about 43 feet) yacht was designed for 12 passengers and could only fit about 20 comfortably. Castro docked the yacht in Tuxpan, on the Mexican coast.
At the end of November, Castro heard rumors that the Mexican police were planning to arrest the Cubans and possibly turn them over to Batista. Even though repairs to the Granma were not completed, he knew they had to go. On the night of November 25, the boat was loaded down with food, weapons and fuel, and 82 Cuban rebels came on board. Another fifty or so remained behind, as there was no room for them. The boat departed silently, so as not to alert Mexican authorities. Once it was in international waters, the men on board began loudly singing the Cuban national anthem.
The 1,200 mile sea voyage was utterly miserable. Food had to be rationed, and there was no room for anyone to rest. The engines were in poor repair and required constant attention. As the Granma passed Yucatan, it began taking on water, and the men had to bail until the bilge pumps were repaired: for a while it looked as if the boat would surely sink. Seas were rough and many of the men were seasick. Guevara, a doctor, could tend to the men but he had no seasickness remedies. One man fell overboard at night and they spent an hour searching for him before he was rescued: this used up fuel they could not spare.
Arrival in Cuba:
Castro had estimated the trip would take five days, and communicated to his people in Cuba that they would arrive on November 30th. The Granma was slowed by engine trouble and excess weight, however, and didn’t arrive until December 2nd. The rebels in Cuba did their part, attacking government and military installations on the 30th, but Castro and the others did not arrive. They reached Cuba on December 2nd, but it was during broad daylight and the Cuban Air Force was flying patrols looking for them. They also missed their intended landing spot by about 15 miles.
The Rest of the Story:
All 82 rebels reached Cuba, and Castro decided to head for the mountains of the Sierra Maestra where he could regroup and contact sympathizers in Havana and elsewhere. In the afternoon of December 5th, they were located by a large army patrol and attacked by surprise. The rebels were immediately scattered, and over the next few days most of them were killed or captured: less than 20 made it to the Sierra Maestra with Castro.
The handful of rebels who survived the Granma trip and ensuing massacre became Castro’s inner circle, men he could trust, and he built his movement around them. By the end of 1958, Castro was ready to make his move: the despised Batista was driven out and the revolutionaries marched into Havana in triumph.
The Granma itself was retired with honor. After the triumph of the revolution, it was brought to Havana harbor. Later it was preserved and put on display.
Today, the Granma is a sacred symbol of the Revolution. The province where it landed was divided, creating the new Granma Province. The official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party is called Granma. The spot where it landed was made into the Landing of the Granma National Park, and it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although more for marine life than historical value. Every year, Cuban schoolchildren board a replica of the Granma and re-trace its voyage from the coast of Mexico to Cuba.
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.