Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
When, on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro Ruz, at the head of his troops, advanced on Santiago de Cuba and its garrison of some 5,000 soldiers, to begin what would perhaps have been the bloodiest and hardest battle of the anti-Batista insurrection, it was curious and strange to hear on the radio that in the city the people were in the streets with flags of the 26th of July Movement, cheering the rebel leader and celebrating the revolutionary triumph. What were the circumstances that made up such a paradoxical situation? How was the victory finally consummated in the eastern city?
Five years, five months and five days earlier, the assault on the Guillermon Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks in Bayamo, on July 26, 1953, had been the attempt to launch a popular insurrection that would grow and advance towards Havana until it broke the resistance of the dictatorial regime. The success of the plan rested on the surprise factor and the response of the people to the call to combat. The military importance of the Moncada, together with the symbolism of Santiago de Cuba and the traditions of rebellion of its inhabitants, made the main action take place there, generating the historical merit of having been the place where this last stage of the revolutionary struggle began.
Later, with the landing of the Granma yacht in its political-administrative jurisdiction, today’s Heroic City rose up in arms on November 30, 1956, in what could have been a new insurrectional outbreak that made possible, with other pronouncements of the 26th of July Movement and other forces, the overthrow of the dictatorship. Santiago was once again, despite other actions, the capital symbol of the revolutionary activity of the country. The two most important moments of the struggle against Batista until then had taken place in its urban perimeter and/or jurisdictional space. It was an extraordinary accumulation.
If the immense majority of the nuclei in favor of the violent struggle were betting on the success of a fulminating operation in Havana, in which the joint effort of military conspiracies and armed civilian bodies would provoke a rapid fall of the regime, the July 26th Movement based its efforts on a two-phase strategy, starting with the partial or total control of the province of Oriente, whose center would be the capture of the city of Santiago de Cuba, to expand the revolutionary thrust from there towards the rest of the Island.
The strategic importance of the city can be measured by the design and execution of Operation Santiago, the rebel attack for its encirclement and surrender, which, together with the invasion of the west of the Island, was the most important insurgent offensive operation in the final months of 1958.
The battle for Santiago de Cuba, now not by a surprise attack as in 1953 nor by an internal uprising as in 1956, but by the combative approach of guerrilla units, personally led by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro Ruz, had the potential to become the equivalent of the battle of Ayacucho in the independence of South America: decisive in determining the end of the war of liberation. It is also true that the distance from Havana did not necessarily have to be settled, in case of a rebel victory in the city, with the fall of the dictatorship. Once Santiago de Cuba was taken, the regime still had room for maneuver in the theater of operations, especially due to the concurrence of neutralizing maneuvers and foreign intervention.
The devastating guerrilla advance on Santa Clara, halfway to Havana, together with the success of the progressive isolation and encirclement of Santiago de Cuba put the dictator and his acolytes in check. The imminence of a disaster was decisive for the activation or hastening of various attempts to prevent the revolutionary triumph or to achieve its mediatization. Within the military ranks, desertions, accelerated surrenders and conspiratorial proposals increased. Fidel had never been reluctant to the possibility of military conspiracies that would bring the fall of the dictatorship closer with less bloodshed, as long as they did not compromise the fulfillment of the revolutionary program.
In this sense, he sought that the military pronouncements would come about through his incorporation into the rebel forces and not by means of a coup d’état in the nation’s capital.
That is why he agreed to the unconditional collaboration offered by the Chief of Army Operations in the eastern province, Major General Eulogio Cantillo y Porras, on December 28, 1958, when the Batista regime was already tottering and its overthrow seemed a matter of days. The high-ranking officer committed himself to the uprising of the commanders loyal to him, in coordination with the guerrilla forces. This implied a joint pronouncement and the articulation of a common force, which would advance on the enemy positions that did not join the uprising or would not withdraw their hostile attitude. This is how the Commander in Chief explained it:
“The plan was agreed upon in all its details: on the 31st, at 3:00 in the afternoon, the garrison of Santiago de Cuba would revolt. “Immediately several rebel columns would penetrate the city, and the people, with the military and with the rebels, would immediately fraternize, launching a revolutionary proclamation to the country and inviting all the honorable military to join the movement. It was agreed that the tanks in the city would be placed at our disposal, and I personally offered to advance towards the capital with an armored column, preceded by the tanks. The tanks would be delivered to me at 3:00 in the afternoon, not because it was thought that we had to fight, but to foresee in case the movement in Havana failed and there was a need to place our vanguard as close as possible to the capital”.
Cantillo, however, betrayed the agreement. He went to Havana and dedicated himself to organize, in agreement with Batista, a counterrevolutionary conspiracy. To gain time, he sent Fidel a note on December 30 recommending him not to do anything until January 6, because “circumstances had changed a lot in a favorable sense for a national solution”. The rebel chief, sensing the maneuver, replied that the note was a departure from what had been agreed and that hostilities would be broken as of the day and time set for the uprising. Once the attack on Santiago had begun, there would be no other way out than unconditional surrender.
Faced with the energetic reaction, General Cantillo insisted that he was working on a national solution, not a local one, favorable to the interests of the insurgents, and warned them that they should change the plan and not enter Santiago de Cuba. Just as it had happened in 1898, an upstart ally was trying at the last minute to take power, to hide the popular triumph and to prevent the entry into Santiago of the true freedom fighters.
With reports of the inexorable nature of the rebel offensive in Las Villas and Oriente, the dictator Batista decided to abandon power and flee abroad. After midnight from December 31 to January 1, he executed the plan: he left the country to a Civic-Military Junta, with Major General Eulogio Cantillo as the new Chief of the Army. General Cantillo tried to form a new civilian administration, with the summoning of the “oldest magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice” as “presidential substitute”, Dr. Carlos Manuel Piedra y Piedra. At the same time, he tried to shore up his authority before the various regular commands of the country, ordered a ceasefire and fraternized with the rebel troops. Forming a civilian government and gaining time with the fraternization of his demoralized military garrisons in the face of the growing guerrilla forces, he believed, would help him consolidate his emerging authority, leaving him in a position to administer the salvation of most of the levers of the old regime.
Then Santiago de Cuba became the heart of the events. Where the insurrection began, the essential issue was resolved: the seizure of power.
Fidel Castro’s response, through Radio Rebelde from Palma Soriano, was immediate and forceful: To denounce and reject the maneuver in the capital as counterrevolutionary, qualifying it as a coup d’état; not to accept cease-fire or fraternization with the military forces; to order the advance of the insurgent forces on the enemy positions, only accepting parliament for unconditional surrender; to order the commanders Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevara to culminate the military operations in Las Villas and to advance on Havana to take, respectively, the Military City of Columbia and the Fortress of La Cabaña, the two main garrisons of the country; to issue an ultimatum to the military square of Santiago de Cuba to lay down their arms by the end of the afternoon or face a bloody battle, with the historical responsibility for the bloodshed that would ensue; and to call for a general strike until the total fall of the dictatorship and the complete triumph of the Revolution.
The military command of Santiago de Cuba, while complying with the ceasefire and fraternization order, began to send signals of parliament to the rebel leadership. In the afternoon of that day, the military commander of the city, Colonel José Rego Rubido, met with Fidel Castro in the Alto de Villalón, and expressed himself in favor of a joint pronouncement.
After Commander Raul Castro accompanied Rego Rubido to the Moncada Barracks and met with his officers, the latter went up to El Escandel to meet with Fidel, with whom he sealed the agreement that avoided a bloody and exhausting battle for the control of the city, which would have facilitated the possible consolidation of the counterrevolutionary plans in Havana. The eastern officers agreed to “disapprove of the rigged coup in [Camp] Columbia (…) and to support the Cuban Revolution”. The originally agreed uprising of the Santiago garrison took place, now not against the dictator in flight, but against the military junta installed in the capital.
A column of guerrillas and soldiers, with their chiefs at the head, left in a motorized caravan towards Santiago de Cuba, where they entered on the night of January 1st. Fidel headed towards Céspedes Park, the main park of the city, to speak to the compact and euphoric mass gathered there from the balcony of the City Hall, and proclaim the triumph of the Revolution. For the first time, after seven years of dictatorship, the rebel leader communicated directly and massively with a liberated population. Dr. Manuel Urrutia Lleó was sworn in as Provisional President of the Republic, and given his constitutional mandate as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, he appointed Fidel Castro as his delegate to the country’s armed institutions. In addition, the rebel leader proclaimed Santiago de Cuba as the new provisional capital of the Republic. This last decision portrays the uncertainty of the circumstance, the danger that in Havana and other cities a counterrevolutionary maneuver would be consolidated. The proclamation was intended to complete a victory in its final phase, in the midst of the ambivalent situation in the capital of the country: the clandestine movement dominates police institutions and strategic buildings, but the main military installations have not yet been occupied by the rebel forces.
These are critical and decisive moments, which will have a favorable outcome in the coming hours with the surrender of several military posts in the country to the guerrilla columns.
It is true that granting Santiago de Cuba the condition of provisional capital had the purpose of materializing the victory, but it also had a symbolic meaning due to the role it had played in the war and throughout the revolutionary history of Cuba.