On 2 December 1956 eighty-two men landed on the Cuban coast having sailed from Mexico in a run down boat, Granma. The voyage and landing were little short of a disaster. A journey that was planned to last five days had taken seven. At times the trip was almost comical. As they approached the Cuban coastline the navigator fell overboard.
The landing was supposed to have coincided with an armed uprising in the city of Santiago following which 100 insurgents should have awaited the arrival of Granma with trucks and supplies. Frank Pais, a leader of the July 26th Movement in the Oriente province was to organize this. He was later on to organize supplies for the rebel army through the underground urban network that was built, the Llano.
After the Granma weighed anchor the plan was then to launch an attack on the towns of Niquero and Manzanillo before proceeding to the Sierra Maestra mountain range from where Castro intended to launch the war against Batista in earnest.
Batista had dispatched extra troops to Oriente province and crushed the uprising in Santiago while naval and air force patrols awaited the arrival of Castro and his party. The insurgency began badly and only got worse.
The rebels waded ashore in broad daylight, they were a mile short of their intended rendezvous, they left most of their supplies behind, their reception party had given up and departed the night before after waiting for two days. On top of that they were spotted by an air force observation aircraft. The group was divided into two and roamed around lost for two days.
As Che described later in his diary they were “disorientated and walking in circles, an army of shadows, of phantoms walking as if moved by some obscure psychic mechanism.” They finally regrouped and headed eastwards towards the Sierra mountains under the guidance of a local peasant. They encountered the first attack from the Cuban Army during which Che suffered a superficial wound in the neck.
This was the opening phase of a grueling war that was to last for two years. It ended in January 1959 after Batista had fled the country on New Year’s Eve. The forces of the Movement of the 26th of July marched into Havana to be greeted by a general strike of the workers. Of the eighty-two who came ashore from Granma just over twenty eventually regrouped in the Sierra Maestro. Less would see the New Year in 1959 and the triumph of the revolution.
How was it possible for such a small group to emerge triumphant within two short, if bloody and turbulent, years? The answer lies in a combination of political and social factors. Firstly, social support for Batista was disintegrating. Opposition to the dictatorship was increasing and the regime by 1959 was on the point of collapse. Even the army was beginning to be affected and became increasingly demoralized.
At the same time none of the opposition parties channeled the anger of the population. The docile PSP was still largely compromised by its previous support for Batista. The party still had a certain authority amongst important sections of industrial workers in the cities. However, its leaders largely used the authority they had to keep the workers’ movement in check.
As the result of this, a political vacuum had developed in Cuba. Castro and his forces, despite being relatively small, were able to fill it after a two-year struggle they conducted from the Sierra Maestro. By the end of 1958 Castro had no more than 3,000 in his army and this included a large number of non-combatants who were based in camps.
If the war that was fought between 1956-58 is considered from merely a military point of view then Castro won a remarkable victory. The Prussian general and writer, Clausewitz, argued that: “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” It was the objective political situation and social factors that had unfolded in Cuba that permitted Castro to score such a dramatic victory in only two years.
To achieve this victory, subjective questions, in particular the collapse of the morale of the Cuban army and the will power and determination of the fighters of the July 26th Movement, played a crucial part.
Due to the hatred of Batista by the mass of the Cuban population the guerrillas could rely upon the support they enjoyed amongst the peasants and urban population. There was no other political force that was seen as waging an effective or serious struggle against the regime.
This support increased as the war raged and the brutality of the regime was increasingly contrasted with the heroism of Castro’s fighters. Moreover, in battle when Batista’s soldiers were taken prisoners unlike captured guerrilla fighters, they were not executed. They were discussed with and then set free unharmed. Such initiatives had a big effect in undermining the morale of the soldiers in Batista’s army. Castro lost no opportunity in trying to present himself as a modern José Martí – a new liberator of Cuba.
Che Guevara emerged as one of the principle military and political leaders. He had originally enlisted as the medical expert. Events forced him in another direction as he displayed other outstanding qualities when in the thick of war. Early on in the conflict he crossed yet another line in the evolution of his own character. Caught in an exchange between guerrillas and the army, in a split second he was forced to choose between picking up medical supplies or a machine gun and ammunition.
Opting for the latter, it became clear that despite his medical knowledge and experience Che was not destined to play the role of doctor.
As the war progressed, Che’s authority increased in the eyes of his fellow rebels. He actively engaged in battles with the army and undertook quite reckless missions on occasions. During one air raid, as other rebels fled, including Castro, Che remained behind to help stranded fighters. He was eventually appointed commander of his own column along with Castro’s brother, Raúl.
Che’s overall maxim was to lead by example, never to ask those under his command to do what he would not undertake himself. He also refused all privileges – few though they were for those fighting in the Sierra Maestra. Che’s own conditions were in many ways worse than the soldiers he fought with. The effects of his crippling asthma attacks in the jungle would have driven many with less determination away from the battleground.
The column of fighters he led were undoubtedly amongst the most determined and heroic. They were fuelled by his bold example and determination to achieve a victorious revolution.
They were steeled to continue the struggle against what at times seemed impossible odds. The ‘Suicide Squad’, which was established in his column to undertake particularly dangerous missions, gained a fearsome reputation for its discipline and heroism.
It was a model for other rebel fighters to aspire to. As Che noted in his wartime diaries: “The ‘Suicide Squad’ was an example of revolutionary morale and only selected volunteers joined it. But whenever a man died – and it happened in every battle – when a new candidate was named, those not chosen would be grief-stricken and even cry. How curious to see those seasoned and noble warriors showing their youth by their tears of despair, because they did not have the honor of being in the front line of combat and death.”
There was another reason his column was amongst the most combative. Che began to organize a program of political education for some of its members. His socialist ideas began to take root amongst many of his guerrillas as his reputation grew. In the midst of the military conflict there was also a political dispute that unfolded within the July 26th Movement. It featured a power struggle between the guerrilla movement in the mountains and the urban underground resistance, the Llano. At the same time it also posed the question of what the July 26th Movement stood for. Che’s outspoken defense of socialist ideas was a minority voice within the ensuing polemics.
Character of the July 26th Movement
The July 26th Movement’s ideology and program reflected the social composition of much of its membership and supporters. The bulk of the leaders were drawn from the urban middle class, some from its upper layers. Whilst the Movement did have a layer of lower middle class and even working class members, as was reflected by the social make-up of those who participated in the Moncada incident, it was not a political current which was given birth to by the working class.
Castro had established an inner core of leaders based upon the steering committee he had set up in the summer of 1955. This reflected much of the Movement at that time. Most were former students from the urban upper middle class. The National Directorate (of which Castro was not a member), was made up of such people and was responsible for all the underground activity in the urban areas, i.e.. obtaining supplies of arms and communications etc. Many were self-sacrificing and had been arrested and tortured by Batista’s police. However, politically what united them was the struggle to overthrow Batista and little else.
The program and ideology of the July 26th Movement reflected the vacillations and amorphous features which are the political hallmarks of the urban petty bourgeoisie. Most of its members probably wanted little more than to establish a capitalist parliamentary democracy and enact a radical democratic program of reform.
Che had many presentiments about Castro’s colleagues from the urban centers in the National Directorate. “Through isolated conversations, I discovered the evident anti-Communist inclinations of most of them”, he wrote in his diary.
There was a more radical wing to the movement, which in many ways Castro represented. He wrote an Appeal to the Cuban People, which was very combative. In defense of the guerrillas’ proclamation to burn sugar cane he wrote: “To those who invoke the workers’ livelihoods to combat this measure, we ask: Why don’t they defend the workers when…they suck dry their salaries, when they swindle their retirement pensions, when they pay them in bonds and they kill them from hunger during eight months? Why are we spilling our blood if not for the poor of Cuba? What does a little hunger today matter if we can win the bread and liberty of tomorrow?”
Although from a Marxist point of view the idea of small groups of guerrillas burning sugar cane and imposing a struggle on behalf of the sugar cane workers, rather than drawing them into struggle, is wrong, the radical sentiments behind such declarations got an echo with Cuba’s poor.
However, the program that even Castro was advocating in the early stages of the war, albeit with a social conscience, was not going beyond the bounds of capitalism. During the first few months of 1957 a leading correspondent of the New York Times, Herbert Matthews, who had also reported on the Spanish Civil War, secured a visit and interview with Castro.
When published in February it landed as an international bombshell and was a publicity coup for Castro as Batista was claiming the guerrilla leader had been killed in battle. Apart from being a major international propaganda success for Castro, the interview revealed much about his political ideas at the time.
Matthews wrote: “It is a revolutionary movement that calls itself socialistic. It is also nationalistic, which generally means anti-Yankee. The program is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic and therefore anti-Communist. The real core of its strength is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista…(Castro) has strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice, the need to restore the Constitution, to hold elections.”
Castro told Matthews, “You can be sure that we have no animosity towards the United States and the American people…we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship. We are not anti-military… for we know the men are good and so are many of the officers.”
During the interview Castro succeeded in giving Matthews the impression that he had more forces around him than was the case. In conditions of war this was legitimate – why show the enemy Batista one’s weaknesses. Matthews reported that eighty-two of the original Granma landing were with Castro and that his forces were growing all the time as more and more youth arrived.
In fact, as Hugh Thomas recounts, Castro’s brother kept passing in front of Matthews with the same group of men dressed differently. Castro had no more than eighteen in camp with him at the time and a total armed force of 20!
It is probably accurate to conclude that Castro at that time did not have a worked out political philosophy. According to one account even by 1960 Castro was still not supporting “socialism”. Che, in conversation with a friend from Mexico, Dr. David Mitrani, stated that he hoped to transform Cuba into a socialist state but that Fidel was not yet convinced (See Jon Anderson’s biography).
Since the victory of the Cuban Revolution it has been argued that the overthrow of capitalism was anticipated by Castro and even prepared in collaboration with the bureaucracy that then ruled in Moscow. This analysis overestimates the political clarity with which the leaders of the July 26th Movement approached the situation in Cuba. It also falsely elevates the role of the bureaucracy in Moscow in overthrowing landlordism and capitalism in Cuba.
The process of the revolution, together with a combination of national and international factors, propelled the central players in these events to a political and social location that was not their intended point of arrival. As Che stated in 1960: “The principle actors of this revolution had no coherent viewpoint.” (Notes for the Study of the Ideology of the Cuban Revolution).
The impact of big social events, especially wars and the struggle between different classes in society, has affected the political outlook of many individuals. Che Guevara had empirically arrived at the guerrilla war in which he was now engaged against the Batista dictatorship. The effects of the guerrilla war had an important effect in radicalizing its primary leaders. As Che wrote to Ernesto Sábato, a prominent Argentinean novelist, in a letter in April 1960: “The war revolutionized us…In this way our revolution was born. In this way, its slogans were being created, and in this way little by little, we began drawing theoretical conclusions in the heat of these events to create our own body of ideas.”
Che was the most politically sophisticated of the leading guerrilla fighters, in the sense of advocating an alternative ideology. From the standpoint of a Marxist analysis the theoretical conclusions he eventually drew were false and in many respects quite crude. However, he asserted a growing influence over Castro as events and the struggle unfolded. Both were propelled by the rhythm of events and the concrete situation in which they found themselves.
Whilst Che aspired to conquering a socialist revolution with an internationalist character he had no worked out perspective or program of how to achieve his aim. By his own admission the ideas he developed evolved empirically, shaped more by his own subjective experiences than by an extensive appreciation of the historical lessons of the international workers’ movement.
A Difference of Opinion
Within the July 26th Movement things did not remain politically static during the course of the civil war. A conflict emerged between the National Directorate and the guerrilla leadership in the Sierra. Castro wanted to establish his rebel army as the primary leadership in the movement – under his control.
Initially this friction was kept within manageable limits. It surfaced at a meeting in 1957 where some of the urban leaders argued for Castro to leave the Sierra Maestra to raise funds on a speaking tour. Along with other proposals this clearly indicated they wanted to play down the importance of the guerrilla struggle in the Sierra Maestra. On this occasion Castro won the day and gained a majority against other proposals.
Over the following months this friction was to develop into an open political rift between the Llano and the guerrilla leaders. The latter in the main thought the leadership of the Llano was pusillanimous – they were not without justification in this assessment. On the National Directorate were some of the most conservative sections of the July 26th Movement.
However, a contributing element in the friction was another political factor. Those involved in the fighting of a guerrilla war, however self-sacrificing, develop a certain contempt towards the urban population. The desperate hardship involved in the struggle in the mountains can wrongly lead the rural fighters to dismiss the masses in the cities as unwilling to struggle because of their relatively privileged situation. This attitude is re-enforced if the guerrilla fighters lack clear political ideas and are not linked to an organized movement of urban workers with an audacious leadership and socialist policies.
Castro certainly still lacked a clear political objective for his struggle beyond overthrowing the dictatorship. What he did have, however, was an ability to rest opportunistically on numerous political forces to strengthen his own position. On 12 July 1957 Castro signed a pact with the openly pro-capitalist Auténtico and Ortodoxo Parties who had rejected Batista’s recent attempt to buttress his regime by calling Presidential elections in which he himself would not stand.
The pact, known as the ‘Sierra Pact,’ limited the July 26th Movement in its objectives. Whilst it called for Batista’s resignation and rejected the military junta, it proposed an “independent” member from civic institutions to act as transitional President and for full elections within twelve months. Its economic program was limited to little more than agrarian reform. If anything it was even more moderate than the original program of the July 26th Movement and intended to contain the political situation in the interests of capitalism and imperialism should Batista fall.
However, reflected in the signing of this agreement was the fact that the Batista regime was increasingly losing the support it enjoyed and opposition to it was growing. Castro’s guerrilla fighters had begun to attract a layer of youth from the urban centers. Some protests were taking place in the cities. There was a certain shift in the policy of the PSP. Though still regarding Castro’s military campaign as an adventure some contact began to take place between the guerrillas and the PSP.
The PSP used these contacts to try and persuade Castro that conditions were not right for an armed movement in Cuba and urged him to wait for a more opportune moment. Consequently relations between the PSP and Castro were strained but contact was maintained.
The 8th Congress of the PSP was held in 1957 at which the leadership announced the PSP recognized the “valor and sincerity” of Castro. At the same time the party also made clear it had a “radical disagreement with the tactics and plans” of Castro. The party concluded that the July 26th Movement had not yet taken a sufficiently anti-imperialist line. In PSP jargon that meant that it was not sufficiently anti-USA and pro-Russian. The party called for elections and formation of a “popular front” involving the “national bourgeoisie”.
This position was not without opposition from within the party, especially its youth wing. Whilst the PSP played no real role in the movement which was unfolding, apart from trying to act as restraining influence on Castro, during 1958 an increasing number of young party members joined the rebels in the mountains – especially the columns under the leadership of Che and Raúl Castro.
Enter US Imperialism
US imperialism was evidently beginning to become more worried about the situation. In general the main concern it had was to safeguard its business interests and contain unrest. Violence was not good for a return on investment. Batista was encouraged to “democratize” and hold elections that would be won by a safe traditional party. The emergence of Castro’s forces and their continued campaign had complicated the situation.
Between 1957 and 1958 there was a division of opinion in Washington about how to deal with the situation. The State Department, the CIA and Department of Defense had their own separate policies. They were not always compatible. The Department of Defense and US military in Cuba, working together with and arming BRAC (the anti-communist bureau), wanted to support Batista and crush the guerrilla movement.
At the same time the State Department, apparently in agreement with the CIA, wanted Batista out as the most effective manner of controlling the situation. There is even evidence to suggest that they attempted to try and collaborate with and buy-off the July 26th Movement and Castro, in case he did succeed in overthrowing Batista.
According to Yuri Paporov, a KGB official, CIA money was channeled to the July 26th Movement. This claim has been confirmed by Tad Szulc, Castro’s biographer, who says it occurred between 1957 and 1958, after the ‘Pact of Sierra Maestra’ was signed by Castro!
This policy changed later as it became clear they could not control Castro or his movement.
Despite the apparent efforts by a section of the ruling class in the USA to reach out to Castro’s movement, with a view to embracing its now internationally renowned leader, events conspired against this policy. The momentum of the revolutionary processes which were underway, together with questions of national prestige and individual interest, made this task initially difficult and ultimately it was not achievable.
Che’s reputation was growing and he was increasingly becoming known as an important “communist” influence within the guerrilla forces. This increased the tension between the more pronounced “anti-Communists” within the July 26th Movement, especially sections of its Llano leadership, and Che. He established his own line of supplies to his forces excluding the local leadership of the Llano in the Oriente province. This was headed by a member of the Directorate, Daniel. Che’s actions undercut the authority of Daniel’s leadership and provoked a clash. The Llano leadership appealed to Castro to arbitrate.
Behind this dispute was a broader political question, which involved the increasing suspicion which existed between Che and the Llano leadership. Things came to a climax over a fresh political initiative. There was an attempt to form a coalition “revolutionary” government in exile. It would be dominated by the July 26th Movement together with the Auténticos, led by Pío. According to Hart, the Llano leader involved in negotiations, the discussions had included some people “close to the US embassy”.
Miami Versus Sierra
The US, uncertain that Batista could hold on, attempted to patch together a coalition of anti-Batista forces within which they were hoping to included a “controlled” July 26th Movement. A meeting was called in Miami which Castro ordered a delegation to attend. On 1 November the “Cuban Liberation Junta” was formed and the Miami Pact was signed.
Felipe Pazos had acted as the July 26th Movement’s official leader in the delegation. He had done so without the consent of Castro who correctly saw it as a bid to upstage him. The Pact that was agreed amounted to a clear attempt to secure the most moderate of regimes possible should Batista fall.
It included nothing opposing foreign intervention, said nothing against the idea of establishing a military junta to replace Batista and urged the incorporation of Castro’s guerrilla forces into the Cuban army. In effect it was a proposal to prepare a tame post-Batista government and to dissolve the guerrilla forces.
When news of the agreement reached the Sierra Maestra it provoked outrage. Raúl Castro demanded that the July 26th Movement representatives be shot. Fidel Castro did not immediately respond. Che exploded with rage. He linked the acceptance of the Miami Pact by the Directorate’s representatives with his own conflicts with them over military issues. He accused them of “sabotage”.
Che had been involved in military action at the time. He was forced to retreat to a place called El Hombrito and was later injured at Altos de Conrado. Both of these setbacks were linked to the Directorate not sending him supplies. Now he issued an ultimatum in a letter he sent to Castro on December 9. Che demanded that he be allowed to take firm action against the Directorate or he would resign.
Castro’s reply would determine not only his relations with Che but would affect the rest of the conduct of the guerrilla campaign. He was under pressure from those fighting in the mountains and was implicitly threatened by Pazos who was making a bid not only for the leadership of the July 26th Movement but also for the Presidency in post-Batista Cuba.
Castro moved firmly against the Directorate and the Miami Pact. “The leadership of the struggle against tyranny is, and will continue to be, in Cuba and in the hands of revolutionary fighters.” The National Directorate was accused of showing “lukewarm patriotism and cowardice”. To try and head off Pazos’s bid for a future Presidency he made his own nomination – an elderly jurist Manuel Urruitia – to lead a transitional government.
The newly created junta collapsed, Pazos resigned from the Movement and the new leader of the Directorate, Chomón, attacked Castro for his actions. Castro by his actions was making clear that he and his forces were the dominant alternative leadership to Batista. To consolidate his position he had to rest on Che and the “left-wing” of the July 26th Movement in order to oppose the “rightist” Directorate.
A total rupture with the Directorate was set to take place in the following months, propelled further by the process of events and the revolution. Che had played an important role in the outcome of this crossroads in the political evolution of Castro, the July 26th Movement and the revolution.
Che wrote to Daniel defending his “Marxism”, attacking the “rightist Directorate” for allowing the movement’s “ass to be buggered” by the Miami Pact, and praising Castro as “an authentic leader of the leftist bourgeoisie”. Even at this stage Che evidently did not see Castro as an ardent defender of socialism but as a representative of the radical bourgeoisie.
Daniel replied, expressing doubts about the Miami Pact but urging the July 26th Movement to decide which path it intended taking and to ask itself where it was heading. This exchange echoed a furious ideological struggle that was taking place within the anti-Batista forces, including within the July 26th Movement.
As the crisis intensified the vacillating petty bourgeoisie who were grouped into this movement were being increasingly divided into opposing and separate camps.
On the one side the rightist leadership of the Directorate were increasingly under the influence of US imperialism and its attempts to achieve the most favorable outcome for itself.
Alternatively, a more combative wing was increasingly being radicalized to the left by a combination of the effects of the war, the process of the revolution and the necessity to defend its own interests and aspirations. Castro was now firmly entrenched as the leader of this wing – El Jefe Máximo as he became known.
Within this process Che was the most politically conscious in his support for international socialism. Although he lacked the clarity of ideas and program that were needed to achieve this goal, the clash with the Directorate indicated he probably increasingly influenced Castro at critical moments and “helped” him to take one or more steps further in a leftward direction.
By March 1958 the situation in Batista’s camp was worsening. With difficulties mounting on all fronts the state apparatus was beginning to crack around him. In an unprecedented move a Havana magistrate agreed to prosecute a police colonel and the Chief of Naval Intelligence, Laurent, for the murder of four youths. All the schools were closed as 75,000 students went on strike. Batista suspended all civil rights and imposed radio and press censorship.
The General Strike – A Setback
There had been much speculation and discussion amongst the anti-Batista forces about the calling of a general strike. Despite having organized groups of supporters in the cities the organized basis of the July 26th Movement amongst the working class was weak. The main structured and coherent political force amongst the industrial workers was the PSP.
The Llano leadership refused to involve the PSP in its general strike plans. Formally the PSP supported the idea of a general strike although its leaders did nothing to prepare for one and worked against the July 26th Movement. The leadership of the official trade union federation, the CTC (Cuban Workers’ Confederation) was corrupt and compromised through its relations with Batista. Despite being heavily influenced by the PSP it did not endorse or mobilize for the strike. The Llano leadership issued a call for a general strike on 9 April.
It was done with no preparation amongst the workers and without concrete plans or a strategy to conduct it. Even clandestine strike committees of activists and known fighters were not established in the workplaces to prepare the strike.
A general strike can arise, take form and play one of two roles for the workers’ movement. If the social and political conditions are right it can directly challenge the ruling regime and dominant class in society. As a result it can pose the question of which class ought to run society – the capitalists and landlords or the working class with the support of other exploited social layers.
With a far-sighted Marxist leadership such a conflict in society can develop into a revolutionary situation and victory for the proletariat. This situation usually arises when: the ruling class is split and divided, the intermediary classes – the urban middle class and sections of the peasants – are politically vacillating and looking for an alternative, and the working class is prepared to fight to take over the running of society with a tested revolutionary leadership at its head.
In other situations, where the working class is newer, too weak or lacking experience, confidence and consciousness in itself as a class, a general strike can play a different role. Under these conditions, whilst the elements outlined above may exist, they are not sufficiently matured to actually allow the question of which class is to run society to be posed immediately. A strike under these conditions can play an important role in the working class gaining experience, building its organizations and acquiring greater consciousness and confidence in itself as a class.
On 9 April 1958 neither situation arose. The all-out strike did not materialize and was a complete flop. In Havana the Harbor functioned along with the transport system and most shops and factories remained open. The strike was imposed over the heads of the workers and was ignored by them. The membership of the Havana Strike Committee illustrates the absence of participation from the workers. Apart from two members of the National Directorate of the July 26th Movement, it comprised of a senior engineer, a journalist from the Orthodox Party, the leader of the Cuban evangelical churches and a philanthropic doctor.
Castro had backed the strike but criticized the Llano leadership for excluding the PSP earlier. The PSP, with some justification, blamed the failure of 9 April on the July 26th Movement’s “unilateral call” for a general strike.
The Batista regime’s sense of security temporarily and falsely increased as a result of the strike’s failure. Within the July 26th Movement it had deeper repercussions. The friction between the Llano and Sierra shot up as Castro turned the urban leadership’s weakened prestige to his own advantage.
It was not revealed until years later the full significance of these events. Che wrote an article in 1964, entitled A Decisive Meeting, for Verde Olivo, the magazine of the post-Batista army. Here the consequences of the events surrounding the April ‘strike’ become clear.
A meeting took place on 3 May 1958 in which an open struggle took place between the supporters of the Llano and Castro. Arising from this meeting Castro was named for the first time General Secretary of the July 26th Movement. This served to consolidate Castro’s position as the leader of the movement. As Che commented in his article: ” At this meeting decisions were taken that confirmed Fidel’s moral authority, his indisputable stature…” He continued, “…Fidel’s standing and authority were consolidated, and he was named commander-in-chief of all forces, including the militias – which until then had been under Llano leadership…”
Politically the defeat of the strike re-enforced the skepticism in which the Sierra held the prospects of a movement in the cities. This was reflected in the struggle that took place in the meeting held on 3 May. The prominent role of the guerrilla struggle in the mountains was confirmed after the heated debate that took place. Che wrote: “But most importantly, the meeting discussed and passed judgment on two conceptions that had clashed with each other throughout the whole previous stage of directing the war. The guerrilla conception would emerge triumphant from that meeting.”
He went on: “We did away with various naive illusions about attempted revolutionary general strikes when the situation had not matured sufficiently to bring about such an explosion, and without having laid the necessary groundwork…we had considered it likely that the Movement’s forces would fail in attempting a revolutionary general strike…”
Che qualifies his conclusions about the revolutionary general strike with references to central subjective and objective issues of “groundwork” and conditions that were not sufficiently “matured”. These are decisive questions but they are axiomatic for Marxists and center on an estimation of the balance of forces that exist.
Che’s consideration of the general strike as a “naive illusion” and his counterpoising with it the “guerrilla conception,” reveals how he, and the leadership of the Sierra, were not looking for the active and conscious participation of the masses, especially the proletariat, in the revolution. This was not simply a question of one article but an approach that was contained in his method.
If the “groundwork” for a general strike had not been prepared the job of Marxists was to prepare it. If the objective conditions are not “sufficiently matured” then Marxists patiently but energetically participate in the struggles of workers and conduct propaganda and agitation to assist them.
There was no assessment of the defeat of the general strike from a Marxist point of view by the leadership of the Llano. Its leaders did not subscribe to socialism, even less to revolutionary Marxism and its method of struggle aimed at ensuring the working class was running society.
The failure of the general strike in April reflected a certain paralysis by the working class in the cities, mainly because of the absence of a leadership able to offer a way forward. The July 26th Movement, whilst enjoying much sympathy because of its anti-Batista struggle, was not rooted amongst the proletariat and could not win its confidence due to its vague radical democratic program.
The program of the July 26th Movement in the Llano still reflected the aspirations of the radical petty bourgeoisie rather than those of the working class despite its call for action against the regime. However, this merely expanded the vacuum that existed in Cuban society. The failure of the general strike was not a measure of the support that Batista enjoyed. It was a measure of the absence of leadership within the workers’ movement.
Castro’s guerrilla army was perceived as being more combative and radical. Through its heroic military struggle and apparently uncompromising stand against the regime and US imperialism, it was increasingly able to fill the void that existed.
Batista, encouraged by the defeat of the April strike, mounted a military offensive against the rebels in May. His confidence evidently rose after the April events. However, this eventually collapsed given the poor state of morale within his forces. By July there was a definite change. Increasingly sections of Batista’s army, including officers, came over to the side of the rebels.
In the final months of 1958 the rebels scored success after success on the battlefield. Other political and military opposition groups collapsed into Castro’s forces. Che led his own column and spearheaded a major offensive on Cuba’s fourth largest city, Santa Clara, which was Batista’s main line of defense. The battle was crucial and lasted about three days during which Che played quite an heroic role, his forces at one stage seizing control of an armored train. Che’s rebels issued a call to arms as sections of the town’s population took to the streets with Molotov-cocktails and did battle with the army.
As the rebels strengthened their position, in the USA both the CIA and State Department had changed their earlier attitude and now regarded Castro’s forces as too “unreliable” to do business with. Almost giving up on the situation there was a last ditch attempt to put together a plan to replace Batista but it came to nothing due to a combination of treachery and the dynamic of the revolution which was underway.
With his regime in a state of disintegration, Batista fled the country on New Year’s Day 1959 on board an air-force jet. On the night of 1-2 January Che arrived in Havana whilst Castro took control of Santiago. On 2 January, as Radio Rebelde reported the fall of Batista, the July 26th Movement issued a call for a general strike to mark the end of the old regime. On this occasion the strike was solid.
The rebels had won and they arrived in the capital to a rapturous reception as the population took to the streets. The hated Batista dictatorship had fallen. The revolution was set to continue. Its repercussions were to be felt around the globe.