The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 39      October 31, 2011

Fidel Castro on how
Cuban Revolution was won
‘Strategic Counteroffensive’ contains invaluable
lessons on forging working-class leadership
(feature article, In Review)

De la Sierra Maestra a Santiago de Cuba. La contraofensiva estratégica (From the Sierra Maestra to Santiago de Cuba: Strategic Counteroffensive) by Fidel Castro. In Spanish, 608 pages (includes 72 photos, 16 maps with legends, and 24 copies of original documents). Office of Publications of the Council of State, Havana, Cuba, $25.

From the Sierra Maestra to Santiago de Cuba: Strategic Counteroffensive
by Fidel Castro, who led the victorious 1956-58 revolutionary war in Cuba, is an invaluable contribution to the understanding of that victory. It contains rich lessons for the forging of a leadership of the working class with the discipline and moral character necessary to wrest political power from the exploiters and lead the toiling majority in the reorganization of a new society based on class solidarity.

The book is the second of two volumes, available only in Spanish, on the battles in 1958 that led to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In the first volume, On Every Road Through the Sierra: Strategic Victory (reviewed in the Dec. 27, 2010, Militant), Fidel Castro describes how 300 confident and dedicated combatants of the Rebel Army defeated an offensive by 10,000 heavily armed soldiers of the U.S.-backed dictatorship in the course of multiple battles fought between May and August 1958.

The Rebel Army was formed after Castro and 81 other members of the July 26 Movement returned to Cuba on Dec. 2, 1956, to launch the armed struggle against the Batista regime, one of the most repressive in Latin America at the time.

Volume two, Strategic Counteroffensive, recounts how after breaking the back of the dictatorship’s “encircle and annihilate” campaign, the Rebel Army immediately took the offensive, drawing more and more workers and peasants into its ranks, and rapidly spreading the revolutionary war across the entire island. The book consists of letters, statements, radio broadcasts and speeches written or given in the heat of battle, many of them never before published.

In this volume—for the first time—Castro provides a detailed account from the point of view of the Rebel Army’s central leader of the intense fighting from mid-November to December 31 as the revolutionaries under his command prepared to take Santiago de Cuba in the eastern part of the island. Batista’s army in the city surrendered to Castro’s advancing column on January 1, shortly after forces under the command of Ernesto Che Guevara took Santa Clara in central Cuba and in face of Castro’s call for a general strike and 6 p.m. surrender deadline.

Taken together both volumes are irreplaceable for understanding the dynamics of the political and military campaign that removed the dictatorship.

In an Aug. 19, 1958, broadcast on the rebel radio station, reprinted in the book, Castro explained to the Cuban people how it was possible for the relatively small number of revolutionary combatants to defeat the much larger and better armed Batista army.

“Victory in the war depends on having a minimum of weapons and the highest morale,” he said.

The leadership of the Rebel Army was fighting not just to overthrow a brutal dictatorship, but in the course of the struggle to forge a cadre capable of fighting to create a different kind of society, one run in the interests of workers and peasants, not those of the capitalist landowners, industrialists, and their imperialist backers in Washington. Everything the revolutionaries did—from the way they dealt with captured or wounded Batista soldiers to ensuring the disciplined functioning of revolutionary fighters—was to advance this final objective.  
Conduct of Cuban revolutionaries
“The victories obtained through our weapons without assassinating, torturing, or even interrogating an adversary proves that committing outrages against human dignity can never be justified,” Castro said in the August 19 radio address. It wasn’t just words. That was the conduct of the Cuban revolutionaries in the most difficult moments of the war.

The rebels’ example in this regard stands in sharp contrast to the conduct of the exploiting classes throughout history up through the U.S. rulers’ present treatment of prisoners—from Afghanistan to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the overflowing jails at home.

As the Rebel Army took control over larger areas of the island in 1958, rebel commanders were instructed to initiate measures in defense of the interests of working people. The book reprints part of Law Number Three, issued in October 1958 by the Rebel Army, guaranteeing “the right of peasants to the land.”

“The settlement of the land of the small farmers who work it is the first step of the agrarian reform and is a right that now can and must be guaranteed to the Cuban peasantry by those who have accepted the historic responsibility of freeing the homeland from political tyranny and social injustice,” reads the preamble to the law.  
Need for centralization, discipline
Many of the letters in the volume were written to Rebel Army commanders and leaders of the July 26 Movement in the cities, explaining the need for centralization and discipline.

“There can’t be two kinds of plans in an organization, some [to be carried out] as a member and others [viewed] as a private matter,” Castro writes to Agustín Tomé, coordinator of the July 26 Movement in CamagŁey, criticizing Tomé for organizing to obtain weapons for his troops on his own without any discussion in the leadership bodies of the July 26th Movement and the Rebel Army. “No member of an organization, and even less so a leader, can undertake projects of a private character and justify them because he’s backing them with his own personal resources.”

“If the plan is good, propose it to the organization. If the organization accepts it, it must invest its resources in it.”

Castro also sought to instill financial discipline among the Rebel Army commanders.

“We have to establish a healthy norm: All of the fronts must periodically turn in a report on income and expenses,” Castro wrote to his brother Raúl Castro, “from the head of a platoon to the heads of the fronts.”

Castro fought to foster a habit within the cadre of always starting with the needs of the entire revolutionary movement, in sharp contrast to functioning rife among petty-bourgeois and bourgeois organizations opposed to Batista.

The book also includes an exchange of letters with Huber Matos, a businessman and landowner, who was given command of a column in CamagŁey in the final months of the war, and later opposed the revolution. He was arrested in October 1959 and found guilty of planning to overthrow the revolutionary government.

But Castro doesn’t write him out of the historical record. In volume one he notes the useful role that Matos played in organizing defenses in his areas of responsibility during the army offensive.

In the exchange reproduced in volume two, Castro reprimands Matos for trying to get weapons for his unit regardless of whether other units needed them more, undermining the centralized structure of the Rebel Army.

“My desire to have more weapons for my column is kept in check by my own dignity as a man,” Matos wrote back in anger. “Believe me, today I regret having come to the Sierra. I accept your insult as one more sacrifice at a time when what matters is the fate of Cuba.”

Castro answered back that he never regretted joining the struggle no matter what the difficulties and obstacles. Commanders in a revolutionary army reject the norms of conduct that predominate in bourgeois military structures, where “everyone wants the best for their troops and they forget that victory can only be the result of the efficiency and effort of everyone,” Castro replied.  
Military tries to salvage regime
As the Rebel Army advanced, top military officials of the dictatorship, seeing the writing on the wall, tried to salvage the regime without Batista. Some claimed they were acting in the interests of the Cuban people. Castro sought to minimize the cost of a revolutionary victory in some cases by winning some army officials to the side of the revolution or, more often, at least gaining their neutrality. He refused to make concessions that would maintain remnants of the existing state power in place.

“Even if you have the intention of turning power over to the revolutionaries, it’s not power in and of itself that interests us, but that the revolution carry out its destiny,” Castro said in a Dec. 31, 1958, letter to Col. José Rego Rubido, Batista’s military commander in Santiago de Cuba, shortly before he surrendered control of the city to the Rebel Army. “You can’t call anything obtained with duplicity and deception a triumph,” Castro said.

Just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1959, Gen. Eulogio Cantillo staged a coup in Havana, allowing Batista and some of the worst assassins to flee, along with parts of the fortune stolen from the Cuban people.

“The dictatorship has been overthrown as a result of the overwhelming defeats it has suffered,” Castro said on Radio Rebelde that morning. “But this does not mean that the revolution has triumphed.” He immediately issued a call for working people to prepare for a general strike in every workplace and instructed Rebel Army units to continue the fight.

The book ends with Castro’s speech the next day to a crowd of thousands after the Rebel Army entered Santiago de Cuba, where he explained to the Cuban people what was at stake.

Accepting Cantillo’s coup would be “a half-way revolution, a scam, a caricature of a revolution,” Castro told the crowd.

Working people throughout the island agreed. A general strike and mass insurrection swept the country. By January 2, Cantillo’s military junta had collapsed. On Jan. 8, 1959, rebel forces commanded by Castro entered Havana.
Related articles:
Australia rally demands ‘Free the Cuban Five!’  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home