Telling the truth is the first duty of every revolutionary. … How did the Rebel Army win the war? Telling the truth. How did the tyranny lose the war? Deceiving its soldiers.
— Fidel Castro
Havana, Jan. 8, 1959
Capitalist politicians and their big-business media in the U.S. greeted the death of Fidel Castro Nov. 25 with a pre-scripted message: Cubans would pour into the streets demanding an end to the “dictatorship” there and a return to the dog-eat-dog system of “free market” capitalism.
To the contrary, workers worldwide saw millions of Cuban workers, farmers and youth lining the streets to pay tribute to Fidel as his ashes were carried from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in the east. It was a Freedom Caravan that retraced the route taken by Castro and the July 26 Movement’s Rebel Army after the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown on Jan. 1, 1959, but in reverse.
On Dec. 28, 1958, as rebel troops were advancing across the island, Fidel met with Gen. Eulogio Cantillo, head of Batista’s joint chief of staffs. Cantillo pledged he would not allow Batista to flee, that he would not organize a military coup to block the insurrection nor ask the U.S. Embassy to “mediate.”
But Cantillo lied, allowing Batista and other regime henchmen to escape to the U.S. and the Dominican Republic. Cantillo appointed a new capitalist government on Jan. 1, 1959.
His attempt collapsed, as workers across the country heeded Fidel’s call for a general strike and the former regime’s troops across the island began laying down their arms. Castro and the Rebel Army began their Freedom Caravan, starting in Santiago de Cuba and stopping in almost every town along the way to Havana to explain the revolution’s goals and to increase the consciousness, discipline and involvement of working people.
The Militant is reprinting below excerpts from the book Caravana de la libertad by Luis Báez and Pedro de la Hoz, which describes the caravan and includes speeches by Castro and interviews with participants. Translation is by the Militant.
In this first excerpt Fidel’s driver, Alberto Vázquez, describes what happened after Cantillo’s betrayal:
Around 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, I began hearing on the radio of the Land Rover the news that the tyrant had fled. …We were happy, but the Commander in Chief was very upset and he explained to us the significance of what happened. … I still remember his steadfastness when he called for a general strike, outlining the final strategy for entering Santiago and proclaimed the slogan: “Revolution, yes! Military coup, no!”
Cantillo called to Radio Rebelde and asked to speak to Fidel.
All of us present agreed that Fidel should answer, speak with Cantillo, discuss the situation that had been created. Fidel looks at us and says … “I’m not going to speak with things that don’t exist, because I’m not crazy. All the power is for the revolution.”
— Luis Buch, rebel leader
The aim of the trip was to send a column to support the compañeros heading to the capital. I thought I’d get there quickly. And that’s when the dictatorship fell. Or rather, when it was overthrown — because it didn’t fall, it was overthrown. The dictator and those who wanted to replace him, both of them fell the same day — Batista and Cantillo.
That was the purpose of the trip. I hadn’t planned on doing a triumphal march, far from it. It seemed to me a little out of place at the time.
I stopped in the towns because the people stopped me there. I had no choice but to talk with them, even though I thought we needed to be in Havana as soon as possible … but once we started we had to listen to the wishes of the people. They wanted to talk with us and greet the Moncada combatants.
— Fidel Castro
Santa Clara, Jan. 6, 1959
On Jan. 2 Fidel and the caravan got to Bayamo, where the strongest military garrison that still supported Batista was located, with more than 3,000 soldiers.
It really impressed me because when Fidel stopped speaking to these people, the soldiers began to drop their rifles and pile them up like they were wood for a charcoal pit. I said to myself: Damn! These were the same ones that were fighting us just a few hours ago. It’s because Fidel spoke to them with the strength of his logic and the truth.
— Alberto Vázquez
This was not the time for arms, but for ideas. In war, revolutionaries risk our lives for an ideal. In peace it is crucial to define the arguments, to have clear projections and to explain to the masses the principles and foundations of the society we have to create together.
— Vázquez, describing the message Fidel gave at each stop
Vázquez also commented on the power of the revolutionary tasks Fidel laid out to the Cuban people. He was in charge of protecting Castro during the caravan, but found himself getting distracted when Fidel spoke:
When I least expected, I would catch myself absorbed with enthusiasm as I listened to Fidel speaking about future projects, commitments, the things that lay ahead of us.
This can’t be a speech to praise the people. … We have to tell the people what are their obligations. We have to tell them the revolution has to be everyone’s work, that’s the only way to have a real victory.
— Fidel before his talk in Santa Clara, Jan. 6, 1959
If the people knew how to win this war, which was difficult, why won’t they know how to govern now? … The whole town is here today, because everyone is interested in the problems of Cuba. … They know that they have to have the final word on all questions. … We don’t need elections all the time, what we need are meetings every day. …
These men [the rebel combatants] have to be educated. What I mean is we have to bring out their extraordinary human qualities, their shining intelligence, the pure feelings each one has in their hearts. Not to swell their heads, not to think that everything is over, but to begin to be better. I tell the rebels that none of us knows anything yet and that we have a lot to learn. And if they did what they did without knowing anything, think how much the homeland can expect when they know more than they do today!
— Fidel at mass rally in Santa Clara
Speaking of past regime changes in Cuba, Fidel continued:
There were revolutionaries who wanted to live off the revolution, they wanted to live off the title of having been revolutionaries … they went to the ministries seeking posts, to live like parasites, to charge a price for what they had been at that moment, for a revolution that unfortunately was never brought to fruition. …
Did we make this revolution thinking that as soon as the tyranny was overthrown we were going to enjoy the perks of power, that every one of us was going to jump on the gravy train, that we were going to live like kings? … We have to ask these questions because the future destiny of Cuba, of us, of the people depends on examining our conscience.
Referring to the mobilizations that greeted the Rebel Army as it crossed the island, Fidel told the massive crowd that greeted them in Havana Jan. 8 as the Freedom Caravan reached its conclusion:
Never in our lives will we be present for such an outpouring, except on another occasion — I am sure that there will again be multitudes — and that is the day that we die. … As many people will gather as today because we will never let our people down.