The Cuban story: a call for American unity
Fidel Castro gives his deposition after the attack on the Moncada garrison house that took place on July 26, 1953.
By: Arturo Conde
Some stories bring communities together, while others simply divide them. And for nearly six decades, one narrative continues to unite and separate generations of Cubans and Cuban-Americans. That story begins like this:
Early Sunday morning on July 26th, 1953, a group of young rebels led by a 26-year-old Jesuit-educated lawyer and his 22-year-old socialist militant brother attacked the Moncada military barracks in Santiago. They hoped to catch the guards sleeping off the long festivities of the Apostle St. James (July 25th) holiday weekend, but the military quickly routed them. Fidel and Raúl Castro were captured alive, and sentenced to fifteen and thirteen years of prison respectively. Most people following the trial thought that the revolutionary brothers were finished. But the failed assault sparked the beginning of a movement that would overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 after years of fighting, change the course of Cuba, and impact Cuba-United States relations up to the present.
The movement transformed Fidel Castro from a quixotic madcap into the youthful face of Cuba’s future. The son of a Spanish pick-and-shovel laborer from Galicia and a Cuban mother of mixed ancestry, his beard and army fatigues anticipated the counterculture romanticism of the United States during the 1960s, and inspired the highest admiration and the strongest contempt from American idealists on the left and the right.
Supporters described the Cuban Revolution as the heroic struggle of nonconformists who were determined to risk death for their democratic ideals. “Above all,” Fidel told the New York Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews in 1957, “we are fighting for a democratic Cuba and an end to the dictatorship.”
Other Americans, however, saw things differently. A Brooklyn reader wrote to the New York Times on January 13, 1959: “It gives me […] an uneasy feeling reading in the newspapers that the victorious rebels are placing hundreds of persons – men and women – before firing squads after drumhead trials lasting only a few minutes.”
Soon these opposing interpretations pitted Cubans in the island and Cuban exiles and their descendants into two factions. Exiles in the United States referred to Cubans who stayed behind as “chivatos” or informers for the Cuban government. Movement supporters after 1959 called exiles “gusanos” or worms. And both sides labeled anyone who pushed for open dialogue and better relations as “traitors.”
United States and Cuban governments promoted hard-line policies on either side of the Florida straits that politicized immigration. The U.S. presented the Cuban exodus to Florida as evidence of a failed revolution in Cuba. And the Cuban Ministry of the Interior punished Cubans who left for the United States by confiscating their properties as early as 1961. These faction-led policies created a narrow culture of intolerance that made communication between people in both countries not only difficult but illegal.
Now, as a younger generation focuses on bringing Cuba and the United States closer together, only the narrow policy that was enacted by political factions in the 1960s keeps both countries apart. The story of the embargo may seem like it only pertains to Cubans and Cuban-Americans, but at a time when narrow ideological factions divide our government, it has become a relevant story for everyone. And perhaps by understanding how political factions have created a culture of intolerance between Cuba and the United States, we can defuse the fanaticism that motivates our politicians to use the stagnated economy and the debt ceiling as instruments for gaining party concessions.
Arturo Conde is the director of NACLA - North American Congress on Latin America (nacla.org). He holds a BA in Spanish Literature and Journalism from New York University, and a MS in Journalism from Columbia University, where he specialized in Magazine production and writing. He has covered immigration rights, the development of cultural identity in the United States, and biliteracy education and the First Amendment. His articles have appeared in City Limits, La Opinión A Coruña, The Indypendent, St. Regis Bespoke and other publications.