18. Despatch From the Consulate at Santiago de Cuba to the Department of State1

No. 54


  • CA–6192, January 21, 1958 on the same subject2


  • Fidel Castro, 26 of July Movement

The following comments on the Cuban rebel leader, Fidel Castro and his 26 of July Movement are forwarded to the Department on the basis of an on-the-spot observation of conditions and events in the Province of Oriente during the past three years and conversations with numerous persons in all walks of life in this area. The reporting officer desires to emphasize that he does not know Fidel Castro or any member of his family personally.

Conditions and events in this country are dominated by two Cubans, bitter enemies, each apparently consumed by the desire to eliminate the other in a death struggle if necessary. These two men are President Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro, the subject of this despatch. Castro is, at the same time, the most loved, the most hated and the most controversial person on the Cuban political scene at the present time, depending on how the individual Cuban feels about him. Both men come from Banes, a small town on the north coast of Oriente Province which depends on [for] its existence on the United Fruit Sugar Company, an extensive subsidiary of the United Fruit Company.

President Batista acquired fame and fortune after he left Banes and he is a famous graduate of the school of experience. His life history is already well known to the Department.

Fidel Castro came from a family which was much higher on the social scale than Batista’s relatives. His father is reported to have been a sugar plantation owner who was originally a manual laborer. He [Page 31] developed a personal fortune by hard work and good luck. According to an American citizen residing in Banes, Castro was a “bum and a ne’er-do-well” who married a nice girl belonging to the Diaz Balart family and then left her. He attended the University of Habana. The Embassy will provide information on Castro’s activities while there. Castro is regarded locally as having wild ideas and varying from radical to liberal in his political philosophy. Present adherents are inclined to credit him with having reached political maturity and to having sobered up as he attained stature.

Fidel Castro first made local history when he and a band of young hotheads made a frontal assault on the heavily fortified Moncada Barracks in this city on July 26, 1953. He took the garrison by surprise and he nearly succeeded in capturing the fortress but the important thing now is that he failed then. He and the survivors were taken prisoners. His career would have ended there because the local populace regarded the attack on Moncada Barracks as something that only a fool would have attempted. The Castro legend started only through what is regarded by local residents as an act of brutality by the commanders and forces of the Barracks in slaughtering most of the survivors. Fidel Castro survived and was released in due course in a political amnesty.

Eventually Castro left Cuba to spend most of his time in Mexico.

Throughout most of 1956, the Castro legend grew as a series of abortive incidents attributed to his movement took place. Throughout the year, his supporters kept his flame alive locally with a promise that he would return to deliver Cuba from the “evils of the Batista regime”. As the year’s end approached, it was obvious to all Santiagueros that Castro would have to make good his boast of returning or they would lose faith in what was the only active and militant opposition to the Batista government. The reporting officer recalls that there was waning interest in his movement as December 1956 approached and Castro was now being regarded also as a braggart.

On November 30, 1956 the city of Santiago almost fell to a small band of young rebels held to be a local nucleus of the 26 of July Movement because of the identifying armbands. They could not have totaled more than 200 in number but their boldness almost carried the day and in fact the city was controlled by the rebels for about two hours that morning for the simple reason that the troops were garrisoned at Moncada Barracks when caught off-guard by the rashness of the young rebels.

This activity in Santiago de Cuba on November 30 must have been either poor timing or else it could have been a diversionary move to draw away Army strength from the landing that Fidel Castro and a band of some 80 men made on the isolated and rugged coastline on the western tip of the Sierra Maestra range two days later. Here again [Page 32] Fidel Castro appears to have been lucky because only a few of those men survived the landing but they fought their way up the unfriendly slopes of the Sierra. The survivors warded off half-hearted attempts by the Cuban Army to draw them out into more favorable terrain.

From this point on Fidel Castro skyrocketed to fame and it became increasingly evident that the Batista Government would not be able or willing to stamp him and his followers out. As this became obvious, his exploits were considered to be those of a latter-day Robin Hood. His successful defiance of the Cuban Army became the source of great delight and satisfaction to less daring Santiagueros.

While he became a symbol of resistance to the Batista Government, he became a hero to teenagers and young Cubans. His exploits provided vicarious pleasure to older and less daring Santiagueros and, as was inevitable, they became a headache eventually as Cuban youngsters began to disappear from their homes with the later knowledge that they had gone to the Sierra to join the Castro forces. As supplies and recruits began to filter through the porous Cuban Army lines, Castro’s forces grew in strength and equipment. They began to make attacks and forays on isolated Army outposts and unarmed areas. They expanded their area of operations but always within the shadows of the Sierra Maestra. They knew that they could not defeat the Cuban Army in a pitched battle without artillery and motorized equipment, but they also knew that they were safe from annihilation so long as they remained within the shelter of the mountains where the terrain factor favored them.

At year’s end, the Castro forces were reported to number between 500 and 1,000 well-armed, well-trained and rugged troops. They had not defeated the Cuban Army or toppled the Batista Government but they had harassed it and had seriously undermined its morale. In the eyes of the Santiagueros, the Castro forces were the one hope that remained for removing what they referred to as the “Batista yoke”.

Enthusiasm for the Castro cause waned and wavered at the end of 1957 as the famous leader failed to make good on his boast to destroy the Cuban sugar crop by burning the canefields. Psychologically this was a bad move because it alienated many of his more effective supporters in the peasant and laboring classes who saw burning of canefields as removal of their livelihood. These were the people who had hidden his men, provided primitive transportation, fresh food and, of paramount importance, loyal guides to traverse the unfriendly terrain of the Sierra. In the cities and particularly in Santiago de Cuba the citizenry began to lose faith again as the attempt on the canefields failed and no successful militant activity was taking place. Santiago de Cuba returned to it most normal pace in two years. On paper the Castro group had disowned the Junta de Liberacion Cubana which had earlier formed a united front in a meeting in Miami. This was [Page 33] followed by the arrest of three rebel leaders, Dr. Santos Buch, Javier Pazos and Dr. Armando Hart while returning to Santiago from the Sierra during January 1958. All of these incidents contributed to the fortunes of the Castro movement reaching the lowest point of the past year.

During the past two weeks the combined militant opposition groups have returned to the fight with renewed vigor and strength, with numerous acts of terrorism and sabotage a daily occurrence. The Castro forces have returned to their tactics of wearing the Cuban Army down with the hope of having the enlisted men turn against the officers or causing such a split among the officer corps that a military junta will emerge upon removal of the Batista Government. In their campaign of destruction the rebels don’t seem to discriminate and their recent targets have included a storage tank belonging to Sinclair Oil company which contained about 135,000 gallons of fuel. Two days ago a local branch factory of Cuban Air Products Corporation, an American owned company, was destroyed by flames. At the local level, the railroads and bus lines have sustained heavy losses through derailments, rolling equipment fires, etc.

The rebels’ aim seems to be to cause enough destruction and enough damage to the Cuban economy to force a change of government.

Although apparently helpless to deal a death blow to the Batista Government, the Castro Movement and other opposition forces are far from discouraged and continue to nibble away at the Armed Forces. They have managed to maintain a steady pressure on Batista and the man on the street might well wonder how long the bloodshed will continue on both sides. As of this writing, acts of violence have increased throughout the island and there seems to be evidence of greater unity and determination of purpose than ever before by the opposition. It might appear that the Batista Government can only hope for a containing operation in order to survive.

Fidel Castro and his 26 of July Movement appear to have grown from an annoying thorn in the side of the Batista Government to a slowly spreading cancerous tumor. Through persistence and the benevolent attitude of several American reporters and the American press, this man and his movement have managed to become sentimental favorites in the United States to such an extent that the Batista Government is now on the defensive. The Government has made no attempt at the local level to curry favor with the Cuban public, choosing the more direct expedient of recourse to force to maintain itself in power, a move which has only strengthened the opposition’s charges of dictatorship. The Fidelistas, too, have resorted to force but, in the main, they have confined their violence to the Armed Forces and the “chivato”, a term applied to an informer in the pay of the Government. [Page 34] The Government, instead of apprehending these obvious lawbreakers and submitting them to due process and trial in Cuban courts, applies its own system of justice which is swift, effective and without appeal. As a daily occurrence bodies of young men are found hanged or lying along the roadside with as many as 40 bullet holes.

In Santiago de Cuba, Fidel Castro and his 26 of July Movement are anything and everything to anyone and everyone. The reporting officer has seen a Catholic priest intimately connected with the local youth movement of the Church go into a nervous rapture when the discussion switches to Fidel Castro. Castro, he will say, represents the thwarted aspirations of Cuban youth and he can do no wrong. He will provide Cuban youth with a better and safer Cuba where every Cuban can look at his fellow citizen straight in the eye. Is Castro a dangerous radical or communist? No, this priest will say, Fidel has one or more priests in the Sierra now and more may be on the way. This priest has blessed a number of medallions which were forwarded to the men with Castro.

The reporting officer has seen Army officers go into a blazing rage when Fidel is mentioned. To them Castro is the vilest, lowest form of humanity. They report that Castro and his brother, Raul, are either communists or the nearest thing to it.

The Castro movement has an unusual appeal to all sectors of Cuban society, either legitimate or convenient. Monetary support for Castro and his movement comes from the wealthier classes of this city, many Santiagueros having been quite generous with their pocket-books. Many of them have hidden newspapermen and free lance writers in their homes while arrangements were being made for completion of their journey to or from the Sierra.

To the youth of Oriente Province, Fidel Castro is not unlike a Pied Piper beckoning to them. He has provided a continuing headache for sober minded parents in this area because their youngsters either want to go to the Sierra with Fidel or want to contribute to the cause at the local level through sabotage, arson, etc. The Consulate is accosted daily by frantic parents who want to get their youngsters to the United States because the local authorities are looking for them or else think that they are.

Perhaps of equal importance to the Department and its observers in evaluating the ultimate outcome in this deadly struggle between Fidel Castro and President Batista, is the future status of the youth of this country. This may well turn out to be the lost decade for Cuban youth in one sense although Cuban youth may argue that their’s is a righteous cause. Those youngsters who desire to remain aloof from the present strife cannot remain in this country. Where they or their parents can afford it, they have gone to Europe or the United States. Others have had to flee and are scattered throughout the United States [Page 35] and Latin America biding their time and waiting. The Cuban Universities have been closed or inoperative for the past two years thereby affecting all sectors of Cuban society willfully or otherwise. In some cases the losses arising from this academic paralysis may be irreparable.

Because of an apparent lack of centralized control over these youthful groups, they have not been organized into effective brigades which could strike at the Army. Instead they have struck out blindly and futilely with the result that they are cut down singly with mounting losses as the days go by. Many of these youngsters have been killed as a result of actions and deeds that were pure stupidity.

These youngsters will present another problem which is long range in nature. Many of them have grown accustomed to violence, to hit and run tactics, and to the effective use of weapons and firearms. They may be hard to keep in line when the present civil strife comes to an end and many of them are potential criminals.

It is a foregone conclusion that the average Cuban is remarkably naive when it comes to politics and he prefers to be guided by his emotions than by reasoning. Most of the Cubans that the reporting officer has talked to will not own up to the possibility that the Castro movement might be infiltrated with communists. They will say that such a thing is unthinkable and preposterous. They will state that Castro is Cuban to the nth degree and that he would never allow this to happen. The reporting officer has asked Cubans to comment on allegations that one of Castro’s trusted lieutenants, Dr. Ernesto Guevara, an Argentine, is a communist or a sympathizer. Invariably they will counter with vehement denials but will admit that they know nothing of his background and will prefer to dismiss the conversation with suggestions that Dr. Guevara is an idealistic adventurer.

The presence of an estimated one thousand men in the Sierra is a natural opportunity for communist infiltration. Fidel Castro’s men must be tired, lonely, living close to nature and facing death at every turn. As such, they must have become bitter against society and with such a frame of mind they could conceivably provide ready reception to Russian agents. This is one of the dangers of the continuing struggle between Fidel Castro and the Batista Government.

While many of the Santiagueros revere Fidel Castro and his Movement, some of them have begun to experience sobering reflections about the rebel leader. They have detected a recent tendency on Fidel Castro’s part to behave and to issue instructions with a definite autocratic attitude. With certain misgivings, they are beginning to wonder whether he will be willing to settle for his role as the so-called liberator of Cuba in the final settlement of accounts. Many of them are [Page 36] beginning to fear that Fidel Castro might emerge as the new strong man of Cuba. Many of them are beginning to think that Cuba faces a grim and uncertain future with no political peace in sight.

Oscar H. Guerra
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.52/2–2158. Confidential. Drafted by Guerra.
  2. This circular airgram, sent to Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Guatemala City, Mexico City, San Jose, and San Salvador, reads in part as follows:

    “In order to assist the Department in arriving at an objective and positive evaluation of Fidel Castro and his 26th of July movement it would be greatly appreciated if the addressees would make a special effort to provide information regarding this man and his party. The information now available is contradictory, inconclusive and of inadequate detail. More knowledge concerning Castro’s past associations, past activities and anything which might shed light on his ideology and that of those closest to him is needed. It is suggested that [less than 1 line not declassified] be utilized whenever appropriate”. (ibid., 737.52/1–2158)