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How to Think About Cuba: Fidel Castro and Los Mambises

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CREDIT: Flickr / Warren K. Leffler – Library of Congress

On January 1st, 1959, a 32-year-old Fidel Castro strode triumphantly into the city of Santiago de Cuba to claim victory in his guerrilla war against hated Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Upon arrival, he told a cheering crowd: “Esta vez los mambises entraremos en Santiago de Cuba.” In English, it means “This time, the Mambises will enter Santiago de Cuba.”

To those seeking to understand the process of social, economic, and political transformation that began on the island in 1959, it’s an illuminating quote. “Los Mambises” was the appellation given to the Cubans who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain between 1895 and 1898. They were organized by the Cuban poet and journalist José Martí, killed in battle in 1895 and today recognized as the country’s national hero of independence.

Why did Castro say “this time”? Because last time, they were left out. As Cuba’s independence fighters were on the brink of victory over their colonizers, the United States declared war with Spain, and quickly finished off the Spaniards. The U.S. seized control of the war, so much so that Cubans weren’t included in peace talks, and upon Spain’s surrender, Cuban troops were prohibited from entering Santiago de Cuba to claim their victory. Instead, the army of the United States did all the celebrating.

Many today see the Cuban Revolution of 1959 as a primarily socialist phenomena, but Castro’s quote is an apt expression of the Revolution’s often-misunderstood ideological roots — not communism, but rather nationalism and self-determination.

In 1963, C.A.M. Hennessy wrote in the journal International Relations that the Cuban Revolution was “a particular type of nationalist upheaval, closely conditioned by Cuban history.” The revolutionaries of 1959 considered their work a continuation of the same process began by the Mambises in 1895. According to Hennessy, “Castro sees himself as a disciple who undertakes the second liberation of Latin America which [Jose Martí] had preached.”

“Liberation” was a sticking point in pre-revolutionary Cuba. After Cuba’s War of Independence (which in the U.S. is given the self-important title “Spanish-American War”), the island was politically, economically, and militarily subjugated by the United States and its infamous Platt Amendment. In the words of Earl Smith, the last U.S. ambassador to Cuba before the Revolution: “Until Castro, the U.S. was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American ambassador was the second most important man, sometimes even more important than the Cuban president.”

It was this that laid the groundwork for the 1959 Revolution. Castro and his cohorts sought realization of Martí’s frustrated dream — a Cuba free of foreign domination.

Hennessy lays out the details. The ideological platform of the Revolution was first put forth in “History Will Absolve Me,” the now-legendary speech Castro gave as he stood trial for the July 26th, 1953 armed attack on the Moncada army barracks that began the Revolution. In the speech, Castro said, “I carry with me the teachings of the master,” referring to Martí, whom he called “the instigator of the 26th of July.” After the Revolution took power, one of the slogans that peppered the streets was “De José a Fidel” — “from José to Fidel.” And now, Cuban schoolchildren are taught that Martí was the “intellectual author of the assault on the Moncada barracks.”

While Castro evoked Los Mambises on the day of the Revolution’s triumph, it wasn’t until over two years later, in April 1961, that Cuba’s Revolution was declared socialist. Of course, the Cuban system today has deep Marxist roots, but often the emphasis is misplaced when the Cuban Revolution is interpreted as socialist instead of nationalist.

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