Tuesday, July 23, 2024

How the Mexican Revolution inspired the Cuban Revolution

Almost everyone in the world knows that Fidel Castro – assisted by his brother Raúl and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara – led the movement that overthrew the Fulgencio Batista regime in Cuba in 1959.  What many people don’t know is that the Cuban Revolution was hatched in Mexico and inspired by the Mexican Revolution.

On July 26, 1953, trying to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Castro led a group of 150 revolutionaries in an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba.  The assault was defeated and Castro was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but due to public pressure, he and his brother Raúl along with a large number of other Cuban revolutionaries were released from prison in 1955 as part of a general amnesty for political prisoners.

Raúl and the other exiles fled to Mexico and Fidel followed shortly afterward, flying into Mérida on July 7th and making his way to Mexico City. He met up with Raúl at the apartment of Cuban exile María Antonia Gonzaléz in the Tabacalera neighborhood, where he met Che Guevara for the first time. The apartment became the command post and one of a network of clandestine houses in Mexico City that became safe locations for the revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, the safe houses began training exiles for the return to Cuba.  Castro imposed strict and rigorous regulations for the soldiers. The revolutionaries practiced their rowing at the lake in Chapultepec Park, received physical and self-defense training from Mexican professional wrestler Arsacio Vanegas and held target practice at the Los Gamitos range in the borough of Alvaro Obregón.

In March 1956, Guevara headed up a guerilla camp at the Santa Rosa ranch, close to the small town of Santa Catarina Ayotzingo in the state of México. Raúl was responsible for rounding up the Cuban exiles who had fled to Mexico. For assistance in acquiring weapons and transportation to Cuba, Fidel relied on Mexican gunsmith and weapons smuggler Antonio del Conde Pontones, alias “El Cuate.”

The  Cuban exiles – known as the July 26 Movement, or M-26-7 –  had left Cuba without anything, including resources. Castro and his troops lived on beans and rice, frequenting taco stands. Revolutions need money, however, and Castro developed a bold plan to obtain funding. In “Guerrillero del tiempo,” a memoir that brings together hours of interviews between the revolutionary and the Cuban journalist Katiuska Blanco, Fidel recounted a trip to the US-Mexico border at McAllen, Texas, where he swam across the Rio Grande and illegally entered the United States to meet with the disgraced former Cuban President Carlos Prío Socarros, who had been exiled after being deposed by Batista’s 1952 coup – Castro and Prio had a common enemy in Batista.

Street in La Habana Vieja. (Unsplash)

Castro recounts in his memoir – “Guerrillero del Tiempo” written by biographer Katiuska Blanco based on hours of interviews – that he was “humiliated” to ask Prio for money that he knew had been stolen from the Cuban Treasury but took the cash anyway.

Aware of the Castro brothers’ plan to overthrow Batista, the Federal Security Directorate (DFS), the Mexican political police, had been monitoring the movements and actions of the July 26 Movement. A report authored by DFS Captain Fernando Gutiérrez Barrios, dated June 24, 1956, and kept hidden for decades in the confidential files of the Ministry of the Interior, outlined their plans.

Barrios was a feared agent of the DFS and for years was responsible for the persecution of peasant, union, student and guerilla movements of the last century. In July 1956, Castro and Guevara were detained. After several weeks of detention, former President Lázaro Cárdenas intervened to have them released. A Constitutionalist general in the Mexican Revolution, Cárdenas had been a very popular left-leaning reformer in office and continued to support Castro after the victory of the Cuban Revolution.

In an odd twist, Castro and Barrios formed a relationship based on friendship and mutual respect. Castro told biographer Blanco that he considered Barrios a “friend” and a “gentleman and honorable man.” 

After Castro and Guevara were released, they began implementing their plan.  After 18 months of planning, their soldiers had been trained, they had acquired the necessary weapons and Antonio del Conde had found them a ride: a small, second-hand yacht named the “Granma,”  moored in Tuxpan, Veracruz.  They planned on meeting with the remainder of the insurgents at the Mi Ranchito hotel in Xicotepec de Juárez in the state of Puebla to finalize their last-minute preparations.

Before leaving Mexico City, Castro went to meet with his friend Barrios one last time where he outlined their plans. In a 1999 interview with BBC, Barrios admitted that he knew all the details of their plans and intentionally delayed an investigation to give them time to embark for Cuba.

On November 25, 1956, the 82 insurgents arrived in Tuxpan and squeezed themselves onto the Granma, a boat that would normally accommodate 10 to 12 people, and left on their treacherous trip to Cuba.

When they reached Cuba’s shores, they shipwrecked on the southern coast and were spotted and ambushed by Cuban authorities, who killed all but eight men. Fidel, Raúl, Guevara and a few of their men – with only seven guns between them – fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains.  

The members of the July 26 Movement spent the next two years recruiting and training more insurgents and fighting Batista’s military. On New Year’s Eve, Batista fled Cuba for the Dominican Republic, and Fidel’s 9,000-strong guerilla army marched into Havana in triumph. Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba and remained in power for 49 years, dying in 2015 at the age of 90.

Castro admitted that Cuba’s revolution probably would not have been possible without the Mexican Revolution that preceded it 50 years earlier.  It provided the blueprint for the Cuban Revolution.  “Mexico was a country that had carried out a great revolution in the second decade of the 20th century, a revolution that had a lot of prestige and left behind a lot of progressive thinking and a stable government,” he recalls in “Guerrillero del tiempo.”

Reminders of Castro’s 18-month exile in Mexico are still visible today in Mexico City. The building at 49 José de Emporan where María Antonia González had an apartment is marked with a plaque commemorating the location where Castro and Guevara first met. Café La Habana, which claims to have been the site of meetings between the Cuban revolutionaries, still stands in the Juárez neighborhood.

Fernando Barrios went on to become the director of the DFS from 1964 to 1970, during the height of state terror in Mexico. The controversial agency, which committed a litany of human rights violations and suffered from pervasive corruption, was disbanded in 1985.  The building that served as the DFS headquarters, where Castro and Guevara were detained, is now the Sitio de Memoria Circular de Morelia in Roma Norte. It stands as witness to the human rights violations that occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s and is dedicated to preventing those practices in the future. 

Sheryl Losser is a former public relations executive, researcher, writer, and editor. She has been writing professionally for 35 years.  She moved to Mazatlán in 2021 and works part-time doing freelance research and writing. She can be reached at [email protected]

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