MARTYRS

4 03 2011

 

Statue of Frank Pais looking out towards the Sierra Maestra

It is impossible to go far in Cuba without being reminded of one or other Cuban hero who has died either fighting for their country against the Spanish, or for the Cuban Revolution. As soon as you land in Havana, you are confronted with the name of the national hero, Jose Marti, in whose memory the airport is named. Marti was a poet and writer who spent much of his adult life in exile until, in 1895 he returned to launch the second War of Independence against the Spanish forces. Thirty-eight days later, at the age of 42, he was cut down in battle.

Marti’s mausoleum is situated in Santiago de Cuba, at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, an impressive monument with an eternal flame and a permanent armed guard, which is changed with much pomp and ceremony every thirty minutes. This cemetery contains the tombs of a number of national heroes, including many who died fighting against Batista, whose plots are marked by the red and black flags of Fidel Castro’s July 26th Movement.

Santiago probably has more memorials to martyrs than anywhere else in the island. The Avenida de los Libertadores contains busts to the significant figures from the Wars of Independence against the Spanish. The Plaza de la Revolucion contains a magnificent statue of Antonio Maceo, hero of both Wars of  Independence, surrounded by symbols of the machetes used by the mambises, the Cuban freedom fighters. The main square in the city centre is named after, and contains a statue of, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who launched the first War of Independence.

The university campus where I study Spanish is named after, and contains a bust of, Julio Antonio Mella, student leader and one of the founders of the first Cuban Communist Party, who was murdered by agents of Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado, whilst in exile in Mexico City in 1925.

However, it was in the struggle against the later dictator Fulgencia Batista, that Santiago produced the most significant number of martyrs, with their resulting memorials. Of the 129 young men and women who set out on the morning of 26th July 1953 from Granjita Siboney to attack the Moncada barracks in central Santiago, 51 of them lost their lives, the most significant being Abel Santamaria, whose group of 22 successfully took control of the military hospital overlooking the barracks, until Batista’s forces retook control, slaughtering them, in many cases after torturing them.

On the site of the hospital today is the Parque Historico Abel Santamaria, which contains a giant cubist fountain engraved with the faces of both Abel Santamaria and Jose Marti, along with the stirring line from the national anthem: “To die for the fatherland is to live”. Part of the hospital remains and has been made into the Abel Santamaria Museum, including the room where Fidel was tried for his part in leading the attack and famously defended himself, concluding with the immortal line: “Condemn me if you want. It is not important. History will absolve me.” The confidence and conviction demonstrated in that speech was truly remarkable.

On the road between Siboney and Santiago are 26 memorials, commemorating the 26th July and containing the names of the 51 martyrs who lost their lives on that day. The number 26 is seen everywhere in Santiago, in slogans such as: “In Santiago it is always 26”. Both the Granjita Siboney and the Moncada Barracks are national monuments and very interesting museums today.

When, in 1956, Fidel Castro, along with Che Guevara and 80 others, landed in Cuba from exile in Mexico City on board the yacht Granma, forces of the 26th July movement in Santiago launched an armed uprising to distract Batista’s troops, on November 30th. Unfortunately, the yacht, due to weather and other problems, did not arrive until two days later. Three Santiago young men lost their lives in the uprising, after which a district of Santiago is now named (Noviembre 30).

The underground movement in Santiago, led by a young man named Frank Pais, played a vital role in the struggle against Batista, supplying fighters and supplies to the rebels fighting in the mountains, organising strikes and spreading revolutionary propaganda. Frank and his brother were assassinated one month apart in 1957 by Batista’s forces. Frank was only 22 years old. The Pais family home is now another museum, as is the former police headquarters, where many revolutionaries were tortured, now named the Museum of the Clandestine Struggle.

Near to the mouth of the bay where the port of Santiago leads to the Caribbean Sea, in a beautiful spot, is an attractive garden dedicated to the memory of Frank Pais. At its summit is a giant statue of him, in the colours of the July 26th Movement, flanked by the Cuban and July 26th Movement flags, looking across the bay towards the Sierra Maestra, where the rebels were fighting and defeating Batista’s demoralised forces. It is a fitting memorial to a man with much to offer, who gave his young life for the revolution.

The legitimacy of the Cuban Government rests heavily on the memory of the martyrs who gave their lives fighting for national freedom and against dictatorships. I have not seen any statues or memorials to Marx or Lenin here in Cuba, but hundreds to Marti, Cespedes and Maceo. The official discourse is that the Cuban Revolution did not begin in 1956, when the rebel army began fighting in the Sierra Maestra, or even in 1953, when the attack on the Moncada Barracks was launched; but instead in 1868 with the first War of Independence against the Spanish. The Triumph of the Revolution, which was announced from the steps of the Town Hall in Santiago on January 1st 1959, is seen as the triumph of a process that had begun 91 years earlier.

Attempts by another Empire today (the USA) to overthrow the Cuban Government strengthen the hands of those who claim (legitimately in my opinion) to stand in the tradition of the heroes who gave their lives fighting to free Cuba from foreign imperial domination.

Mural depicting Frank Pais and the three martyrs who died during the 30th November 1956 armed uprising in Santiago de Cuba

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10 06 2011
Sailing Away « Tales of the Heroic City

[…] of a ship sailing from the bay of Santiago out to the Caribbean sea, taken from the Frank Pais memorial […]

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