This paper interrogates the role of masculinity against the backdrop of the Revolution during the years 1952-1959. During this time, Cubans became more and more disillusioned with their government and rose up in arms against president Fulgencio Batista. The year 1953 marked a watershed both for the momentum of the armed struggle and for one man: Fidel Castro. The daring attack on the Moncada barracks worked to consolidate Fidel’s legitimacy as leader of the resistance movement. As the resistance gained popular support, more and more peasants took up arms and fought alongside the rebels. From the Moncada attack to the guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel and his guerrillas emerged as a serious threat to the Bastitato. While this war did indeed play out on the battlefield atop the Sierra Maestra, I would like to suggest that the struggle for power was also fought on the terrain of masculinity. As Fidel Castro and Fulgencio Batista vied for power, their authority rested not only on their abilities as real men, but also on the image they projected. Thus, this paper ultimately seeks to demonstrate how war turns on issues of the power of real men as well as on images of masculinity. It is my belief that political legitimacy during the 1950s turned, in part, on the interplay of masculine symbols. By viewing Fidel through the prism of masculinity, we can see how texts and images produced in the 1950s renegotiated ideals of nineteenth century independence within twentieth century dictatorship in order to construct a model of masculinity that I am terming “masculine independence”. This model draws on the legendary José Martí and, therefore, connects the individual to the patria while at the same time juxtaposes ideals of liberty, patriotism, and heroism against tyranny, disloyalty, cowardliness. Thus while Fidel Castro gained legitimacy and momentum through physical feats on the battle field, the armed struggle was also forged in masculine imagery, which pitted the honorable and courageous Fidel against the dishonorable and cowardly Batista. And because Fidel’s personage became increasingly linked to that of the Apostle’s, Fidel began to symbolize independence in much the same way. As a result, Fidel became the twentieth century embodiment of José Martí and, consequently, Cuba’s new liberator.
Nowhere is the notion of masculine independence better demonstrated than in the attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953 in Santiago. Having already tried to challenge the military coup within the legal system, Fidel turned to armed insurrection as the only possible means to counter the regime. With the help of Abel Santamaría, Fidel led a group of 165 revolutionaries whose mission was to obtain the weapons inside the barracks and then head to the surrounding mountains to begin an armed uprising. Due to poor planning, however, the attack failed and the army captured, tortured, imprisoned, and killed the Moncadistas. Fidel escaped but was later found and imprisoned. All of the prisoners were given a trial and Fidel, a lawyer by profession, delivered his own self-defense. That defense would later be known as “La historia me absolverá” and serve as the manifesto of the movement named in honor of the attack: the 26th of July Movement. In it, Fidel underscored the illegitimacy of Batista’s regime and questioned the legitimacy of the trial. How could the court find him guilty of rebellion against the constitutional powers of the state, he reasoned, when “those very powers had been usurped by the dictator, and had ceased to have any legitimate force?” (Santamaría 73). The tribunal paid no heed to Fidel’s protests, however, and sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.
From a military point of view, the attack proved unsuccessful; the attackers did not overtake the barracks and the movement’s leader was in prison. Despite its military failure, however, Moncada proved to be victorious in other aspects:
Moncada was not only a military battle; it was also a legal battle and, above all, a political battle. As a military battle…Moncada signified a defeat for the attackers, but in the other two spheres it was a triumph. It has been rightly pointed out that the trial of the attackers was of enormous importance because it converted them into implacable and courageous prosecutors of the regime. (Santamaría 112)
In other words, the trials that followed the ill-fated attack turned the military failure on its head by cultivating a cult of heroism. Moreover, since it was the first time the movement came into full public view, the trials— specifically Fidel’s—captured the national imagination as more and more Cubans began to sympathize with its cause (Pérez-Stable 53). Lastly, Moncada catapulted Fidel into contention for leadership of the armed struggle, and his fame was projected throughout the island.
Fidel’s mass appeal during and after the uprising was due, in part, to his referencing of his mentor, José Martí, whom he proclaimed the intellectual author of Moncada:
Castro’s inspirational appeal defined the movement in terms of its place in Cuba’s history and unified the troops by invoking the spirit of Martí as a personification of the people’s conflict, a figure that his listeners knew well. By referring to the dates of past conflict, the Ten Years War and the War of Independence, Castro presented the ensuing attack as the last in a teleological chain of revolutionary struggle against oppression. The Moncada conflict achieved its importance in relation to the past conflicts, which, in turn, were vindicated by the new struggle. His reference to the shared location of the conflicts (Oriente province) added to the sensation of unity and shared historical purpose. (Rice 43)Known as the Apostle of Independence, Martí represented the maximum symbol of heroism in Cuba in the 1950s. Therefore, the references to Martí legitimized the attack and situated it within the context of heroic myth. Moreover, images of the Moncada attack, like the ones shown at the beginning of this paper, inextricably linked Martí to Fidel Castro and worked to forge a new heroic myth surrounding the Moncada attack in which Fidel emerges as a heroic liberator. This myth is underpinned by a masculine independence that resounds with ideals of liberty, patriotism, and heroism, and is made manifest in numerous representations of the young warrior, such as his own La historia me absolverá. By imagining Fidel as a new liberator and heir of Martí and, in contrast, by portraying Batista as a tyrant, such representations demonstrate the ways in which masculinity influences politics and, more specifically, how war is not always waged on the battlefield.