Representing the Revolution: Public History and the Moncada Barracks in Santiago De Cuba

By Waters, Anita; Fernandes, Luci | Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Representing the Revolution: Public History and the Moncada Barracks in Santiago De Cuba


Waters, Anita, Fernandes, Luci, Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies


Introduction (1)

In 1980, historian Louis A. Perez, Jr., famously declared that history itself was the handmaiden of the Cuban revolution. In its first two decades, revolutionary Cuba officially revived studies of the 19th-century Wars of Independence, sanctified heroes, and dramatized history in film and print. Its 1968 slogan, Cien anos de lucha ("A hundred years of struggle"), effectively connected the Cuban Wars of Independence with the struggles of peasants, workers, women, and Afro-Cubans for a better life (Perez 1980, 87). Echoing the cynical view that ruling elites impose a view of history merely to legitimate their own rule (Ripoll 1994; see e.g. Samuel 1994, 16; Miller 2003), Perez acknowledged that the Cuban government used history as a "deliberate device for garnering loyalty and sacrifice" (1980, 89).

However, in concluding his article, Perez also recognized another, more benign and transcendent, function that history serves among a people engaged on a common path. In Cuba, he wrote,

history has contributed mightily to the creation of a national solidarity, for it has broadened the area of common experience and brought collective solace. In the end, this expanded and clarified past has functioned as an object of appreciation, a certification of some meaning in collective endeavors and evidence of membership in a community. (Perez 1980, 89)

In this article three decades later, we return to the question of how historical narratives are incorporated into Cuban political culture. Do official historical narratives continue to dominate as they did in those first two decades? How has the passage of a generation affected the way history is contextualized by official sources? What do recent trends in commemoration of historical events indicate about the future of history in Cuba? Does Cuban national history still offer its citizens meaning and membership?

We address these questions with a very close focus on one set of historical narratives: accounts of the assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. The Moncada Barracks assault was the opening salvo in the armed struggle against the administration of Fulgencio Batista, leading to its overthrow five years later. Focusing on commemoration of this event has two advantages. First, while the "mnemonic landscape" of Havana has been a frequent theme of scholarly writing about Cuba (Gropas 2007; Quiroga 2005), less attention has been paid to the province of Oriente, where most revolutionary activity in the 1950s actually took place. Santiago is Cuba's second largest city and home to more national and local monuments than any other Cuban city (Perez Herrero 1983). Literature for tourists calls it "a monument city" (Larramendi, Hernandez, and Martinez 2006, 46). Virtually every epoch of Cuban history is memorialized in public structures that have been built or rebuilt across the decades. For example, the 1530 home of Diego Velasquez de Cuellar has been restored as the Cuban Museum of Historical Environment, a massive and modern equestrian statue of General Antonio Maceo built in the 1990s presides over the Plaza de la Revolucion, and the infamous San Juan Hill is now a meticulously groomed monument park dedicated to US and Cuban fighters in the Wars of Independence against Spain.

Despite the plethora of monuments and shrines, the mustard-hued battlements of the Moncada Barracks remain Santiago de Cuba's most iconic symbol. Thus the second reason for focusing on this event: its ubiquity and longevity as a target of Cuban commemoration. Every year since 1959, the government has celebrated July 26 with a national holiday, community mobilizations and programs, reenactments, and recitations. Each year a national celebration brings out massive numbers of citizens to participate in the commemorations. In his defence speech at his trial just after the Moncada Barracks assault, Fidel Castro predicted that "history will absolve me," and much of the deliberate historical work that Perez documents in the revolutionary government's first two decades revolved around establishing the importance and meaning of this signal event in the Cuban historical imagination, and ensuring that absolution. …

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