Chautauqua Lecture Series Recap: Jose Luis Mas, the Cuban Revolution

Staff Blogger: Josh Hilgenberg, Advancement/Communications Intern


Jose Luis Mas is a Cuban born attorney now residing in Columbus, Ohio. Following the Cuban Revolution, his family was evacuated when he was only 12 years old. On June 27, he joined us in Lakeside to discuss the history of Cuba from someone who saw the aftermath with his own eyes.

In his Chautauqua Lecture Series seminar, Mas focused on the revolutionary period of Cuba led by Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement.

In the first portion of the 20th century, Mas tells us that Cuba had about 19 different governing administrations. With each new president, there would be a new attack led by the media or the losing party, causing the country to constantly tumble back into unrest.

Fulgencio Batista, however, held office for a considerable time beginning in the 1940s and leading into the late 1950s. While Mas tells the audience that Batista entered office with good intentions, he became corrupt overtime.

Batista, President and eventual Dictator of Cuba, was disliked by much of the youth at the time, especially the Castro brothers. Fidel and Raul planned a coup against the president in 1952, at first attempting to perform a peaceful overthrow. They petitioned the court, claiming that Batista’s presidency contained constitutional violations, but were unsuccessful.

It was at this point that the Castro brothers began their armed revolution. In 1952, with 123 fighters, they attacked a military barrack. They were defeated easily, facing casualties, imprisonment and execution.

His forces, who did not share the luck the Castros did, averaged at age 26, with nine teenagers and 96 20-year-olds. Only four of them had completed more than a primary education. They came from broken homes, poverty, wedlock and were, by majority, unskilled workers looking for opportunity.

The Castros were spared because of their heritage and the classist nature of Cuba at the time. Batista’s forces captured them and faced a trial at court. Fidel, a well versed orator, spoke for four hours in the defense of himself and his brother, saying famously “Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”

His words were not enough, however. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in prison, while Raul was to face 13. Hopes for revolution looked grim.

The people of Cuba, however, were not to be unheard. They successfully pressured the government into pardoning the Castros and thus, freed the pair of freedom fighters.

Having escaped the clutches of Batista’s prisons, the Castros fled to Mexico in hopes of bolstering their forces for a later strike. It was here that the two met with fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara. He was moved by their passions and decided to fight by their side.

During their time in Mexico, the Castros, with Guevara, trained themselves and their militia in preparation for revolution.

When they felt ready, they boarded a yacht dubbed The Granma and made their way back to Cuba and war. Unfortunately for them, they were met not with open arms, but with gunfire. It was clear, at this point, that freedom would not come easily. All but 12 of the fighters were killed in their first battle back on Cuban soil. Guevara and the Castro brothers led their few men into the mountains.

Attacking from a different front, independent from the Castros’ 26th of July Movement was the Student Revolutionary Directorate. As the name implies, this group was student led and supported. Around 1957, this group stormed the presidential palace of Cuba, seeking to assassinate Batista.

The attack was met with ferocity and ruthlessness. The untrained youths were cut down by Batista’s forces. His rage fueled military attacks on university students, mutilating their bodies.

It was because of this reaction that the U.S. began its arms embargo to Batista’s administration, choking it and cutting off much of its supplies. Conversely, organized crime in the states began to support Batista’s efforts and did what it could to support his regime.

The U.S.’ withdrawal from trade was enough, however. The Castros and Guevara used this time to bolster their ranks to an improved, but still slim, 200 fighters. They won small, isolated battles, but it was enough to boost their confidence and improve moral. Despite Batista’s 37,000-man army, the 26th of July Movement constantly forced retreats on their part, thanks to the guerilla warfare, which they utilized greatly.

It was during this time, the summer of 1958 through December 31, 1958, that the majority of battle took place. Mas tells us that most of the 5,000 casualties associated with the revolution occurred then.

As the Castro brothers became more successful, their numbers grew. They perfected their warfare, defeating Batista’s soldiers left and right. In one particular instance, the 26th of July Movement defeated a Batista force totaling 500 men, losing only three of their own men.

It was around this time that the final assault on Santa Clara was made. The revolutionaries joined with what remained of the Student Revolutionary Directorate, formulating an attack on four fronts. Mas now took a moment to recognize an interesting character by the name of William Alexander Morgan, a Commandant in the revolutionary forces (if you think that sounds like an American name, you’re right). Cleveland born and Toledo raised, this so-called Yankee Commandant played an important role in training the Cubans. His story is more than intriguing and could most likely be an entire lecture in its own right.

Returning back to the overall narrative, the Castros and Student Directorate forces surround the garrison at Santa Clara and destroyed the Batista army on December 31, 1958. The next day, January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba by plane. The rebels won.

As we know, however, the story lives on. Fidel pushed back proper elections for months as he formulated his communist regime. His fellow commandants did their best to counsel him against his actions, but as history shows, their voices went unheard.

Mas tells us his family had a personal connection with one of these men. Mas’ father attended school with Fidel’s friend and ally, Camilo Cienfuegos, having a loose relationship with him. One day, as his father was walking out of his office, Cienfuegos passed the elder Mas on the street. As they approached one another, Cienfuegos shook his head, indicating not to acknowledge their old ties. Passing by one another, the revolutionary offered only a warning, saying: “this is communism.”

It was for actions such as these that Fidel allegedly executed many of his allies, at one time his closest friends. Morgan, whose wife admitted he was planning to begin another revolution against the corrupted Fidel, was captured and killed by a man he once called his closest friend.

Mas will continue his lectures this week on the topics of Cuba and its history from this point after the revolution to the present day, and even on the future of Cuba. Following his series, a study of the arts of Cuba will be the focus of lectures throughout the rest of the week in Orchestra Hall.

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