Celebrated on July 26 each year, the National Revolutionary Festival is held in Cuba to celebrate the day in 1953 when a band of rebels led by Fidel Castro attacked military barracks in Santiago de Cuba in order to overthrow the government of Fulgencio Batista. Although they failed in this initial attack, it was the first time an extremist group took on Batista seriously and it became a rallying cry to overthrow the dictatorship.
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Although the attack took place on July 26, 1953, the actual revolution began in May 1952 when a group that included Castro, Melba Hernandez as well as Abel and Haydee Santamaria began meeting in an apartment building in Havana to discuss their discontent with Cuba’s dictator. They had exhausted all legal channels to overthrow Batista who had taken power in a military coup.
The group began collecting uniforms, guns and ammunition, beginning a plan to attack the Moncada Barracks as well as the Carlos Manuel de Cespedes Barracks in Bayamo. They chose the date of the annual summer carnival so that authorities would not suspect large numbers of young people traveling on buses, trains and cars.
At 4 AM on July 26, 131 people, including two women, left the Siboney farm just outside the city. The two women, Haydee Santamaria and Melba Hernandez along with a small band of fighters led by Abel Santamaria, were planning to take over the hospital while Castro led 90 inexperienced fighters to Mancada to take over the army barracks.
Approximately 35 men let by Raul Castro planned to seize the Palace of Justice. The hospital and Place of Justice attack were successful, but Fidel Castro’s group was discovered due to an unexpected patrol added for the carnival. A battle ensued with many of Castro’s men killed or captured and taken prisoner. Castro escaped to the hills of the Sierra Maestra but was captured several days later.
Many of the attackers were sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, but amnesty was granted to allow them to leave Cuba and travel to Mexico. While in Mexico, Castro and his fellow freedom fighters continued to plan an overthrow of the Cuban government, returning on the Granma yacht in December 1956, becoming victorious in 1959.
Celebrations and Traditions
Since 1959, Cuba has celebrated July 26th as a public holiday and in 1976, the government added July 25 and 27th to the celebration. On all three days, offices, schools and businesses are closed. Rallies and speeches are held throughout Cuba to celebrate what one popular Cuban song calls “the happiest day in history.” The flag of the revolution, which is red and black with a 26 in the centre, is prominently displayed. Military members wear armbands that represent the flag.