Though military installations have sat at the site since as far back as 1859, the building that is known today as the Moncada Barracks was only finished construction in 1938. Though widely-recognized as one of the most important military garrisons found anywhere in Cuba, the barracks sat in relative peace for over a decade—that is, until July 26, 1953, a day that has gone down in Cuban history forever.
Attack on the Barracks
At six in the morning on that fateful day, Fidel and Raúl Castro alongside Abel Santamaría led a group of some 135 rebels towards the Moncada Barracks in a motorcade meant to resemble that of a high-ranking government official arriving from outside of Santiago. Things went wrong almost from the beginning—the group of cars got separated, and the vehicle containing most of the group’s weaponry was lost. Causing further trouble for the rebels was the fact that many would-be attackers erroneously jumped out of their cars before arriving to the barracks grounds. Due to this confusion, the rebels lost the all-important element of surprise. They were counting on this for their success as they were vastly outnumbered.
It didn’t take long, then, for the attack to fail. During the course of events, fifteen soldiers, three policemen, and nine rebels were killed, and others still were wounded. Many additional rebels were caught and executed soon after the event without trial, their bodies then strewn about as if they had died in combat. Eventually, 51 of them including Fidel Castro were brought to court in September of the same year.
Though the coup attempt on the Moncada Barracks was without a doubt a failure, the date of the attack lived on in the name of Castro’s eventually successful 26th of July Movement. After the Cuban Revolution, the barracks were converted into a school—Fidel Castro himself symbolically operated the bulldozer that toppled the perimeter walls.
The Barracks Today
Nowadays, the Moncada Barracks are an historical site held in high esteem by the Cuban government. In the process of adding a museum to the building’s offerings, the massive outer walls were eventually rebuilt in 1978. Even the bullet holes from the attack were recreated to provide a sense of authenticity to the site.
Inside the Moncada Barracks, one can now find the Museo de 26 de Julio (26th of July Museum) in addition to the primary school. It’s not a huge museum, but it’s nonetheless one of the most impressive found anywhere in Cuba. The exhibits are in Spanish only, though English-speaking guides are sometimes available. Besides the historic artifacts and remnants of the attack on display, perhaps the most interesting part of the experience is getting to see history from a completely different perspective than that which most of us learned in our homes and classrooms!
At the time of writing, the museum is open from 9 AM until 5 PM Monday through Saturday and from 9 AM to 1 PM each Sunday.
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