Tiffany A. Sippial: The 26th of July Movement: Remembering Failure, Celebrating Victory

sippial_prostitution_PBOn this important day in Cuban history, we welcome a guest post from Tiffany A. Sippial, author of the forthcoming Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840-1920. Between 1840 and 1920, Cuba abolished slavery, fought two wars of independence, and was occupied by the United States before finally becoming an independent republic. Sippial argues that during this tumultuous era, Cuba’s struggle to define itself as a modern nation found focus in the social and sexual anxieties surrounding prostitution and its regulation. Sippial shows how prostitution became a prism through which Cuba’s hopes and fears were refracted. Widespread debate about prostitution created a forum in which issues of public morality, urbanity, modernity, and national identity were discussed with consequences not only for the capital city of Havana but also for the entire Cuban nation.

In this post, Sippial explains exactly why this day, the 26th of July, is so significant for Cubans, and how it can shed light on the complexities of historical change.


Cubans today are recognizing the sixtieth anniversary of one of the most significant events in their nation’s history—the Castro-led attack on the Moncada military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953 (26th of July Movement). Preparations to celebrate this momentous occasion actually began months ago (as early as January in some places) as towns and cities across the island began scheduling ceremonies, renovating local memorials, and erecting billboards to honor the day. A quick Google search reveals that almost every Cuban newspaper and radio show has cast the anniversary as the national event of the decade, and a few hundred Facebook patrons have already “liked” the page memorializing the rebels who participated in the attack (60-Aniversario-del-Moncada).

I teach about the Moncada attack in several of my courses. By the time students in my World History II courses arrive at 26 July 1953, for example, they have already studied the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement, amongst others. To set the stage for the attack, we discuss the entrenched nature of U.S. corporate interests on the island, Fidel Castro’s early mobilization efforts at the University of Havana, and General Fulgencio Batista’s 1953 military coup. We then trace the events leading up to and following the Moncada attack.

Students quickly grasp the barrack’s logistical and symbolic importance for the rebels (and, yes, someone always harkens back to the storming of the Bastille). Semester after semester, however, students are most riveted by two facts: 1) the rebels were young; and 2) they failed.

I never show my students any images of the Cuban rebels while we discuss the event. The effect is that students who grew up with the image of Fidel Castro as a grey-bearded man in fatigues are surprised when I flash a 1953 mug shot of a robust, clean-cut youth on the screen. Group photos of Castro posing with his coconspirators in the weeks and months prior to the attack prompt a similar response—they were so YOUNG! When a revolutionary looks like the young man or woman sitting next to them in class, a student’s perspective can shift dramatically. Something that seemed so foreign somehow becomes oddly familiar.

Not only were the rebels young (“just like us” my students find themselves saying), but they actually failed. Government snipers shot many of the young rebels on sight, and those who survived were charged with treason and imprisoned on the Isle of Pines. In a surprising plot twist, however, the audacious Cuban rebels recast their military failure as a propaganda victory by claiming the date of the attack as the name of their movement—the 26th of July Movement (M-26-7).

The ability to shape public memory of that date now lay forever in the hands of the rebels, not with the Batista government. The letters M-26-7 were consequently emblazoned upon flags, armbands, posters, and eventually billboards as a reminder of the risk assumed by a group of young men and women determined to make a change.

As Cubans gather to recognize the events of 26 July 1953, the accompanying speeches, rallies, parades, and parties are sure to elicit a range of responses from Cubans living on the island or in the United States. For many Cubans the date still represents a victory over tyranny and oppression (“every day is the 26th July” is a common refrain); for others it was the beginning of increased disorder and dislocation.

My goal in teaching about the Moncada attack is not to endorse either reading of the events—or even to promote revolution more generally—but rather to prompt my students to ask the key question: What is required to bring about social, political, or economic change? If students begin to identify with the young Cuban rebels in a way that inspires them to become more involved in local, state, or national politics or if they begin to question whether all “failures” are, by definition, endpoints, then that is a victory to me.


Tiffany A. Sippial is associate professor of History at Auburn University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on the history and historiography of Latin America from the colonial to modern periods. Her first book, Prostitution, Modernity, and the Making of the Cuban Republic, 1840-1920will be published in November 2013.