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Clandestine Radio
and the Rise of Fidel Castro

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the April, 1993 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.


We've celebrated victory in the Cold War; Communism has fallen. Even the former USSR is converting to free enterprise and has held free elections. But, Communism isn't gone yet. Just ninety miles from U.S. shores, Fidel Castro continues to hold onto Cuba with an iron grip. Once he was called a "thorn in our side"; today he seems more like a pinprick. The glory days of revolution are over.

However much we may not like him, we should never underestimate Castro. He might be gone next month, but just as likely he may be ruling Havana ten years from now. Castro has proven himself to be a crafty politician, and never was that more evident than in his rise to power. Perhaps he started out with good intentions, or perhaps he used good intentions to cover up hidden plans for dictatorship. Only Fidel, himself, really knows. As unreal as it seems today, in the 1950s Fidel Castro emerged as Cuba's only real hope for freedom and democracy. He did all the right things in a guerilla war to overthrow a corrupt dictatorship. And in doing so he wrote one of the most fascinating stories in the history of clandestine radio - the story of Radio Rebelde.


Throughout its history, Cuba has been a land of repression and injustice. After overthrowing Spain's brutal colonial rule in 1898, Cuba was governed by a succession of cruel dictators and corrupt politicians. In 1933, in one of the world's strangest rises to power, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led a revolt of noncommissioned officers in the Cuban army. Batista was permitted to join an interim junta, and, after some political in- fighting, he became the sole ruler of Cuba.

Batista dominated Cuba politically for the next twenty-five years. His rule started out with high hopes for democracy and justice, but gradually decayed into government by gangsterism. Murders of his political enemies became commonplace and military leaders ran protection rackets, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars a month from Havana's legitimate and illegitimate businesses. With help from the Mafia, Havana became a center of prostitution and gambling casinos. By the early 1950s, only unwavering support of the army high command and certain well- protected big business interests kept Batista in power; the Cuban people were firmly anti-Batista.


Fidel Castro was born in 1926 in the eastern Cuba's rugged sugar cane country where his father had built a successful plantation. Befitting the son of a middle class landowner, Fidel was sent to the University of Havana to study law. Fidel, however, forgot his studies and involved himself in student politics, where he became well known for his intelligence, political savvy, and speaking ability. He built up a following as a student leader, and then jumping from student politics, began working with the mainstream opposition to Batista. Waiting for peaceful political change, however, didn't appeal to Fidel.*

A young idealist, Castro believed that with the right gesture, the population would rise up behind him and overthrow Batista. That grand gesture would be an attack on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago, near where he grew up. Castro's followers numbered just over 100, mainly armed with small hunting rifles and pistols, while the fort held a thousand well-armed soldiers. But Castro had the element of surprise, and in his mind that would led him to triumph. He would attack at dawn on July 26th, the morning after Santiago's July 25th carnival; most of the soldiers would have hangovers. Castro prepared a revolutionary address that he would read over the base's radio station once in charge. He would hand the fort's weapons to the people and win control of Cuba's second largest city.

The attack began successfully, as two small detachments of revolutionaries captured nearby strategic targets without a casualty. But, Castro's untrained followers became confused in attacking the main barracks, and an alarm was given. Soon they were battling hundreds of soldiers and were forced to withdraw. However, one of Castro's followers nearly reached the base radio station before being shot.

The army responded with a violent orgy of retribution. Wounded rebels left behind and others hunted down in the city were brutally tortured and murdered. The lucky ones, including Fidel and his brother Raul, escaped to a nearby mountain. Because some rebels who escaped were wounded, innocent Santiago citizens with injuries from accidents were likewise dragged to Moncada for interrogation, torture, and maybe murder. Overreaction by the army led to a public outcry, causing the Bishop to intervene. With a megaphone and a small group soldiers from another barracks, the Bishop went to the mountain to persuade the rebels to surrender. Some did, and others, including Fidel, were captured. The Bishop personally guaranteed their safety.

In October, the survivors were put on trial. Fidel used his oratory powers to make a brillant speech, later clandestinely printed and circulated throughout the island. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on the Isle of Pines, where he would hopefully be forgotten. However, the speech, the army's violent response to the attack, and the fact that the Catholic Church had, in effect, made Fidel's rebellion respectable by saving his life, all came together to make Fidel a national hero among the constantly growing number of Cubans who were opposed to Batista. Fidel had won his first battle.


Batista was in the habit of making a grand gesture every so often to prove he was a kind and just ruler. Feeling magnanimous in May, 1955, he declared a general amnesty for all political prisoners. Fidel, Raul, their companions from Moncada, and many others were released. Fidel spent a few weeks in Havana giving speeches criticizing the government but, feeling the heat from Batista's police, went to Mexico. There, he and other Cuban exiles formed the 26th of July Movement, named after the Moncada barracks attack. Castro publicly announced that they would invade Cuba and overthrow Batista.

In Mexico, Fidel met and recruited a 26 year old Argentine doctor, Che Guevara, who would eventually become his right-hand man. Guevara had traveled throughout Latin America, and in early 1954 made his way to Guatemala, a haven for Latin American poltical liberals. There, he saw first hand how a CIA clandestine radio station, La Voz de la Liberacion, almost single-handedly overthrew Guatemala's elected leftwing government (see Revolution! Radio's Role in the Overthrow of Guatemala! Monitoring Times 4/89). Guevara came away with both a strong distrust of the United States and an appreciation of the radio's role in warfare.

Castro's band did not find it easy going in Mexico. They had to beg for funds from Cuban political exiles. If they didn't stay in hiding, the Mexican police, bribed by Batista's agents, raided their camp, confiscating weapons and jailing them. They purchased a yacht and, at Guevara's urging, a transmitter, to launch their invasion, but a traitor in their midst sold both! By late 1956, another small yacht had been purchased and the 26th of July Movement was ready to take on Batista. Eighty-two men left for Cuba on November 25. Among the supplies was another transmitter. The revolution had begun.


On December 2, the guerillas landed in eastern Cuba, near Niquero. Their destination was Oriente province's Sierra Maestra mountains, a few days march away. They spent December 5 sleeping in a cane field, in preparation for a night march. While they were sleeping, their guide left and betrayed their position to the army. As they were waking up in the late afternoon, the army struck with infantry, aircraft and artillery. About a third of the guerillas were killed or captured immediately. Much of their equipment, including the transmitter, was left behind as the others fled in small bands. The army pursued for several days and immediately butchered any group that surrendered or was captured.

With the help of friendly peasants the survivors gradually came together on December 17-19. They numbered only about 16-18 (stories vary), but included Fidel, brother Raul, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. Tuning in Havana radio stations on a peasant's radio, they heard what had happened to their companions. Despite their sadness, they smiled at reports that all of them, including Fidel, had been killed. They marched deeper into the mountains. Castro borrowed a radio from another peasant; Cuban radio stations were tightly censored, but even censored news could give useful information.

In the next year, Castro's forces gradually grew larger. They attacked isolated small town army posts and ambushed army expeditions in the moutains. Because the rebels always shot the soldiers marching in front first, soldiers soon refused to march at the head of the column. The army began making fewer forays into the mountains and concentrated on defending towns.

Castro divided his forces into different columns under various commanders, including his brother Raul, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. More columns were added as more men joined the revolution. Each column operated independently in its own area, occasionally coming together for joint operations. Several columns operated in the Sierra Maestra, west of Santiago, while others, including Raul's, operated in the Sierra Cristal east of Santiago. Later, more were added in the plains of northern Oriente province and the Escambray mountains of Central Cuba. One, under Dermitio Escalona, was formed in the mountains of Pinar del Rio province on the western tip of Cuba.

With the army holed up in towns, the guerillas freely to established base camps. Fidel's camp, the center of revolutionary activity, began to resemble a small city with a hospital, schools, and a small hydroelectric station A rebel newspaper, El Cubano Libre was published on a mimeograph machine. Eventually, the guerillas ran telephone lines through the Sierra Maestra and Sierra Cristal, connecting several guerilla columns and nearby villages. Fidel's camp was also the center of the rebels' supply line. A small leather workshop produced boots and cartridge belts and an armory recharged spent cartridges and produced bombs, grenades, mines, and molotov cocktails from makeshift materials such as tin cans and unexploded enemy bombs. A butcher shop processed animals stolen from wealthy landowners and a small cigar factory provided for smokers.


Castro had always seen the importance of broadcasting, but Che Guevara was the main rebel proponent of a clandestine station. Guevara knew that a radio station was the only way to speak directly to the Cuban people. Guevara rounded up a technician, a former newspaper reporter, and two ex-announcers from Havana's popular Radio Mambi from among supporters. An old ham transmitter would do the broadcasting.

A test broadcast was made in mid-February. The transmitter still needed work, so the 20 minute broadcast only reached a few hundred yards, with Fidel and a few guerillas around Che's radio and a peasant named Palencho who heard it in his house on the facing hillside as the only audience. But, Fidel was impressed. Work on the equipment continued. A few days later, on February 23, 1958, Radio Rebele was officially inaugurated in its first real transmission. Into the Cuban airwaves went the words that would soon become immortalized in Cuban broadcasting; "Aqui Radio Rebelde! Aqui Radio Rebelde! Transmitiendo desde la Sierra Maestra en territorio libre de Cuba."

On April 9, 1958, anti-Batista forces in Havana tried to bring about his fall by calling for national strikes to paralyze the economy. Radio Rebelde joined in urging workers to strike. However, few Habaneros responded to their appeals. Urban revolutionaries attacked some power companies and radio stations, and set up two clandestine stations of their own. But, without a massive uprising, their rebellion was quickly crushed.

The failure of the April rebellion convinced Castro that revolution could only be won on the battlefield, and that communications and propganda were a bulwark of any military operation. Contacts in Miami arranged a secret airlift of more advanced radio equipment. Carlos Franqui, former editor of several underground newspapers, was brought in to head Radio Rebelde. More staff was recruited and programming expanded. Gradually Radio Rebelde became the center of a vast clandestine revolutionary broadcasting network.

Radio Rebelde established a regular schedule, on nightly at 7:00 and 9:00 P.M. on 20 meters and at 8:00 and 10:00 P.M. on 40 meters. Each broadcast began with the Cuban national anthem and the 26th of July hymn. Programming became more professional, and included "bulletins recounting guerilla military victories, speeches of rebel commanders, manifestos, anti-Batista diatribes, patriotic poems, music by its own 'Rebel Quintet', and personal messages to rebel families ('Mama, this is Pepito. Don't worry, I'm fine')" (Soley & Nichols). When revolutionaries in the cities were arrested, Radio Rebelde broadcast their names as soon as possible in hopes that Red Cross & Trade Union intervention would save their lives.

Each guerilla column had radio equipment, and as columns were created, most were given a transceiver. Eventually there were 32 Rebelde stations scattered across Cuba. These satelite stations wrote material to feed to the main station. The headquarters staff put together daily broadcasts transmitted by the hub station and relayed by the others. When the main station was down, one of the larger sub- stations took over. It was a highly efficient and effective operation. The hub stations used either names relating to their locations, e.g. Radio Rebelde Llano (plains), or humorous nicknames such as Barbudos Feroces (ferocious bearded ones). Some, such as Ocho Chicos Malos (eight naughty boys), broadcast their own programs of news and fake soap operas spoofing the government.

The Rebelde network also served as a radiotelephone link for the guerilla columns, using the call sign 7RR instead of the Radio Rebelde name. Coded messages from 7RR alerted the columns of enemy movements and directed guerilla maneuvers. At times Fidel left less-important instructions uncoded, so listeners would feel closer to the revolution. Tactical broadcasts were almost as popular as Radio Rebelde's nightly programs. Fidel also gave frequent speeches; sometimes walking two or three days to get back for a broadcast.

The revolution was dependent on sympathizers and Cuban exiles for much of is funding and equipment. Castro-supporters outside Cuba set up the clandestine Cadena de la Libertad (Liberty Chain) to maintan day-to-day contact with the revolution and sometimes relay Rebelde broadcasts. The Cadena de la Libertad's four stations were Indio Azul & Dos Indios Verdes (Blue Indian and Two Green Indians) in Venezuela, Indio Apache in Mexico, and Un Muchacho Unido (A Together Guy) in Miami. In addition, commercial stations in at least ten Latin American countries relayed or played tapes of Radio Rebelde's programs. Venezuela's Radio Continente was especially important for its regular relays which were easily picked up in Cuba.


Batista's regime more strictly censored the media. Officially, there was very little fighting, and always in the government's favor. Cuban radio stations did come up with small ways to protest censorship; for example, playing specific ads immediately after a censored newscast became a small act of rebellion. The ads were noticed by the listeners, but rarely caught by the censors. A favorite was to end newscasts with ads for Tornillo soap; the news would end and then a different anouncer would come in, "Don't believe in tales, women - Tornillo Soap washes best of all." Bola Roja bean ads were also frequently played after the news; bola meant either 'bean' or 'rumor' in Cuban slang.

To stiffle dissenting information, Batista resorted to jamming Radio Rebelde, which was not always very effective and made the station seem that much more fascinating. Batista even briefly tried to confuse Rebelde listeners with a "black", or fake, clandestine, La Voz de la Sierra Maestra. However nothing kept Radio Rebelde from becoming the most listened-to station in Cuba.

In contrast to the regular Cuban media, Radio Rebelde told all the news, good or bad. Because Batista suppressed the truth, Castro could afford to tell it. The Cuban people trusted Rebelde and its audience grew to massive proportions. In the cities and towns, people closed their windows at night and tuned in Radio Rebelde. The scope of Radio Rebelde's listenership even surprised the guerillas, as its audience could be found in the most unlikely places. When rebel captain Napoleon Bequer went to the El Cristo leper colony in the mountains outside Santiago, his men were cheered. The lepers were regular listeners to Radio Rebelde.

Likewise, political prisoners at the Isle of Pines prison clandestinely listened to Radio Rebelde, either direct or via Radio Continente. Colonel Ramon Barquin, who had lead an abortive April, 1956 military uprising against Batista, was a prisoner. "All he could do was wait once again for nightfall, when he would pull the small transistor radio hidden beneath his mattress and place it next to a steel beam which served as a large antenna. That way he could listen to ... uncensored reports of the Cuban fighting" (Dorschner & Fabricio).

DXers, of course, also tuned in. Many frequencies were reported in North America, especially in the mid-late evening hours. Common ones included 15320 and 14240 kHz.


While the focus of Castro's 26th of July Movement was the guerilla movement in the Sierra Maestra, there were thousands of supporters in cities who donated money and supplied the guerillas with weapons, food, clothing, and other equipment. Middle class businessmen turned their Lions and Rotary clubs into fronts for revolutionary activities. Special urban units planted bombs and assassinated prominent Batista supporters. Priests helped hide rebels and included coded memos in radio sermons. Castro's organization was not alone. There were several other competing urban revolutionary groups, and a few had short-lived clandestine stations. One, the Voice of the Rebel Army, broadcast for a few minutes at a time and moved its transmitter every couple days. These other stations were usually located in Havana or other major towns, necessitating short irregular broadcasts.

Curiously missing from Castro's supporters was the Cuban Communist Party. Cuba's Communists prefered to work through established channels such as trade unions; to the Communists, rural guerillas were no better than adventurers or bandits. Officially at odds with the government, at times the Communists cooperated with Batista, and occasionally even betrayed rival opposition groups, including Castro's forces. Once the Communists were even given some positions in Batista's cabinet. Many Cuban revolutionaries had little love or trust for the Communist Party. It was not until Batista's fall was imminent that the Communists seriously joined the revolutionary movement to overthrow him.


Among the anti-Batista forces, Castro alone understood that support of rural peasants was key to the revolution. Traditionally, peasants counted for nothing in Cuban society. The police or military stole whatever they wanted and shot peasants at the slightest complaint. When wealthy landowners wanted to expand their holdings, they bribed the police or army to evict neighboring peasants from their lands.

Castro, however, treated the peasants with respect. His guerillas always paid for whatever food they took, often at twice the market value. When the guerillas raided a cattle ranch, they shared their bounty 50/50 with the peasants. The rebel camps held adult literacy classes and free medical clinics for them. In return, the peasant grapevine kept the guerillas informed of the army's every move. Many peasants joined the guerillas. Others helped bring supplies into the mountains or planted extra crops to feed the revolutionaries.

Castro's forces also included a number of foreigners. Some, like Che Guevara, were ardent revolutionaries; others were adventurers looking for a good time. Most were a little bit of both. Dozens of Americans fought with the Fidelista forces. One, William Morgan reached the rank of column commander.

Neil Macaulay, a former US army officer who had served in Korea, joined Dermitio Escalona's band in western Pinar del Rio in September, 1958. Escalona's column was the most isolated of the guerillas: they didn't have a two-way radio. "Escalona, however, did have a short-wave receiver - a magnificient Zenith Transoceanic that he had appropriated from the home of some informer - and he could keep abreast of the situation elsewhere on the island by tuning in the nightly broadcasts of Radio Rebelde from the Sierra Maestra. Whenever possible, I joined those who gathered around the Commandante's radio to hear transmissions from Oriente" (Macaulay).


On May 24, 1958, after a year-and-a-half of guerilla warfare, Batista launched his only major offensive against Castro's column. Seventeen battalions with tank, aerial, and naval support surrounded the Sierra Maestra. Their target was Castro's headquarters and Radio Rebelde. Castro had only 300 guerillas with him, and Batista's forces came on strong, in three weeks pushing Castro into just a few square miles of territory. But, Castro still had an advantage in communications - the peasant grapevine kept him imformed. At the end of June, he counterattacked against the 11th Battalion, which he trapped resting in a valley. The enemy force was torn apart; most soldiers were either killed or captured. Futhermore, the rebels captured an army shortwave transceiver and code book.

The severity of this defeat stopped the army in its tracks. Most of the commanding officers had no stomach for this kind of fighting; they prefered to be in the city collecting their kickbacks. Common soldiers had joined the army because it was the only work available and saw no reason to die for Batista. Although victory was still well within its grasp, the army retreated. During the entire war, the guerillas were always vastly outnumbered, but a few hardened, dedicated guerillas were more than a match for an army that was corrupt at the top and demoralized at the bottom.

As the remaining battalions made plans for retreat, the rebels listened in with the captured code book. They set up ambushes along getaway routes and inflicted more heavy casualties. Castro further confused the enemy by transmitting fake coded orders to specific batallions and air squadrons. Surprisingly, it was a month before the army realized that its code book had fallen into rebel hands!

Victory was sweet, but the guerillas were left with over 400 government prisoners. Although known corrupt officers were executed as a matter of course, honest officers and common soldiers were always well-treated and eventually released. This large number needed special attention, so Carlos Franqui made radio contact with the Cuban Red Cross and arranged a 48 hour truce to hand over prisoners. The massive release brought attention to Fidel's fair treatment of prisoners. Soldiers contrasted it with the treatment they were ordered to give captured guerillas - torture and a bullet.

After their failure in the Sierra Maestra, Batista's officers confined their troops to fortified barracks. As the war increasingly swung in his favor, Fidel's greatest fear became a military coup d'etat replacing Batista with a general. Too often in Latin American history, revoltionary movements had lost their focus when a cosmetic change was made in the government. People who had opposed the government moved to the sidelines and waited for great changes from the new leader. Usually little changed except the face of the man in charge.

In late August, Fidel went on Rebelde to tell both the army and the people that a coup would not be enough. The entire structure of the Cuban government had to go. Fidel had numerus discussions about this scenario with his top advisors, including Carlos Franqui. They agreed that if a coup happened, Rebelde wuld have to go on the air at once and give instructions to their supporters to keep the war going.

Continue to Part Two

* Denis Langley of Australia notes "Although after 1953, Castro did not wait for peaceful change, I think it is important to note that Castro was standing for a seat in the planned elections of 1953, and it was only after Batista enacted a coup to prevent the elections taking place, thereby crushing Castro's peaceful political aspirations, that he took to planning violent resistance."


This article is copyright 1993 by Don Moore.It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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