On October 16, 1953, Fidel Castro made a four-hour speech, but it wasn’t one of his long stem-winders to his followers.
It was a speech he gave as a prisoner, while being tried in court for leading a small group of rebels in an attack on the Moncada military barracks in Cuba on July 26th.
The remarks Castro made during his trial included his famous quotation: “History will absolve me.” (“La historia me absolver.”)
The Moncada Barracks attack was an attempt to start an insurrection against the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. It failed at the time and the men involved were either killed or captured by Batista’s soldiers. But it turned out to be the beginning of the “Cuban Revolution.”
The historical record makes it pretty clear why the revolution happened. Fulgencio Batista was a ruthless dictator. And, he got rich taking cuts and bribes from the U.S. corporations that ran most of Cuba’s major industries and from the American mobsters who ran most of the hotels and casinos in Havana. Meanwhile, most Cubans were poor, uneducated, ill-housed and disenfranchised.
In his remarks at his October 16, 1953 trial, Castro reviewed the many political crimes of Batista and his illegitimate presidency. The entire speech is famous among Marxists, but most books of quotations just give the “History will absolve me” line.
Batista made the mistake of not executing Castro after he was found guilty at the trial. Instead, Fidel was put in prison and then – in an even bigger blunder – Batista allowed him to be released in 1955, thinking he was no longer a serious threat.
The following year, Fidel, his brother Raul Castro, and Che Guevara began organizing disgruntled Cuban peasants into a growing revolutionary army. A few years later they succeeded in driving Batista out of the country (along with the American corporations and the mob).
For a brief time, it seemed like a victory for the Cuban people and potentially for democracy, since Castro had pledged to restore a democratic government.
Then, of course, Castro became a Communist, made himself the semi-godlike ruler of the country and brutally crushed any dissent.
History may absolve Castro for ousting the ruthless dictator Batista. But I doubt if any honest historical accounts absolve Castro for becoming a ruthless dictator himself.
Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 16:
• “I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where.” – The well known and often parodied lines from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Arrow and the Song,” which he composed on October 16, 1845.
• “Believe it or not.” – In 1918, artist and sportswriter Robert Ripley started publishing an illustrated feature about sports accomplishments and oddities in the New York Globe. He called it Champs & Chumps. After a while, he started including stories about non-sports-related oddities. Eventually, Ripley abandoned the sports angle entirely and, on October 16, 1919, his feature was retitled with the famed phrase we know today – Believe It or Not.