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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.

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In September, 1958, Radio Rebelde announced that Castro was going on the offensive. Six columns of guerillas, led by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, set out for the center of the island to join smaller bands in the Escambray Mountains. It was no longer as much a guerilla war, as a traditional war of manuevering armies. Fidel planned to take the war to the towns and capture them.

The guerillas never lacked recruits and frequently turned down fifty recruits for each one accepted. Instead, a lack of weapons for potential rebels was always a problem. Most guerilla armaments were captured from government forces, so a concerted effort to take the towns would mean a rapid increase in the size of the guerilla forces. With each defeated garrison, weapons captured could arm more peasants could be armed. The larger forces could attack larger garrisons, capture more arms, and arm yet more peasants and soon the guerillas would be strong enough to threaten Cuba's major cities.

Che and Camilo kept their movements as secret as possible. The plan was not to reveal their presence until ready to attack. Once Che's column ran into an army unit and, in their haste to get away, a knapsack with a complete roll of names for the column was accidently left behind. A few days later while they were listening to an Havana radio station, General Tabernilla came on the air and announced that the army had just killed scores of guerillas - and he had the names of the dead to prove it. He then read the names of everyone in Che's column. The guerillas were amused to hear of their deaths!


In early December, Radio Rebelde carried out one its most important and daring broadcasts. A sypmpathetic American businessman placed full page ads in Cuba's most popular newspapers and magazines that read simply "What is 03C?" To anyone who asked, he explained that the ads were part of a teaser campaign for a new hair tonic. As the next ad would reveal, 03C stood for zero calvicie (baldness), zero caspa (dandruff) and zero canas (grey hair). The intriguing ads were soon the talk of Havana.

A few nights later, Radio Rebelde came on with the answer. "What is 03C? Zero Cinema. Zero Consmer Purchases. Zero Cabaret" Short professionally produced announcements urged people to buy nothing but the barest necessities to bring the economy to a halt. "If all Cuba is at war, don't you go to the cabaret!" Rebelde, however, had jumped too soon; not all the ads werein print yet. Apparently Batista's censors didn't listen to Radio Rebelde, as none of the remaining ads were pulled. Moreover, the campaign suceeded as the Cuban economy slowly began to collapse.

In mid-December there was a long string of guerilla victories, as town after town fell. Listening to the Zenith on December 25th, Macaulay heard Radio Rebelde read a long list of weapons and ammunition captured by Che's forces in Las Villas. Escalona's men salivated over the weapons; if only they could get a few.

Elsewhere, the guerillas found novel uses for radio. In early December, rebel Captain Perez Alamo's men had stolen Santiago police chief Haza's new black Oldsmobile 98. Hidden in their mountain hideout overlooking the city, every night the guerillas gathered around the car as Perez revved up the engine. Then he turned on the two-way police radio and announced, "Listen, Haza. We still have have your car up here. When are you going to come get it?" The guerillas howled in laughter at the string of obscenities that came back.

Cuban citizens and shortwave listeners continued to tune in to rebel radio-telephone conversations daily, such as this one between column commanders Cienfuegos and Guevara.

CAMILO: Tell me what the enemy movements are there and let me know if there is anything new. By the way, tell me what kind of tank you captured. . .
CHE: Well, Camilo, I see that its' bothering you, eh? It's a caterpillar tank. Its markings are slightly burned, but it's very pretty. . . The enemy is concentrated in the usual places . . . I heard you tell Fidel that you were going to take Santa Clara and I don't know what the hell else, but don't you butt in there because that's mine ... (Franqui)
Che was busily arming hundreds of peasants who were flocking to his column. Other columns joined Che's, and soon he had an army ready to assault Santa Clara, the third largest city in Cuba. By December 28th, most of Oriente, Camaguey, and Las Villas provinces were under Fidelista control. Santiago was under seige and the battle for Santa Clara was about to begin.


On December 31st, the collapse of Batista seemed imminent. Fidel's column occupied the small city of Palma Soriano, on the main highway thirty miles outside Santiago. Radio Rebelde, with a 120 watt Collins 32-V-2 transmitter and a tape recorder, moved into a bedroom in a little corner house at 201 Quintin Banderas Street. Carlos Franqui found a room a few blocks away.

Meanwhile in Pinar del Rio, Escalona's column was listening to news of the battle at Santa Clara. When Macaulay tuned in US medium wave broadcasts on the Transoceanic, all the news focused on Cuba and Santa Clara. Cuba was the lead story in Edward R. Murrow's last broadcast of 1958. He said that more soldiers had arrived to reinforce the garrison at Santa Clara and that the guerilla offensive had been stopped. Next Macaulay hunted down Radio Rebelde and other guerilla communications. The more they listened, the worse it sounded for the revolution. Some of the rebel two-way traffic was frenzied.

"Cuban Red Cross Calling, Cuban Red Cross ..."
"Listen here, chico, we have six comrades badly wounded at kilometer sixteen ..."
"OK! OK! We shall try to send a truck out for them. In the name of God, tell your people not to shoot at us ..."
"Calling Comandante William Morgan! Comandante William Morgan!..."
"Hear me! Hear me! Send us reinforcements. We need help - ammunition! If we stay here they will wipe us out. We are going to move north..." (Macaulay)
Rebel broadcasts were too chaotic to follow, so Macaulay continued scanned the dials. According to Venezuelan Radio Continente's news, the Fidelista offensive was still going strong. They were usually accurate. Radio Moscow exaggerated, putting Rebel forces in control of cities that hadn't been attacked. By contrast, a Dallas AM station announced gleefully that this was the end of Castro. The 11:00 p.m. CBS news was a final blow of bad news. "Forces loyal to President Batista of Cuba have defeated a large rebel force at Santa Clara." The news went on to say that the army would pursue the retreating rebels. Futhermore, a government spokesman "expressed confidence that the two-year-old Cuban civil war is nearing its end" (Macaulay). On that depressing note, Macaulay turned in for the night.

The next morning, New Year's Day, 1959, Macaulay got up at 7:00 a.m. He quickly found a Key West AM station. The main story was shocking, but clear - Batista had left the island!! He shouted "Batista sali�!!" and the entire rebel camp erupted in chaos. Soon, Macaulay was translating the details for the others. Details were sparse, but apparently there had been a coup d'etat. General Cantillo was now in charge, and Batista had fled into exile. Furthermore, Che had won in Santa Clara.

Retuning the Zenith, they heard rebels in Las Villas joking and congratulating each other, but the main Rebelde station from the Sierra Maestra wasn't on. There was nothing about the coup on Havana stations which were playing music, but there was an announcement about an important news conference later. Escalona got the men together to march to the lowlands; they would have to block the main highway. The march was different this time in that the Zenith was strapped over a guerilla's shoulder, tuned to CMQ, Havana's largest station.

In Palma Soriano, Carlos Franqui had also gotten up at dawn. Walking to Radio Rebelde, he heard excited voices and asked what was going on. When he heard there were reports that Batista had fled the island, Franqui ran to the station and tried to make contact with Havana. Vicente Baez, a 26th of July leader in Havana, affirmed that Batista had fled and added that General Cantillo was trying to form a junta. In Havana, Castro's underground was already taking control of the city's radio and TV stations. Short speeches and announcements were mixed with continuous playing of the national anthem. Citizens were ordered to remain indoors and all businesses were told to close.


Fidel had been in the countryside, out of touch with events. Walking to Palma Soriano, he forded a small river to a cheering crowd on the other side. As Castro stood there with his pants dripping wet, the crowd told him that Batista had left and the war was over. Rather than being overjoyed, he cursed. Couldn't they see this was just what he feared - a military coup to sidetrack the revolution? He quickly rushed by jeep to Radio Rebelde - his best hope to advert disaster.

Rebelde was in communication with commercial broadcaster CMKC in Santiago. CMKC informed Castro of what they knew about the situation in Havana & Santiago - that revolutionaries had taken over many buildings & were patrolling the streets, but Batista's forces were still holed up in their fortresses. Castro kicked everyone out of the room except Franqui, the technician & a few announcers. He wanted to broadcast a speech and record it for repeat airing at the same time. That was impossible with their current set-up. He would have to record first, then broadcast.

Castro stepped aside and glanced over some scribbled words in a battered notebook pulled from his pocket. He edited and added a few more lines. He and most of his troops were isolated 600 miles from Havana. He knew that the next few days in Havana would spell success or failure. The government could easily be passed on to "reformist" generals or traditional politicians. The guerillas would be forgotten. But, "he had two advantages which were beyond the experience of the old fashioned politicos: he had an army willing to die and to kill to achieve victory, and he had the ability to ignore the military men and politicians because, via radio, he could appeal directly to the people, to gain throughout the country a mass support, the likes of which had never been seen before in Cuba" (Dorschner & Fabricio). With that in mind, Castro recorded the most important speech in his career.

Throughout Cuba, people heard announcements that Castro would soon speak on Rebelde. Commercial stations told their listeners. People everywhere tuned in to Rebelde and listened expectantly. In Pinar del Rio, Escalona's men halted their march to gather around the Transoceanic one more time. At 9 A.M. came the announcement everyone had been waiting for, "Now coming to the microphone of Radio Rebelde, is the supreme leader of the Cuban Revolution, Doctor Fidel Castro Ruz, to broadcast declarations of the utmost importance."

Fidel's booming voice came on, "Whatever the news from the capital may be, our troops must not cease fire at any time...our troops must continue their operations on all battlefronts... Parlays should be granted only to those garrisons that wish to surrender... The people should continue listening to Radio Rebelde and make immediate preparations in every work center to declare a general strike as soon as the order is given, if necessary, to thwart any attempt at counterrevolutionary coup..." Castro dropped his text and shouted in an enraged voice, "A military coup behind the backs of the people and the Revolution, no! Because it would only serve to prolong the war ... Robbing the people of their victory, no! ... No one should be confused or deceived! ... The people and the Rebel Army must be more united and firmer that ever so as not to let slip the victory that has cost so much blood ... Revolution, yes! Military coup, no!"

Several Cuban broadcasters taped the speech off the air and immediately reaired it. Almost everyone in Cuba heard it. The speech had the effect Castro wanted. The Cuban people fell in behind him.

Across the island, the Cuban army in its fortified garrisons had no stomach to fight anymore and no idea of who was really in charge. As word of the fall of Batista spread, thousands of machete-welding peasants joined the guerillas. Most garrisons around the country quickly surrendered to the first guerilla commander who showed up at their gate. In mid-afternoon, Che announced over his Rebelde transmitter that the last troops in Santa Clara had surrendered. With their newly captured weapons, the guerillas continued to arm the peasants. If the generals in Havana played any dirty tricks, the rebels were ready to march on the city.


Franqui's staff was still making contacts with revolutionaries around the island. Franqui remembered "Among the voices heard on the air was one called Columbia Rebelde. It turned out to be Armando Hart and Mario Hidalgo, leaders of the 26th of July, who had been freed from the Isle of Pines prison and were at Camp Columbia (the main military base in Havana). I told Hidalgo that Cantillo was a traitor. Hidalgo answered: 'Cantillo's here beside me.' I thought that would be the end of Hidalgo because there were twenty thousand soliders at Camp Columbia and fewer than twenty revolutionaries" (Franqui).

Late that evening, Ramon Barquin, the rebellious colonel imprisoned on the Isle of Pines, was released and flown to Camp Columbia. In a desperate bid to preserve something of the old order, Cantillo placed Barquin in command of the Cuban army and, in effect, in command of Cuba. Barquin, Cantillo thought, was one of them, and surely his anti-Batista history could stave off a Castro victory.

The next morning, January second, the revolutionaries at Camp Columbia called Franqui and put Barquin on the radio. Franqui passed along an order from Fidel for Barquin to turn Camp Columbia over to Camilo Cienfuegos and his men, who would arrive that evening. Barquin didn't flinch; he had no plans to carry on with a lost struggle. He offered to turn the base over to Franqui right then. Surprised, Franqui pointed out that he couldn't very well take control of the base by radio from six hundred miles away. Barquin would have to wait for Camilo. Shortly afterwards, Barquin made a speech on Cuban radio announcing that he would turn the government over to the 26th of July Movement and place the Cuban army under the command of Castro's new Chief of Staff, Camilo Cienfuegos.

By the evening of January 2nd, Fidel Castro's guerillas were firmly in command of Cuba. Cienfuegos and 700 guerillas occupied Camp Columbia, and Che Guevara's column marched into Havana's other principal army base, La Caba�a. Meanwhile, Castro's column entered Santiago as thousands of citizens filled the streets to cheer them. Radio Rebelde moved into CMKC's building. Elsewhere on the island, Castro's rebels took over government buildings, police stations, and all centers of communication. Batista's former henchmen were rounded up and jailed.

Leaving Santiago and Oriente under brother Raul, Fidel left Santiago for Havana. He traveled by road and was stopped frequently by crowds demanding speeches. The six hundred mile journey to Havana took a week. Finally, on January 8 Fidel arrived. The streets were filled with cheering throngs. The rest of Cuba watched his triumphant entry on TV or listened on the radio. He made his way to Camp Columbia and made a televised speech before a crowd of thousands. Someone in the audience released three white doves as a symbol of peace; one landed on Fidel's shoulder and stayed there during most of the speech. Finally, it seemed, freedom had come to Cuba.


Freedom, of course, was not to be. The story of how Castro slowly consolidated his one man-rule over Cuba and moved leftward into the Communist camp is another tale, not to be told here. But, for a few brief months, Cuba had hope in Fidel Castro as its key to freedom.

If any one thing was responsible for bringing Fidel Castro to power, besides the presence of the corrupt Batista regime, it was Radio Rebelde. Castro himself said the Radio Rebelde was worth "ten columns" of troops. Radio Rebelde publicized the revolution. As Che Guevara later wrote, "When we began to broadcast from our own transmitter, the existence of our troops and their fighting determination became known throughout the Republic" (Guevara). Furthermore, Rebelde's presence became a symbol of weakness in the government. It "punctured the myth of Batista's invincibility, and as a result, the clandestine station became the lightning rod for the vast majority of the Cuban population opposed to the dictatorship" (Soley & Nichols). Radio Rebelde made Castro's movement the center of the anti-Batista forces in the mind of the Cuban people.

In the history of clandestine radio warfare, few stations can compare to Radio Rebelde. Rebelde was both a voice of the guerillas to the people and a complicated network of mobile transmitters linking dozens of guerillas bands into a cohesive fighting force. Furthermore, it was sucessful. Radio Rebelde is one of just a handful of clandestine stations that survived a revolution to come down from the mountains and become a voice of its national government. Today, Radio Rebelde operates some of the most powerful medium wave transmitters in the Americas on numerous frequencies. Its broadcasts are relayed to the world via shortwave on 5025 and 3366 kHz. Why not tune in Radio Rebelde tonight, and imagine the station in its glory days ... in a mud hut in the heart of the rugged Sierra Maestra .... "Free territory in Cuba."



Cannon, Terrence. Revolutionary Cuba. New York: Thomas & Crowell. 1981.

Castro's Radio Rebelde. FRENDX (The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association). September, 1967.

Dorschner, John & Roberto Fabricio. The Winds of December. New York: Coward, McCahn, & Geoghegan. 1980.

Early Pro-Castro Cuban Illicit Broadcasts. FRENDX (The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association). July, 1967.

Franqui, Carlos. Diary of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Viking Penguin. 1980.

Guevara, Che. Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. New York & London: MR Press, 1968.

Macaulay, Neill. A Rebel in Cuba. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. 1970.

Martin, Lionel. The Early Fidel. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart. 1978.

Matthews, Herbert L. Revolution in Cuba. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1975.

Ratcliff, William E. The Selling of Fidel Castro. New Brunswick: Transaction Books. 1987.

Soley, Lawrence C. & John S. Nichols. Clandestine Radio Broadcasting. New York: Praeger. 1987.

Thomas, Hugh. Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom. New York: Harper & Row 1971.

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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