By Javier de Miguel
LEON, Spain – A new book tells the story of more than 1,000 Cuban volunteer fighters who, despite widespread anti-Spanish sentiment on the Caribbean island, sided with the Republican cause in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and the ideal of revolutionary struggle against a “crude military caste” it represented.
That is one of the theses put forth by French scholar Denise Urcelay-Maragnes in her book “La leyenda roja. Los cubanos en la guerra civil española” (The Red Legend: Cubans in the Spanish Civil War), which has just been published in Spanish by Lobo Sapiens.
Those volunteers disembarked in Spain to wage a “substitute struggle” after a Cuban insurgent movement – made up of nationalists and communists – had postponed an uprising against their own authoritarian government in 1936, the author said in an interview with Efe.
She said relations between Spaniards and Cubans had been “very complicated” since the start of the island’s 19th century independence process and deteriorated as a result of heavy Spanish emigration to the island in the first decades of the 20th century, a phenomenon opposed by many Cuban nationalists.
Asked why the anti-Spanish sentiment on the island did not deter Cuban participation in the war, Urcelay-Maragnes said the army revolt led by Gen. Francisco Franco on July 18, 1936, sparked a “change in attitude” toward Spain.
One of the motives was opposition to fascism and another was the desire to recover Cuba’s identity, which was seen as diluted by U.S. meddling in the island’s affairs. “People said then that even the stones would end up speaking English,” she added.
Cuban nationalists of that era evoked the “mythical vision” of the “Spanish revolutionary people” who rose up in arms against Napoleon at the start of the 19th century to halt the French imperialist forces.
They also put forth the argument that “the true Spain is revolutionary Spain and not the one that enslaved the Americas,” Urcelay-Maragnes said.
A total of 1,067 Cuban volunteers are known to have fought in the Spanish civil war, 111 of whom died in the conflict.
The French scholar said a group of Cuban exiles in Spain fought alongside the Republican forces from the first day, with some participating, for example, in the July 1936 assault on the Montaña barracks outside Madrid, in which trade unionists and loyalist urban police prevented a garrison from launching a military rebellion in the capital.
She said other Cuban exiles from the United States later fought at the Jarama front, while beginning in 1937 fighters from Cuba were spread out among different parts of Republican-held territory, such as Teruel, Barcelona and Valencia.
After the Second Spanish Republic fell to Franco’s forces in 1939, most of them returned to Cuba after fleeing over the border into France.
Following the 1952 coup that toppled elected Cuban President Carlos Prio, some of those fighters would join the opposition to the regime of Fulgencio Batista, a movement that culminated with the triumph of Cuba’s “own revolution” – led by Fidel Castro – on Jan. 1, 1959. EFE