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On 26 July 1953, Fidel Castro led an ill-fated assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. This date was chosen because it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Cuban writer and patriot Jose Martí.
Unfortunately the attack failed (the dictator Batista was not overthrown until 1959); but 26 July remains the most important date in the Cuban revolutionary calendar. It is a good time to be in Cuba for two reasons: it coincides with a number of local carnivals, and it is your best chance to see el Commandante speaking in person - albeit from a very long distance.
Havana and Santiago de Cuba - the two largest cities - both have huge 26 July celebrations. For weeks beforehand every town in Cuba is covered with banners, posters, placards and official graffiti (admirers of Communist kitsch can gorge themselves silly). In Santiago it is also carnival time. (This was another reason Fidel chose 26 July to attack the barracks: they expected all the guards to be drunk.) The Santiago carnival is an impressive affair - a riot of dancing, floats, sound systems, suckling pigs on spits and general merry-making lasting for several days. Being further from Varadero, Santiago is also - at least for the time being - a little more intimate and less touristic than Havana.
At the Moncada barracks, an Act of Commemoration takes place early in the morning every year: the list of the martyrs of the revolution is read out and guns are fired. On this date, Fidel also makes his customary (and customarily long) speech. The venue varies from year to year; only Party faithful are invited to attend, but it is sometimes possible to see the man by peering over the inevitable security stockades. The speech is also broadcast on Cuban TV, and, for its duration, all carnival activities close down. Castro holds the world record for making long speeches (see the Guinness Book of Records), and - since the bars only re-open when he has finished - the end of his oration is inevitably greeted with rapturous applause. ¡Viva el veinte-seis!
Also called Rebellion Day.