Although the “Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña” never saw combat, and never fired its guns against an enemy, it is associated with very grim episodes of Cuban history.
It was, since its completion in 1774 until the later years of the 20th Century (circa 1985) a military fortress or barracks and a military prison. During the 19th Century the patriots that would rebel against Spanish colonial rule were executed in the moats of “La Cabaña”, particularly one part called the “Moat of Laurels”. Hundreds, if not thousands of Cuban patriots were shot or garroted between 1850 and 1898, most of them in that section of the moats.
In January 1959, after the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, and the so-called “Ejército Constitucional”, Constitutional Army, which had, in effect trampled over the Constitution since the military coup of 1952, collapsed and surrendered to Fidel Castro’s guerilla army, the “Ejército Rebelde”, The rebel commander Ernesto “Che” Guevara was ordered to capture “La Cabaña” and take all officers prisoners, and disarm all government forces there.
A new chapter of executions took place again in the moats of “La Cabaña”. Around 2000 people were speedily tried, most found guilty of “crimes of war” (killing of peasant supporters of the guerilla, rape, and wholesale abuse against civilians), or just plain opposition to the new government. This took place during 1959 and 1960. By 1961 it started dwindling down, and executions moved to different places.
Of course, the moats are not included in the regular tourist visits that are now the main business conducted at “La Cabaña”. After 1985 the whole facility became a museum and the firing of the 9 o’clock cannon, which has taken place almost uninterruptedly since colonial times, is now a ceremony and a show for visitors. It starts 20 or 30 minutes before 9 pm. All electric lights go out, except a few spotlights, highlighting first, a night watchman with an oil lantern, who goes around calling “9 o’clock, and all is quiet!”, and precedes a squad of musket bearing soldiers, dressed in 18th Century uniforms, three cornered hats and all. The squad marches around the main square inside the fortress, and climbs one of the ramparts looking towards the City, across the bay. There is an original bronze 18th Century gun on its wooden cradle, gunpowder and all the artillery paraphernalia ready nearby. The soldiers come to a halt, set their muskets in a pyramid-like group, and load and ready the gun. At the command voice of the squad leader, and sharply at 9:00 pm, the order of “Fire!” is given, and the lit fuse is applied to the “ear” of the gun: BOOM! The gun roars, the flash of the powder is seen, and down in the City, everybody is sure to know, it’s 9 in the evening, and time to start having fun… The squad picks up the muskets, form in rank, and march away into the night. Lights go back up, and the museum closes for the night 30 minutes after that.