Guevara On Social Aims Of The Rebel Army: `Agrarian Reform Was Spearhead Of Combatants' In The Cuban Revolution
By Che Guevara. `40th Anniversary Of Workers And Farmers In Power In Cuba' series, from the Militant, Vol. 63, no. 11, 22 March 1999
The following speech was given at a ceremony in Havana Jan. 27, 1959, sponsored by the cultural organization Nuestro Tiempo (Our Epoch). Guevara had been asked to speak on the topic "The Social Aims of the Rebel Army." It will be included in a new edition Pathfinder is preparing of Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution: Writings and Speeches of Ernesto Che Guevara. The translation is copyright (c) 1999 by Pathfinder Press and is reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
Tonight we must invoke the ideas of [Jose'] Marti', as the person introducing me pointed out. And I believe that in speaking of the social aims of the Rebel Army, we are referring concretely to the dream that Marti' would have carried out.(1)
As this is a night of remembrance, before getting into the subject and its historic significance, we will briefly summarize what this [July 26] Movement has been in the past and what it is today.
I am unable to begin my remarks from the time of the attack on the Moncada garrison of July 26, 1953.(2) I will limit myself to the period in which I myself participated within the chain of events leading up to the triumph of the revolution this past January 1.
We will therefore begin this history as I did, in Mexico.
It is very important for all of us to know the current thinking of those of us who constitute the Rebel Army. This involves knowing the thinking of the group that embarked on the Granma adventure, and the evolution of this thinking within the July 26 Movement.(3) It also involves knowing how this thinking has evolved over various stages of the revolution, until we reach the final lessons of this most recent chapter, the conclusion of the insurrectional part.
I told you that I was introduced to the first members of the July 26 Movement in Mexico. The social aims of those men were very different prior to the Granma stage, prior to the first split in the July 26 Movement, at a time when it included the entire surviving nucleus of the attack on the Moncada garrison.
I recall a private discussion held in a house in Mexico, where I expressed the need to offer the people of Cuba a revolutionary program. One of the participants in the Moncada assault-who fortunately was to leave the July 26 Movement-answered with a few sentences I will always remember: "The thing is very simple. What we have to do is carry out a coup. Batista made a coup and took power in a day. We need another coup, to take it away from him. Batista has given the Americans a hundred concessions. We will give them a hundred and one." The thing was to grab power. I argued with him that the blow we were preparing to strike had to be based on principles, and that it was also important to know what we were going to do once we took power.
Such were the ideas of one member of the July 26 Movement during its first stage. Fortunately for us, as I told you, he and those who shared his views left our revolutionary movement and took another road.
From that moment on, the group that would later come on the Granma began to take shape. We were forged through many difficulties. Continual persecution by the Mexican authorities threatened the success of the expedition. In addition, a series of internal factors reduced the number of expeditionaries. Some people at first appeared to want to take part in the adventure; later, under one pretext or another, they decided to drop out. Finally there were the eighty-two of us who boarded the Granma. The Cuban people know the rest.
Transformation into army of peasants
What is of interest to me, and what is important, I believe, are the social ideas of the survivors of Alegri'a de Pi'o.(4) This was the first and only disaster that the armed rebels suffered over the course of the insurrection. About fifteen men, physically and even morally destroyed, were reunited, and we were able to continue on owing solely to the enormous confidence of Fidel Castro at those decisive moments, to his firmness as a revolutionary leader and his unbreakable faith in the people.
We were a group of city people who were thrown into the Sierra Maestra, but were not part of it. We walked from hut to hut and touched nothing that did not belong to us. We did not even eat anything we were unable to pay for, and often went hungry as a result of this principle. The peasants looked with tolerance on our group, but did not join it. This went on for some time. We spent several months wandering through the highest peaks of the Sierra Maestra, making sporadic attacks and returning to higher ground. We traveled from one peak to another, where there was little water and living conditions were extremely difficult.
Little by little the peasants' view toward us began to change, spurred by the actions of Batista's repressive forces, who devoted themselves to murdering people and destroying homes and who were utterly hostile toward those who even occasionally had the slightest contact with our Rebel Army. The shift in the peasants' attitude translated into the incorporation of palm-leaf hats into our ranks,(5) as our army of city folk was becoming transformed into an army of peasants.
As peasants yearning for freedom and social justice joined the armed struggle, the great magic words agrarian reform began to mobilize the oppressed masses of Cuba in their struggle for possession of the land. Thus emerged our first pronouncement on a major social issue. Agrarian reform would later become the banner and main slogan of our movement-although we passed through a stage of considerable uneasiness owing to natural concerns related to the policy and conduct of our great neighbor to the north.
At that time the presence of a foreign journalist-preferably from the Untied States-was more important to us than a military victory. It was more important to have U.S. combatants who would help export our revolutionary propaganda than to recruit to the struggle peasants who were bringing to the revolution their ideals and their faith.(6)
General strike in Santiago de Cuba
Around that time in Santiago de Cuba, a very tragic event occurred: the murder of our compan~ero Frank Pai's, an event that marked a turning point in the entire structure of the revolutionary movement. Responding to the emotional impact caused by Frank Pai's's death, the people of Santiago de Cuba spontaneously went out into the streets, producing the first attempt at a political general strike. Although leaderless, the strike completely paralyzed Oriente and had similar repercussions in Camaguey and Las Villas.(7)
The dictatorship crushed this movement, which arose without preparation or revolutionary control. The massive character of the response made us realize the necessity of incorporating into the struggle for Cuba's liberation the great social force constituted by the workers. Underground efforts in the workplaces immediately began, to prepare a general strike that would help the Rebel Army to conquer power.
That was the beginning of an insurrectional campaign by underground organizations. Those who gave encouragement to these movements, however, did not really understand the mass struggle or its tactics. The work was conducted in completely mistaken ways: a revolutionary spirit was not created, unity of the combatants was not achieved, and attempts were made to lead the strike from above, without effective roots among the ranks of the strikers.
The victories of the Rebel Army and the difficult and painstaking clandestine efforts stirred the country, creating a state of ferment so great that it provoked the declaration of a general strike on April 9 of last year. That effort failed precisely due to errors of organization, primarily lack of contact between the mass of workers and the leadership, as well as the leadership's mistaken approach.
But the experience was put to good use, and an ideological struggle arose within the July 26 Movement that led to a radical shift in the organization's view of the country's reality and its sectors of action. The July 26 Movement emerged strengthened from the failed strike. That experience taught its leaders a precious truth, which was-and is-that the revolution did not belong to any one group, but had to be the work of the entire Cuban people. All the energies of our movement's members, both in the cities and in the mountains, were channeled toward this end.
At precisely this time, the Rebel Army began its first steps to provide a theory and doctrine to the revolution, giving tangible proof that the insurrectional movement had grown and therefore attained political maturity. We had passed from the experimental stage to the constructive one, from trial and error to definitive acts.
Immediately we began the work of creating small-scale industries in the Sierra Maestra. A change occurred that our forebears had seen many years ago: we passed from a nomadic life to a settled one; we created centers of production in accordance with our most pressing needs. Thus we founded our shoe factory, our weapons factory, our workshop to rebuild the bombs that the tyranny dropped on us, giving them back to Batista's soldiers in the form of land mines.
First act of agrarian reform
The men and women of the Rebel Army never forgot their fundamental mission in the Sierra Maestra or in other areas, which was to improve the conditions of the peasants and to incorporate them into the struggle for the land. Schools were set up, in which improvised teachers went to the most inaccessible parts of this region of Oriente.
There in the Sierra we made the first effort at dividing up the land, with an agrarian law drafted principally by Dr. Humberto Sori' Mari'n(8) and by Fidel Castro, and in which I had the honor of collaborating. The land was given to the peasants in a revolutionary manner. The large farms belonging to servants of the dictatorship were seized and divided up, and all state lands began to be put in the hands of the region's peasants. The moment had arrived in which we identified ourselves fully as a peasant movement closely linked to the land, and with agrarian reform as our banner.
Later on we reaped the consequences of the failed strike of April 9. Batista's barbaric repression made itself felt at the end of May, provoking a very serious decline in all of our areas of struggle that could have had catastrophic consequences for our cause.
The dictatorship prepared its fiercest offensive. Around May 25 of last year, ten thousand well-equipped soldiers attacked our positions, focusing their offensive on Column no. 1, which our commander in chief Fidel Castro led personally. The Rebel Army occupied a very small area, and it's hard to believe that this body of ten thousand soldiers was opposed by only three hundred rifles of freedom, since this was all we had in the Sierra Maestra at that time. As a result of correct tactical leadership in that campaign, Batista's offensive came to an end on July 30, and the rebels passed from the defensive onto the offensive. We captured over six hundred new weapons, more than double the number of rifles we had when the action began, and we inflicted over a thousand casualties on the enemy, including killed, wounded, deserters, and prisoners.
The Rebel Army emerged from that campaign ready to initiate an offensive on the plains. The character of this offensive was to be tactical and psychological in nature, since our arms were unable to compete in quality-and even less so in quantity-with those of the dictatorship. This was a war in which we always relied on the people, that priceless ally of such extraordinary valor. Our columns were able to continually evade the enemy and situate themselves in the best positions, thanks not only to tactical advantages and the morale of our militiamen, but to a very large extent because of the great assistance of the peasants.
The peasant was the invisible collaborator who did everything that the rebel combatant could not. He supplied us with information, kept watch on the enemy, discovered its weak points, rapidly brought urgent messages, spied on the very ranks of Batista's army. This was not the result of any miracle; it was because we had energetically begun to implement our policy of responding to the peasants' demands. In the face of the bitter attack and circle of hunger that enveloped the Sierra Maestra, ten thousand head of cattle were taken from the landlords of the surrounding region and brought up to the mountains. This move was not intended to supply the Rebel Army alone; the cattle were also distributed among the peasants. For the first time, the guajiros [peasants] of the Sierra, in this miserably poor region, had their well-being addressed. For the first time, peasant children drank milk and ate beef. And for the first time too, they received the benefits of education, because the revolution brought schools along with it. In this way the peasants in their entirety came over to our side.
Batista's terror, with U.S. bombs
The dictatorship, on the other hand, gave them systematic bombing of homes, expulsion from the land, and death; and not only death from the ground but death from the air, with napalm bombs that the democratic neighbors up north graciously gave Batista to terrorize civilian populations. These bombs weigh five hundred kilos apiece, and when they explode destruction is spread over more than a hundred meters. One napalm bomb dropped on a coffee field means the destruction of that wealth-embodying years of accumulated labor-over an area of a hundred meters, and five or six years are needed to repair what was destroyed in a minute.
During this period we began the march on Las Villas.(9) It is important to point this out not simply because I was a participant in it, but because when we arrived at Las Villas, we encountered a new political and social panorama of the revolution.
With our banner of the July 26 Movement we arrived in Las Villas, where there were others already fighting against the dictatorship: the Revolutionary Directorate, groups of the Second Front of the Escambray, groups of the Popular Socialist Party, and small groupings of the Authentic Organization.(10) It was necessary to conduct an important political effort, and more than ever before we saw that unity is a paramount factor in the revolutionary struggle. The July 26 Movement, with the Rebel Army at its head, had to work for unity among the different elements that were at odds and whose only cohesive force was the Sierra Maestra and its accomplishments. It was necessary first of all to plan out this unity, which could not be achieved among the groups of combatants alone, but also had to involve the organizations in the cities and towns. We had to undertake an extremely important effort to assess all the existing organizations of workers in the province. This was a task carried out in the face of many opponents, even within the ranks of our own movement, who still suffered the disease of sectarianism.
Decree ending rent for small farmers
We had just reached Las Villas, and our first act of government-before establishing the first school-was to issue a revolutionary proclamation establishing the agrarian reform.(11) Among other things, it was decreed that the owners of small parcels of land would cease paying rent until the revolution could make a decision in each case. Agrarian reform was indeed the spearhead of the Rebel Army.
This was not a demagogic maneuver. It simply reflected the fact that over the course of one year and eight months of revolution, the leaders and the peasant masses had influenced each other to such an extent that at times the revolution carried out actions it had previously never envisioned. This did not come out of thin air, it had to do with the way peasants were threatened. For our part, we convinced them that with a weapon in one's hand, with organization, and with loss of fear of the enemy, victory was certain. On the other side, the peasant, who within his blood and bones had powerful reasons for doing so, imposed the agrarian reform on the revolution, imposed the confiscation of cattle and all the social measures that were taken in the Sierra Maestra.
In the Sierra Maestra, during the days of the electoral farce of November 3,(12) Law no. 3 was decreed, establishing a genuine agrarian reform. Although it was not complete, this law had very positive elements in it: state land was divided up, along with that of servants of the dictatorship and those who had acquired property fraudulently, such as land-grabbers who had gobbled up thousands of caballeri'as in borderlands. It granted title to all farmers who worked no more than two caballeri'as and who paid rent. All absolutely free. The principle was very revolutionary. The agrarian reform will benefit more than 200,000 families.(13)
But the agrarian revolution has not been completed with Law no. 3. To do so it is necessary that the constitution incorporate rules against the large landed estates. It is necessary to define precisely the concept of large landed estates, which characterizes the structure of our agriculture and is an indisputable source of the country's backwardness and of all the evils facing the great majority of peasants. These have still not been touched.
It will be the efforts of the organized peasant masses that will impose the law proscribing the system of large landed estates, in the same way as they compelled the Rebel Army to issue the beginnings of an agrarian reform contained in Law no. 3.
There is another aspect that should be taken into account. The constitution specifies that every expropriation of land must be paid for ahead of time in cash.(14) If the agrarian reform is undertaken in accord with this precept, it will likely be rather slow and onerous. What is also necessary is collective action by the peasants who, since the revolution's triumph, have earned the right to freedom. They can use that freedom to democratically demand the abrogation of this provision in order to move forward, backed by law, to a true and broad agrarian reform.
We have begun to put the Rebel Army's social aims into effect; we have an armed democracy. When we plan out the agrarian reform and observe the new revolutionary laws to complement it and make it viable and immediate, we are aiming at social justice. This means the redistribution of land and also the creation of a vast internal market and crop diversification, two cardinal objectives of the revolutionary government that are inseparable and that cannot be postponed since they involve the people's interest.
All economic activities are connected. We must increase the country's industrialization, without overlooking the many problems accompanying such a process. But a policy of encouraging industry demands certain tariff measures to protect nascent industry, as well as an internal market capable of absorbing the new commodities. We cannot increase this market except by giving the great peasant masses broader access to it. Although the guajiros have no purchasing power, they do have necessities to meet, things they cannot purchase today.
We are well aware that the ends we are committed to demand an enormous responsibility on our part, and we know that these are not the only goals. We must expect a reaction against us by those who control over 75 percent of our commercial trade and our market. In the face of this danger we must prepare ourselves to apply countermeasures, among them tariffs and an increase in the number of our foreign markets. We need to create a Cuban merchant fleet to transport sugar, tobacco, and other commodities, because owning our own fleet will have a very favorable influence on the type of shipments, a factor upon which the progress of underdeveloped countries such as Cuba depends to a large degree.
Need to nationalize basic resources
If we are to undertake a program of industrialization, what is most important to achieving it? Raw materials, which the constitution wisely defended and which were given to foreign conglomerates by the Batista dictatorship. We must work to recover our subsoil, our minerals. Another element of industrialization is electricity. This must be taken into account. We are going to make certain that electrical energy is in Cuban hands. We also have to nationalize the Telephone Company, owing to the poor service it gives and the high prices it charges.(15)
What tools do we have to carry out a program such as I have presented? We have the Rebel Army, and this must be our first instrument of struggle, the most positive and most vigorous one. All remnants of the Batista army will be destroyed. Let it be clearly understood that we are not doing so out of vengeance, or solely out of a spirit of justice. Rather, we do so out of necessity, to assure that all these conquests by the people can be achieved in the shortest period of time.
We defeated an army vastly superior in numbers through popular support, through correct tactics, and through revolutionary morale. But now we must confront the reality that our army is not prepared for the new responsibilities it has acquired, such as defending Cuba's territory as a whole. We have to rapidly restructure the Rebel Army, because along the way we built an armed body of peasants and workers, many of them illiterate, uneducated, and without technical training. We must train this army for the great tasks its members have to face, and train them both technically and culturally.
The Rebel Army is the vanguard of the Cuban people, and in referring to its technical and cultural progress we have to know the meaning of these things in a modern sense. We have already symbolically begun its education with a poetry reading conducted almost exclusively in the spirit, and using the teachings, of Jose' Marti'.
Taking back the nation involves the destruction of many privileges. We therefore must be prepared to defend the nation from its avowed or disguised enemies.
In this sense the new army has to adapt itself to the new mode of life that has arisen out of this liberation war, since we know that if we are attacked by a small island,(16) it will be with the support of a power that is almost a continent. We would have to withstand on our soil an aggression of immense scale. For this reason, we must get ourselves ready and prepare our advance with a guerrilla spirit and a guerrilla strategy, so that our defenses do not disintegrate at the first onslaught, and maintain their central unity. The entire Cuban people will have to become a guerrilla army, since the Rebel Army is a growing body whose maximum size is limited only by Cuba's population of six million. Every Cuban must learn how to handle a weapon and when to use it in their own defense.
I have described, in broad strokes, the social ideas of the Rebel Army after the victory and its role in driving the government forward to clearly express revolutionary aspirations.
To conclude this talk, I would like to speak about one other question of interest: the example of our revolution for Latin America, and the lessons it has taught by destroying all armchair theories. We have demonstrated that a small group of determined persons, supported by the people and not afraid to die if necessary, can wind up defeating a regular, disciplined army, and do so once and for all. That is the fundamental lesson. There is another one that must be learned by our brothers and sisters of Latin America, economically facing the same agrarian condition as we do-and that is the need to make agrarian revolutions, fighting in the fields and mountains, and from there bringing the revolution to the cities; not trying to do so in the cities without an integral social program.
Cuba's example for Latin America
Now, in the face of the experiences we have had, the question is raised of what our future will be, a future intimately linked to all the underdeveloped countries of Latin America. The revolution is not limited to the Cuban nation, since it has touched the conscience of the Americas and has given a serious wake-up call to the enemies of our peoples. We have therefore issued a clear warning that any attempt at aggression will be repulsed arms in hand.
The example of Cuba has created more ferment throughout Latin America and the oppressed countries. The revolution has put tyrants in Latin America on notice, because they are the enemies of popular regimes the same as the foreign monopolies are. As a small country, we need the support of all the democratic peoples, especially those of Latin America.
We must inform the entire world as to the noble ends of the Cuban revolution, and we must call upon the friendly peoples of this continent, upon the North Americans and upon the Latin Americans. We must create a spiritual union of all our countries, a union that goes beyond mere verbiage and bureaucratic coexistence, and is translated into effective aid to our brothers and sisters, offering them our experience.
Finally, we must open new roads that will help identify the common interests of our underdeveloped countries. We must be prepared to resist all attempts to divide us. To fight against those who try to sow the seed of discord among us, those backed by well-known designs who aspire to take advantage of our political disagreements and stir up prejudices that cannot be allowed to exist in this country.
Today all the people of Cuba are on a struggle footing. We must continue in this manner, united, so that the victory over the dictatorship is not transitory. And so that it becomes the first step in the victory of Latin America.
1. Jose' Marti', a noted poet, writer, speaker, and journalist, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892 to fight Spanish rule and oppose U.S. designs on Cuba. In 1895 the party helped initiate a war of independence against Spain, and Marti' was killed in battle the same year. His revolutionary anti-imperialist program is part of the political foundation of the Cuban revolution, and he is considered Cuba's national hero. This speech was given on the eve of the 106th anniversary of his birth.
2. On July 26, 1953, some 160 revolutionaries under the command of Fidel Castro launched an insurrectionary attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba, and a simultaneous attack on the garrison in Bayamo, marking the beginning of the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista dictatorship. After the attack's failure, Batista's forces massacred more than fifty of the captured revolutionaries. Fidel Castro and twenty-seven others were tried and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. They were released in May 1955 after a public defense campaign forced Batista's regime to issue an amnesty.
3. On November 25, 1956, eighty-two revolutionary fighters, including Fidel Castro, Rau'l Castro, and Guevara, set sail from Tuxpan, Mexico, toward Cuba aboard the yacht Granma, to initiate the revolutionary war against the Batista regime. The expeditionaries landed in southeast Cuba on December 2.
4. At Alegri'a de Pi'o the eighty-two Granma expeditionaries were taken by surprise by Batista's troops on December 5, 1956, three days after the landing. Half the rebels were killed or captured; a quarter of them were eventually able to make their way to the Sierra Maestra mountains to begin guerrilla operations. See Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, pp. 88-92.
5. The palm-leaf hat was a traditional part of the Cuban peasant's dress.
6. In early 1957 three young men from the United States whose families lived at the U.S. naval base in Guanta'namo in southeastern Cuba, joined the Rebel Army and served with it briefly. In April 1957, the three were interviewed on film by U.S. journalist Robert Taber. This interview played a prominent role in the United States in popularizing the rebels' cause.
7. Frank Pai's was the central leader of the July 26 Movement in Santiago de Cuba. He was the main organizer of the Nov. 30, 1956, uprising in Santiago that was planned to coincide with the landing of the Granma expedition. In the early months of the revolutionary war he played a key role in sending supplies and reinforcements to the Rebel Army. Pai's was murdered by Batista's police on July 30, 1957. Some sixty thousand Santiago residents attended Pai's's funeral, and a week-long general strike shook Oriente province and much of the island.
8. Humberto Sori' Mari'n was a lawyer who joined the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra in 1957. Shortly after the 1959 victory, he went into opposition and joined an armed counterrevolutionary band seeking to topple the revolutionary government. He was captured and executed in 1961.
9. From the end of August to October 1958, Guevara led a Rebel Army column in a march westward from the Sierra Maestra toward the central province of Las Villas, to expand the war to the entire country. Another Rebel Army column led by Camilo Cienfuegos led a simultaneous march westward. From Las Villas, the two columns played a decisive role in sealing the fate of Batista's regime.
10. The Revolutionary Directorate was a student revolutionary organization based primarily in Havana. In early 1958 it set up a guerrilla front in Las Villas that eventually agreed to fight under the command of the Rebel Army.
The Second National Front of the Escambray was a guerrilla organization in Las Villas that originally came out of the Revolutionary Directorate, but later broke from it. The organization adopted a generally hostile stance toward the Rebel Army, and its operations had a largely bandit-type character. After the victory of the revolution, most of its leaders joined the counterrevolution.
The Popular Socialist Party (PSP) was the name of the pro- Moscow Communist Party.
The Authentic Organization was the military organization of the Authentic Party, the capitalist party ousted from power in Batista's 1952 coup.
11. Guevara's Military Order no. 1, decreeing an agrarian reform in the Escambray mountains of Las Villas, can be found in Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War on pages 380-81.
12. The Batista regime organized general elections for November 3, 1958, in an attempt to provide a legal cover to the dictatorship. The July 26 Movement called for a boycott and organized to obstruct the elections. Amid massive voter abstention, Batista's candidate for president, Andre's Rivero Aguero, was declared elected.
13. Law no. 3 of the Sierra Maestra was proclaimed by the Rebel Army on October 10, 1958. It granted tenant farmers, squatters, and sharecroppers the ownership of the land they worked, providing its total area was less than two caballeri'as (67 acres; 1 caballeri'a pproximately 33 acres, or 13.43 hectares). The law, which was applied throughout Cuba after the January 1 victory, was a precursor to the agrarian reform proclaimed by the revolutionary government on May 17, 1959.
14. Guevara is referring to the Cuban constitution of 1940, a document that reflected the anti-imperialist sentiment that remained strong among the Cuban people in the years following the 1933 revolutionary upsurge that toppled the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. It included language advocating land reform and other democratic measures, but these provisions remained dead letters under the successive pro-imperialist regimes. The 1940 constitution was abrogated entirely when Fulgencio Batista seized power in a 1952 coup. Its restitution was a demand of the July 26 Movement in the fight against Batista.
15. The Cuban Telephone Company was a subsidiary of the U.S.- owned International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. (ITT). Management of the phone company was taken over by the revolutionary government on March 3, 1959, and it was nationalized the following year.
16. This is a reference to the Dominican Republic, then under the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Rafael Leo'nidas Trujillo. From the first days of the Cuban revolution, the Trujillo regime made open threats against it. In August 1959 Trujillo organized a military expedition that landed at the airport in Trinidad, Las Villas province. The expedition was crushed immediately by Rebel Army forces.
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