By Jack Colhoun on October 14, 2015
Margaret Randall introduces one of the most remarkable, but little known, heroes of the Cuban revolution to North American readers in her important new book Haydee Santamaria: Cuban Revolutionary. Santamaria was the only woman to take part on all aspects of the revolution in the 1950s.
Haydee, as she was known In Cuba, participated in the Moncada Barracks attack in which her brother Abel and lher over Boris Luis Santo Caloma were captured, brutally tortured, and murdered by the Cuban army. She was captured, tortured, and imprisoned. As a leader of the urban resistance she smuggled arms and planned sabotage operations. She also fought alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra. After the triumph of the revolution, she founded Casa de las Americas, a path-breaking cultural institution that introduced the Cuban revolution to artists and intellectuals from around the world.
“This is not a biography,” Randall writes. “This is an impressionist portrait, written by a poet rather than a historian. Mine is a rebel and feminist lens.” Randall first wrote about Santamaria in her Cuba memoir, To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2009). The two women became friends as they collaborated on art projects when Randall lived in Cuba (1969-80).
I was spellbound by Santamaria’s description of her dealings with the Mafia to purchase weapons. The Mafia, which operated a colony of casinos, hotels, and nightclubs in prerevolutionary Cuba, sold arms to all sides in Cuba from Batista to Cuban rebel groups.
”I was forced to escape from one of those meetings with a pistol in my hand . . .,” Haydee recalled years later. “[W]hen I’d leave a meeting in the U.S., even if I took three or four showers I would feel dirty. I don’t want to give the false impression that any of those gangsters took advantage of me; they weren’t interested in a kid who barely weighed 90 pounds. But I was always afraid they might try to kidnap me in order to get money from Fidel.” But she “kept on transporting arms to the Sierra, and they [Cuban police] never caught me.”
Santamaria said the Mafia cheated the July 26th Movement, which did not get all the weapons it paid for. She asserted, “The ammunition we . . . were able to smuggle out was due to the courage of Cuban women, who traveled with it sewn into their skirts.”
Haydee was wise beyond her years. “I think it has to be difficult for people to be violent, to go to war if it’s necessary,” she told Randall. “What you can’t lose . . . is your humanity . . . When someone had to place a bomb . . . I would always choose . . . the one who had the greatest consciousness, the greatest human qualities, so whoever it was wouldn’t get used to placing bombs, wouldn’t get pleasure out of placing bombs, so it would always hurt him to [have to do that.]”
Her humanity was underscored when she adopted children of fallen revolutionaries from Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America and raised them with her biological children.