Haydée Santamaría -- that space between dreams and realities

Ocean Press edit at oceanpress.com.au
Tue Aug 12 18:48:33 MDT 2003


[The following essay is published as the Introduction to the new book
"Haydée Santamaría", part of the "Rebel Lives" series published by Ocean
Press in June 2003.]

By Betsy Maclean

“Our worldly happiness could very well have begun in a small apartment, on a
small island, on our small planet; and now it is our turn to take care of
the sun.”

Haydée Santamaría’s words perfectly describe the world which she, and all
revolutionaries, inhabit: that space between dreams and reality, between
particularity and possibility. One of Latin America’s most inspiring 20th
century women revolutionaries, Haydée’s persistent courage and endless
commitment to social justice blazed a trail for generations of guerrilleras
to come. But it was her almost singular dedication to internationalism that
set her apart. Her legacy is not only that of a woman who bravely fought for
the liberation of her country but also that of a revolutionary whose heart
and mind knew not national boundaries or ideological limitations.

Outside of her own revolutionary Cuba, outside of the Casa de las Américas’
Latin American cultural circle, however, the story of Haydée Santamaría is
not well known. Though she was one of only two women who fought in the July
26, 1953, attack on the Moncada Garrison in Santiago de Cuba -- the battle
that marked the beginning of the Cuban Revolution that triumphed in 1959 and
has endured against all odds to date -- her picture is not emblazoned on
T-shirts or dorm room posters, her revolutionary insights are not quoted in
feminist journals or revolutionary tracts. You find her instead in the small
places: in the vivid memories of women who fought with her in the urban
underground; in the warm smiles of writers, dancers, painters and musicians
who recall her steadfast support and explosive sense of humor; in the names
of young girls throughout the Americas whose mothers, so moved by her
example, named their own Haydées in her honor.

Why has this giant of revolutionary history, this shining example of
feminism and internationalism, been relegated to the shadowy corners of
Latin American political memory? The reasons are as numerous and as complex
as history itself, but at least three warrant a closer look. First, Haydée’s
own humility shunned the spotlight: she fulfilled her role in the Cuban
Revolution as her duty to humanity, not for fame nor for glory but, in her
own words, “to take care of the sun.” Second, there is the obvious sexism
plaguing all history -- revolutionary or not -- that habitually renders the
contributions of women invisible. Finally, the circumstances of Haydée’s
death may have most clouded the celebration of her life. For at the same
moment in which she secured her place in history, the loss of her beloved
brother, her lover and some 70 fellow combatants condemned her to death.
Twenty-seven years and two days after the bloody attack on the Moncada,
Haydée Santamaría did what revolutionaries are not supposed to do: she laid
down her revolutionary armor and took her own life.

Much time has been spent wondering why Haydée committed suicide. Cuba
detractors suggest that Haydée was sickened by Cuba’s strengthening alliance
with the Soviet Union, that she felt betrayed by Fidel Castro’s foray into
socialism. Any serious contemplation of her life and work will quickly
dismiss such notions. More credible accounts maintain that it was the death
earlier that year of her close friend Celia Sánchez -- Fidel’s most trusted
aide and the fourth of the quartet of Cuban revolutionary women that
includes Haydée, her fellow Moncada combatant Melba Hernández, and
Federation of Cuban Women head Vilma Espín. Many claim that Haydée never
truly recovered from her brother Abel’s tortuous death, after the Moncada
attack, at the hands of Batista’s henchmen. There was also her failing
health after a near fatal car accident months before, which left her in
constant pain. The truth, of course, is that we will never know exactly why
Haydée chose to end her own life. But we can intimate the depths of her
grief by listening to her own words. As far back as 1967, following Ernesto
Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia, Haydée wrote the following in a farewell
letter to her beloved friend and revolutionary collaborator:

"Fourteen years ago I witnessed the death of human beings so immensely loved
that today I feel tired of living; I think I have lived too much already. I
do not see the sun as so beautiful, I do not feel pleasure in seeing the
palm trees. Sometimes, like now, despite enjoying life so much and realizing
that it is worthwhile to open one’s eyes every morning if only for those two
things, I feel like keeping them closed, like you."

Haydée’s story reminds us that a revolutionary’s life is filled not only
with the great joy of ideological commitment, but, more often than not, with
tremendous, almost overwhelming pain. The massacre and subsequent torture of
the July 26 militants at Moncada signaled only the beginning of the loss
that Haydée would endure. Abel, her brother; Boris, her fiancé; Frank País,
the young and exemplary leader of the urban underground; Che, whose death so
profoundly affected not only Cuba but the world; and finally Celia -- these
names make up the short list of Haydée’s loved ones lost to the revolution.
The cause of her grief then, is clear. Less apparent is not what led to her
death, but what kept her alive.

The second of five children, Haydée was born on a sugar plantation in
central Cuba in 1922. Her parents, Abel Benigno and Joaquina, were
small-time landowners of Spanish descent. In the early 1950s Haydée, 26
years old, came to Havana with her younger brother Abel, 22, in order to
keep an eye on him. Long identifying with the oppressed -- from the baby
chickens on her family farm to the Cuban independence heroes, the Mambís --
Haydée’s sympathy for the growing student movement against government
corruption came quickly and easily. And so it was that when Abel brought a
young and fiery Fidel Castro home one day, the two young insurgents found
both an open heart and a revolutionary spirit in Haydée.

It was that now famous apartment in Havana which saw the beginnings of what
was to become the July 26 Movement -- the movement that eventually overthrew
the dictator Fulgencio Batista and constructed the Cuban Revolution from the
ground up. Well aware of their siblings’ political involvement, Aldo and
Aida, two of the remaining Santamaría children, sat out of the Moncada
attack in order to protect their aging parents. By the end of the
revolution, however, the entire Santamaría clan was involved in the struggle
in one form or another, most especially Haydée’s brother Aldo, who was
arrested on a number of occasions, and her mother Joaquina.

Much has been written about the [1953] attack on the Moncada Garrison, in
fact, an entire book dedicated to Haydée’s remembrances of that fateful day
will be published by Ocean Press in an expanded edition that includes a
prologue by Celia María Hart, Haydée Santamaría’s daughter. Suffice to say
that Haydée showed tremendous courage and extraordinary vision during the
operation. Her objective, long after the attack had fallen apart, was to
continue fighting long enough to allow for Fidel’s escape. This proved to
have been a crucial decision. Batista’s troops responded quickly and
brutally to the assault -- killing or capturing and subsequently torturing
and murdering almost three-quarters of the young insurgents. Fidel escaped
while Haydée and Abel were among those captured. It was in their adjoining
cells that Haydée’s fate was sealed -- as both a revolutionary hero and a
woman tortured by loss. It is worth quoting extensively Fidel’s recounting
of Haydée’s story, made famous in his courtroom defense, History Will
Absolve Me:

"A sergeant, with several other men, came with a bleeding human eye in his
hand into the cell where our comrades Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaría
were held. Addressing the latter, and showing her the eye, they said: 'This
eye belonged to your brother. If you will not tell us what he refused to
say, we will tear out the other.' She, who loved her brave brother above all
other things, replied with dignity: 'If you tore out an eye and he did not
speak, neither will I.' Later they came back and burned their arms with
cigarette butts until at last, filled with spite, they told young Haydée
Santamaría: 'You no longer have a boyfriend, because we killed him too.'
And, still imperturbable, she answered: 'He is not dead, because to die for
one’s homeland is to live forever.' Never before has the heroism and the
dignity of Cuban women reached such heights."

There are, of course, other stories, less brutal and perhaps more telling,
surrounding the legendary history of Haydée Santamaría. There is the story
of Haydée’s train trip to Santiago weighed down with a suitcase filled with
weapons. As she was getting on the train, a soldier offered to help her with
her luggage. Shocked by the incredible weight of the bag, he asked what on
earth she could be carrying. Calm and collected in what seemed to be any
situation, this shy girl from the countryside somehow convinced that soldier
that she was on her way back to university, with a suitcase full of books.
Her July 26 compañeros thought they had surely been found out when they saw
Haydée stepping down from her compartment with the very same soldier at her
side, carrying their precious cargo. Instead, the soldier walked up to the
patiently waiting militants, dropped the suitcase at their feet and with a
squeeze of his hand and a wink, Haydée sent him on his way.

And so Haydée passed the war as a gunrunner, tactician, international
fundraiser, coordinator of the urban underground and guerrilla combatant.
The triumph of the revolution in January 1959 brought with it a host of
well-known international consequences. Deeply embedded in a global context
fueled by the Cold War, Cuba’s choice to pursue a socialist path prompted
swift political and economic isolation. With visionary insight, Haydée
identified what she believed was the one crack in the ideological blockade
being built around her island -- culture. That realization gave birth to the
Casa de las Américas, which evolved into the foremost cultural institution
in all of Latin America. With her internationalist vision in tow, Haydée
transformed herself from guerrillera to cultural emissary, choosing to wield
art and culture as powerful weapons for social change.
Casa was created in 1959. Under Haydée’s direction, Casa set before itself
the Herculean task of “affirmation, defense and promotion of the values of
what Cuban patriot and revolutionary José Martí called ‘Our America,’” and,
by most accounts, Casa succeeded in doing just that. Through the years Casa
hosted and published Latin American cultural giants, from Gabriel García
Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Marta Conti to José Saramago, Alicia Alonso and
Eduardo Galeano.

The institution that Haydée built published numerous books by Latin America’
s greats whose controversial words may have remained otherwise unpublished
in the culture of artistic repression sweeping the continent in the 1960s
and 1970s. In addition, Casa printed its own political-literary magazine,
edited by Roberto Fernández Retamar, renowned Cuban poet, writer and Haydée’
s constant companion at Casa, whose words about his beloved mentor and
collaborator are included in this collection. Casa was also responsible for
bringing some of the world’s most celebrated dancers, musicians, painters
and theater groups to the island as part of the revolutionary imperative to
rectify decades of cultural elitism and bring art to the Cuban people. Home
to one of Latin America’s most extensive art collections, Casa also gathered
some of Latin America’s most important literary works in its library.
Finally, and representative of Haydée’s own revolutionary imperative, Casa
became a kind of home away from home, a refuge for artists of all genres
fleeing persecution in their own countries.

Eminent Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti himself sought refuge at Casa during
the worst years of repression under Uruguay’s military dictatorship. When he
finally was able to return to his homeland, after years of close
collaboration with Haydée, it was her internationalism that most impressed
this literary mastermind:

"For painters, musicians, writers, singers, theater people from Argentina or
Venezuela, from Chile or Mexico, from Uruguay or Nicaragua, from Jamaica or
El Salvador, and of course in her native Cuba, the very mention of Haydée
Santamaría signifies a world, an attitude, a sensibility, and also a
revolution, which she did not conceive of as confined to the land of José
Martí, but extended to the future of all our peoples."

It was in their internationalism that Che and Haydée met and overlapped. It
has been said that together, the two of them “brought Latin America to
 Cuba.” Neither Che nor Haydée were satisfied with the liberation of Cuba
because theirs was not a battle against a tyrant but against tyranny. Theirs
was the struggle for humanity, for justice in its most profound and
expansive expression.

Even within the revolution of her making, Haydée continued to challenge
limitations, boundaries both national and intellectual. Despite her
membership in the pantheon of Cuban revolutionary heroes, Haydée refused to
become an anachronism. One well-known example of her resoluteness was her
steadfast defense of Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, now two of Cuba’s
most famous sons, when their Nueva Trova [New Song] movement first appeared
on Cuba’s musical scene. During a time of ideological retrenchment, their
political lyrics and challenging stance were frequent targets for attack
from doctrinaire Cuban bureaucrats. Haydée shielded the talented young
singers and cautioned against dogmatism in all of its forms. “Remember,” she
regularly counseled international jurists upon their arrival in Cuba for the
Casa competition, “don’t worry too much about awarding works that are
politically impeccable; just concern yourselves with giving the prize to the
best.” Due to her untiring support and encouragement, Haydée was largely
credited for creating the atmosphere that spawned the rich and globally
celebrated cultural contributions by Cuban artists during the 1960s, 1970s
and 1980s. Without question, highly innovative and influential art continues
to flow from the tiny island nation to this day.

Haydée speaks to us then, on many levels: as a revolutionary, a feminist, an
internationalist -- but more than anything, she speaks to us as Haydée, Yeyé
to her close friends and family. There is a Cuban saying, “Cuando lo
extraordinario se vuelve cotidiano hay la revolución,” which, loosely
translated, declares: “When the extraordinary becomes ordinary, that is the
revolution.” Haydée Santamaría embodies this sense of greatness expected, of
the remarkable turned probable. It is hard to imagine what makes such a
fundamental transformation possible, but one glimpses it in the streets of
Havana, in an expansive way of being which seems to recognize membership
in -- and responsibility to -- a larger community. To foreign eyes, it is
hard to pin down what makes Cuba feel so different, harder still to trust
that it is real. Haydée not only knew what it was but sought it out, and,
eventually exemplified it -- this elusive ordinary extraordinariness that
makes a revolution.

This book is made up of works by Haydée herself, her thoughts on the Moncada
attack, on the formation of the Casa de las Américas, on her friend and
compañero Che and on revolutionary internationalism. It also includes work
about Haydée: letters, essays, poems and eulogies by some of Latin America’s
most celebrated artists and political activists, all written on the occasion
of her death. Included are remembrances by those who knew Haydée best:
Roberto Fernández Retamar, himself a brilliant writer and two-time winner of
the Cuban National Prize for Literature, who worked at Haydée’s side through
the formation of Casa and has stood at its helm since her death; Melba
Hernández, Haydée’s constant revolutionary companion at Moncada, throughout
their subsequent prison term and in the revolutionary struggle both before
and after the triumph of the revolution; Silvio Rodríguez, Cuba’s own Bob
Dylan, a Latin American troubador and politically poetic songwriter who has
performed for adoring crowds of hundreds of thousands throughout Latin
America; Alicia Alonso, Cuba’s prima ballerina and the soul of Havana’s
National Theater; and of course, Fidel Castro, the architect of the Cuban
Revolution and a fundamental presence in Haydée’s life. Also included are
contributions from Latin America’s finest poets, painters and political
commentators, including Costa Rican poet and essayist Carmen Naranjo;
Alejandro Obregón, Colombian painter, muralist, sculptor and engraver and
winner of the Guggenheim prize; and Chilean writer and Duke University
professor of Literature and Latin American Studies, Ariel Dorfman, whose
astute commentary on everything from Augusto Pinochet to Disneyland have won
him international acclaim.

These selections were made painstakingly from a mountain of possibilities
which, if included in their entirety, would easily fill a book at least
three times this size. The sheer quantity and remarkable quality of the
tributes stockpiled in the Casa de las Américas library speaks volumes for a
woman well-loved, tremendously respected and deeply missed.

In the end death found Haydée not in a Bolivian valley, in the Chilean
presidential palace, on the battlefields of Nicaragua, nor on the dais in a
Harlem ballroom. On that July day, Haydée Santamaría died as extraordinary
women pass from our world, not in a blaze of glory, but in a quiet room, in
love and in pain. She knew only too well José Martí’s words when he said, “A
good soul on earth hurts very much.” But as Melba Hernández reminds us,
“Yeyé is not dead, she is alive and will live on eternally in all those who
know that happiness is only found when we give ourselves to the great work
that is on behalf of the peoples, on behalf of humanity.”

Thus, as sure as she found the spirit of Che among the “Bolivian miner...
Peruvian mother... the guerrilla that is or is not but will be,” we will
find Haydée today in the Lacandon jungle, the Brazilian favela, the
Palestinian refugee camp. So as the nation that knew her so well celebrates
her extraordinary contributions, it is time for the world to reclaim this
revolutionary heroine. And let us love and learn from her not in spite of
her death, but because of her existence as an exceptional being -- a
complete, complex human being -- who both lived and died committed to
justice for all peoples.

Brooklyn, USA • May 2003


Haydée Santamaría (Rebel Lives)
ISBN 1-876175-59-1
Ocean Press June 2003


info at oceanbooks.com.au

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