Margaret Randall, Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression (Duke University Press, 2015) – A Review

In the early 1950s, Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado moved from a rural Cuban sugar plantation to Havana, to live with her younger brother Abel. Together, they would help to establish a revolutionary movement that would change the history of their country.

haydee-santamaria

Haydée (as she is known throughout Cuba, Yeyé to her friends) was one of only two women among 160 men who took part in attacks on Batista’s army barracks at Moncada and Bayamo on 26 July 1953 which sparked the Cuban Revolution. In the now-legendary speech Fidel Castro made during the trial for his part in these attacks, he paid homage to the two women who had fought alongside him:

Frustrated by the valour of the men, they tried to break the spirit of our women. With a bleeding eye in their hands, a sergeant and several other men went to 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 valiant brother above all things, replied full of dignity: ‘If you tore out an eye and he did not speak, much less will I.’ Later they came back and burned their arms with lit cigarettes until at last, filled with spite, they told the young Haydée Santamaría: ‘You no longer have a fiancé because we have killed him too.’ But still imperturbable, she answered: ‘He is not dead, because to die for one’s country is to live forever.’ Never had the heroism and the dignity of Cuban womanhood reached such heights.[1]

haydee-santamaria-and-fidel-castro

Sentenced to seven months in prison for her role in the attacks, Haydée was later charged with deciphering and disseminating Fidel’s defence speech under the title ‘History Will Absolve Me’. Using the nom de guerre of María, she played a vital part in the urban underground, helping to coordinate an uprising intended to distract the authorities from the arrival of 82 insurgents aboard a small motor cruiser, which marked the next phase of the revolutionary war. Always reluctant to leave Cuba, she went wherever Fidel needed her to be, travelling to Miami to secure weapons from gangsters and returning to Cuba with bullets sewn into the folds of her skirt.

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Having lost the love of her life at Moncada, Haydée married a young lawyer and fellow 26 July Movement member, Armando Hart Dávalos, who would become the first post-revolutionary minister of education and, later, culture. Together, they had two biological children and adopted many more, mainly young people displaced from their homes throughout Latin America. Beyond her extended parenting, Haydée’s greatest creation was an institution conceived to bypass the ideological blockade that descended upon the island – the cultural house, Casa de las Américas. This quickly became – and remains – a nexus for intellectuals visiting the revolutionary heartland from the Americas and beyond, a place where experimentation is encouraged and solidarities are formed. Becoming a member of the Central Committee of the governing Cuban Communist Party in 1965, Haydée used her revolutionary prestige to nurture and protect a great many artists and writers within the walls of her cultural house, especially when policy temporarily took a dark turn in the first half of the 1970s. In this place, which still thrives in her image, creative intellectuals from around the world come together to play a part in the island’s ever-evolving social processes. A book of letters to Haydée, published in Havana in 2010, provides a hint of the esteem in which she continues to be held across the continent; from Gabriel García Márquez to Nicolás Guillén, Che Guevara to Eduardo Galeano, these missives convey an atmosphere of amity and respect.

Margaret Randall – who lived in Cuba in the 1970s and developed a friendship with Haydée – has captured the essence of this exemplary woman in a book about her life. In what she calls an ‘impressionist portrait’, Randall confronts us with the empathy, intensity and spiritual purity of an outwardly unassuming woman. She takes us through Haydée’s early years, from the uncertain moment of her birth (the precise date of which is the subject of some debate) to her truncated education. We learn that, after her move to Havana, Haydée would prepare food for the incipient insurgents before joining them at the table to discuss strategy, and we are made privy to her eleventh-hour uncertainty about whether she and Melba Hernández would be invited to join the men at Moncada. Through Haydée’s own words, we learn of her brother Abel’s conviction that he would not survive the attacks and his insistence that Haydée continue the struggle, preparing her for what came next, which he knew would be the harder path to tread. We hear how she vowed to continue living until the next milestone had been reached – long enough to discover whether Fidel was still alive, so that she could tell him that Abel loved him and had given his life for him; long enough to see out the trial, so that she could tell the world how Abel had died; long enough to survive prison, so that she could play her part in spreading the revolutionary word while her compañeros languished behind bars; long enough to see the triumph of the Revolution, honing her unique intuition for evading capture and death. Through the fascinating archival images that pepper this account, many of which have been donated by Casa de las Américas, we glimpse the tenderness and solidarity that imbued the movement.

Breathing life into historical events in compelling prose, Randall shines a light on the challenges faced by a woman forging a new society in the second half of the twentieth century. While Western women struggled to achieve parity of education and control over their reproductive rights, the options available to young Cuban women were even more limited – confined to playgirls, prostitutes, housewives and maids: ‘One thing no Cuban woman, of any social class or culture, was supposed to do in prerevolutionary Cuba was take part in armed political struggle’. Randall also evokes the insight and internationalism that underwrote Haydée’s cultural work, her understanding of ‘art as the highest form of human expression and a necessary component of social change’. In this endeavour, Randall illustrates the ways in which Haydée embodied the new human subject that the Revolution has consistently sought to encourage as a precursor to new social relations. At the same time, Randall documents the contradictions that exist within individuals and political processes, observing that ‘some dreams of social change […] never came quickly or permanently enough for her vision of immediate justice’.

With her poet’s sensibility, Randall takes us on a lyrical journey into Haydée’s psyche. She itemises the values of justice, revolution and loyalty that imbued Haydée’s life. She shares the lighter side of Haydée’s character as a noted practical joker. She also unflinchingly interrogates the shadow of suicide that lingers over Haydée’s memory, exposing a family riven by untimely deaths and beset with depression. Within Cuba, it is written that eventually ‘her pain grew too much for her (the eternal pain her horrible executioners [sic] caused her after the Moncada attack), her mind grew darkened, and she took her own life’.[2] In her first public lecture on the subject of Moncada, delivered in July 1967, Haydée observed that it was much more difficult to speak about the events that had taken place – which she likened to the birth of her son, Abel, in their combination of agony and naissance – than it was to have orchestrated them. Through Randall’s observations, we feel her pain at being called upon to recall her most terrible memories, which became more acute with every retelling.

Randall continues to probe the circumstances that led this revolutionary woman to shoot herself in the home she shared with her children, within a Revolution that denounced suicide. Through her eyes, we come to inhabit the succession of tragedies that compounded Haydée’s darker thoughts – the torture and murder of her brother, fiancé and comrades at Moncada; the execution of her soul mate, Che Guevara; the loss of her dear friend and ally, Celia Sánchez, to cancer; the car accident that left her in permanent physical pain; the inexplicable exodus of her husband. ‘She was surrounded by ghosts. Perhaps their call had become too insistent. She also trusted the revolution and must have known that she had bequeathed the tools of social change to her colleagues, family, and friends’. Randall posthumously diagnoses Haydée as suffering from post-traumatic stress, exacerbated by underlying familial depression. The sense emerges that Haydée understood the value, difficulty and fragility of life and the impossibility of leaving a vital task undone, leading us to conclude that she ultimately decided – if rational thought was possible – that her life’s purpose had been accomplished. ‘Haydée was always absolutely sure of what she needed and wanted. Once her mind was made up, there was no deterring or seducing her to an alternative decision’.

From the acknowledgements onwards, it is clear that Randall’s account is firmly embedded in the Cuban process and shares the Revolution’s outrage at the divisive ‘gluttonous and desperate’ tendencies being perpetuated elsewhere. This is a deeply personal book about a heroic woman, written by someone justifiably proud to call Haydée Santamaría a friend.

Published in Monthly Review, New York City.

[1] Fidel Castro Ruz, ‘History Will Absolve Me’, Havana, 1953, F. Castro Ruz and R. Debray,

On Trial (London: Lorrimer, 1968 [1953]), pp. 9–108; also available at: Marxists.org/

history/cuba/archive/castro/1953/10/16.htm

[2] Roberto Fernández Retamar, ‘Sobre la Revista Casa de las Américas’, unpaginated.

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