Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression

Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression

by Margaret Randall

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Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression by Margaret Randall

Taking part in the Cuban Revolution's first armed action in 1953, enduring the torture and killings of her brother and fiancé, assuming a leadership role in the underground movement, and smuggling weapons into Cuba, Haydée Santamaría was the only woman to participate in every phase of the Revolution. Virtually unknown outside of Cuba, Santamaría was a trusted member of Fidel Castro's inner circle and friend of Che Guevara. Following the Revolution's victory Santamaría founded and ran the cultural and arts institution Casa de las Americas, which attracted cutting-edge artists, exposed Cubans to some of the world's greatest creative minds, and protected queer, black, and feminist artists from state repression. Santamaría's suicide in 1980 caused confusion and discomfort throughout Cuba; despite her commitment to the Revolution, communist orthodoxy's disapproval of suicide prevented the Cuban leadership from mourning and celebrating her in the Plaza of the Revolution. In this impressionistic portrait of her friend Haydée Santamaría, Margaret Randall shows how one woman can help change the course of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822375272
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/20/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Margaret Randall is the author of dozens of books of poetry and prose, including Che on My Mind, and the translator of When Rains Became Floods: A Child Soldier's Story, both also published by Duke University Press.

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Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary

She Lead by Transgression

By Margaret Randall

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7527-2



Cuba is an independent and sovereign socialist state of workers, organized with all and for the good of all as a united and democratic republic, for the enjoyment of political freedom, social justice, individual and collective well-being and human solidarity.

— Article 1 of the Cuban Constitution

In these times of global economic crisis, the poor and middle classes of countries calling themselves capitalist, Socialist, Communist, Social Democratic, Christian Democratic, monarchist, liberal, Islamist, conservative, or based on the principle of happiness lose jobs and security while small groups of the powerful rake in more and more of the profit stockpiled by their labor. This gulf between rich and poor, between gluttonous and desperate, has become so sharp it seems irreversible. Even more troubling to those of my generation who believed we could change the world, current powers favor the reverse direction from the one we imagined.

Dramatic climate change and devastating natural disasters, the increasing interdependence of nations, a liberating but also dangerously controlling information revolution, race and gender manipulation, the intentional complexity of corporate markets with their tricky bundling and devious hedge funds, the destruction of public education and consequent failure to teach young people critical thinking, the glorification of violence, fabricated need, elaborately deceptive official rhetoric, and expertly induced fear: all combine to convince us healthy change is impossible.

Endless wars mask ordinary need and overcome our longing for peace. Obscene amounts of money buy elections. Pseudopatriotism has taken the place of reason. The mentally ill are denied the services they require, and some of them take their frustrations out shooting up schools or other public places. Whistle-blowers, once respected and protected, are now considered traitors and exiled or imprisoned. Evil is blamed on anyone different from ourselves, and a cultivated fear of difference nurtures a racist and xenophobic status quo that keeps mainstream America from asking the complex questions. Many of those we misunderstand, disregard, and treat as childish underlings hate us with good reason.

Against this backdrop and through the systematic erasure of historic memory, few Americans recall that only fifty-five years ago, a small group of rebels on a Caribbean island ninety miles from the Florida coast ousted a dictator and took the future of its nation into its hands. A successful social revolution right offshore! The United States was stunned when it suddenly lost control of one of its nearest clients. Public officials, unaccustomed to thinking such a thing could happen, weren't prepared. The US power structure wasted no time in devising ways to undermine what it saw as an incongruous and unacceptable upstart.

The United States sought and received help from regional dictators, such as Somoza of Nicaragua and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Members of Cuba's owner classes were afraid of losing their fortunes. Churches were nervous about an atheist imposition (which the revolution, unfortunately, did nothing to counteract). And an irrational anti-Communism made it easy for a rapid dissemination of lies and unfounded rumors to spread fear even among many in Cuba's middle class.

Inside the United States, the first two Cuban counterrevolutionary organizations were founded before 1959 had even come to an end: La rosa blanca (The White Rose) and Milicias obreras anticomunistas (Workers Anti-Communist Militia). The CIA funded them from the beginning. In March 1960, Eisenhower approved a government program aimed at bringing down the revolution. It consisted of four parts: sabotage, the introduction of paramilitary groups to spark an internal uprising, the establishment of a subversion and intelligence network, and a broad campaign of psychological warfare. In this same year, the first important group of business owners and those with large landholdings left the island.

While the US government's posture was becoming more and more criminal, many on the American Left, on the other hand, were inspired; their understanding of this new revolution varied, but they were quick to see in it the answers their diverse visions conditioned them to understand.

To the United States, prerevolutionary Cuba had been a convenient playground where high-end businessmen could go for a weekend of fun at one of the US crime syndicate–owned casinos, spend a few hours with a voluptuous mulata, and drink rum and Coca-Cola oblivious to what life was like for those who serviced their whims. In old Havana, a US marine had a few too many beers, climbed a statue of José Martí, and urinated on the patriot's head. Such incidents, harmless jokes in the imperialist mind, to Cubans were symbolic of decades of domination.

For them, their country was a land where a one-crop sugar economy exploited vast numbers of cane cutters who had work only a few months of the year. These people were indebted to the company store and subsisted under miserable living conditions with little access to education and health care. Sugar, tobacco, and coffee production was in the hands of US companies. Cuba depended as well on US oil and imports of all kinds. The nation's raw materials and human resources meant huge profit for foreign interests, with a bit trickling down to an ostentatious local oligarchy.

All this got much worse on March 10, 1952, when an ex-president and general named Fulgencio Batista staged a coup and took power. The left-center Orthodox Party had been expected to win the upcoming elections, but Batista put an end to even such modest dreams of reform. The United States immediately recognized the new government, which it knew would continue to protect its interests. All over the island, young people were looking for ways to take back their country.

In Havana, a young lawyer named Fidel Castro was able to rally a group that would later emerge as the July 26 Movement. The name was derived from the attack 160 of his men and two women launched against Moncada Barracks, the nation's second-largest military garrison, in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. The action was a military failure but lit the spark that became the Cuban Revolution.

The young revolutionaries, some of whom are featured in this book, gave a great deal at Moncada: brothers, husbands, fathers, lovers. They also lost their innocence — but gained immeasurably in dignity. The Cuban people learned there were those among them committed to sacrificing everything for justice. Moncada's survivors, including Haydée Santamaría and Fidel Castro, were captured, tried, imprisoned, and eventually released in 1954 and 1955. Fidel found it too dangerous to continue the struggle on home soil and retreated to Mexico. There he gathered and trained a group of less than a hundred men. He vowed they would be back in the mountains of his homeland, fighting or dead, before the end of 1956.

Embarking upon an overloaded and risky sea voyage, the secondhand yacht they called Granma departed from the Mexican port of Tuxpan and landed at Las Coloradas beach on Cuba's eastern coast in the early morning hours of December 2, 1956. The Santiago underground had planned an uprising to coincide with the landing and provide cover for the returnees, but choppy seas and slow going on the part of the novice sailors made for miscalculation. Most of the revolutionaries were gunned down upon arrival. Fidel, his brother Raúl, Che, and a few others made it into the nearby mountains; some have said twelve, some sixteen, some only seven. They may have been able to salvage seven weapons. With these in hand, Fidel famously declared the war won.

What followed were two years of increasingly well-organized guerrilla warfare. It would become a model emulated, with varying degrees of success, by other liberation movements throughout the next two decades. Nothing like it had been seen in the Western Hemisphere since Haiti's successful defeat of French colonialism in 1804. Finally another small country, exploited by US imperialism, was demonstrating the courage and capacity to rebel.

Cuba's revolutionaries, women as well as men, proved brave, strategic, ingenious, and extremely capable. They built an impenetrable stronghold in the Sierra Maestra mountains and a perfectly coordinated underground movement in the cities. In February 1957 they were even able to bring New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews safely into and out of the mountains, where he interviewed Fidel and gave worldwide lie to Batista's claim that the rebel leader had been killed in the landing.

At first the guerrillas suffered a string of defeats. But they learned from their mistakes and by the end of 1957 were winning battles, capturing military posts, and taking prisoners — whom they treated with a generosity that set them apart from their adversaries. Fidel and a number of other leaders demonstrated an unusual integrity. News of the Argentine doctor named Ernesto "Che" Guevara began to surface. Toward the end of the war, in September 1958, a woman's platoon went into battle: a first for the times.

From a motley group of visionaries — lost, hungry, and without enough weapons to go around — and in a surprisingly short period of time, the rebel army grew to thousands: several well-trained columns capable of coming out of the mountains and advancing the length of the country, liberating cities as they went. Just as important, the Cuban people supported their liberators in ways rarely seen before or since. Thousands of those who weren't directly involved warned the revolutionaries of approaching danger, hid people in their homes, supplied food and other provisions, carried messages, or simply stayed silent and out of the way.

On January 1, 1959, Batista and his inner circle fled. The July 26 Movement had won the war. It then continued the sometimes messy job of incorporating other progressive forces — those of the old Socialist Party (PSP, Moscow-oriented Communists), the Student Directorate in Havana, and other groups — into a cohesive governing body and began to construct a society that politically, economically, and socially was the antithesis of its predecessor. Had the United States observed a hands-off policy, this would have been difficult enough. Given the obstacles it devised to bring the revolution down, the task became titanic.

Fidel was the acknowledged leader, admired and beloved in almost every quarter. By February 1959, he was the country's new prime minister. In April the casinos were closed and Cuba's pristine beaches opened to the public. In May the first agrarian reform law was enacted. An urban reform law followed. In October a people's militia was established to protect a revolution already being sabotaged by the United States and disaffected Cubans. Neighborhood groups called Committees to Defend the Revolution (CDR) were also set up, creating a nationwide web of "people's eyes and ears" to guard against attack.

The next few years would see giant advances in the creation of a more just society: the nationalization of sugar mills and foreign oil interests, a literacy campaign that taught almost all Cubans to read and write, the establishment of free and universal health care, and an emphasis on putting people to work, building schools, creating day care centers, and retraining domestic workers and women who had been forced to work in the sex industry so they could use new skills to seek more dignified employment.

Coca-Cola, the iconic thirst quencher favored by a people deeply immersed in US culture, was no longer the popular soft drink. One of many commodities that disappeared or were in very short supply, it was replaced by Son, a substitute that never quite satisfied. More important, because shortages appeared and the revolution prioritized equal access, a rationing system was soon implemented. It affected almost all basic necessities, including food and clothing.

When I moved my family to Cuba in 1969, we opted for the ordinary ration book rather than the special one most foreigners had. I remember the five of us receiving three-quarters of a pound of meat every nine days, a liter of fresh milk a day for those under twelve, a can of condensed milk per person per month, three eggs a week for each of us. Coffee was in short supply. Nonsmokers, my partner at the time and I traded our cigarette ration for something more to our liking. My three older children were at boarding school all week and ate well there, so we were able to invite friends to eat with us on weekends. When one harvest or another came in, extra potatoes or vegetables appeared at market. There were lots of jokes about split peas, and lots of recipes made the rounds, often featuring something that might have been thrown away to create a new dish or making what we had last as long as possible. The knowledge that no one in Cuba went hungry mitigated the stringent rationing. I can't remember feeling deprived.

Although new global political configurations, the Cold War, and some important internal errors kept Cuba from the sort of rapid development it envisioned, making people's basic necessities rather than capitalist profit the priority enabled the revolution to fulfill dreams of universal health care, an educated population, and access to culture and sports. Even today, fifty-five years later and in its complicated transition to open markets while retaining its principal socialist gains, what has been maintained is astonishing.

In July 1960, the United States suspended its quota of Cuban sugar; the Soviet Union immediately agreed to buy that sugar at favorable prices. In September of that year Cuba nationalized all US banks. In January 1961, Washington broke diplomatic relations with Havana. The United States increased its program of covert and overt actions against the young revolution and in April 1961 launched a full-scale military attack, called Bay of Pigs in the United States and Playa Girón on the island. The Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations expected Cubans to rise up and join the mercenaries. What happened instead was that they defended their revolution and defeated the invaders in two days. The 1,200 mercenaries captured were later traded for $54 million dollars worth of medicine and baby food.

Subsequent years would see the Cuban Revolution developing its unique brand of socialismo en español (socialism in Spanish). US public intellectual and philosopher Susan Sontag visited Cuba in 1969 and wrote perceptively: "Like all Revolutions, the Cuban one is a reorganization — and a vast release of human energy [...] this release of energy is experienced as 'liberating.' Even deprived of the right to go into private business or to see pornographic films, the great majority of Cubans feel vastly more free today than they ever did before the revolution." Sontag remarked on the cultural nature of the revolution, differentiating it from the Old Left models in which changed relations of production were prioritized above all else. She pointed to Che Guevara's "Man and Socialism in Cuba" (1965) and its emphasis on creating a new consciousness as well as new economic relations.

From its inception, the Cuban Revolution saw itself as part of a global struggle. Even as it consolidated its own process, it looked to movements in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. "Two, three, many Vietnams" became a rallying cry. Cuba's goals were full independence and the right to design a responsive relationship between the people and their leaders. It contributed a great deal to world revolution, including the extraordinary generosity of its internationalist contingents of doctors, teachers, soldiers, and other experts still working in dozens of colonized and underdeveloped countries.

Sontag considered "the greatest discovery of the Cuban Revolution [to be] the invention of Cuban internationalism, that peculiarly intense form of fraternal international feeling [...]. Havana today," she wrote, after the revolution's first decade, "starkly denuded of commodities and comforts as it is, is vibrant with the conviction of being a world capital. [...] One feels more in the world, more in touch with events, in Havana, capital of this poor small Caribbean island, than one ever does in such genuinely provincial cities as Rome or Stockholm."

Many who have written about the Cuban Revolution have pointed to this internationalism, this sense of being part of a vast human community, this new consciousness so often mentioned by Che and Fidel, as indicative of change that is human as well as political. No one in the revolutionary pantheon embodied this spirit of politics as a set of human relationships more than the subject of this book, Haydée Santamaría.


Excerpted from Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary by Margaret Randall. Copyright © 2015 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

1. Before We Begin  1

2. Why Haydée?  11

3. Early Life  31

4. Moncada  53

5. War  81

6. Witness  107

7. Casa de las Américas  127

8. Two, Three, Many Vietnams: Haydée and Che  159

9. The Woman beneath the Myth 177

10. Impossible Possibility: Elegy for Haydée Santamaría  195

Notes  207

Bibliography  217

Index  221

What People are Saying About This

Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in between Journeys - Ruth Behar

"In her personal and passionate book, Margaret Randall dares to speak out about the pained silence surrounding Haydée Santamaría, perhaps the most important female figure of the Cuban revolution. Drawing on archives, interviews, memories, and imagination, Randall brings this complex woman to life, both to honor her quiet idealism and to mourn her death by suicide, which made it impossible for her to be seen as a proper national hero. This book opens the door to much-needed scholarship about the trauma suffered by women who sought to bring about social transformations on the island."

Bernardine Dohrn

"Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary is essential reading for all involved in the struggles for social justice, and for those devoted to literature, the arts, and imagination as a core ingredient in realizing another world. In Margaret Randall's literary hands, Haydée is a study of an ordinary, yet remarkable woman redefining herself through commitment to revolutionary change and to the people she loved. It is also a magnificent and sorrowful meditation on revolution, loss, gender, and art. A major and outstanding book."

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