In Honor of International Women’s Day
Celia Hart on Two Women Leaders of the Cuban Revolution
1. A Butterfly Against Stalin
(25th Anniversary of the Death of Celia Sanchez Manduley)
by Celia Hart, January 14, 2005
In honor of International Women's Day, we are posting two pieces by Celia Hart. The first reminiscence, about Celia Sanchez, has been edited for Labor Standard from the version on Walter Lippmann's web site.
The second piece, Celia Hart’s reminiscence about her mother, Haydee Santamaria, appeared in English in Tricontinental magazine in 2004, and is to be published by Ocean Press.
Her tribute to a third heroine of the Cuban revolution was posted earlier on the Labor Standard web site. See “Last Flight of the Santamarias.”
Celia, to whom
I owe the beautiful sound of my name, was not only the personal secretary of Fidel,
renouncing everything: family, political visibility, and other benefits she deserved
for being the first woman rebel in the Sierra Maestra. Celia was, in fact, the personal
secretary of the Cuban revolution. She was the first lady, but not the first lady
Celia set up a bridge between Fidel and the people, a light and flexible bridge. Her wisdom and briskness, her light step, her quietness, and her love for the revolution, to which she was so devoted—those were her best weapons. Freeing myself from any sense of machismo or feminism or any other isms they can assign to me, I envision José Martí thinking of Celia Sánchez when he wrote: “It is not that she is lacking any of the best capacities a man has, but that her fine and sensitive nature sends her to higher and more difficult tasks.”
As a child, Celia and her father, a physician working in Manzanillo, his home town, took a bust of Martí to the highest point in the island. Thus the initiation of Cuban revolutionaries is recorded together with the name José Martí. If the words of this mystery are felt rather than understood as a child, nothing more needs to be said; you will become a revolutionary. And if you betray this, nothing more can be done to prevent you from becoming the worst of/human beings.
In her fragile structure, her thin hands, and the colors of her unique clothing, José Martí, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban people were joined without clashing.
To know about Celia it is enough to look at the beautiful book Ensayo para una biografía (Essay for a biography) by Pedro Alvarez Tabío.
Manduley was born in May 1920, in Media Luna, a small rural town with about 4,000
inhabitants in Oriente province (the eastern part of the island) near the
If anything can
be said of the place, Media Luna worked in the production of sugar, which was low
in 1920; when several workers strikes took place; and when the auspicious Socialist
Party, founded in 1906 by Martín Velóz (Martinillo), was already spreading socialist
ideas in Manzanillo, during the first decade of the century. If we add to this the
undaunted devotion to José Martí and to the history of
Armando Hart writes in his essay “Profiles”: “I remember the first time I heard talk of Celia (1950). The comrades Pedro Miret and Nico López went to Santiago to make contact with Frank País, to tour around Oriente province and analyze the probable areas we could use as locations for revolutionary combat …They returned to Havana from Oriente, happy with the possibilities they had found in Manzanillo, where Celia and other comrades organized clandestine cells and supported the popular movement against the tyranny.”
At some time we will have to stop and calibrate Cuban society then …
Fidel Castro must have been a great man for being able to sum up, organize, and launch as only one revolutionary party the many and formidable forces existing in my country.
In 1957 Celia made the transition definitively to working with Fidel. From that moment on she turned over the spirit of the people that she carried within her to the immensity of Fidel, being present at every decision and giving that same audacity, tenderness, and commitment with which she placed the first bust of Martí in the Pico Turquino. Celia Sánchez placed her gifts of revolutionary, guerrilla, and organizer in the hands of Fidel Castro who, after that, could no longer leave behind that slender military strategist.
Once the revolution triumphed, her mission was the same: that of transducer. A perfect mediator between the work of the revolution, its people, and its leaders.
I remember, as a child, that my father would say: “I’m going to go see Celia.”. He said it like a sacred act, partially secret, as if he was going to confession. And that was true: facing Celia who had the magical power to join heaven and earth without showing off, like ideas and sublime projects that she transformed into rapid memos, efficient meetings, and pertinent engagements. The administrative life of Fidel Castro: The impressive Agrarian Reform, the Declarations of Havana, Girón—and the October Crisis, when the world was about to end in a nuclear war—somehow all these were weighed and decided in a building on 11th Street in the neighborhood of Vedado in the capital. There Celia and Fidel lived, each in their own apartment, like good neighbors.
My mother and
Celia formed a sort of revolutionary sisterhood. The intuition in face of the problems,
the character of the comrades, everything was settled by these two women as if they
were still making a revolution. And they were! They were the revolutionaries who
lasted through time, the ones who did not betray, those who did not abandon us either
politically or economically—which is also a form of betrayal. They are there today,
in combat. They are the ones who still suffer when they encounter negligence; who,
wherever they are, do not hesitate to stop and ask and question and change. Because
the revolution that Celia planned together with Fidel, Frank, Che, Camilo, Haydée,
[and others] is absolutely the only revolution possible in
Recently I uselessly tried to make myself understood by a comrade about the elements of Stalinist bureaucracy in the Cuban revolution. I tried to explain how this revolution lived its first fifteen years without becoming institutionalized, how tasks of prime importance were pushed forward, with that heterodox form, such as the literacy campaign, the educational plans, and all the reforms that, more than reforms, are revolutions or missions that made this revolution the dream of millions of young men and women in the world, that perfectly organized the political life of Cuba.
The triumphant socialist revolutions must conquer a subtle and persistent and … deep-rooted… enemy. Stalinism. Stalinism (to somehow give a name to this tendency) can do away with the resolves of socialism. The danger of trying to keep alive the socialist revolution and not try, uselessly, to build socialism in only one country, the agony of always being alone…or of having strange bedfellows; such things infect us with this disease, which is mortal if not caught in time, but easy to cure if we have hearts, intelligence, and courage in serving the revolution, as Celia showed. Stalinism with its resort to dark and widespread abuse of power, its contract with political mediocrity, its hatred for talent and adventure is a destructive power like the bacteria that defeated the Martians in the renowned work written by H. G. Wells and broadcast by Orson Welles—“The War of the Worlds.”
Neither science nor the highest skills and will of men could destroy them. Merely some minute organisms were able to wipe out these invaders from space. That is the way Stalinism works. No, but don’t think I am a pessimist: We are hit by bacteria and acquire bacteria every day. But we also have lymphocytes. They protect us from disease in this battle. If the macrophages cannot handle it, if there are too many bacteria or if they are very new, it’s enough to attack them with the right antibiotic and in a few days we are saved. Stalinism is a bacterium we acquire when we achieve power. But, we also have many good bacteria that we didn’t have before. With Stalinism it’s enough to be vaccinated periodically.
The socialist revolution, being a new form of power needs new vaccines. We spend time being careful about “accidents” or foreign “aggressors” and do not take care to be vaccinated against self-generating ills. This has been one of the problems of revolutions … A vaccine, a simple vaccine. There are moments when it is too late and we must apply drips with strong antibiotics that are drastic measures, those that are a two-edged sword, but necessary.
“/It would be naïve to think that Stalin, unknown by the masses, suddenly rose up from the background armed with a strategic plan all prepared. No … Before he had set out on his road, bureaucracy had predicted him/ …”, Trotsky said (“The revolution betrayed”). In my opinion, Trotsky has always given the best diagnosis of the disease. That is Stalin: he was the repository of that natural stress that a socialist revolution undergoes. Even more so if it is a socialist revolution that is isolated and persecuted by a fierce imperialism. The invisible siege of Stalinism is much more dangerous then.
One of these vaccines, one that fought this bacterium in my revolution, naturally and organically, was Celia Sánchez. She never lost the bonds with the people. The harder the international political scene, the more she boosted popular opinion.
In 1975 the first Congress of the Party and its institutionalization occurred. Armando Hart again says: “The guerrilla fighter of the mountains of Oriente, she who liked to sleep in hammocks and walk along the trails…was, however, capable of promoting, organizing, and finding her way amid the formalities of the official tasks that all states inevitably have.”
It was another stage of the revolution. Left behind were many things. The young revolution dressed in long gowns; she was 15 years old. Celia knew how to rise to the occasion and understand the road and somehow solve the new circumstances around her … this young woman. She enjoyed the beautiful: she enjoyed and cultivated it like the mariposa flower.
I still don’t
understand how these two women who never went to university were the masters of
Perhaps her love
of beauty made her a true revolutionary and could frighten off the dark ghost of
Stalin, that gray ghost that has always wanted to swallow up the infinite light
of that authentic [and good] “specter” mentioned in the first line of the Communist
Manifesto. Or perhaps she could enhance and harmonize the life of Fidel just because
she was a true revolutionary. It’s the famous story of the chicken and the egg.
It doesn’t matter. One thing is clear for us: Somehow Celia was the summary of the
Che reminded us endlessly that one of our sacred duties was world revolution. Celia, with her rapid gait reminded us to never stop the revolution within our watery borders. Better advice? Impossible!
And after the triumph over this monster there is the loving care of Celia. It’s as simple as that.
Celia was implacable with imperialism and the enemies of the Cuban revolution, who are, all told, the enemies of the world. She didn’t permit, for one instant, the shroud of bureaucracy to cloud the task at hand. She could not save us from all its manifestation, but at least she knew the enemy, because Stalinism is also our enemy. She knew that while she lived alongside Fidel she would give it no space. There were, undoubtedly, Stalinist tendencies. There is a tendency for that which is bureaucratic to subtly penetrate society and for that which is mediocre to find followers, but in Celia this tendency encountered its most hardened opponent.
(Hubo tendencias estalinistas sin dudas, esa tendencia para lo único que no es burocrática es para penetrar en la sociedad, y para lo único que no es mediocre es para buscarse adeptos, pero esta tendencia encontró en Celia el más aguerrido contrincante.)
I remember as if today were January 9, 1980. Haydée Santamaria got us out of bed, just this once. They say that the only time they saw her in that state was in 1967 with the death of Che. Amid constant tears I heard mi mother say only one word that made her cry more: “Fidel, my daughter. Who will take care of Fidel now?” “Fidel is healthy, Mama. There are many comrades taking care of him,” I answered. But today I understand my mother. With Celia the people took care of Fidel, its best comrade.
It is twenty-five
years now that these two women have no longer been with us. So many things have
ceased to exist! Now the
Every morning when I take my son to school I observe those fragile and willful winged beings who, in unequaled flight, enfold us. I wonder if Celia remembered, before dying, to explain to these little ladies how much we need them to protect us from the new ghosts.
by Celia María Hart Santamaría
goodness, there are people who
are willing to risk everything—even
their lives. . .
They die without complaint, knowing
they will live on after death. . .Silvio Rodríguez
Even after so many years, Mama still exerts a strong influence on my brother Abel and me. Speechlessly, we feel her heart beat in every piece of furniture that left her house, and her acute and intelligent view is what moves an antique footstool or vase from one place to another.
Nothing we have has ever belonged to us; we did not inherit anything. Somehow, she ordered things this way, and that’s how it’s been. The love and strength with which she viewed everything protects her property. She was skilled in more spheres than most other revolutionaries were — and she was indeed a revolutionary. I’ve never had a better example so close to me, but, in order to imagine her well, so that my children and yours may know her, try to combine the independence of a Madame Bovary with the purity of Joan of Arc — or, more simply, the intimate poetry of Anne Sexton and her “Wanting to Die” with the head-on, deeply-rooted, singular commitment of Fidel Castro’s Revolution, in which she began to live right from the beginning, as this book1 makes perfectly clear. That Revolution, which entered the narrow doorway of her and her brother Abel’s apartment at 25th and O Streets, which she had assigned herself the task of keeping clean — a revolution which now, 50 years later, seems to be the world revolution — lay at the heart of the existence of that woman, my mother, who cherished it just as she cherished each one of us.
Time and again, she told me that she trusted Fidel completely right from the beginning and that Fidel should live for a long time, for her and for Abel.2 We are absolutely convinced of this now, but half a century ago, only the special light that shone in those Santamarías showed how important a man such as Fidel Castro was for the Cuban Revolution. She stated this in the letter she sent to my grandparents from the Guanajay jail for women, which is included in this edition.
With an almost childlike simplicity, she begged her mother to be happy over
Abel’s death and noted that they had already experienced “great and wonderful changes,”
which was true: my grandmother, who had put down deep roots in
Even so, the attack on the Moncada Garrison was just the beginning. Everyone who really knew her recognized that she stood up well when faced with the terrible aftermath of the action; she did not crumble, even on being shown Abel’s eyes lying in a washbasin. After those horrors, Haydée was a much stronger person and did much more. Abel was the first person she had loved with her entire being, but she drew strength rather than weakness from his death. She knew that she, along with all of the other enlightened ones, was in the eye of the storm.
The attack on the Moncada — with the deaths of her fiancé, Boris3, and of Abel — was just the beginning for her. Thinking back now, for example, I do not know how Fidel could manage to keep her from going down to the civil hospital despite how dangerous it might have appeared. Ever since she first began ironing the fighters’ uniforms, she was a part of that history, and, in the years following that tragedy, she met and grieved for other loved ones, too.
In the underground, she was in her element. She had scores of anecdotes about my father’s inability to hide. She recognized that the young lawyer Armando Hart had the unique qualities and intelligence needed for Fidel’s venture, such as a depth of political understanding and the ability to incorporate all honest ideas into a project. I can testify to the singular love she had for him and the respect with which she taught us to love him more than just a father. Her priority was to guide my father’s special ability to benefit the Revolution.
Concerning Frank País4, she told me that they needed his dedication
to the cause, his seriousness, and his sense of discipline. Mama gave the impression
that she was building a Noah’s
We must remember her that way, filled with light and the joy of giving herself to this never-ending, inspiring work of Fidel’s.
Two figures stand out from what she told me of her time in the
With the triumph of the Revolution, another stage in the struggle began. My paternal grandmother, Marina, kept telling her and my father, “It’s all over; relax,” but that is precisely what true revolutionaries cannot do. Those who are made of sterner stuff never know peace, for they cannot be content with what has already been accomplished, but must always keep raising their sights.
Using Fidel’s purest ideas and the warmth and ability of her own spirit, that enlightened woman took on the project of building a new world, the doors to which the inspiring decade of the ’60s opened with a salute. Offering the possibility of being happy, creating, inventing, flying, and giving wings to Silvio Rodríguez’s6 first lyrics or to the fresh and dancing words of Gabriel García Márquez7, and learning — without plucking the petals of daisies — who would be her allies in that great endeavor.
Just as when Celia died, Che’s death was a terrible blow. When she talked to me of Che, she suffered even more than when speaking of her brother Abel. She told me, “I can hardly imagine the Revolution without him,” and “How will Fidel manage without Che’s support?” But Che went on to his reward, and she continued her struggle. Every October 8, my brother Abel and I would stay inside, poring over Che’s letters to his children, and, ever since — perhaps because dusk comes early in October or maybe because of that custom — I am visited with a special melancholy on October 8.
I went to high school with Che Guevara and Aleida March’s second child, Camilo, and I remember that I considered him to be somebody special, because he was both dauntless and above reproach. Even so, I got mad at him every so often. Whenever this happened and I told Mama about it, she would say, “Just take care of him. Don’t let anybody criticize a child of Che’s.” It was not hard to do this; Camilo won everybody’s respect and affection without ever trading on his last name.
A weekend wouldn’t go by without her telling me something to make me feel that Che was a part of me, saying that it hurt her that I had not known her best friend. She considered that lack an “original sin.” Effortlessly, as if with a magic wand, she created moods and atmospheres that helped me get to know him.
Right from the very beginning, Mama felt Che Guevara’s charisma, the undeniable force that his image of hope would mean for the coming generations. In observing all of the special people who dedicated themselves to Fidel’s venture in one way or another — Abel, Frank, Che, Celia, and many more who flocked around him, bringing out mankind’s need to dream in order to build reality — her purpose was always the same: to help them to support Fidel, that giant who raised his times to new heights on the wings of love and courage. That purpose is more important than ever now, in the new millennium, which has so few myths and outstanding figures.
In the letter she sent to Che after his death — that Ocean Press published again recently — she spoke to him as if knowing he was listening.
She always insisted on our having high ethical values. I remember that Celia Sánchez gave me a wonderful box of dolls on one of my birthdays — I must have been seven at the time. After letting me enjoy the surprise for a while, Mama said, “Now choose one and give the others to your friends who don’t have Celia to give them presents.” That experience, which was similar to what José Martí described in “Bebé and the Distinguished Mr. Pompous,” made a great impression on me, for life had picked me up and made me a character in that story, calling on me to act as unselfishly as Bebé had done. I still dream about those dolls, but I learned that you get a good feeling from giving with love. That was how she taught us.
More than an advantage, having her for a mother — especially for my brother Abel and me — implied a commitment that I could barely identify. Every year, the number of our brothers and sisters grew. My family welcomed everybody who was trying to assimilate grief. I have fond memories of Víctor Jara, his voice filled with sadness and love, and of the beautiful Milena Parra, whom I was supposed to take care of and give my most beautiful dolls to, because she was Violeta Parra’s granddaughter, and, many others.
I also remember when I was very little, that somebody with a guitar came to the house. He was very sad about something. It may have been Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, or Vicente Feliú8. I never knew who, but I remember that the lightning bolts of a bad storm were streaking down with sharp cracks in front of the choppy winter sea. “Some day, we’ll get electricity from that dangerous lightning,” Mama said. I never understood the relationship between fear and happiness, but the young man picked up his guitar and began to sing, and was happy again.
Mama hated all unnecessary formality, and that reigned in the Casa de las Américas, her “house in Vedado.” There, using the weapon of love, she imposed her own way of doing things. The mockery and scorn for bureaucracy by the younger generation is summed up in a drawing that painter Mariano Rodríguez drew on a paper napkin during a meeting of the Board. She was his boss, and the only minutes he kept of the meeting — or, at least, the only ones that have been preserved — consisted of that napkin, which hangs on one of my walls today. I can still see those meetings, filled with straight talking; I envision them as a galaxy of stars shining in bright contrast to the mud of every day.
When I was 12, she decided that I was madly in love with Roberto Fernández Retamar9 — which I really was, by the time I turned 13. I confided my secret to Adelaida de Juan, my Quixote’s wife. I still have the photo that she made him give me, and the tiny vase in which, every other day, I was to place a white rose because “Roberto has always loved Martí very deeply and tenderly and to love Martí, you must do so in the same way.”
That love left me with a deep admiration for Roberto and Adelaida and a sentimental, virginal love, for José Martí, which subsequent studies of his works have only enhanced. When I read Martí, I still smell the perfume of the white rose and feel the ribbon with which Mama lovingly tied my hair before I went to bed. I am linked to Martí with the indestructible, passionate love of an adolescent — a kind of love that I have never felt for anyone else.
Mama never went beyond the sixth grade, but for them, the enlightened ones, that was enough. Her love of life exempted her from any academic requirements. That summed her up: a wanderer who was happy with what she saw. I think that my brother and I, the “genetic heirs” of her approach toward life, are in basic accord with that. The inspired words of Abel — my Abel, who doesn’t speak much — make up for his prolonged silences.
We have no choice but to respect those who decide that it’s better to be dead than alive. People say that animals don’t commit suicide unless it’s to defend their young, so suicide is a very human way to die. The old idea that revolutionaries never take their own lives (as she, too, used to tell us) is childish, as just a few names will show. The Lafargues decided that they would be more useful to the cause of the proletariat dead than alive, and I’m sure they were right.
Who dares to say that the bell, which Hemingway tolled with his pen, didn’t make the bells in all the churches in the world echo to the sound of his last bullet? Who could think that Violeta Parra didn’t give thanks to life with honesty before going to her death fearlessly, sure of herself, leaving us the candor of an entire continent in her voice?
Then all that is left is to bow our heads and shed tears of pity — for ourselves, not them, who are more alive than dead. Who move through the boundary between the two states of matter, freely and without pain, and keep us from making mistakes. We are irreversibly destined to die, but not them.
For those for whom only measurable things count, there is the Casa of love, which Haydée founded; there is the Americas, to which she was devoted, for she felt its tremulous, confused heartbeat when she joined herself to its heralds. Let them respect measurable things, then — those whose hearts don’t beat in harmony with the hearts of others, those who don’t understand these things because they can’t feel them and those who think that the ones who have more wisdom in their souls are mad. My message of gratitude is for the enlightened, both living and dead, as Silvio shouts in his [song] “menos mal que existen” (better they exist).
There’s one more thing. I am — or was — her daughter, and I lived on after she died, surrounded by some of the living dead in a world in which Cuba exerts a gravitational and magnetic pull as the epicenter of the people’s struggles for a better world — the world as it should be, after 15 billion years of striving for harmony. She left me safe and provided for here, where I can work for good alongside Fidel whose name so many people intone with their last breaths, and wildly in love with Martí.
So, then, our final victory — Yeye’s10 too — is linked to the attainment of happiness on a certain blue planet in a solar system in the Milky Way. Perhaps, a few centuries from now, its inhabitants will say, “Our good fortune may very well be linked to a tiny apartment on a small island in our not-very-large planet. The Earth is happy; now, we should turn our sights to the sun.”
2 Abel Santamaría Cuadrado, second in command of the July 26 Movement. At only 25 years of age, he was taken prisoner on the morning of the 26 of July of 1953 along with a valiant group of compañeros. The Batista police savagely tortured him; they took out his eyes and showed them to his sister, who was also in jail, to get her to talk. They assassinated him that same day. Of him Fidel would say, “He was the soul of the Movement.”
3 Reynaldo Boris Luis Santa Coloma, Haydée’s fiancé during the underground struggle against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship, integral member of the M-26 Civil Committee and among those who stormed the Moncada barracks. He was taken prisoner by the Batista assassins, horribly tortured, and assassinated.
5 Celia Sánchez Manduley, along with Frank País,
organized and directed the reinforcement units sent to the