Duke University Press

Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression September 2015

, by Margaret Randall

II Why Haydée?

“ . . . the mere 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 to the future of all our peoples.
—Mario Benedetti

Haydée Santamaría was a heroine of the Cuban Revolution, a brilliant, strong but unassuming woman among powerful men. One of only two females among 160 males, she helped organize and fought on the front lines of the 1953 attack on Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Following that first military operation, when she was captured and shown her brother’s eye and lover’s mangled testicle to make her divulge information about their Movement she replied: “If you did that to them and they didn’t talk, much less will I!”
Haydée—like Fidel, all who knew her called her by her first name—was a provincial woman who had never before left her island country. Yet during the revolutionary war she found the courage to travel to the United States, organize its Cuban community, and buy weaponry from Mafia thugs. After that war was won, and despite growing up in a small rural village and never having gone past sixth grade, she founded and ran the most important cultural institution in Latin America; drawing artists and intellectuals such as Violeta Parra, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Laurette Séjourné, Julio Cortázar, Eduardo Galeano, Ernesto Cardenal, Idea Vilariño, and Gabriel García Márquez to visit and satiate their curiosity about that small nation with enormous dreams.
Haydée conceived of change and participated in actions—military as well as political—beyond those accessible to the vast majority of women in her time and place. She took enormous risks and avoided detection with an uncanny calm and remarkable talent for deception and disguise. She was one of the founders of Cuba’s July 26 Movement and later its Communist Party (PCC), remaining at its highest levels of leadership throughout her life. Yet she had no interest in the positions of power such membership bestowed. She led by transgression.
In her work at Casa de las Américas Haydée rendered ineffective the cultural blockade the United States tried so hard to establish along with its diplomatic and economic counterparts, and protected and encouraged more than a few creative spirits persecuted during repressive periods in Cuba’s revolutionary history. She was a courageous innovator, deeply sensitive to the needs of others, a bountiful mother, and warm friend.
Her life was also rife with contradictions. When she committed suicide, at the age of 57, Havana historian Eusebio Leal eulogized her saying: “Haydée was Moncada’s last victim.” I prefer the word casualty. Haydée was not someone who allowed herself to be victimized by anyone or any circumstance. Yet she lived with profound loss and grief. There was Moncada, where she lost the two people she loved most—her brother Abel and fiancé Boris Luis Santa Coloma—and whose experiences of brutality and sadism accompanied her for the rest of her life.
There were other losses as well: Che Guevara, with whom she shared the dream of Latin American liberation. Celia Sánchez, perhaps the only other woman who understood her completely and whose deep friendship helped her stand tall in a world of men. Other close friends, whose lives were cut short for one reason or another. Colleagues who abandoned the revolutionary project. And some dreams of social change that never came quickly or permanently enough for her vision of immediate justice.
Justice, Revolution, loyalty: these were her mantras. Depression ran in her family, requiring sensitivity and compassion. Betrayals, of close comrades as well as ideals, pained her to the core. Armando Hart Dávalos, fellow revolutionary and the man she married after losing Santa Coloma, gave her a son and daughter and for a while provided love and stability. Together they parented their biological children as well as a number of others, orphans from Latin American revolutionary struggles. When Hart left her, suddenly and without discussion, it was an additional blow. Just like Revolution, marriage was forever in her worldview.
She was plagued by depressive episodes and periodically took to her bed in despair. Today we understand more about depression than we did back then: how debilitating it can be and what courage it takes to confront its ravages. Yet Haydée’s work at Casa and other important projects were more than successful; they achieved a level of excellence and set standards of collectivity few have been able to match. All the children she raised described her as an extraordinary mother. She challenged power wherever and whenever she saw its corrosive damage, and espoused feminist ideas long before the philosophy was accepted in Cuba. She produced and sustained more in the way of creative change than anyone I have known.
This is not a biography. I will provide enough data so the reader will have the “facts”: birth, childhood, role in the Cuban Revolution, professional and family life. But my intention is to veer from the confines of traditional hagiography, and probe deeply into the paradoxes, as only someone who trusts intuition as much as reason can. Further developing a genre I began to explore in Che on My Mind, I am interested in looking at tensions and trying to decipher how this woman negotiated multiple contradictions. This is an impressionist portrait, written by a poet rather than a historian. Mine is a rebel and feminist lens. First I want to tell the reader why I have chosen to write about Haydée Santamaría.
I must say upfront that I loved Haydée, loved and admired her as a friend and as an exceptional twentieth century woman: an extremely unique spirit, brilliant intellect, courageous and creative revolutionary, and generous human being. Even in death, she remains a mentor.
I first met her on my initial visit to Cuba in January of 1967. I was living in Mexico City and had been invited to participate in El encuentro con Rubén Darío, hosted by Casa de Las Américas, the exemplary arts institution of which she was the director. That visit to “the first free territory in America” (as we called the country back then) was illuminating in all sorts of ways. But no part of the experience had a more profound or lasting impact than meeting Haydée…