Cuba’s new woman

Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression
Margaret Randall
2015, Duke University Press
231 pages, plates, paperback


IT IS HARD to find words that can summarise with sufficient respect the labours of Margaret Randall, and her burning introduction to this study of a key protagonist in the Cuban Revolution is a reminder of why.

With eloquent brilliance and a scalpel of a pen, Randall cuts to the very bone of why the Cuban Revolution was and remains so important, in one, effortless slash.

She reminds us from word one what this revolution meant – and could mean – in a work that superficially could come across as bleak but in fact contains a germ of very real hope.

To young people new to the study of Cuba and Latin American history, I cannot recommend highly enough the brief introduction to this book – modestly entitled “Before We Begin”; it is a tour de force, a bold epitaph yet also a manifesto that is faithful to a lifetime of aggravating dissidence and burns with all the fire still residing in Randall’s revolutionary heart.

This study – not a biography, Randall points out, but an effort to explore the paradoxes that shape every life – also uncovers a very human face of the Cuban Revolution through the love and dignity that characterised Santamaría, one of the extraordinary women who helped the revolution to succeed.

Santamaría was there from the very beginning, one of only two women on the front line in the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 where it all began, whose iron bravery when captured would put many a man to shame.

A provincial, poorly educated woman, Santamaría’s story reflects the transformative power of revolution: she would be transformed into one of the most important vectors of change in Cuban and Latin American life from that moment on, sent to the US to organise the Cuban community, trafficking weapons through Mafia thugs, helping to found the 26 July Movement and then the Cuban Communist Party, and establishing the hemisphere’s most influential cultural institution, the Casa de las Américas.

But as Randall reveals so thoughtfully in this very necessary book, Santamaría was also a woman in an unjustly male world who eschewed formal power and remained “deeply sensitive to the needs of others, a bountiful mother, and warm friend”. Perhaps epitomising her as much as her political and cultural contribution to Cuban life was her willingness to adopt and parent orphans from Latin America’s revolutionary struggles alongside her own son and daughter.

The great merit of this study and a characteristic trait of the author is how it explores the protagonist’s humanity: Randall refers to Santamaría as a casualty of Moncada, where she lost to the most sadistic torture and execution the two people she most loved – her brother and fiancé. She eventually committed suicide at the age of 57.

Randall writes: “Haydée was not someone who allowed herself to be victimized by anyone or any circumstance. Yet she lived with profound loss and grief … 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 … when [her husband Armando Hart Dávalos] left her, suddenly and without discussion, it was an additional blow. Just like revolution, marriage was forever in her worldview.”

In Randall’s candid reflection on why she wrote this book, she reflects on a deep purity that she detected in Haydée Santamaría that she had also encountered in other great figures of the Cuban Revolution – not perfection, but “unwavering in their search for justice and profoundly principled”.

Seen in that sense, Santamaría’s achievements and her own dignified battle against her inner demons might have succeeded in transforming her into what Che Guevara called the “new man and woman” whose consciousness reflected a new, socialist scale of values. What better tribute could be paid?