26th of July and Cuban Rebelliousness: An Account by Haydée Santamaría

26/07/2023 |


The actions before the revolution in Cuba from the perspective of a woman fighter

The 26th of July is a historical day for the peoples who resist in the Americas and around the world: it is National Rebellion Day in Cuba, remembering the island’s pre-revolutionary struggles. Socialism was achieved through intense, everyday struggle in a revolutionary process that lasted years until the people took power at the turn of 1959. Before that, on July 26th, 1953, in Santiago de Cuba, there was the assault on the Moncada Garrison, an attempt to fight dictator Fulgencio Batista, who ruled for the elite.

The assault on Moncada happened concurrently with another assault in the city of Bayamo, also in the east part of the country. This attempt on July 26th did not emerge victorious, and many guerrilla fighters were arrested or killed—nevertheless, the militant commitment with grassroots insurgency and the radicalization of the revolutionary action that began at that moment was essential for the ensuing process of struggles. Despite political persecution, militants continued to organize the struggle in regions across the country. Two years after the assault on Moncada, they started the underground 26th of July Movement [Movimiento 26 de Julio], one of the fundamental drivers of the revolution that emerged victorious by the end of the 1950s.

I was arrested, handcuffed, shackled, and I felt stronger and freer than those who were going to judge me with the mantle of justice.

Haydée Santamaría in the book Haydée habla del Moncada (1967)

To inspire our current struggles against imperialist capitalism and for the freedom of the peoples and women, we look back on the power of rebelliousness organized 70 years ago in Cuba, especially by women militants. Haydée Santamaría (1922-1980) and her great friend Melba Hernández were the only two women who took part in the assault on Moncada on July 26th.

Later on, along with other revolutionary women fighters including Celia Sánchez and Vilma Espín, they fought side by side with Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, and other male leaders of the Cuban Revolution, and built socialism in Cuba on different fronts. Haydée, for example, was the founder and director of Casa de Las Americas for two decades.

We share below an excerpt from the interview “Haydée Santamaría and Celia Sánchez in Revolución. A talk with Carlos Franqui”, published in the Cuban newspaper Revolución, No. 2016, on July 26th, 1962, and in the book Cuba: El Libro de los 12 [Cuba: The Book of the 12], by Carlos Franqui. In the interview, Haydée Santamaría provides a poignant account through her personal memories and reflections about the assault on the Moncada Garrison.

Melba is the one who remembers everything more precisely. I don’t really remember those hours, maybe she doesn’t remember anymore as well, after so many things and so many years; but back then, when we would start talking about those hours, it was much easier for her to recall the facts in detail. If I start to talk and continue to talk at length about Moncada, I will definitely remember a lot of things.

Now what I think about the most is those of us who went to Moncada, and I think about Fidel, and I wonder—how is it possible that, being Fidel the way he is, someone could have betrayed him? How is it possible that he was not acknowledged? How is it possible that not everyone would perfectly relate to Fidel, to the Revolution?

Every time I see Fidel, talk to him, listen to him on TV, I think about the other guys, all those who died and those who are alive, and I think about Fidel, the Fidel we knew and is still the same. I think about the Revolution, which is the same that took us to Moncada.

We were at Siboney’s house, Melba [Hernández], Abel [Santamaría], Renato [Guitart], Elpidio [Sosa], and myself. Renato had the idea to cook “chicken chilindrón [stew with peppers and tomatoes].” I laughed when he told me that and I claimed that was not “chilindrón,” but “fricassée.” “That’s what it is called in Vuelta Abajo,” Renato insisted. As we were cooking, without interrupting the conversation with Melba and Renato, looking at Abel, I thought about the last time we had been at the Central, to say goodbye to our parents and families. When we were about to leave the house in the middle of the night to go back to Havana, Aida told us to be careful not to wake up the girl. Abel wanted to hold her, kiss her. I said, “Let him, this may be the last time we see her.” Aida looked at me, startled, and I wanted to make a joke, “Maybe we’ll get stuck on the road.” “Don’t be tragic,” Aida told me, and we left.

When Renato’s “chilindrón” was ready, Abel did not want to eat. He was going to Santiago to escort an old couple who lived across the street from Siboney’s house. “Maybe it’s the last carnival they will see,” I thought.

Melba was by my side—for seven months we had not stayed apart, not even for one day. I thought about the house, about Melba by my side, about the guys. At that moment, it didn’t occur to me to think about death, but two things troubled me painfully. If everything ends, may Fidel stay, the Revolution will take place through him, and our lives and our actions will have meaning; the other thing came to me much later, with dreadful torment, when our dead were left amid blood and dirt, and we knew we would not see them again—I feared they would take me away from Melba.

I remember Melba was trying to protect me, I was trying to protect her, and everyone was trying to protect each other. You do anything, anything, when other lives are in your hands. Anything through bullets, machine gun fire, amid the screams of pain of those who fall injured, amid the final wail of those who are dying. Anything is not enough and is plenty, and no one knows how an event like this will unfold. No one knows what is going to happen in the minutes to come.

There are things that you do know, like everything you love. I went to Moncada with the people I loved the most. There they were, Abel and Boris [Luis Santa Coloma], and Melba, and Fidel, and Renato, and Elpidio, and the poet Raúl [Gómez García], Mario [Muñoz], and [Fernando] Chenard, and the other guys, and there it was Cuba, and there it was at stake the offended dignity of our people, and the outraged freedom, and the Revolution that would bring the people’s destiny back to us.

The guys came and they were hungry. At midnight, we were talking, laughing, telling jokes to everyone. We served coffee and some of the food that was left—the food Abel hadn’t eaten. We went back to the stories, to the anecdote of me coming to Santiago with two bags filled with guns, so heavy a soldier who moved them when he passed by me on the train asked me if I was carrying dynamite. “Books,” I replied. “I just graduated and I’m going to work in Santiago. I will enjoy carnival and have some fun after school. You would be a good partner to have fun with during carnival season.”

The soldier smiled friendly and told me where we should meet. He got off to the platform with me, carrying my luggage. Abel and Renato were waiting for me at the terminal. I approached them and said, “This is the luggage,” adding, “This is a travel companion.” And turning to the solider, “These are two friends who were waiting for me.” The soldier handed the luggage and we left. One of the guys was making jokes to Boris. “Careful with Yeyé, she has a date at the park with a soldier of the dictatorship,” and we all laughed.

Then Fidel came, then everyone, some alone, some in groups.

Then we left.

Later we were in the car, Melba, Gómez García, Mario Muñoz, and me. After and during the entire drive to Moncada, I thought about my house, I thought about the next morning—what would happen? What would they say at home? How would that day be?

And then we were there.

Later came the first seconds and first minutes, then the hours. The worst, bloodiest, most cruel and violent hours of our lives. Those were the hours when everything could be heroic, brave, and sacred. Life and death can be noble and beautiful, and you have to defend life or give it completely.

These are the facts Melba recalls precisely. The ones I have tried in vain to forget. The ones I remember, covered in a mist of blood and smoke. The ones I shared with Melba. The ones Fidel tells about in History Will Absolve Me. The death of Boris and Abel. Death reaping the guys we loved so much. Death staining the walls and grass with blood. Death ruling everything, winning everything. Death imposing itself on us like a need, and the fear of living after so many had died; and the fear of dying while those who must die have not died; and the fear of dying when life can still win one last battle against death.

There are those moments when nothing scares you, the blood, or the fire of machine guns, or the smoke, or the stench of burned flesh, of torn, dirty flesh, or the smell of warm blood, or the smell of blood clots, or the blood in your hands, or flesh falling into pieces in your hands, or the groan of those who are going to die. Or the deadly silence in the eyes of those who perish. Or the half-open mouths where there seems to be a word that, if spoken, will freeze our souls.

There is this moment when everything can be beautiful and heroic. That moment when life, for its value and importance, challenges and defeats death. And we feel like our hands grab a wounded body, which is not a body we love—it may be the body of one of those we have come to fight—, but it is a body that bleeds to death, and we lift it and drag it through the bullets and the screaming and the smoke and the blood. And, in that moment, you can risk everything to preserve what really matters, which is the passion that brought us to Moncada, and it has names, gaze, warm, strong hands, it has truth in words, and it may be called Abel, Renato, Boris, Mario, or any other name, but in this moment and the moments to come, it can always be called Cuba.

And there is this other moment when not even torture, not even humiliation, not even threats can go against that passion that brought us to Moncada.

A man approached us. We felt again the fire of machine guns. I ran to the window. Melba ran behind me. I felt Melba’s hands on my shoulders. I saw the man approaching me and I heard a voice saying, “They killed your brother.” I felt Melba’s hands. I felt again the noise of the lead piercing my memory. I felt I said without recognizing my own voice, “Was it Abel?” I looked at the man, he looked down. “Is it Abel?” The man didn’t answer. Melba came to me. Melba was entirely those hands with me. “What time is it?” Melba replied, “It’s nine o’clock.”

These are the facts that are engraved in my memory. I don’t exactly recall anything else, but from that moment, I did not think about anyone else, I only thought about Fidel. We were thinking about Fidel. Fidel, who could not die. Fidel, who had to be alive to carry out the Revolution. Fidel’s life, which was all of our lives. As long as Fidel was alive, Abel, and Boris, and Renato, and the others would not have died, they would be alive in Fidel, who was going to carry out the Cuban Revolution and bring the Cuban people’s destiny back to us.

The rest was a cloud of blood and smoke, the rest was beaten by death. Fidel would win the final battle, he would win the Revolution.

Introduction by Helena Zelic, interview selected by Tica Moreno
Translated from Portuguese by Aline Scátola
Original language: Spanish

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