By Margaret Randall
Recently I finished reading Margaret Randall’s biography of the Cuban revolutionary, Haydée Santamaría. For many reasons this is a profoundly inspiring book. This book made me think of Nancy Stout’s biography of another Cuban revolutionary Celia Sanchez. However, Randall’s book is a different kind of biography.
First, I think it is useful to look at the life of the author Margaret Randall in order to gain a background to the book. Randall was born in the United States but spent 23 years outside of the country. She married and had four children while living in Mexico. Then, there was the repression in Mexico in 1968 that coincided with the Olympics held in Mexico during that year.
The government murdered hundreds of Mexicans who protested the use of badly needed funds for the Olympics. Many people in this country recall that time when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists during the playing of the National Anthem at their awards ceremony.
Cuba agreed to give Randall asylum, but she needed to go to Czechoslovakia first. At this time Randall didn’t have a U.S. passport. In order to go to her ultimate destination she needed to travel in the back of a meat truck through the United States to Canada, then to Czechoslovakia, then to Cuba. She was ill when she arrived in Cuba and needed to have one of her kidneys removed.
Randall would spend about eleven years living in Cuba and worked with Haydée Santamaría during those years at the Casa de Las Americas. After her time in Cuba she went to Nicaragua and studied the revolution in that country. She has authored many books aside from this biography that include: Cuban Women Now, Sandino’s Daughters, and Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry.
Randall returned to the United States in 1984. Upon her return, the government ordered her deported under the McCarran Walter Act of 1952. The charges against Randall that supported her deportation include the idea that her opinions are: “against the good order and happiness of the United States.” And that, “her writings go beyond mere decent.” However, in a court decision Randall won the right to live in this country.
Haydée Santamaría, or Yeyé to those who were close to her, was born in the provincial town of Encrucijada, Las Villas, Cuba in 1922. She was one of five siblings and her father was a carpenter and manager of the La Constancia sugar mill. Her family was middle class—not wealthy, but she did not endure the grinding poverty of most workers.
She had a basic education in a one-room schoolhouse and never attended a university. Haydée and her younger brother Abel resented the profound disparity between the affluent owners of the sugar mill and the workers who struggled merely to survive. Abel first moved to Havana and then sent for Haydée.
Their apartment became a center for organizing the resistance to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Their leader was Fidel Castro and Abel was second in command. They planed a raid on the military garrison called Moncada in the city of Santiago.
That raid was defeated. Abel as well as Haydée’s fiancé were tortured to death. These deaths, as well as others, would affect her for the rest of her life. Haydée, as well as Melba Hernández, served time in prison for their participation in the raid on Moncada. After their release they both worked to transcribe Fidel Castro’s speech at his trial that was titled, History Will Absolve Me. Haydée also worked to organize those who survived the raid on Moncada.
Haydée succeeded in avoiding capture in the city. She also travelled to the United States where she raised funds and negotiated for the purchase of arms from the Mafia. She said that she hated those negotiations and reported that most of the arms that had been purchased were never delivered. After the revolution, the new revolutionary government confiscated the lavish casinos that were owned by the Mafia. Much of the ammunition used in the revolution had been smuggled into Cuba and sewn into women’s dresses.
After the revolution Fidel Castro assigned Haydée Santamaría to head up the Casa de Las Americas. This was the cultural center where Cuba would attract artists from all over the world. Haydée had not attended a university and she had no formal training in the arts. Yet, for about 20 years she made Casa de Las Americas a center for some of the best artists in the world.
We might consider that before the Cuban Revolution there was the McCarthy era in the United States. Artists like Dalton Trumbo served time in prison for refusing to answer questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Then, Cuba had their revolution and suddenly there was a haven for artists who were critical of U.S. government policies in the world.
So, while the United States government was doing everything in it’s power to isolate and militarily defeat the Cuban revolution, Haydée Santamaría was attracting artists to Casa de Las Americas from all over the world. She took an interest in every artist and these artists testified to their appreciation of her efforts.
All of us have had experience with managers of capitalist corporations. Rarely do we see any concern for our interests. Their primary concern is the drive to maximize profits. Haydée Santamaría demonstrated how someone who had no formal college training can not only manage, but provide inspiring leadership to artists from around the world.
We might also think about the fact that in capitalist nations women have become government officials as well as corporate officers. However, these women need to be driven with the corporate drive to maximize profits. I believe that this is the root cause for why there is poverty in the world.
At the end of this book Margaret Randall included her wonderful biographical poem about Haydée’s life. In the following passage we see how Santamaría was completely different from women officials in the capitalist world. We also see what she viewed as important:
“You were a woman plain and simple,
who thought a bus ride should cost 5 cents,
public pay phones be free,
health, education, shelter, food,
culture and art:
all that we need free,
Santamaría’s internationalist thinking was in line with the thinking of Ernesto “Che” Guevara who left Cuba to join with revolutions erupting in the Congo and in Bolivia. Haydée worked at the Casa de Las Americas during the time of the war against Vietnam. Vietnamese women came to Cuba and refused to cut their hair until their country was liberated. There is a photograph in this book of Haydée Santamaría sitting with the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh.
Margaret Randall was surprised when Haydée Santamaría asked her to judge a Cuban beauty pageant. However, as Randall was a guest of the Cuban government, she fulfilled this request. After judging that contest, she wrote an article critical of the idea of beauty contests for women. Randall asked Santamaría why she asked her to be a judge in the pageant. Haydée answered: “Because I knew that you would put an end to those awful contests.” Today, there are no more beauty pageants in Cuba.
Haydée Santamaría ended her life in a suicide. She had experienced continual depression partly due to the murder of her brother and fiancé in the raid at Moncada. Added to this she also felt a deep loss with the deaths of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Celia Sanchez who died of cancer shortly before Haydée’s suicide. Even some of the best psychologists have questions relating to the issue of suicide. All I will say is that Haydée Santamaría needs to be judged by how she lived her life and not by how she ended it.
I will conclude this review with two stanzas from the biographical poem Margaret Randall wrote about the life of Haydée Santamaría:
“You offered Cuba’s impossible possibility
to those whose children were disappeared,
minds drugged by torture,
hands severed by loneliness
of daring to dream beyond the ugliest schemes.
“At the precise moment
we were in danger
of losing sight and hearing
to smug opportunism or insidious drones,
when reduced to rote applause
for those who would rob us of our memory,
condemn us to repeat lives
with neither past nor future,
you came along
and made us whole.”