One Day in December – Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution
By Nancy Stout, 2013
Monthly Review Press
For many years, I’ve been inspired to read about the lives of revolutionaries. These are people who had been raised in a more or less typical environment, and transformed themselves into leaders of political movements. These political movements didn’t merely attempt to reform one or another aspect of society. No, these leaders attempted to form a new kind of government that would have completely different priorities. The list of some of these leaders would include, Spartacus, Thomas Paine, Tecumseh, Frederick Douglass, Jose Martí, Ida Wells, Mother Jones, Vladimir Illyich Lenin, Eugene Debs, Malcolm X, Ernesto Che Guevara, and Nelson Mandela.
Looking at this list we see that most of these leaders were men. Nancy Stout spent ten years researching her biography of Celia Sánchez. Reading Stout’s book, we can see why the name Celia Sánchez clearly needs to be added to this list. In this biography we see a woman who overcomes unbelievable odds to put in place a government that transformed the lives of the Cuban people.
Celia Sánchez’ early life
Celia Sánchez was one of eight children. Her mother died when Celia was a child. Celia’s father, Manuel Sánchez was a medical doctor who was born into a prominent Cuban family. Manuel Sanchez decided that he didn’t want to pursue a lucrative medical career in Havana.
Instead, he set up a practice in a small town called Pilón, on the southeastern part of Cuba in the province of Oriente. Pilón also happened to be in close proximity to the Sierra Maestra mountain range. The Sánchez home was located next to the sugar mill that dominated the life of the town. While this home was the most prominent in the community, it only had access to electricity for a few hours per day.
Manuel Sánchez’ decided that he would not charge his patients who could not afford his services. Many of those patients never had access to medical care and could barely afford to survive.
Celia Sánchez decided not to pursue a formal education. Instead she pursued a different kind of education as a medical assistant to her father. She talked to all of her father’s patients and assisted in their treatment. At times, Celia and her father would make house calls where they visited their patients on horseback.
Manuel Sánchez also taught his daughter about the long and revolutionary history of Cuba. He introduced her to the rugged forest of the Sierra Maestre and taught her to appreciate its beauty. He also took her deep-sea fishing, and this became one of Celia’s passions. After a day of fishing, Celia and her friends would eat their catch of the day on the beach and under the stars.
Celia also liked to wear makeup with bright red lipstick. She read the fashion magazines and oftentimes visited Miami where she purchased goods for her side business. Even after the revolution, when she usually wore military fatigues, she also liked to wear high-heel shoes.
Celia also became intimately aware of the grinding poverty that surrounded her. Many, if not most people were illiterate. Workers who did the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane only had an income for about three months per year.
The rural guards operated as a despotic and tyrannical dictatorship. They took whatever they wanted from the campesinos who lived in the area. The rape of women by the rural guards was a common occurrence. Those who resisted the will of the rural guards routinely faced torture and or death.
Celia and her father supported two political leaders who attempted to put in place a rational government in Cuba. Both these efforts failed.
Then, a new organization was formed called the July 26 movement. Celia joined and had a new hope of transforming Cuba.
Joining the July 26 movement meant that Celia would have challenges she never had before. She would need to transform herself from a relatively independent woman, into someone who took strict orders from Frank País, who was, along with Fidel Castro, one of the two central leaders. Failure to carry out these orders could mean disaster.
País had a discussion with Celia where they talked about how Fidel Castro would be landing on a ship from Mexico. This ship would be carrying a rebel army that would carry out a guerrilla war in Cuba. Celia’s job would be to use her contacts in the Sierra Maestra to aid the liberation army when they landed. This job was ideally suited for Celia since she not only knew everyone in the region, she also knew those people who would be willing to give everything for a chance to change the Cuban reality.
When the boat called the Granma finally was supposed to land there was an unavoidable delay. When the Granma finally landed there was a near total catastrophe. The government announced that Fidel Castro, as well as most of the soldiers from the rebel army were dead.
Celia might have wondered if all of her efforts throughout her life to bring about change in Cuba were over. Then, one of her friends found her and gave her the news that Fidel and the remnants of his army were safe in the Sierra.
Now Celia’s job would be to aid Frank País to recruit soldiers for the rebel army and to secure supplies. Celia had the ingenious idea of setting up a training center in the middle of a forest of a weed-like plant that grows wild in Cuba. The training center was on a rice plantation in the town of Manzanillo, located in close proximity to the headquarters of the rural guards.
The owner of the rice plantation made an unexpected visit to his property. At the time Celia was a known and wanted fugitive. The plantation owner discovered Celia’s whereabouts and demanded that she leave his property.
Celia responded that: “I’m not leaving. You are leaving.” This is an example of how Celia understood how to quickly and decisively deal with a potentially disastrous situation. Had this plantation owner reported Celia to the authorities, this would have compromised both Celia and all the soldiers in her training center. This might have also, in effect, sentenced the Cuban people to more years of despotic tyranny.
The government of Fulgencio Batista became obsessed with wiping out the rebel army. Life became increasingly difficult in the cities for Celia and Frank País. Eventually the government captured País and murdered him without a trial. Sixty-thousand Cubans in Santiago came out for his funeral and literally closed down the city.
Eventually life became too dangerous for Celia in the city and she joined Fidel in the Sierra Maestra. Here she would have a new life. This meant marching for ten to twelve miles every day to avoid discovery by Batista’s armed forces. At the end of these marches the rebel army might enter a town where they demonstrated how these soldiers were completely different from the rural guards.
In these rural towns conditions existed that were similar to conditions of rural towns in much of the underdeveloped world. The United Nations estimated that every day about 30,000 children under the age of five die of preventable diseases. One of the problems affecting these children is the lack of shoes. Parasites enter the feet of children, who sustain bloated stomachs, and might die of dehydration caused by diarrhea.
Celia knew many of the people in these villages. When she saw a child who needed medical attention she spoke with the parents and asked if a rebel doctor could treat their children. She also asked if they wanted a rebel priest to preside over a wedding or a baptism. We should keep in mind that many of the rebels were not religious. She also participated in setting up schools, that, for the first time would teach the people of these towns how to read.
Here we see the core values of the revolutionary movement. After the revolution, the government developed a health care system where there are more doctors per capita in Cuba than in any other nation in the world. There are also probably more teachers per capita in Cuba than any other nation in the world. Thousands of these doctors and teachers travel throughout the world to aid people who live lives that are similar to the lives of the Cuban campesinos before the revolution.
We might also compare this attitude to the reality in the United States. Here patients need to have an insurance card just to receive care and the care patients receive is based on the kind of insurance they have. This means that there is an epidemic of treatable and curable diseases in the U.S. because the health care system is based on profit. In fact, the U.S. pays more for health care per person than any other nation in the world. Yet, many working people go into astronomical debt just to obtain the medical treatment they need.
Eventually the Batista government used the support it received from the United States to launch an offensive of thousands of soldiers against the rebels in the mountains. Celia was charged with making the area controlled by the July 26 movement self sustaining for an indefinite period of time.
She organized the building of a small town in the mountains that was covered by a canopy of trees that hid the town from enemy aircraft. In this town there was a headquarters for Fidel, a hospital, as well as an administration center. Celia also had flowers planted to add to the beauty of this town.
She also organized farmers to plant vegetables that would sustain the people living in the area. She organized a mule train to transport needed supplies up the mountain that would not be detected by Batista’s army.
The morale as well as the persistence of the revolutionary movement became too powerful for the Batista government. Batista left the country and the July 26 movement took control of the government.
Celia Sánchez and the revolutionaries take power
One of Celia’s first acts as a government leader was to organize a plane to fly over the Sierra Maestra and drop toys for the children of the region. Before the revolution, Celia organized to give toys to hundreds of children on the holidays. As a leader of the government, she made sure that this tradition would be continued.
The accomplishments of Celia Sánchez after the revolution are too numerous to mention in this review. Nancy Stout reported that when Fidel Castro mentioned an idea that might benefit people, it was Celia who organized to make that idea a reality.
One of her accomplishments was organizing to make the Zapata Swamp an ecological and tourist center. She organized the construction of the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor that serves about 35,000 people every day. She organized the building of the huge Lenin Park on the outskirts of Havana. Even during the most difficult moments of the revolution, Celia organized an archives which gives documentation to the events of the Cuban revolution. Celia and Fidel also took personal responsibility for several children who had been orphaned during the revolution. Typically Celia worked 16 hour days to accomplish these and many other goals.
Celia also set up an office in Havana for people from the Sierra Maestra who were having difficulties. This office gave these campesinos medical care. The women received hairdos, facials, and manicures. This office would also help people find jobs. Some would be assigned to assist craft people who taught their crafts to those who carried on the trade. This kind of treatment gave the people from the countryside a new outlook on life.
Celia Sánchez passed away in 1980. Millions of Cubans paid their respects at her funeral. Armando Hart, who is a leader of the Cuban government gave the speech commemorating her memory. He called Celia Cuba’s most authentic wild flower. He also said that she was Fidel Castro’s “alter ego”—his trusted compañera, his second self.
Celia Sánchez’ place in history
Today media pundits like to fantasize about how woman who are politicians like Hillary Clinton represent the ideals of woman’s liberation. They also imagine that woman who are corporate officers advance the goals of all women. However, the capitalist system requires low paid workers to sustain it’s profits. Capitalist politicians and corporate officers who might be millionaires seek to maintain this system. As a result, women typically receive wages that are about 75% of the wages of men.
Celia Sánchez dedicated her life to doing away with the system that exploits women. When the United States invaded Cuba at the Playa Girón or Bay of Pigs, Celia Sanchez was the first government leader to go to the sight of combat. While Celia organized the fight to defend the Cuban people, Washington organized to put in place the old style government. This would have been a government of theft, rape, torture, and murder.
Understanding this story, told by Nancy Stout and others, gives us a sense of why the Cuban people loved Celia Sánchez. Her life also demonstrates that there will be more women who are capable of carrying out similar struggles throughout the world.