Monthly Review Press, New York, 2013, 457 pages. ISBN: 978-1-58367-317-1
Nancy Stout has treated the reader to an exhilarating biography of Celia Sanchez, recording her vital contribution to the revolutionary struggle and the socialist state in Cuba. This is long overdue. While many supporters of the Cuban Revolution will have heard about Celia and her close relationship with Fidel Castro, few will have understood or appreciated the role she played. Celia’s great political and revolutionary strength lay in her organisational capacity, as well as her sacrifice and commitment. As novelist Alice Walker says in her foreword, the book offers: ‘A clear vision of what balanced female leadership can be; and, even more to the point, what a truly egalitarian revolutionary leadership of female and male partners might look like.’
With the captivating power of a good novel, but based on ten years of archival research and interviews, Stout first introduces us to Celia’s comfortable life in Pilón, a small rural town in sugar-plantation country, on the Eastern-most coast of Cuba, in the mid-1950s. She assists her father, a progressive doctor, treating the poor as well as the rich. Celia is a ‘society girl’, elegantly dressed and made up, roaming around enjoying adventures with her friends. She is well known locally for her charitable work of distributing toys and other necessities to poor children and their families around this rural region. Behind the scenes, however, since the first seeds of resistance to Batista’s 1952-coup were sown, Celia is involved in clandestine mobilisations. Fidel Castro’s Movement for the 26 July (M26J) - named after the attack on Moncada Barracks on that date in 1953 - is the second endeavour that Celia has supported to free Cuba from dictatorship. This one was successful – in no small part thanks to Celia.
Working under the leadership of Frank Pais, the co-ordinator of the M26J’s urban wing, Celia was entrusted to put together a network of militants to receive, orientate and join the nascent guerrilla army which arrived on the Granma boat from Mexico in December 1956. Despite her meticulous organisation, the plans were scuppered because the Granma boat was delayed and arrived at the wrong location. Urban uprisings timed to coincide with the rebel’s arrival were begun and then called off. Celia felt huge responsibility for the safety of all those who had moved into their combat positions, because anyone suspected of opposing the dictatorship was dealt with ruthlessly. Some 20,000 people were murdered in the 1950s under Batista’s reign. The fear induced through the terrorisation of the population is clear in this biography. Not least through the story of how Celia escaped capture and interrogation by Batista police – dodging bullets as she ran away, and hiding out inside a thorny marabou grove until nightfall. Once in a safe-house, a doctor removed 13 thorns from Celia’s skull.
Despite increased regime repression following the establishment of the guerrilla army under Fidel Castro’s command in the Sierra Maestra mountains and despite severe headaches from infection and toxicity from the thorns, Celia continued to run her networks and began recruiting and training militants and organising their transportation to join the guerrillas in the mountains. She also helped organise for members of the international press to travel into the mountains and meet Fidel and the other guerrillas – a real propaganda feat which exposed as false the regime’s claims that Fidel was dead. Celia herself weaved through a web of safe houses in Manzanillo and relied particularly on young women who risked their lives to secure supplies, report on police and army movements and carry messages between Celia, Frank, Fidel and other leading M26J militants.
On 30 July 1957 in Santiago de Cuba, after a massive search, Batista forces finally captured Frank Pais, with another militant Rene Pujol, took them into an alley and shot them dead. As news of the murder spread through town, a spontaneous general strike began. The ‘Civic Resistance’, a popular front of the M26J which Frank had been helping to build, kicked into action. The funeral the following day was attended by some 60,000 Cubans - out of a city-wide population of 163,000. ‘By evening, city after city had joined Santiago; the next day, there were strikes in Holguin, Camaguey, Santa Clara, and Matanzas.’ (p214) On 5 August, the Civic Resistance in Havana and Pinar del Rio joined the strike. From the mountains, Fidel instructed Celia to take over from Frank. ‘She – numb with grief, and on the very day of Frank’s funeral – duly began to compose a report for the movement’s national office.’ (p216)
Finally in October 1957, Celia left the underground and joined Fidel Castro and the guerrillas in the mountains. ‘Celia would recall this period in the Sierra Maestra as the best time of her life’ (p243). Once again her contribution stood out:
‘While Fidel worked on war strategies, Celia had quietly created a surprisingly large military complex, covering a square mile. First she concentrated on a field hospital, the largest building in the (Comandancia) unit, and practically invisible…a civil administration building to deal with collecting taxes and judicial issues, plus a few small facilities, located further up the mountain… Celia was now architect plus supply chief, mule team jefe [chief], and communications director…Celia had arrived in the mountains in mid-October 1957. By the following April, she’d become the voice of Fidel…’ (p269-270).
Celia was playing a similar role to that of another woman, Lydia Doce, who managed Che Guevara’s encampment, set up after he was promoted to comandante in July 1957. Lydia was later captured in Havana in September 1958 along with Clodomira Acosta, a woman who served as ‘executive courier’ for Fidel. Batista’s police placed them both in sand-filled bags, and repeatedly dunked them into the sea until they drowned and their bodies were thrown into the water. Earlier that month, Fidel had created the first women’s unit of the guerrilla army. Nancy Stout does us a huge service in highlighting the contribution of these women who, in fighting against the dictatorship and for socialism also fought against chauvinism and stereotyping. Other leading women who were part of the revolutionary process from the outset were Vilma Espin and Haydee Santamaria. Their substantial contributions are also made apparent through this book.
The close collaboration between Celia and Fidel, forged through the struggle, continued with the establishment of the new revolutionary government and the transition to socialism. ‘In January , Celia was officially appointed Secretary to the Commander in Chief’…[the veteran guerrillas] were greatly relieved to see Celia at his side in the capital. They had witnessed Fidel and Celia’s ability to communicate as a team…’ Applying her foresight and organisational skills, Celia secured a safe home for Fidel where he could feel part of a Cuban family, but which also served as an urban command post. As well as relatives and comrades the home was soon filled with children sent to them by poor families in the Sierra Maestra, who entrusted Celia and Fidel to care for them. This was before socialist welfare had been fully established in rural Cuba by the revolutionary government.
Celia travelled to the United Nations in New York with Fidel to represent Cuba in September 1960, when the large Cuban delegation was forced out of their hotel and re-camped to Harlem. Among the visitors to Celia and Fidel’s suite in the Hotel Theresa were Malcolm X, Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Egyptian President Nasser and Indian Prime Minister Nehru – who sat on the bed with Fidel, because of the lack of furniture in the suite. Meanwhile, ‘Celia went out to purchase a little refrigerator and a hotplate. She wanted to make sure that Fidel had safe food and drinking water.’ (p364). From that time on Celia took charge of Fidel’s security, arranging for salt and even water to accompany him on trips to the US – a vital detail given the frantic attempts of right-wing Cuban exiles and the CIA to assassinate him.
While she personally avoided formal diplomatic receptions, she took on organising them for the Cuban government, in Havana and at international forums, promoting authentic Cuban styles of cooking and decoration in the process. This was an important part of promoting Cubanismo, the assertion of an independent Cuban identity, freeing the island from the influences of US cultural imperialism. During the Bay of Pigs [Playa Giron] invasion in April 1961, Celia rushed to the front and provided strategic information directly to Fidel at command headquarters - her home in Havana.
‘In 1960, Celia found her developer’s legs. She’d work all day at the palace in Revolution Square and take up her design projects at night, working from home. Notorious for her late-night confabulations, she was no different from the men; all were workaholics, taking care of the nation by day, shunning sleep in favor of regenerative pet projects after dark.’ (p356).
Stout goes on to explore the projects managed by Celia: The promotion of Cuban tourism and cubanismo for both foreigners and Cubans, removing race and class bars to leisure facilities; the establishment of the Office of Historical Affairs in 1964, under her own directorship, to which she transferred the hundreds of documents she had personally safeguarded during the armed struggle. In the Sierra Maestra she had made copies of Fidel’s letters and requested material from other commanders with a view to having an accurate historical record of the revolution. This was risky, because discovery of the documents by Batista forces would have been disastrous; establishment of a Cohiba cigar factory to manufacture a special-blend cigar, which is now a world-famous Cuban product; creating the Coppelia ice cream parlour which opened in Havana 1966 and still serves up to 35,000 Cubans daily; expropriating a huge tract of land with a toxic textile factory on the edge of Havana and converting it into Lenin Park, a green space for public leisure and relaxation. Some 80,000 mature trees were planted around rolling hills and entertainment facilities. ‘Today Lenin Park has sixty or so restaurants, numerous food stands, art galleries, a narrow-gauge railroad, a rodeo, baseball diamonds, swimming pools, fields and wooded areas, a bust of Lenin in white marble, a garden that is a gift from Japan, an amusement park that is a fairly recent gift from China, and at least a million visitors a year.’ (p413)
While Celia bought a creative flourish and artistic-style to the Revolution, she also held several ministerial posts on the Council of State and the Council of Ministers and in 1965 she was elected to the Central Committee of the new Cuban Communist Party. Later she became a member of its Politboro.
Celia died from lung cancer on 11 January 1980. In her final week in hospital ‘Celia kept busy with at least one other project’ (p433). Celia’s commitment to Cuba, its people and the revolution never changed. Her body lay in state for 19 hours, during which three million Cubans walked past her casket to pay their respects to this outstanding revolutionary woman. People travelled from the far east of the island, where Celia had grown up and become that revolutionary. ‘In Manzanillo, her image dominates Revolution Plaza in an extravagant tableau, mostly made of shining steel, of the landing of the Granma, a powerful reminder of her role in the Revolution’(p440).
Stout’s attention to detail and her obvious admiration makes this book a must-read. However, for those interested in the challenges of revolutionary transformation,it lacks contextualisation of the socio-economic and political conditions within which Celia operated, particularly in the post-1959 era. The reader hears about Celia’s inspired projects, but there is little mention of how these were funded or how they related to Cuba’s transition from a repressive, semi-colonial, mono-crop dependency, dominated by US interests, into an independent socialist country. It may have been too much to expect Stout to weave this complex narrative into her biography. Her great service – both for those new to Cuban history and for Cuba scholars - has been to rescue Celia’s contribution. As Alice Walker states: ‘Nothing makes me more hopeful than discovering another human being to admire.’
*Author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.