History Will Absolve Her

Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression BY Margaret Randall. Duke University Press Books. Paperback, 248 pages. $23.

The life of Haydée Santamaría was divided between a few days of heroism and decades of bureaucratic toil. A new biography by the poet and activist Margaret Randall, who knew and loved her, tells stories of courage and sacrifice that sometimes make her sound too amazing to be true. She was one of two women (with Melba Hernández) who took part in the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks that launched the Cuban Revolution, and from the guerrillas’ victory in 1959 until her death in 1980, she was the force behind the culture and arts institution Casa de las Américas. According to Randall, the Casa, thanks to her shaping hand, “continues to function as the revolution itself should function but often doesn’t”—as a constantly developing collaborative forum. Still, it was the few days, rather than the two decades, that ultimately defined her life.

It was a stroke of intuitive genius on Fidel Castro’s part to appoint Haydée (nobody called her by her full name) as head of the new Cuba’s all-important cultural showcase. Randall identifies others—Alejo Carpentier, Wifredo Lam—he could have chosen over Haydée, a woman brought up on a sugar plantation who only reached sixth grade. But Castro knew her versatility. After Moncada, she had been active in the underground, bringing her knack for disguise to gunrunning and coordinating guerrilla activities all over the island. With Hernández, she edited and disseminated Castro’s “invisible ink” lemon-juice writings from prison, and then his trial speech, “History Will Absolve Me.” At his request, she even traveled to the US to buy weapons from the Mafia for the guerrillas. When they declared victory, she was in Miami, and gathered some Cuban lawyers and judges in exile to help establish a new government. She found a pilot to fly them to Santiago, but warned him: “Tell them you’re taking them to Havana . . . or else they’ll die of fright.”

As director of the Casa, Haydée hosted marginalized or avant-garde artists from all over Latin America and beyond. She didn’t share the Communists’ assumption that class struggle took precedence over race and gender; she rescued gay artists from “re-education” camps and made room at the Casa for Nueva Trova musicians like Silvio Rodríguez, after he lost his television slot for saying he liked the Beatles. She understood (as did a handful of others, including Alfredo Guevara at the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry) the need for artistic freedom, and did her best to stand up to the apparatchiks preaching socialist realism. The most successful compromise between these warring tendencies was Cuban poster art, correct in its politics but also aesthetically groundbreaking.

While describing the reactionary currents within the Cuban revolutionary regime, Randall also celebrates, with a refreshing lack of squirm, its achievements in the teeth of the American embargo, such as literacy programs, health care, and the military campaigns fought in Angola against apartheid South Africa. She hails the warmth of Cuban culture, as compared with the dourness of life under the Soviet or Chinese systems. When Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967, Castro bestowed on him the rank, not of general or great leader, but simply of “Artist.”

Haydée’s own voice, in letters and transcripts, is peculiarly moving. She writes to the painter Roberto Matta about Che’s death: “If you could have seen our people, out of their minds, shouting at the wake . . . maybe the only thing you could feel was Che’s breathing problem, the rasp of his anti-asthma inhaler every now and then . . . everyone remembering his difficulty breathing and knowing he wouldn’t need his inhaler now.” With a rare blend of tact and conviction, she supported women facing new tensions between self-expression and family duty. Though known for her kindness, she wasn’t always forgiving. The persecution, in 1971, of Heberto Padilla, a poet critical of Castro, alienated many illustrious supporters of the revolution and inaugurated the repressive “black decade,” but Haydée saw the essential difference between principled responses and self-serving ones. When Mario Vargas Llosa used the Padilla affair as an excuse to make a theatrical break with Cuba, she nailed the Peruvian with majestic scorn: “Your own shameful letter . . . shows you for who you are, the living image of a colonized writer.”

Her public speeches were often emotional. After the Moncada attack, when her brother, Abel, and the love of her life, Boris Luis Santa Coloma, were tortured to death, grief and loss were permanently inscribed in her. When she spoke of fear as intrinsic to courage, it was not merely rhetoric: Captured after Moncada, she was shown her brother’s eyeball and her lover’s testicle, and she still refused to talk. In Randall’s account, she responds: “If you did that to them and they didn’t talk, much less will I!”

On July 26, 1980, she shot herself. It was an act that bewildered her friends, and so offended the regime that she was not given the state funeral she deserved. Her legacy remains tarnished by her suicide—something this passionate book sets out to rectify. Randall examines the events that could have driven her to such despair: her husband’s sudden, unexplained desertion; the death of her close friend and fellow militant Celia Sánchez (typically, Haydée’s thought was for Castro: “Who will care for him like Celia did?”); the increasing rigidities of the revolutionary regime and the growing number who fled from it; and the slow attrition of being a progressive woman in what was still a deeply misogynistic society. (Exasperated, she once attended a Central Committee meeting dressed as a man.)

More than all this, the author concludes, it was grief that killed her. “Moncada’s wounds simply never healed in her,” one friend says, and Randall agrees: “It finally hurt too much to wage that daily battle against overwhelming anguish.” Apparently it was out of keeping with the macho values of the revolution to die of sorrow; nonetheless, she was arguably a better example of Che’s New Man than any man in Cuba.

Lorna Scott Fox is a critic, translator, and editor based in London.