1. CELIA SANCHEZ, First Female Guerilla
Celia Sánchez (1920 – 1980) was introduced to politics by her father, a doctor who was committed to the liberal Orthodox Party. Working as his assistant, Celia saw the effects of extreme poverty on his patients.
Celia became the first female guerilla when the body of Maria Ochoa, a 10 years old peasant girl she raised at her own, was found in the basement of a high-end casino. One of many victims of Cuba’s child sex slave industry, Maria had been “used up and thrown away” by a wealthy North American gambler who requested a young girl for the night.
Celia Sánchez was a founder and leader of the July 26 Movement in the former province of Oriente and was responsible for the dissemination of Fidel Castro’s ideas.
When hearing of Castro’s failed Moncada Barracks attack on July 26, 1953, she started organising, educating and training peasants to revolt against Batista in the Sierra Maestra mountains. She kept the Revolution going while Fidel was imprisoned in Mexico. And it was her clandestine network of peasants who saved Castro after the disastrous landing of the Granma boat in Cuba from Mexico in December 1956.
After meeting Castro in 1957 she became his indispensable aid until her death. In 1958 she convinced him to create Las Marianas, the first women’s combat unit to serve in the revolutionary war and helped lay the ground work for revolutionary transformation of women in Cuban society in the years that followed.
During her time in the Sierra Maestra, she kept all the paperwork used during the Revolution and later established a historical archive of the Revolution in Havana.
In January 1959, after the triumph of the Revolution, Celia was officially appointed Secretary to the Commander in Chief Fidel Castro and served in a number of important capacities until her death in 1980.
2. VILMA ESPIN, Cuba’s First Lady
Vilma Espín (1930 – 2007) came from a prosperous family leaving in Santiago. She was one of the first women in Cuba to study chemical engineering. She also did post-graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S. A student activist, she became more involved in the Revolution when she went back to Cuba in 1956. She became a provincial organiser of the July 26 Movement and assisted the revolutionaries and Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains after they returned to Cuba on the Granma boat.
Vilma was one of the most significant revolutionaries to prevent any intervention by the United States government. In 1957 she convinced General Lyman Kirkpatrick from the CIA that Fidel Castro, his brother Raul Castro and Che Guevara had not ties to communism.
After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, she became the founding president of the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960, remaining in charge for 47 years and becoming an international figure in the struggle for women’s rights. She promoted the Cuban Family Code which objectives served to restructure the family, eliminate gender discrimination and establish the full equality of women within the home.
In 1965 Vilma was named to the Communist Party’s ruling Central Committee and belonged to the elite Council of State until her death. Married to Raul Castro, the brother of former Cuban President Fidel Castro, she was often described as “Cuba’s First Lady”.
3. MELBA HERNANDEZ, Heroine of the Cuban Revolution
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Melba Hernandez (1921 – 2014) was one of two women, along with Haydée Santamaría, who helped Fidel Castro launch his revolution with the 1953 attack on a military Moncada Barracks.
Melba and Haydée were the only women who participated in the 26th of July Movement, obtaining 100 uniforms and sewing military rank insignia on them. They were both arrested with Fidel Castro and the remaining survivors when the attack on the barracks failed but were released before the men, after serving 5 months in prison.
Upon her release Melba returned to the struggle and kept in contact with Fidel Castro while he was in prison, getting orders on how to help run his 26th of July Movement. She published and distributed Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, one of the most important document of the Cuban Revolution.
After Castro’s release in 1955 Melba traveled to Mexico with Fidel Castro to help organise a guerilla army and the Cuban Revolution. She became an active combatant upon their return to Cuba and was later given the name “Heroine of the Cuban Revolution” for her actions during the Cuban Revolutionary war.Embed from Getty Images
When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, she became one of the first four members of his general staff and helped found the Communist Party of Cuba. She became the head of the Cuban Committee in Solidarity with Vietnam in the 1960s to 1970s and served as Cuban ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1980’s. She was an elected member of the Cuban “People’s Power” parliament from 1976 to 1986 and was elected again in 1993.
Melba also was secretary-general of the Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, a group founded in Cuba in 1966 to support independence struggles in developing nations.
4. HAYDEE SANTAMARIA, Heroine of Moncada
Haydée Santamaría (1923 – 1980) was one of only two women among 160 men who helped organize and fought on the front lines of the 1953 attack on Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Following that first military operation, when she was captured and shown her brother’s eye and lover’s mangled testicle to make her divulge information about their Movement she replied: “If you did that to them and they didn’t talk, much less will I!”
Haydée was one of the founders of Cuba’s 26th of July Movement. She assumed a leadership role in the underground movement and smuggled weapons from the U.S into Cuba. She fought in the Mariana Grajales platoon, the women’s battalion for the rebel army, and was the only woman to participate in every phase of the Revolution.
Following the Revolution’s victory Haydée founded and ran the cultural and arts institution Casa de las Americas, the most important cultural institution in Latin America. Its purpose has been to bypass the ideological blockade the United States tried so hard to establish along with its diplomatic and economic counterparts, and to extend the socio-cultural relations with the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and the rest of the world. It has exposed Cubans to some of the world’s greatest creative minds, drawing artists such as Violeta Parra, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Julio Cortázar, Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez.
Becoming a member of the Central Committee of the governing Cuban Communist Party in 1965, Haydée used her revolutionary prestige to nurture and protect many artists and writers within the house. She accepted all, ignoring race, class, or gender.