Below are excerpts from Women in Cuba:The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution. Its authors, Cuban revolutionaries Vilma Espín, Asela de los Santos and Yolanda Ferrer, were leaders of the Federation of Cuban Women. Printed here is part of an interview Pathfinder editors Mary-Alice Waters and Martín Koppel conducted with de los Santos. Copyright © 2012 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
WATERS: You’ve mentioned on other occasions the important place of women in the underground struggle. What were some of the things they did?
DE LOS SANTOS: As the struggle continued, more and more women became part of it.
Fidel’s course of building a mass revolutionary movement capable of sustaining and supporting the armed struggle enabled both men and women to be integrated.
Women joined the ranks of the Rebel Army. In the Sierra Maestra there was a platoon of women fighters known as the Marianas, named after Mariana Grajales, the mother of the eight Maceo brothers, all of whom fought for independence from Spain. She was one of the great heroes of the war for independence.
In the underground we did whatever was necessary. We sewed uniforms and armbands for the Rebel Army. We helped provide cover for moving weapons and young combatants. We found families who would house revolutionary fighters who had gone underground. We secured medicine. We served as messengers between different revolutionary fronts. We distributed subversive propaganda and collected supplies.
In short, women worked on every front in the underground struggle.
This included tasks that were even more dangerous. In Miami, for example, there was a delegate of the July 26 Movement who was responsible for collecting weapons, provisions, money, and so on to be sent to Cuba in various ways. A group of young women would leave Miami with small weapons, bullets, messages, letters, you name it, hidden under the full skirts that were fashionable then.
One time there were three of us on a trip. We were running late for the plane in Miami. I put four or five pistols in pouches, which we placed under our skirts. We simply basted them in. When we arrived at the airport in Varadero and I got up from my seat, I suddenly felt something rip. I called over a compañera who was traveling with me — we were already standing in the aisle, waiting to get off the plane.
“Whatever happens, you don’t know me and I don’t know you,” I said. To stop the gun from banging, I started limping, like I’d just had surgery. Somehow we got out. …
In all, I made nine trips from Miami to Havana, Camagüey, or Varadero.
WATERS: Nine trips is a lot.
DE LOS SANTOS: Once in the Havana airport they set a trap using a compañera from Santiago as bait. I had something under my skirt, and I saw her walking between two men. “Something’s not right here,” I said to myself, and kept on going. It turned out they were using this compañera to try to catch anyone greeting or making contact with her.
You develop an instinct after a while, as well as an ability to remain calm in face of danger. That’s what protects you. At the beginning I was scared. After some experience, I lost that fear. That’s the truth.
The women in the underground struggle were very serious. The compañeros had great respect and admiration for us, and they protected us.
A young woman like Vilma, who came from a well-off family, was willing to give her life. That’s just one example. There were others.
The seriousness of women in the movement helped our mothers have confidence that the struggle we were involved in was genuine. Think what it meant when a mother knew that her daughter — sometimes very young — was involved in underground activity, yet the family raised no objections. Most of the time the family was not an obstacle to young women and men being able to join the struggle. That had tremendous significance.
Women became increasingly involved in Santiago de Cuba and in the rest of the country.
WATERS: Participating in this kind of struggle must have given women confidence, a sense of accomplishment and liberation. It wasn’t so easy to do.
DE LOS SANTOS: That’s right. In other conditions this wouldn’t have been possible. Girls would have studied in order to get a job, as they normally had.
I’m talking about the middle class — the upper class is something else. But for women of the professional middle class, and from poor families, the hope was to get ahead by getting an education and a job.
As the struggle deepened, women saw greater possibilities opening up. There were many important things to do. The revolution offered them this opportunity. And I’m talking about even before the victory.
When a deepgoing revolution takes place, women, who have been oppressed for centuries, for millennia, want to take part.
You asked me if working in the underground was a liberating experience for a woman. Yes, it was. No one could stop the women.
WATERS: It gave you a sense of worth …
DE LOS SANTOS: …of worth as a human being, as part of the people.
WATERS: For me this is a very significant element of the Cuban Revolution. Your generation in Cuba was in the vanguard of the historic changes in women’s economic and social status, as we were drawn out of the home and into social labor to a previously unprecedented degree, something that began during the Second World War.
In no other socialist revolution have there been so many leaders who were women: Vilma Espín, Celia Sánchez, Haydée Santamaría, Melba Hernández, to name but a few of the best known. Their leadership was indispensable. It’s one of the elements of Cuba’s revolutionary history that needs to be better known and better understood.
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