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Vol. 78/No. 12      March 31, 2014

Melba Hernández: Combatant
and leader of Cuban Revolution
From the very beginning the Cuban Revolution has had more leaders who are women than any other socialist revolution. Melba Hernández, one of those women, died March 9 at the age of 92. She was among the initial leaders of the movement led by Fidel Castro that brought workers and farmers to power in Cuba and one of two women who took part in the July 26, 1953, assault on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago.

That action, while failing in its immediate objective, was a decisive turning point and clarion call to revolutionary struggle against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Hernández was a founding member of the July 26 Movement led by Castro and a combatant in the 1956-58 revolutionary war, which culminated in a popular insurrection that overthrew the Batista tyranny on Jan. 1, 1959. She was a founding member of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965 and a member of its Central Committee from 1986 until her death. She took on various diplomatic and other responsibilities in the workers and farmers government that replaced capitalist rule.

Hernández was born July 28, 1921. Her parents had been underground fighters against Spanish rule during the war of 1895. In 1943 she graduated with a law degree from the University of Havana. “It wasn’t a ‘profitable’ career for me,” she said in an interview reprinted in Juventud Rebelde. “My ‘clients’ were exploited peasants, a girl who went from the brothel to jail, fired workers.” In 1951 she joined the Orthodox Party, after its leader Eduardo Chibás committed suicide to protest government corruption.

After Batista seized power in a coup in 1952, Hernández went to a demonstration at the grave of Carlos Rodríguez, a worker killed by Batista’s thugs, where she first met Abel Santamaría. He introduced her to Fidel Castro in May that year.

Before long Hernández and Haydée Santamaría, Abel’s sister, were taking on major responsibilities in the revolutionary movement headed by Castro. “We were the people of confidence for the most sensitive, most dangerous tasks,” Hernández said in a 2003 interview by Susana Lee published in Cuba’s Granma newspaper.

The two women pressed to be among the 160 combatants in the July 26, 1953, assaults on the Moncada barracks in Santiago and garrison in Bayamo. Castro approved and backed their request. “I protested to Fidel that we were as revolutionary as anyone there and that it was unjust to discriminate against us for being women,” she recalled in an interview published in Granma in 1998.

The bold assault failed to take the garrisons or spark a mass rebellion against the tyranny. Five revolutionaries died in the attack; 56 were tortured and murdered after capture, including Abel Santamaría. Haydée Santamaría and Hernández were among those who were tortured but not killed.

Castro and 27 other combatants were tried and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Santamaría and Hernández were sentenced to 17 months.

After Santamaría and Hernández were released, Castro assigned them to organize the provisional leadership of the movement. They edited and organized distribution of tens of thousands of copies of Castro’s speech to the court, “History Will Absolve Me,” which became the program of the revolutionary movement and organizing tool in the campaign to free the revolutionaries.

In face of growing support for their release, Castro and others were freed on May 15, 1955. When Castro founded the July 26 Movement in June that year, Hernández became a member of its National Directorate.

After Castro’s release, Hernández was among those who joined him in Mexico to prepare for a revolutionary war against the Batista dictatorship. Castro and 81 men sailed for Cuba on the Granma yacht in November 1956. After the Granma landed and Castro began putting together the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba, Hernández returned to Cuba where she rejoined the urban underground of the July 26 Movement, which organized to support the guerrillas and other activities. When it was no longer possible for her to remain in the cities, she became a Rebel Army combatant in the Third Eastern Front, under the command of Juan Almeida.

Castro led the battle for women’s equal participation in all aspects of the revolutionary struggle, and more than a few were clamoring to fight arms in hand. In October 1957 he appointed Celia Sánchez, the first woman combatant in the Rebel Army, to its general command. In September 1958, Castro convinced the Rebel Army command to set up the all-woman Mariana Grajales platoon, trained under his direction.

“How can we give rifles to women when there are so many men who are unarmed?” asked some of the men. “Because they are better soldiers that you are,” replied Castro. “They’re more disciplined.”

Hernández headed the Cuban Committee in Solidarity with Vietnam during the U.S. war against Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s. In the 1980s she was Cuba’s ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia. She also served as secretary general of the Organization in Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America; vice president of the Anti-Imperialist Tribunal of Our America; and director of the Communist Party’s Center for Asian Studies. She was a deputy in Cuba’s National Assembly from 1976 to 1986 and elected again in 1993.

“In spite of the apparent failure [of the Moncada] assault because of the fallen comrades, going to prison, we never saw it like that, but as a victory that showed the road forward,” Hernández told Granma in 2003. “Without Moncada we wouldn’t have what we have today. … I don’t regret it.”
Related articles:
London event brings together forces fighting to free Cuban 5
Havana book fair: ‘History of class struggle in US is vital for revolutionaries worldwide’
Showings of paintings by Antonio Guerrero, one of the Cuban Five
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