Cuban revolutionary leader Asela de los Santos Tamayo died Jan. 23 at the age of 90. She became one of the earliest supporters of the revolutionary movement that was born with the attack on the Moncada army garrison led by Fidel Castro on July 26, 1953. De los Santos was part of the July 26 Movement from its founding after Fidel and the others were released from prison.
She had become politically active in student demonstrations against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship at the University of Oriente where she studied to become a teacher.
In November 1956, de los Santos helped organize an armed action in Santiago in preparation for the landing of the Granma, which brought Fidel and Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionary fighters to Cuba. Along with fellow revolutionaries Celia Sánchez and Vilma Espín, she transported fighters to join Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1957, and also helped build the massive outpouring in the streets of Santiago after the murder of revolutionary commander Frank País.
She was transferred to the Rebel Army’s Second Front in Oriente Province in August 1958, where Raúl Castro assigned her to organize education. She led the establishment of some 400 schools and combatant study groups.
De los Santos always pointed to the Second Front as the foundation for the 1961 nationwide mass literacy campaign, when more than 250,000 Cuban volunteers, many of them students, taught workers and peasants across the island how to read and write, eliminating illiteracy in less than year and allowing them to participate more fully in the revolution.
With Espín, who died in 2007, de los Santos launched the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960 and later became its general secretary. In 1966 she became director of the education section of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and helped establish the Camilo Cienfuegos Military Schools — high schools that also teach military skills. She was Cuban Minister of Education from 1979 to 1981.
De los Santos was a founder of the Cuban Communist Party in 1965 and served on its Central Committee from 1975 to 1991. She was a national leader of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution. De los Santos was married to José Ramón Fernández, commander of the main column of combatants at Playa Girón in April 1961 when they defeated the U.S.-organized Bay of Pigs invasion. Fernández, who died Jan. 6, 2019, was vice president of the Council of Ministers from 1978 until his death.
An urn bearing the ashes of de los Santos will be placed in the Second Eastern Front Mausoleum in the province of Santiago de Cuba.
At the 2012 Havana Book Fair, De los Santos spoke at the presentation of the Pathfinder book, Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution. She said that the book “offered me the opportunity to take up actions taken in the liberated territory of the Frank País Second Eastern Front, under the command of Raúl [Castro], and in which Vilma shouldered important responsibilities.”
“There, in the mountains and in the underground groups, equality and fraternity, solidarity and friendship, truth and justice, work, generosity, and respect for human dignity prevailed over the mediocrity, pettiness, selfishness and prejudices of all types that were imposed by the times of slavery, rooted in mind and behavior by centuries of colonial rule.”