"After this it will be much more difficult to live them to die, therefore you will have to be more valiant than we; because we are going to die, and you, Melba and Haydee, you have to live, you have to be much stronger than we, and to die is much easier than that."
Abel Santamaria to his sister Haydee shortly before he was tortured to death at the Moncada Garrison in 1953.
She could easily be mistaken for a surban American housewife. Medium height, plump with short dark curly hair, she wears slacks a bright orange-embroidered over-blouse, matching coral lipstick, masses of jangling gold bracelets and tapestried clogs.
You could picture at the supermarket, at the bride club, maybe on a shopping spree with the girls, so vivacious and chattery and carefree.
You could, that is, if you didn't know that Haydee Santamaria was one of the two women involved in the launching of the Cuban revolution, the bloody and retoric attack on the Balista army's Moncada Garrison in Santiago on July 26, 1953. That she lost her brother, Abel, and her finance Boris to torture in prison after the three of them were captured that day.
That she was imprisoned for nearly a year after the attack. That she continued fighting alongside Fidel Castro and the Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra.
She is filled with memories of the early days of the revolution, this day that she has agreed to be interviewed. She has just received a medal, she and three other herolines of the revolution, for the 20th anniversary of an armed struggle.
They are the first women to receive it. She is a rather emotional state, allowing herself a rare moment of nostalgia. She rocks back and forth in her rocking chair and fingers her medal wistfully, more out of sentiment than pride.
"I don't speak of these things every day," she says, and her eyes mist over just the slightest bit.
"But it doesn't mean they are not inside me. I would say with complete honesty that it is very difficult to talk to someone about these things, to someone who does not know us.
"I am referring to the struggle and what I lost."
"But with all of this I am sure I would do it again. Because before this time my life had no meaning."
When you love the land in which you were born and you want a minimum" of right for people, that's when one decides to take the most violent steps, to take the weapons.
"For a woman this is difficult. But then she decides she can be as good as and warrior as any man. And I decided 23 1/2 years ago. It is hard to understand what a woman can feel. When she goes, in my case, to the conquest of life and death."
I understand this.
From my families I encountered the first misunderstanding. We felt many things but we couldn't explain then. We had to fight against our family at that moment and fight against the total incomprehension of all of our friends.
"But we decided with absolute confidence finally that even if we died history would understand."
She is speaking softly now, wetting her lipstick with her tongue.
"I didn't die at the Moncada Garrison," she says, "But I left more than my life there.
"I went there with the man I was going to marry and with my brother who at the moment meant everything to me. My brother liberated me from a very good but very reactionary family.
"And those two men remain forever in the garrison and I remain alive . . . and after this I knew that there was only one way left: to keep on struggling.
"Life has been good to us. I have been able to see what our people have accomplished. I am a totally happy woman. I am laughing. I feel emotional."
She stops and looks down at her lap a moment, then looks up and smiles. "But if I said that I felt no sorrow today I would not be telling the truth."
Haydee Santamaria was born in a small town in Santa Clara in the countryside of Cuba. Her father was a director of a sugar mill. They were not rich, but they were petit bourgeois
They ate well, had enough money and lived comfortably, as one of the leading families in that atmosphere," she recalls, "it was like not being able to breathe. My brother, Abel, was two year younger than I, but he was always my guide.
"It was very difficult in the sugar mill. Some of the men couldn't work more than four months. Those workers had no food for their families. Abel and I decided to struggle for the workers. I was 14 years old. In those small villages one decided very young whether to struggle or to be a part of it.
"At that moment my family thought I was odd. They suffered because of me, I suffered because I made them suffer. It was vicious circle."
But her brother Abel, finally decided to go to the University in Havana and brought Haydee with him. "I was suffocating there."
It was in Havana in 1953, shortly after Batista's coup that they began to struggle. "After the coup d'etat we decided for a more violent way of struggle. That's when my brother decided there was no other way."
Radical students began to meet in the apartment of Haydee and Abel Santamoria. "We met Fidel about that time and he began to visit out apartment and immediately became head of the group. Abel was the second leader. There was never any discussion about my being a woman. I remember thinking then that we could all die. But I never thought of the way Abel and Boris would die."
The attack on the Moncada Garrrison was planned; Haydee Santamaria and her friend Melba Hernandez were the only women among the attackers. After it was over, they were the only two in their group to have survived.Abel and Haydee Santamaria and her fiance Boris Santa Colona were supposed to take over one section of the garrison, Castro another. And other radicals to take over were other sections.
"Abel was to protect the entrance to the garrison where Fidel was. When Abel realized that the Moncada couldn't be taken he wanted to defend it anyway to give Fidel time to get to the mountains. "We ran out of bullets. I thought we should have left the garrison then but we continued fighting for two hours. We were surrounded. If we had left earlier Abel and Boris would have preferred that way of dying than the way they died. By torture."
According to revolutionary accounts, in order to make Santamaria and Santa Colono talk, the captors tore out Abel's eyes and crushed one of Boris testicle, but the captives still would not tell where Fidel was. So one eye and one testicle were brought, to Haydee Santamaria to try to make her tell. She didn't.
"I think they didn't torture me because they considered it a greater torture to do it to persons I loved than to me. I suppose when they saw this would not make us speak they couldn't understand. I would have preferred to be tortured and not them."
In a sudden burst of emotion, Haydee Santamaria throws her head back, clasps her hands together in a loud gesture and cries out "terrible" and she looks at the ceiling, her eyes brimming with tears.
There is silence for a while. Finally she says, "They did burn me with a cigar once and I didn't feel it. Melba told me they did it. There comes a moment when you feel life is so important, a subconscious mechanism of life takes over. The most important thing is to survive."
During the time that she was in prison, after her brother was killed, she thought mostly about her parents. "I thought they were going to kill me and I knew how my parents were going to suffer. I was not afraid at that moment. Before I was taken prisoner I was afraid, but then all I could only think of was my parents and those who were tortured. "I was happy to be the sister of one who was tortured rather than the sister of the torturers. I felt sorry for them. I couldn't imagine human beings being capable of those things.And I thought of how when the torturers were born they must have been beautiful babies and how proud their mothers and sisters were of them and how society had transformed them into monsters."
At the time of the attack on the Moncada, Santamaria's parents were vacationing at Veradero Beach. When the first news of the attack broke, her mother, without hearing a single name, took a plane and went to Santiago, feeling certain that her children had been involved. She discovered that Abel had been involved and went to the garrison to ask for him. They told her he was at Santa Iphigenia. She went out to the street and asked a passerby where she could find the Hotel Iphigenia. She was told there was no such hotel. The only thing named Santa Iphigenia was the cemetery.
"All of this strengthened my feelings of the revolution. I cannot say that I went with the idea of such a radical revolution as we had. Before Moncada I never thought I would take part in politics afterwards. But afterwards I knew the system had to change radically, and I knew that I would never stop taking part in the politics of my people."
Hydee Sontanaria remained in prison seven months, partly because she and Melba Hernandez refused to denounce her brother. "The Supreme Court wanted to free us. It was not a custom for women of so-called decent families to go to jail. I belonged to a rural family of position and culture, not of the street.But we didn't want to go. We were part of it, and what would I have done when I go out? I couldn't get a job. I would have had to go home."
When they did get out, Santamaria began working with the underground until it became too dangeroud for her several years later. Then she joined Castro and Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
"Before Moncada we had conceived of a transformation of society in a more peaceful way. But life showed us another way."
The mountains were where her deepest friendships were formed, her deepest memories linger. Particularly of Castro, of Guevara and of Camillo Cienfuegas, the third member of the rebel triumvirate.
"Fidel, Che, Camillo," she says, savoring their names fondly. "Each Cuban has a particular way of imagining these dear companions. Camillo was a very happy person. Che was not so happy. I don't know why.
"He was most strict. Rigid. Disciplined. And he was most severe with himself. He never took a day off. When he was presented with a gift, even if it was very pretty, but our people didn't have access to it, he wouldn't take it. He was an extremist. He made one feel one was living better than one should. Made one feel one was not working enough. But he would never tell you this. You knew it through his conduct. He worked 20 hours a day. Every time I saw Che I felt as if I wasn't working as I should. I wasn't as revolutionary as I should be. Che sacrificed. He didn't take food in his knapsack in order to carry books.
"Fidel was very talkative," she says. "You felt that Fidel was the mountain, the heights. But it was very easy to get to him, to talk to him. If you made a mistake you knew he'd be very severe in his answer but you could still tell him. With Che you would feel more worried about talking to him because he was so severe, even with himself.Fidel has always liked to get to know people, to go deep. He doesn't care about losing time until he gets a general idea of a person. He always sees the good part of the person, not the bad part. That is his virtue. And he transmits sincerity. You feel afraid not to be completely honest with Fidel. He's very honest. Fidel is also very shy, very sweet. I've never really seen a photo of him that shows his sweetness. And he behaves the same way with everyone, with old people, with children. Of course," she grins, "he has eyes for women."
"Camillo, well, I saw him in a different way. Every time he had an opportunity he wanted me to have something. They were different in this way and if you ask me which was better I couldn't say."
She seems somewhat obsessed with Che and she goes back to the subject of him, her eyes flashing. "You know," she says, "I have felt very angry when I visited other countries and saw T-shirts with Che's image on them. That is very anti-Che. I don't know how they can do this. In my house I don't have a picture of my brother or Che. Nor in my office. I couldn't eat. If I was going to drink coffee I would think of Che because he loved coffee. But to wear a T-shirt of Che!" She shudders with disgust.
"I think a person who uses these symbols is not a true revolutionary. This doesn't mean that if I decided to struggle or strike that I would not take a picture of Che. But it would be as a flag of combat. I wouldn't think of going to the movies wearing a T-shirt of Che. But then, maybe I'm being unkind."
For Haydee Santamaria the idea of fighting even for her country now is something that haunts her. Whether she could do it again, go through the pain and sacrifices she did when she was a girl.
"If I am still capable of climbing the highest mountain, and I am, I will never stop preparing myself. I wanted to belong to Che's column in Bolivia (where he died). But they didn't let me go? It was the highest tribute. If he had lasted longer I am sure I would have gone. And I am sure Armando (her husband) would have gone too. I didn't ask him but . . . those things we have no need to ask."
It was several years after the attack on the Moncada Garrison, after her brother and her fiance died, that Santamaria met and married Armando Hart. He had joined the revolution and he gave her the support she needed during those days. Later they went to the mountains together to join the revolutionary forces. Hart is now minister of culture in Cuba and his wife is the director of the Casa de Las Americas, Cuba's cultural center.
They have two children of their own, a son, Abel, and a daughter, Celia, named after Celia Sanchez, one of the few women in the Sierra Maestra with Castro and Guevara. They also have adopted four orphans.
"He's a very generous man. It would have been very difficult for me to marry anyone but he's been a good companion. I have always received his help.
"During the underground we all knowing whether we would see each other again. But afterwards, it's the same as any marriage. Some marriages that were made then have broken up. But we've been married 20 years. And we're still not bored with each other." She laughs delightedly.
"And there is no doubt that 20 years of marriage can be the most boring thing in the world. We both lead such active lives and travel a lot, that when we see each other we always have something interesting to talk about. I never thought I could stay married to anybody for 20 years.
"Now today," she says, "I will go home and tell him I have received this medal, which he has not yet received, and he will be very happy for me. Oh," she jumps up, "I should call him and tell him about it."
She races over to the phone, calls home and when her husband answers, she tells him he is going to be jealous and asks him why he hasn't congratulated her. He says he already sent her two bonquets of flowers for International women's day, one from him. She laughs and asks him accusingly which secretary reminded him, then excitedly she tells him about her medal. She hangs up happily.
Haydee Santamaria is 50 years old this year. "If you'd asked me how old I was last year I would have lied to you," she says with a resigned sign. "Before being 50 I always took 15 years of my age, but now that I'm 50 it doesn't matter any more."
She tells the story of her daughter in history class last year answering the teacher that at the time of the Moncada attack in 1953, Haydee Santamaria was 14 years old. The teacher chastised the girl but she was insistent, saying that according to the year of the attack and the age her mother claims to be, she had to be 14. The teacher called the mother to tell her that her daughter was lying in class.
"I have never been so embarrassed in my life," she says, blushing fiercely. "It was then I decided to stop lying. And after 50, well you get used to being 50." She is, nevertheless, still vain, and apologizes for her brown hair, which she dyed blonde until seven years ago. "I was a different person," she says, "much more attractive." She has asthma, though, and the doctors told her the dye was bad for her.
"Since I don't like to be old looking I'm going to start dyeing it again," she says defiantly. "Besides, my asthma hasn't gotten any better." She also says she is going to have a facelift, "when I get over the fright of the operation. I do not like to be old, had and I going to do? Oh how horrible to be old."
She doesn't think it strange at all for a woman revolutionary to care about her looks. "In the Sierra Maestra, Celia and I always wore flowers in our uniforms," she says. "But when a woman in 50, oh, I suppose we should dress accordingly, more seriously. But serious make you look older.
She is chattering away gaily and stops for a moment when she sees the surprised response she is getting from a listener.
"Maybe it seems to you," she says, "that after what I have been through I cannot be happy or gay. But with my friends I'm very will known for being a happy person. In fact, every once in a while they have to remind me to calm down. I have lots of fun."
There seems no question that she is a happy, contented person now. She has a husband who loves her, beautiful children and a successful career. Yet when you ask her if she misses the days in the mountains, in the Sierra Maestra, whe will stop for a long while before she replies.
"Yes," she says finally. "I cannot explain why. You do miss those days. I have tried to think why, many times.
"Maybe because in those days we had many responsibilities. Today we have none, really. We were all so close together. We miss those nights and days. In a way life was much easier. We were all together. And at least in my case, I was less afraid. Fidel was there with us. I wasn't afraid anybody would do anything to him. It seemed nobody could reach us there. Today we feel more danger.
"We feel danger of everything for Fidel. From an accident or something that shouldn't be an accident. It seemed we could protect him better in La Sierra. Now he goes to other countries . . . to us, to think that Fidel would not exist, is like living without the sun."
There is no doubt in her mind that the revolution has come far enough to survive without Castro. Yet, should something happen to him . . . "we would have to take more radical steps. We could never sleep. We would have to keep alert to do more, to risk everything. Fidel is much more moderate than we are. He moderates us, even if it doesn't seem so." She laughs.
"We have moments in Cuba, that if Fidel had allowed me, well, I don't know what I would have done. We are much more impulsive. We don't have his privileged intelligence.So when you don't have it you adopt more violent ways. This is my own opinion. But to think that Fidel would not exist. I don't know. I can't think."
The day before the interview, says Santamaria, she was having lunch with her husband and children. She told them she was going to be interviewed by a Norteamericana. Her daughter, Celia, gasped in disgust, "A Norteamericana!"
"Well," intervened her son Abel. "She said Norteamericana. She didn't say she was being interviewed by an imperialist."
"But it's the same thing!" insisted the girl, angrily.
"No it isn't," said Abel. "You must learn to distinguish between the Norteamericans and their government. Remember when Batista was in power he didn't represent all Cubans."
Haydee Santamaria, heroine of the revolution, tells this story with a patient smile. "I was so pleased to see how sophisticated Abel was," she said. "Though Celia, I am worried about her. I suppose it's the same with parents all over the world. But, well, she's 14 now, and that radical age . . .