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Melba Hernandez, a ‘heroine of the Cuban Revolution,’ dies at 92

Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, right, stands in 1999 with Melba Hernandez, the wife of Jesus Montane, during Montane's burial at Colon Cemetery in Havana. (Jose Goitia/AP)

Melba Hernandez, one of two women who helped Fidel Castro launch his revolution with a failed 1953 attack on a military barracks, and who was later named a “heroine of the Cuban Revolution,” died March 9 at 92.

A message from the Communist Party’s Central Committee published in the party newspaper Granma said Ms. Hernandez died of complications from diabetes. The place of death was not reported.

With her crown of snowy white curls, Ms. Hernandez was occasionally seen at official events in her later years, accompanied by one of the Castro brothers. Fidel stepped down because of ill health in 2006, passing command to his younger brother Raul.

Born on July 28, 1921, Melba Hernandez was five years older than Fidel Castro and remained faithful to him throughout her life.

At the time of the July 26, 1953, assault on the Moncada Barracks in the eastern city of Santiago, Ms. Hernandez — like Castro — was a young lawyer who had grown increasingly fed up with government corruption under Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in a 1952 coup.

She signed on to Castro’s assault plans and obtained 100 uniforms for the attackers from an army sergeant who later joined the movement.

She and the only other woman involved in the operation, Haydee Santamaria, sewed military rank insignia onto the uniforms. At a farm in the hours before the operation, the women ironed the uniform trousers and shirts.

The assault failed miserably, with many of the attackers killed by government soldiers and the rest, including Castro, arrested. The women, who were waiting nearby to provide medical assistance to their comrades, also were jailed. Santamaria’s brother Abel was tortured and killed in prison.

Ms. Hernandez and Santamaria were freed months before the men and organized support rallies for those still jailed. They also distributed Castro’s writings, which were smuggled from behind bars — essays that helped rally sympathy for the revolutionaries.

Castro corresponded frequently with Ms. Hernandez when he was in prison, giving instructions on helping run his July 26 Movement. After the remaining rebels were freed, Ms. Hernandez traveled to Mexico with the group, including her new husband and fellow revolutionary Jesus Montane, to help organize a guerrilla army.

She did not, however, join the band that sailed from Mexico to launch an uprising in Cuba’s eastern Sierra Maestra.

Batista fled the country Jan. 1, 1959, and Castro took power soon after. Ms. Hernandez later helped found the Communist Party of Cuba and served as ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia.

She 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.

In 1997, Ms. Hernandez was among five women from around the world who received human rights awards from Col. Moammar Gaddafi of Libya, long an ally of Cuba.

Montane died in 1999 and Santamaria in 1980.

— Associated Press



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