The following remarks by Mary-Alice Waters were given at the presentation of Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution at the Havana Book Fair, Feb. 14, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. The footnotes are by the Militant.
BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
Thank you Arelys [Santana] for that warm introduction. Before anything else, I want to extend a very special welcome to Vice President [José Ramón] Fernández, compañero [Armando] Hart, compañera Teté [Puebla], and compañero [Víctor] Dreke. We’re honored by their presence, and by the participation of so many other revolutionary combatants, too numerous to mention.
For us, it is a real pleasure to be here with so many compañeros and compañeras with whom we have had the privilege of working in recent years, and many others we are only now coming to know.
On behalf of all of us at Pathfinder, I want to express our appreciation to the national leaderships of the Federation of Cuban Women and of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, and above all to compañeras Asela [de los Santos] and Yolanda [Ferrer]. Without their hard work, and unstinting support, this book—an accurate expression of an historical truth, of an unwavering political trajectory—would never have become a reality.
From the beginning, the labor and collaboration of three other compañeras who are here today has also been indispensable: Carolina Aguilar, Isabel Moya, and Iraida Aguirrechu.1 All I can say to each of them is a heartfelt “thank you.”
Others on the panel this morning will speak about what this book represents to so many here in Cuba. I want to say a few words about why Pathfinder Press has published it. About why it is important in North America and elsewhere outside Cuba to the increasing numbers of workers who are searching for ways to effectively resist, and end, intensifying assaults by the capitalist owners of the means of production and their government on the dignity, wages, job conditions, and rights of working people.
The most succinct answer to why we publish books like the one we are presenting today is that the example of the men and women who made the Cuban Revolution, and are still making it, needs to be known—because working people everywhere, sooner or later, are being pushed toward revolutionary action.
The accurate record of the Cuban Revolution, told by those who lived it, explaining in their own words why they acted as they did, is indispensable to the revolutionary continuity of the working class. It is part of that continuity, stretching back through the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, to the Paris Commune of 1871, and the Communist Manifesto, which spoke on behalf of the proletariat and its allies in the massive revolutionary upheavals that swept Europe in 1848-49.
Without the real record of the Cuban Revolution being available, in writing, so others can study and know it, future generations will pay a much greater price than necessary in the coming battles whose initial skirmishes are already being fought. That is what is happening today as the opening stages of capitalism’s deepening crisis continue to slowly but surely unfold.
The introduction to The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution opens with the statement that this “is not a book about women. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it does not start with women, nor could it. This is a book about the Cuban Revolution …about the millions of working people—men and women, of all ages—who have made that socialist revolution, and how their actions transformed them as they fought to transform their world.”
One of the most revolutionary lessons recounted in the pages of this new book is Vilma[Espín]’s explanation that as the FMC was being born, those who helped lead it and the women involved in it had “no preconceived structure or agenda.”
The organizational structures grew out of the goals—and above all were the product of deeds leading to the accomplishment of those goals. The forms grew out of the participation of more and more women and men in the deepening struggle. First and foremost, women wanted to be involved in a genuine revolution. In the very midst of their efforts, they created a means to that end.
That explanation by Vilma became more and more concrete as work on this book advanced, and I could not help but be reminded of the words of the Communist Manifesto. That the positions of communists “are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.”2
The FMC was the product of a very real “existing class struggle,” as well as a measure of the proletarian course of the leadership of that struggle—of Fidel above all, but not only Fidel.
“When a deepgoing revolution takes place, women, who have been oppressed for centuries, for millennia, want to take part,” says Asela in the interview. Yes! For sure. But she adds another comment a little later that made me stop and think.
In those days, she said, “Change was in the air.”
The Cuban Revolution is distinguished from all previous revolutions since the beginning of the modern working-class movement—among other things—by the number of women who became central to its day-to-day leadership. That fact is a registration of the social and economic changes—historic changes—that were gestating in Cuba and elsewhere.
It is not the caliber of the leadership alone that accounts for the place of women in the revolutionary struggle here in Cuba. Lenin—not to mention Marx and Engels—was no less a champion of women’s participation and women’s emancipation than Fidel. But objective conditions gave the October Revolution a different set of challenges. It was led to victory by the Bolsheviks at a different moment in history. To return to Asela’s phrase, the changes that were in the air in Cuba in the early 1950s had roots in the economic and social convulsions of the second interimperialist slaughter and the other wars that were part of what we know as World War II.
This was brought home to me more than a decade ago in an interview with General Enrique Carreras that is published by Pathfinder in Making History, a jewel of a book that also includes very valuable interviews with Generals Néstor López Cuba, Harry Villegas, and José Ramón Fernández.
Carreras talks about some of the things that had an impact on him when he was sent to a US Army Air Corps base in San Antonio, Texas, for flight training in 1944. “At Kelly Field,” he says, “I saw women training as pilots and gunners for ferrying B-25 bombers from bases in the United States to Canada, and sometimes even to Britain.” And Carreras goes on, “I had never before seen women occupying posts previously held only by men, or training alongside men.” Here in Cuba at the time, he noted, there was still a very lot of machismo. “We did not want to see women in the streets alone going to the store, much less working outside the home, even in the fields.”3
But with the revolution, Carreras concludes, that all began to be uprooted.
Yolanda sums it up well in these pages. “From the first day of the revolution,” she says, “what it meant to be female began to change.” Prejudice “began to lose ground.” It didn’t end all of a sudden, but it palpably lost more and more space. Women learned, and proved, that they—together with men who were revolutionary—were capable of doing whatever was necessary.
The birth of the FMC and its character can only be understood as a front within the revolution. Not as something outside it. Not as a phenomenon parallel to it.
The fight for women’s participation in the Cuban Revolution did not open on January 1, 1959, however. It began with political preparations for the assault on Moncada itself and the insistence by Fidel and Abel, as well as Haydée and Melba, that women would be among the combatants.4 The advances for women continued in the clandestine struggle, not only in Santiago but across the country, and in the Rebel Army. And that is what this book brings to life.
I think it was Carolina [Aguilar] who once commented in a discussion that the FMC was born with the formation of the Mariana Grajales Platoon.5 It’s a striking image, one also captured in Fidel’s statement some thirty years later that the decision to send Women’s Antiaircraft Artillery Regiments to Angola in 1988 was not a military necessity. It was—and I’m quoting Fidel—“a moral necessity, a revolutionary necessity.”6
The revolutionary course that led from Moncada, to the Mariana Grajales Platoon and the Women’s Antiaircraft Artillery Regiments has never faltered, not from July 26, 1953, to today.
General Teté Puebla—in her book Marianas in Combat—relates the facts about Fidel naming her director of the Guaicanamar Cattle Plan in Jaruco in 1969, in order to show that women as well as men could lead. That a woman was a candidate to head up any front, carry out any task of the revolution. One of her jobs, she said, was to get women from peasant families involved in agricultural work.
When Fidel took her to Jaruco, the men there said they wouldn’t work with her, Teté explains. “She might be a captain, they said, but she’s not working with me. I won’t work with women.” But that began to change in barely a month, as she showed she could work as hard as any man—and harder than many.
In the United States with the rise of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s—part of the broad radicalization that was a response, above all, to the mass struggle for Black rights and opposition to the US rulers’ war against the people of Vietnam—there was a popular tee shirt (I know because I had one that I enjoyed wearing) with the slogan, “A woman must do any job twice as well as a man in order to be considered half as good.” That was Teté’s mission. And she fulfilled it.
For those of us outside Cuba, and those of younger generations who did not live the Cuban Revolution from the inside, these accounts by Carreras and Teté are not “stories.” They give us the concrete richness and detail of the experiences that allow us to understand what the revolution within the revolution meant. To understand the political battles that determined the life or death of the revolution.
It is the only way those who seek to emulate the example of Cuba, now and in the future, can learn from the record of your setbacks as well as from your victories.
I want to end by emphasizing what—for us, for revolutionists from New York and Montreal, to Sydney, Auckland, Stockholm, and Manchester—is probably Asela’s most important contribution in the pages of Haciendo una revolución dentro de la revolución. That is the clarity and sharpness with which she has sketched the accelerating social revolution led by the Rebel Army in the area of the Second Front in the last months of the war.
This aspect of the revolution was not previously unknown. Nor was the deepening social revolution in enormous areas of Cuba’s eastern-most province limited to the Second Front of course. In La victoria estratégica Fidel has a few words—far too few—about the emerging governmental body established at the La Plata Headquarters in September 1958. The Civil Administration of the Free Territory “took responsibility,” he says, “for necessary aspects of economic and social life in the rebel mountains, a vast territory that had been definitively liberated, whose population lacked almost everything.”
Fidel calls it “the embryo of the new state that would emerge after the revolutionary triumph, a state faithful to the democratic and popular spirit of the revolution.”7
But Asela’s sketch of the veritable “republic in arms” that the Rebel Army led peasants and workers in the territory of the Second Front to establish is drawn in richer detail than in any other book I know of available outside Cuba. In Asela’s brief account of the policies implemented by that revolutionary power, under the command of Raúl, we see the whole future course of the revolution. In a few short months, they drew layer upon layer of the toilers into initiating land reform, opening more than 400 schools, organizing the first literacy campaign, establishing clinics and field hospitals, building roads, printing educational materials, collecting taxes from the big producers, establishing universal protection of the toilers under a rule of law—and more.
To end, I want to speak of the more than 100 photos that provide a pictorial summary of the most important elements of the history recounted in the pages of The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution. We’ve learned over time at Pathfinder that the work that goes into putting together these photo pages makes a significant difference, especially to new readers—workers, farmers, and youth—for whom this is all unknown. That wealth of photos, and the display quotes and captions drawn from the interviews themselves, give new readers a way into the book. It is, we could say, a small but faithful revolutionary “picture book within the book.”
We received a great deal of help from a broad number of compañeras and compañeros here, without which this vital component of the book would have been impossible. Help in finding photos, identifying individuals, confirming dates, locations, and other details, securing the best quality reproductions possible, and much more. Comrades from Bohemia and Granma and many individuals were part of this, but our special appreciation goes to the family of Raúl Corrales; and to the Council of State Office of Historical Affairs, director Eugenio Suárez and Elsa Montero, organizer of the photo archive in particular. Both the Office of Historical Affairs and the Corrales family authorized the use of many photos in this edition free of charge. And that includes the cover photo taken by Raúl Corrales.
Nothing could capture the political power of this book more eloquently than that striking image of the militia unit of women who were department store clerks, marching together with brewery workers on May Day 1959—with pride, confidence, determination, and discipline (discipline from inside, discipline internalized from and for struggle) marking every line of their faces and demeanor.
For all this, we can only say to you, “Gracias.”
The following remarks by Asela de los Santos were given at the presentation of Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution at the Havana Book Fair, Feb. 14, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Pathfinder Press for the translation from Spanish. Reprinted by permission. The footnotes are by the Militant.
BY ASELA DE LOS SANTOS
Participants in this presentation, especially members of the Federation [of Cuban Women]—including you, Mary-Alice:
Arelys [Santana] announced that I would speak about the merits of this book. And so I will, but not only because I was invited to do so as a person interviewed in it. I also address you as a reader, a reader who very much wishes to express her opinions about the results of a publishing effort on a topic that was chosen by the author and her publishing house. That project—the Cuban Revolution and the role played in it by women—is the book we present today.
I believe the first indisputable merit of this book lies in its overall conception, its form and content. It contains four carefully selected interviews that focus on the central theme. Each interview is accompanied by information essential to understanding its time and context.
The result is a work that presents the political ideas of the Cuban Revolution and the unique way it put them into practice in society, bringing to reality the aspirations and dreams of so many generations of Cuban women and men.
For me personally it was a welcome exercise to retrace, in reading this book, the thorny path of the political and educational work that was part of instilling the ideas of equality and justice, of liberation and freedom, consistent with the revolutionary concepts we had drawn from [José] Marti,8 Marx, and Fidel [Castro]. To retrace the great and multiple efforts we undertook to make the essence of these ideals part of the blood and bone of every individual among our people.
I also consider as a fundamental merit—alongside the wealth of information it offers—the book’s inviting appearance, the quality of its graphic design, one more aspect that makes it so attractive. It’s a book of unquestionable professional rigor: diligent, thorough, and carefully thought out to the smallest detail. The interviews are well chosen, the product of an arduous review of a vast amount of published material. The “Débora” interview with Vilma [Espín],9 conducted by the editors of Santiago, the magazine of the University of Oriente, in 1975 to mark International Women’s Year, has become a central document in the history of the Cuban revolutionary movement in the second half of the twentieth century.
In this first part of the book, the editors emphasize the stage of the insurrectional struggle, focusing on actions carried out by underground combatants in the former Oriente province and its capital, Santiago. Their effort to clarify events, participation, background, tasks, results, assessments, and personal responsibilities, right to the end of the revolutionary war, more than succeeded.
I also appreciate the careful preparation that was done for the interview that Mary-Alice Waters and Martín Koppel conducted with me in 2008 and completed in 2009 and 2010. It had to be done with great care because the two interviews, the one with Vilma and the one with me, address the same issues yet still complement each other. In my case, they offered me the opportunity to take up details on which little has been published. That included the organization of 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.
Commander Raúl Castro assigned me responsibility for education. I explain this in detail in the book, which I hope you have a chance to read, because the steps we took were not only interesting and necessary. They were also the basis for the great revolution in education we began after the victory.
To sum up, the first part of the book takes up the experiences of women and men engaged in revolutionary activity, particularly in Santiago de Cuba and throughout Oriente province. I can assure you that it provides a direct, firsthand account of those years of intense life, of accelerated learning from all the battles of the revolutionary war, of acquiring political consciousness, of gaining firsthand knowledge of the harsh realities of the country, of our personal development, of the deepening among us of the most universal values of human beings. 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.
In the second part of the book, the interviews with Yolanda Ferrer and Vilma explain in detail every action, every task, every mission of the Federation of Cuban Women since its conception and entry into activity. They make clear that the basis for this was the experience we had been part of in Cuba—the numbers of women in the ranks of the Rebel Army, the mass movement that was built everywhere in support of the revolution.
Here, in this part of the book, you can appreciate a quality that Mary-Alice stresses: social practice that matches political theory—that is, our revolution’s consistent course of fighting for equality. It’s true that in the early days we spoke only of participation of women as the strategic objective. But the breakdown of barriers between the private and the public that came with women stepping out from their traditional areas and duties—homemaker, the one responsible for all family matters, the mother and wife—that simple, concrete, but in no way easy step laid the initial groundwork for the big, complex battle for the full exercise of women’s equality.
In her introduction—which I consider an excellent, rigorously Marxist work, one that could well be included among the basic documents to be developed further—Mary-Alice points to all these challenges as essential parts of the social revolution.
I would like to quote a paragraph that reflects her keen eye, that gets to the heart of things: “In the firsthand accounts of Asela de los Santos and Vilma Espín, we see the interaction between the Rebel Army combatants and the exploited, landless peasants and agricultural workers of the region. We see the ways in which they transformed each other and together became a stronger, more conscious revolutionary force.”
Fidel pointed out that once they had eight men and seven rifles in the mountains, the victory could be seen. Unity is the source of our strength. Interaction opens the way for the formation of new human beings, one of the main guidelines of revolutionary work. For women this process meant, in practice, a personal revolution: revolutionizing their thinking and actions, leading them to fight the customs of the past, to fight what had seemed time-honored and accepted knowledge.
Mary-Alice correctly highlights Fidel’s leadership in the struggle for equality. He called it a revolution because of its scale and scope, the fact that it affects all spheres of social life: production and reproduction.
Finally, I would not want to overlook other elements that add to the book’s value, details whose qualities cannot go without mention. First, I found magnificent the quotes from Fidel that appear in boxes, quotes taken from his speeches and other documents on central issues that underlie points touched on in the texts. Another aspect that shows the depth of research that went into the book is the selection that was made of the most appropriate supplementary information. This was done by citing the classics—Marx, Engels, and Lenin—as well as Ana Betancourt, José Antonio Echeverría, Ernesto Che Guevara, Raúl Castro Ruz, José Ramón Machado Ventura, and others.10
This aspect of the book, read by itself, forms an integral whole that clearly explains Fidel’s thesis of the revolution of women within the socialist revolution. A similar exercise can be done with the display quotes taken from the interviews, as well as the photo inserts. These attractive and eloquent elements are deliberately intended to highlight the fundamental concepts expressed in the book. Another detail is the footnotes and glossary, which provide a level of information that must be called attention to.
I left for last the cover, which has an evocative photo by [Raúl] Corrales along with other elements that accurately declare the content of the book. The ordinary women and men we see in the photo, department store workers, as made clear by their dresses, and factory workers, rifle to shoulder, marching resolutely, reflect the image of that historic moment and tell us, half a century later: from the workplace to the trench, defense and work, the reason for living and maintaining, yesterday, today and tomorrow, our socialist revolution.
I want to give thanks on behalf of those who were interviewed—I’m sure Vilma would have liked this book—on behalf of Yolanda, who shares the judgments expressed today, and of the Federation of Cuban Women, to Mary-Alice and all those who worked with her, and to Pathfinder, for this book we are presenting today. It underscores our unbreakable friendship and our determination to remain united, working for the revolution, here in Cuba and there in the United States.
Thank you very much.
2. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Pathfinder, 1970, 1987, 2008), p. 47 [2009 printing].
3. Making History: Interviews with Four Generals of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (Pathfinder, 1999), p. 67 [2010 printing].
4. On July 26, 1953, 160 revolutionaries under the command of Fidel Castro launched simultaneous insurrectionary attacks on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba and on the garrison in Bayamo. After the attacks’ failure, Batista’s forces massacred 56 captured revolutionaries, including Abel Santamaría, one of the leaders of the combatants. Haydée Santamaría (sister of Abel) and Melba Hernández were the two combatants who were women. After the July 26 assault, Haydée and Melba were captured and imprisoned for seven months. A broad national amnesty campaign won release of the others in May 1955.
5. Teté Puebla, Marianas in Combat: Teté Puebla and the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon in Cuba’s Revolutionary War, 1956–58 (Pathfinder, 2003), p. 75 [2010 printing]. The platoon, organized in September 1958, was the first combat unit in the Rebel Army composed of women.
6. Quoted in The Making of a Revolution, p. 35.
7. Fidel Castro, La victoria estratégica: Por todos los caminos de la Sierra [Strategic victory: Along every road in the Sierra], (Havana: Publications Office of the Council of State, 2010), pp. 363–64. La victoria estratégica is the first of two volumes by Fidel Castro, both published since 2010, recounting the Rebel Army’s summer 1958 defeat of the Batista dictatorship’s “final offensive” and then the revolutionaries’ counteroffensive to extend the struggle to the rest of Cuba, culminating in the victorious general strike and popular insurrection of January 1, 1959. The concluding volume is entitled La contraofensiva estratégica: De la Sierra Maestra a Santiago de Cuba [Strategic counteroffensive: From the Sierra Maestra to Santiago de Cuba].
8. José Martí (1853-1895), Cuba’s national hero. He led the fight against Spanish colonial domination and U.S. designs on the island. He organized the 1895 independence war and was killed in combat.
9. “Débora” was the nom de guerre used by Vilma Espín during much of the revolutionary war.
10. Ana Betancourt participated in Cuba’s first war of independence against Spain, 1868-78. José Antonio Echeverría was president of Federation of University Students and the principal leader of the Revolutionary Directorate. He was killed in 1957 by henchmen of the Batista dictatorship during an attack on the Presidential Palace. Ernesto Che Guevara was an Argentine-born leader of the Cuban Revolution, holding major responsibilities in the revolutionary government. He led Cuban internationalist volunteer detachments in Congo 1965 and Bolivia 1966-67, where he was murdered by the Bolivian army during a CIA-organized operation. José Ramón Machado Ventura is currently first vice president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and Council of State and second secretary of Communist Party.