BY PEDRO ALVAREZ TABIO
In conjunction with the publication by Pathfinder of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War 1956-58, the Militant is running "Pages from Cuba's Revolutionary History." This series features accounts by and about other leaders and combatants in the fight to topple the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship and bring about the first socialist revolution in the Americas. The following article on Celia Sánchez is the fifth installment in the series.
Celia Sánchez was a leader of the July 26 Movement in Manzanillo, located close to the Sierra Maestra mountains. In 1956 she organized cells of peasants in the mountains prepared to join and assist the landing of the rebel expedition, which landed in southeastern Cuba in December of that year to begin the revolutionary war.
In the early months of the war, Sánchez was a central organizer of the rebels' supply and recruitment network, taking responsibility for sending groups of reinforcements to the Sierra Maestra. In October 1957 she became a permanent member of the Rebel Army itself, serving on its general command. At the time of her death in 1980, she was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba and secretary of the Council of State and Council of Ministers.
Pedro Alvarez Tabío is director of the Cuban Council of State's Office of Historical Affairs and Publications. The article excerpted below appeared originally in Bohemia, May 4, 1990. The translation is by the Militant.
BY PEDRO ALVAREZ TABIO
As soon as she returned to Manzanillo following her meeting with Fidel on February 16-17, 1957, at the farm of Epifanio Díaz in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, Celia devoted herself to preparing conditions for the arrival and organization of the group of reinforcements agreed to at that meeting, and sending them off to the Sierra.
In Santiago, Frank País gave instructions to all the cells of the July 26 Movement in Oriente province to have their best combatants ready to go. The selection was to be based on a combination of factors. It should not only involve militants whose cover was "burned," in underground work, although these comrades would logically be prioritized in the selection. Above all they had to be comrades proven in action, politically developed, and in good physical condition to withstand the rigors of guerrilla struggle. With regard to the militants in the Manzanillo region, from Yara to Campecheula and Media Luna, the responsibility rested with Celia and the other cadres of the Movement in the region.
The original idea of distributing the combatants in houses in Manzanillo had the advantage that by dispersing the forces, the capture of a large number of the reinforcements could be averted in the event of an enemy surprise or an informer. Its drawback, however, was the difficulty of obtaining a sufficient quantity of suitable locations, and of the dispersal itself, which would make the preparatory work more difficult, under the conditions in which Celia was carrying out her activities in Manzanillo.
A few days after her return, constantly moving from one hiding place to another, Celia moved to the house of René Llópiz. Llópiz managed the La Rosalía farm, a vast rice farm located 10 kilometers from the city, in the Palmas Altas barrio, next to the Bayamo highway. There he had his house, some 300 meters from the road, and less than 500 meters from the Manzanillo jail.
Upon arriving, Celia realized she had found the place she was looking for to assemble the entire contingent of reinforcements. The house was very close to a dense field of marabú. No one would have imagined that men could be hidden in the midst of such a thorny and inhospitable plant. The very proximity to the troops guarding the jail was an additional guarantee. Who would think that the temporary camp for the reinforcements would be set up under the very noses of the enemy? Everything depended on the care taken and the measures adopted to avoid calling attention to themselves.
This decision was typical of Celia. On that occasion, perhaps more than any other during her activity as a clandestine fighter, she demonstrated fully her qualities for this type of struggle: daring, ingenuity, the ability to mask all suspicious movements, the discipline she demonstrated and that she knew how to instill and demand from all those around her.
The first combatants arrived in Manzanillo around February 26, when they began to be sent from Santiago in groups of two and three. The usual reception point was the house of Felipe Guerra Matos on the outskirts of the city. From there, Guerra Matos himself or another comrade transferred the combatants to Llópiz's house, where Celia greeted them, vaccinated them against tetanus and typhus, and then sent them to the marabú field.
Celia displayed tireless activity during the days of the marabú field camp. She was on top of all the details concerning the transfer of combatants and arms; the supply of food, cigarettes, medicine, and items of every type; and attending to the needs of each one of the men assembled there. Moreover, she participated in all the work being conducted at Llópiz's house, helping with cooking, washing clothes, and preparing uniforms.
One day the owner of the farm, who was not involved in what was going on, surprised Celia in the house during one of the periodic visits he made to see his manager. He was quite upset to see Celia, since he knew very well who she was and what she was involved in, and how much she was being sought by the police. His presence there compromised things, as he insisted that she leave immediately. And he didn't even know the most important thing: that his farm was serving as a camp for more than 50 combatants, and that his very bedroom-which he used on occasion to take a nap or spend the night-was serving as the main storehouse for uniforms and other supplies. But Celia did not scare off. She assured him that she was not leaving, and insinuated dire consequences that supposedly might happen if there were any indiscretion or denunciation to the repressive forces.
Some 53 men were eventually assembled in the La Rosalía marabú field. The contact point approved by Fidel was the farm of Epifanio Díaz, where Che would be waiting. In two trucks, Celia organized the transfer of the contingent close to Cayo Espino. From that point on they continued on foot. During the night of March 15 the reinforcements left for the Sierra. When they met up with Fidel in La Derecha de la Caridad at the end of the month, the rebel detachment was equal in size to the number of combatants who had come on the Granma.
A maker of history
One might think that Celia would have a right to take a brief rest after the departure of the marabuzaleros. She had successfully carried out the delicate and complex mission assigned her by Fidel. Thanks to her ingenuity and sense of organization, to her discretion and discipline, and to her tireless activity, the first large group of reinforcements from the city to the guerrillas was assembled, prepared, and sent to the Sierra without being discovered.
A maker of history
But for Celia there was no rest. The very day in which the trucks set off from the marabú field for the Sierra, she left Llópiz's house and returned to Manzanillo to continue her work of tirelessly searching for resources for the guerrilla troop, and preparing the conditions to fulfill the next special mission she had received from Fidel.
Celia initially planned to accompany the marabú field contingent to the Sierra. After her discussion with Fidel at Epifanio's farm, after hearing his plans for the active participation of women in the guerrilla struggle, and after having lived several hours with the guerrilla combatants and received an injection of optimism and confidence in the future of the struggle, for Celia there could be no other aspiration than to join the rebel detachment as a permanent member.
But her plan was altered at the beginning of March when she received word that Fidel had agreed to be interviewed by another U.S. journalist interested in going up to the Sierra. The mission of organizing the reception and transportation of this visitor up to the hills again fell to Celia. Moreover, Frank was arrested in Santiago March 9, while preparing to send a second shipment of arms and ammunition to the marabú field. Although the work in Santiago continued to progress, it did not seem appropriate to weaken even further the Movement's leadership by incorporating Celia in the Sierra at that moment.
Possibly it was during this period of her clandestine life, after her first trip to the mountains, that Celia came to assume her status as documentary executor of the revolution. One factor that certainly had a bearing on this decision was the circumstance that, in carrying out her activity in Manzanillo-the way station for the Sierra-Celia became in practice the fundamental line of communication between Fidel and the Movement's leadership in the cities. But what seems certain is that this decision by Celia was made almost unconsciously at first, as a result of the historical consciousness that was part of her very nature.
Celia was immersed in history, of which she herself was to become an actor. From her childhood she had been imbued with the history of her country through the example of her father's passionate patriotism. Celia quickly realized that she had been called upon to take an active part in what was undoubtedly the most important chapter in this history. Early on she was able to recognize that in addition to the urgent immediate tasks posed by the struggle on a daily basis, it was necessary to devote attention to assembling a documentary testimony of that struggle. For example, she preserved detailed balance sheets of expenses from December 1956, during her activities to obtain resources for the survivors of the Granma expedition.
From the beginning these preservation efforts were extended to the messages, notes, and documents generated by other comrades of hers, and soon not only the materials she herself received, but also those she asked for and guarded in anticipation of the revolutionary victory. From the first months of 1957, the documentary collections preserved by Celia or turned over for safekeeping to persons whom she held in total confidence in Manzanillo began to grow daily. Historians or biographers today can reconstruct in minute detail the truthful story of that heroic and harsh struggle, thanks in large measure to Celia, to her clear vision; to her keen sense of history; to her tireless efforts, carried out with a feverish passion, to jealously preserve the documentary sources of this history.
With each passing day the repressive forces' pursuit became more intense in Manzanillo. Celia was by then the most wanted person in the city. One day, in the middle of April, she was hiding out together with Carlos Iglesias-an important cadre of the Movement in Oriente known as "Nicaragua"-at the home of Pancho Saumell in Manzanillo, awaiting the arrival of the comrades from Havana who were to bring the U.S. journalist.
Offsetting the tension
There was uncertainty, since they had heard that Armando Hart (who together with Haydée Santamaría was responsible for sending the journalist) had been detained in Havana, and no word had been received from Haydée. At that moment a bomb exploded at the corner outside the house. Immediately the repressive forces were deployed and began to search the entire block. Celia and Nicaragua tried to escape climbing over the back wall but saw it was impossible. Then with the greatest cool-headedness, just when the soldiers were entering through the main door with revolvers in hand, Celia made it into the street through a small side window leading to the office of the house's owner, and she and Nicaragua passed through the street as naturally as could be, passing right by their pursuers.
Offsetting the tension
As soon as the search was over they returned, confident that it was now the safest of places precisely because it had just been searched. This gave a real fright to the owner of the house and his wife, who had been trying to convince Celia to leave since the previous day. In the midst of the argument, there was a knock at the door. It was the soldiers again. For the second time Celia and Nicaragua slipped through the side window, and for the second time they returned at midnight, once the enemy had withdrawn.
This led to an attack of nerves by the mistress of the house. In a state of near hysteria she screamed that she was going to die, while her husband paced back and forth barefoot with his hands on his head, constantly looking through the curtains out onto the street. Celia, unperturbed, announced she was going to sleep and did so, after leaving Nicaragua to keep watch on the couple.
When daybreak came, after a good night's sleep as if nothing unusual had happened, the argument was resumed. Celia went to make some coffee, while those in the house pleaded with her to leave right away.
Then there was again a knock on the door. Again there was general alarm, as Celia went into the kitchen to look for the coffee maker. This time it was Haydée, who arrived almost out of breath. In the midst of the commotion, she informed Celia that the journalists (Robert Taber and Wendell Hoffman from the U.S. television network CBS) had arrived in Bayamo the previous day, and were awaiting the contact who was to bring them to Manzanillo, and that it was necessary to act immediately.
But Celia's main concern at that moment was elsewhere, perhaps as a way of offsetting the tension: she was determined to have a cup of coffee before heading out into the street. In the end, the coffee remained unmade, and, to the great relief of the owners of the house, Celia and her companions departed.
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