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Vol. 74/No. 6      February 15, 2010

Women’s role in Cuba’s
1956-58 revolutionary war
(Books of the Month column)
Printed below is an excerpt from Marianas in Combat: Teté Puebla and the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon in Cuba’s Revolutionary War 1956-58, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for February. Brig. Gen. Teté Puebla, the highest-ranking woman in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, joined the struggle to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1956, when she was 15 years old. She describes her participation in the formation of the Rebel Army’s first all-women’s platoon and how the fight to transform the social and economic status of women is inseparable from Cuba’s socialist revolution. Mary-Alice Waters, who interviewed Puebla, is president of Pathfinder Press. Copyright © 2003 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Waters: The founding of the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon marked a milestone in the Cuban Revolution. It demonstrated in practice the social course a victorious Rebel Army would fight for. As Karl Marx put it, you can judge any society by the status of women.

What led to the unit’s formation?

Puebla: In May 1958, as the dictatorship’s military offensive began, the army stepped up its repression against the population of the Sierra Maestra. Wherever the army went, women were raped, children were killed, entire villages were bombed and burned down. Peasants had to leave the Sierra. Sánchez Mosquera was one of the most infamous of Batista’s commanders, but there were others.

They would announce they’d killed a lot of Rebel Army soldiers. But that wasn’t true; the people killed were peasants. They were dragged out of their huts at gunpoint. They used to tie the men to poles while raping the women. Then they’d kill everyone. Whole families would be wiped out.

They were bombing villages, too. One of these was Cayo Espino, which was of no military value. Our commander [Fidel Castro] has spoken about this, but for those of us who were there these crimes affected us deeply, they outraged everybody.

There was a five-year-old boy named Orestes Gutiérrez in Cayo Espino. His legs were blown off by one of the bombs, and other members of his family were wounded. Everyone in the Sierra knew the story of this little boy, who told his grandmother, holding her hand: “Grandmother, I won’t be able to love you anymore because I’m going to die.” His grandfather died too. His two sisters were wounded, but they are alive today thanks to the Rebel Army doctors who gave them immediate attention. And the bombing was done in an area where there were no rebel troops.

Throughout the region of Oro de Guisa, peasant houses were set afire. The peasants who fled the flames were seized, and then raped or killed. All these crimes filled us with courage and determination. Even though we were doing many essential things, we felt frustrated that we could not fight arms in hand. “They’ve got to let us fight,” we said.

We had already proved that women could do just about everything. We withstood the bombings, delivered weapons, and were in the places where fighting was taking place. But we were still not allowed to fight.

“If women have to take part in all the duties of the revolution,” we said, “why can’t we fight for the revolution in the same way as our men fight?”

After the army’s offensive had been defeated, we asked our commander in chief to allow us to fight arms in hand. He agreed. Fidel said yes, women had won the right to fight with a rifle face to face with the enemy.

On September 4, 1958, a meeting took place, a sort of roundtable. Fidel assembled his general staff at the time, those who were left in the Sierra Maestra. The invasion troops—Columns 2 and 8 under the command of Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevara—had already left. And a Second and a Third Front had already been established in Oriente.

There was a discussion at this roundtable meeting that lasted more than seven hours. Fidel had a very big argument there. There were still not enough weapons for everyone, and the men were saying, “How can we give rifles to women when there are so many men who are unarmed?”

Fidel answered: “Because they’re better soldiers than you are. They’re more disciplined.”

“In any event,” he said, “I’m going to put together the squad, and I’m going to teach them how to shoot.”

So on September 4, the Mariana Grajales Women’s Platoon was formed. As I explained, Isabel Rielo became the commanding officer. I was named second in command. The squad came to have thirteen combatants in it. The commander in chief chose the name as a tribute to Mariana Grajales, a heroine of our war of independence and the mother of Antonio Maceo, the legendary general who fought heroically in Cuba’s wars of independence for over thirty years.

Fidel was the one who taught us to shoot. We had to hit a quarter—or a 20-centavo coin—20 to 30 meters away, depending on how he wanted to test our aim. And he drilled us. We had to split that coin.

In fact, Isabel Rielo was named the commanding officer as a result of target practice. Because she was a better shot than I was. Fidel had said that whoever was the best shot would be named head of the platoon.

It was decided that the M-1 was to be our weapon, because it was lighter. Fidel ordered that everyone in our squad be supplied with that rifle. Nevertheless he didn’t drill us with the M-1; he made us practice with the Garand and other, heavier guns. He’d say that the M-1 was easier to use, but that we needed to be able to fire any kind of rifle. Once we had learned to shoot, the last thing we practiced with was the M-1.

Then Fidel informed us: “You’re now going to be my personal security detail.”
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