Rediscovering Celia Sánchez
Nancy Stout is the author of a compelling and painstaking recent biography of one of the great heroes of the Cuban Revolution, Celia Sánchez - ‘One Day in December: Celia Sánchez and the Cuban Revolution’. She spoke to CubaSí about this Cuban icon and how the book came to written
“I had already written books on Cuba, mainly as a photographer and producing a history of the tobacco industry,” says Nancy. “Indeed, I was in a cigar factory in 1998 when the subject of Celia Sánchez came up in a way that grabbed my attention.
“I was talking with four or five men when Celia’s name was mentioned. I took the opportunity to ask them about her, as I had, of course, seen her image across Cuba, heard the name and was reasonably aware of her importance.
“There was that uncanny process of democratic engagement you often see in Cuba as the men communicated with their eyes and body language which of them should step forward and tell the story. One did. And what a story! You immediately sensed the immense affection which the Cuban people have for her.
“It was that which pushed me into finding out more about this brilliant woman - and therefore onto a decade-long journey of writing this book.”
And that journey proved to require its own share of persistence, skill and attention to the finest detail - which is fitting for an account of a life that exuded all those qualities.
Nancy spent seven months in Cuba in 2000 specifically to research the book. Everywhere she went, she was welcomed. Everyone expressed their pleasure at the prospect of a fitting English biography to a national hero. But everywhere she also sensed a desire to protect Sánchez’s memory and example, and not to allow them to be dragged into sensationalism or tittle-tattle.
“I managed to build up a series of very extensive interviews with people who had known and worked with Celia: family members, comrades from the early days of the Revolution and many others.
“Through a variety of contacts I made several requests for access to the section of the national archive devoted to her. As with other important Cuban leaders, her letters (to and from), documents, and other archive materials are kept in their own section, which understandably is not generally open given that it contains so much personal information.
“Each time the request was politely received... but then politely declined. It was towards the end of the seven months that I had a breakthrough. The request had finally reached Fidel, who decided to grant access on the basis that this was a serious attempt to write about someone who fought for decades alongside him and who is so important to Cuban history.”
The quality of the national archives of Cuba is itself testament to Sánchez, who not only pioneered the scientific recording of the history of post-revolutionary Cuba, but managed to build an archive during the period of the rebel army fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains.
“It took extraordinary presence of mind to do that,” says Nancy, “Especially as if carelessly kept it would be a gift to the forces of the Batista dictatorship and a death sentence for many fighters.”
That rare combination of great historic vision, forensic organisational capacity and preparedness to act on the front-line marks Sánchez’s life and contribution to what Cuba has achieved in the last half century.
Her life may broadly, but helpfully, be divided into three periods: her early life, her years as a leader of the revolutionary movement that toppled the hated Batista and two decades following the victory of the revolution 55 years ago.
Nancy found important inklings of future traits in Sánchez’s early years growing up as the daughter of a rural doctor in a fairly comfortable home, surrounded by a sea of poverty.
“From the age of 12 she was working for her father,” says Nancy, “scheduling patients who turned up to the clinic, without appointment. It’s clear that she quickly did more than simply take names and call people forward on a first come, first served basis.
“She learnt to prioritise. And that meant to listen in order to assess. It also meant telling people they had to wait behind someone who required more urgent attention.
“In her later life so many people commented on how comfortable she was in listening - whether to the problems facing women as the society struggled to shake off the legacy of dictatorship and underdevelopment, as well as cope with the ongoing blockade, or skilfully navigating diplomacy at the United Nations.
“She also picked up the moral and national sense of her father - hatred for dictatorship and injustice, respect for the people.”
It was these great principles that drove her into active participation in the movement founded by Fidel Castro, after already being involved in oppositionist circles.
Participation is far too weak a noun for the role of a young woman from a middle class background, in a society of machismo and harshness, who in fact laid out the key planning of the Granma landing which brought Fidel and the core of what would become a victorious army ashore in Cuba.
It was no fault of hers that Batista’s forces managed to get hold of the plans and nearly destroyed the revolution in its infancy. “In fact, Celia went on to be at the centre of the underground communication networks that so effectively conveyed information from the cities and Batista-held territory to Fidel and the guerrillas in the mountains,” says Nancy.
“She continued in that role even when with forces closing in on her she too joined the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra.”
There she led and fought as a courageous revolutionary, challenging sexist notions and living out the prospect of a new relationship between men and women in a society freed from oppression.
She rapidly became a close confidante of Fidel. “One reason, I think,” says Nancy, “is her respect for confidentiality that she learnt while working as her father’s nurse. That is alongside her extraordinary organisational capacities.”
She quite literally organised the rebel encampment - laying out with an architect’s precision where the different tents and facilities should be placed in what would become a sprawling complex. The first and largest was the hospital.
Sánchez could communicate vividly and forcefully. Additionally, the image of a striking woman - cultured and “sophisticated” - in fatigues and carrying both a rifle and the respect of the men around her itself made a huge impression on the foreign journalists who she organised to visit the rebel army and through telling what saw refute the propaganda of the dictatorship.
One of the many powerful images in this excellent biography which captures what it must have been like to be around her is the one on the front cover: Sánchez with a sheaf of papers in one hand, taking a telephone call in the other, clearly in command of whatever she was commanding and looking like a 1960s European film star.
“I think there was and is great pride in Cuba that Celia brought a soaring dignity in the way she appeared, the way she carried herself,” says Nancy. “It had an impact in some of the middle class neighbourhoods of Havana immediately after the revolution, for example.
“People looked at her, heard her and thought twice about the caricature of the revolutionaries being barbarians.
“It contributed to national self-image as well. Celia in her many government roles after the revolution was determined to promote an image of being Cuban that was liberated, equal self-determined, rather than a poor offshoot of Western culture.
“She founded what has become the world famous Cohiba cigar brand. She was in a position to bring to realisation the dreams she had had as a child of urban spaces, parks and facilities that would improve the quality of life. So she it was who drove through the cleaning of contaminated land to make way for the Lenin Park.
“She always found time to hear the problems of poor women - for example the huge numbers of former maids immediately after the revolution who were left with at best two weeks pay when the rich departed for Miami.
There was women’s participation throughout the revolution and a commitment to social transformation. “But Celia was both an inspiration and a driver for the enormous strides women in Cuba have made,” says Nancy.
It’s impossible to come away from talking to Nancy or reading her book without what she calls “the enduring image of what women can achieve when part of, a leading and equal part of, great social struggle”.
That image surely accounts for the enduring resonance of Celia Sánchez’s life nearly a quarter of a century after her untimely death at the age of 59.
As we approach both International Women’s Day and the visit to London that same weekend of wives of the Miami Five, there could scarcely be a better time either to discover more about this brilliant 20th century woman or to take the opportunity to tell others.
The enthusiasm which Nancy Stout encountered among those male tobacco workers three 15 years ago pours off every page of her book, seems to animate her as she talks about the subject of ten years’ labour and must surely lift anyone who has ever asked themselves whether a better world is possible.