Celia Sanchez — a crucial organiser of Cuba's revolution

June 30, 2013
Celia Sanchez.

One Day in December: Celia Sanchez & the Cuban Revolution
By Nancy Stout
Monthly Review Press
457 pages, US$28.95
Read an excerpt

Revolutions are great processes. Thousands and then millions of people, who had previously been excluded from their societies, take centre stage to challenge existing structures.

In doing so, these movements of people can create history. These movements can propel people from relative obscurity to truly amazing heights as they are thrust into leading roles by the forces in motion.

The Cuban revolution was one such process. The actions of millions of people; workers, peasants, students and more, collectively overthrew a brutal dictatorship and opened up a process that radically redistributed wealth and power in the tiny Caribbean nation.

Often, the focus in history books on big events becomes tied too closely to the actions of a few grand leaders, usually men. Great processes become personalised, and the conscious actions of the many become the personal ambitions of a few.

In the case of the Cuban revolution, the actions of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their band of rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains has been extensively covered. But often, this comes at the expense of the broader revolutionary movement.

Nancy Stout’s new book One Day in December: Celia Sanchez and The Cuban Revolution cuts against this trend. Most histories that mention Sanchez largely limit their scope to questioning the nature of her relationship with Castro. This book, however, does Sanchez justice, and takes pains to restore a powerful woman to her rightful part as an important historical protagonist.

Sanchez joined the anti-dictatorship July 26 Movement (J26M) via her work as an activist in the anti-corruption Orthodox Party. While Castro was training his soldiers in Mexico in preparation for the revolutionary war, she was recruited to the revolutionary underground by J26M leader Frank Pais.

Sanchez was immediately involved in establishing a network of sympathisers in her local area to assist the imminent landing of Castro and his troops, and help them reach the Sierra Maestra mountains where they intended to launch their guerrilla war.

After Castro's landing was botched and rebel forces scattered, this network of ranchers, peasants farmers and workers was crucial in rescuing survivors and regrouping the expedition.

Sanchez then became a leader of the urban underground, providing supplies to the guerilla army, organising a training camp for new recruits and facilitating the visits of journalists and members of other political forces to Castro’s camp.

Later, Sanchez joined the guerilla force, and was a central rebel leader in the final days of the war.

By understanding Sanchez’s role, we learn more than just the story of an amazing woman. This book casts light on the Cuban revolution as a whole.

Sanchez was a leader not due her own actions alone, but because she facilitated the actions of thousands of others. Her communications networks involved peasants, ranchers, shopkeepers and postal workers. She stayed in the homes of all shades of supporters.

Sanchez's strength was as an organiser. Like the revolution, she was only as capable as the people around her.

Castro’s expedition likely would have never survived if not for Sanchez. This was not due to one or two individual actions, but because of the thousands of people she organised to the fight against the dictatorship. It was these peasants in the hills who saved Castro and his men, the shopkeepers in Bayamo who took risks to secure urgently needed supplies, and the students who put lives on the line organising financial and political support in the cities.

One Day in December shows that Sanchez’s greatness was the greatness of thousands. Likewise, it recasts the other leaders in a similar light. Castro’s leadership role is obvious, but he depended on Sanchez and her networks to operate. Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos led famous guerrilla contingents, but they were dependent on the peasants who made up these columns, their guides, and the local underground networks that helped them establish new revolutionary structures as they liberated towns.

This is the real strength of One Day in December. Sanchez was a loved and respected revolutionary because she worked with many others. She was a personal force that encouraged, supported and applauded thousands of others. Millions more were inspired.

The Cuban revolution was — and is — a triumph of all the Cuban people. When Sanchez died in 1980, the Cuban people lost an important part of their revolution.

One Day in December is a book that should be read for all those who want to truly understand the Cuban revolution.

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