Sanchez, Celia (1920–1980)

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Sanchez, Celia (1920–1980)

Cuban revolutionary leader, one of the key personalities in the movement to overthrow Batista, who was a political and personal intimate of Fidel Castro's for two decades. Name variations: Celia Sanchez; Celia Sanchez Mandeley or Manduley; (revolutionary names) Aly and Norma. Born in 1920 in Media Luna, near Manzanillo, Cuba; died in Havana on January 11, 1980; daughter of Dr. Manuel Sanchez Silveira; had four sisters.

Born in 1920 in Manzanillo, Cuba, Celia Sanchez grew up in a large family far removed from the poverty that afflicted most of the nation. Her father, a physician, was patriotic and socially conscious, and he impressed on his five daughters the necessity of striving for a more just world. Working as a company doctor at a sugar mill, he saw firsthand the inequities in a colonial society. When Celia was an adolescent, her father took her up Cuba's highest mountain, Pico Turquino in the Sierra Maestra, to place a bust of revolutionary martyr José Martí, Cuba's George Washington, at the peak. The Sanchez family's political allegiance was to the Ortodoxo (Orthodox) Party, founded in 1947 to bring honest government and social reform to Cuba. In March 1952, however, Fulgencio Batista seized power and rapidly transformed the island republic into a dictatorship based on terror and corruption. Like many liberal Cubans, Celia Sanchez was profoundly opposed to the Batista regime, but like virtually all of them she also felt powerless against the dictatorship, which had almost unlimited power on its side.

On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro and a small band of militants attempted to spark a national uprising against the dictator by seizing the Moncada barracks in the city of Santiago, capital of Oriente province, the historical cradle of Cuban independence. The attack failed, and many of Castro's colleagues were killed or executed. He, however, survived and was released from prison in an amnesty several years later, going into exile in Mexico. Castro was determined to topple Batista's brutal rule. Sailing from Mexico in a leaky vessel named Granma, he and 81 other revolutionaries, including Ernesto "Che" Guevara, went aground on December 2, 1956, south of Niquero near Belic, at Playa de los Colorados. Soon the invaders found themselves being attacked by a much larger unit of Batista's troops. Less than 20 of the original group were able to escape to the nearby Sierra Maestra mountains. Sanchez, who had planned to meet the group on their arrival, had been arrested that morning in nearby Campechuela, and never made it to the beach.

Already at this nascent stage of his eventually successful revolution, Castro had been given important support by Sanchez. She had provided his group with coastal charts and maps of the region, and after the pitiful remnants of Castro's group reached the relative security of the mountains, she provided food and supplies, and established a network of friendly local peasants that enabled the guerrilla band to live off the land.

Shortly after 5 am, on February 16, 1957, Sanchez and Castro met for the first time in the middle of a pasture, several hundred yards from a friendly peasant's farmhouse. Celia, whose code names were "Aly" and "Norma," had walked all night with a rebel guide to reach the site. Neither of them ever described this first meeting, but the mutual impression must have been formidable, for it marked the birth of an association that would last 23 years, to the day of her death. Joined by fellow rebel leaders Frank Pais and Fidel's brother Raúl, the four talked animatedly until high noon, when for security reasons they decided to move to a nearby canefield where they lunched on delicacies the visitors had brought with them. Castro was fascinated by the dark-haired and attractive Sanchez not only physically, but intellectually. It was clear from the start that she was extremely intelligent and practical, able to argue the fine points of politics and even weapons, of which she had expert knowledge.

Sanchez returned to the rebels' mountain retreat several times, finally joining their growing band permanently before the end of the year. Immediately, she became an indispensable part of Castro's life, taking on the role of personal manager. Unswervingly loyal, she became his shadow, displaying endurance equal to any in the guerrilla band. On patrol, she walked immediately behind Fidel. As his secretary and assistant, she brought order to his life, and she conscientiously saved many of Castro's documents, including messages handwritten before and after battles, preserving them for posterity. Often, her slacks and blouse pockets were stuffed with important papers, for the indefatigable Castro would dictate to her anytime, anywhere.

When Castro appeared to be physically exhausted, Sanchez would insist he rest. Concerned about his physical safety, and convinced that his survival was crucial to the success of their revolution, she took steps to keep him from personally leading attacks on the enemy. No detail of the rebels' daily life appeared to be too insignificant for her to notice. When their prisoners (Batista's soldiers) wrote home, it was Sanchez who arranged that a few pesos be slipped in with the letters; when they ate in a peasant's home, she quietly passed the family a few pesos on their departure.

On January 1, 1959, Castro and his rebel army entered Havana in triumph. Batista had fled only hours before. For the next 21 years, Sanchez would play a key role not only in Castro's private life (perhaps more as a mother figure than as a lover), but also in his new role as Maximum Leader of a revolutionary republic defying the most powerful nation in the world, the United States. With Castro's energies often unfocused because of his abiding dislike of schedules and administrative details, it was Sanchez who brought at least a semblance of direction into his daily life. Officially, as time went by her positions included those of Secretary of both the Presidency and the Council of Ministers, as well as membership in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba (CPC) and the holding of a seat in the National Assembly. Unofficially, she continued to be the single most important person in Castro's life, serving as his conscience and alter ego. She also wielded much power due to the fact that she functioned as his gatekeeper, controlling access to Cuba's leader. Although in public she followed the official line of "Fidel is always right," privately she was very likely the only person in Cuba who could tell Castro when he was wrong. The only other individual who dared to speak to Castro in such a free and open fashion was Che Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in 1967.

Sanchez also helped design the extensive Lenin Park complex in suburban Havana, and helped preserve museums and sites of historic interest. Aware that much of the history of the revolution did not exist in conventional written sources, she organized an extensive oral history project to preserve memories of the struggle. To the millions of Cubans who supported the revolution, Sanchez was its human face, particularly when promises were not kept or a grievance or injustice had not been addressed. To many, her warmth and common sense was the genuine article, and on countless occasions she was able to cut through red tape to rectify a problem for an individual, a family, or even a village simply by making a telephone call to the appropriate government agency. The hardening of Cold War tensions and the aging of Cuba's revolution brought with it ominous signs of totalitarian intolerance, but for Sanchez the ideals she had fought for in the Sierra Maestra remained imperishable and unassailable. Her reputation for compassion prompted an old-line Communist to say of her, "If I believed in Christianity I would say that she came as close to sainthood as anyone on earth."

The Castro revolution marked an important chapter in the liberation of Cuba's women. Officially, all discrimination against them was ended, and rhetorically at least, the culture of machismo was declared to be dead and a relic of the past. In reality, of course, considerable inequalities remained. Although much progress was achieved after 1959, the de facto status of Cuban women was still not fully equal to that of men after four decades of revolutionary government. Castro admitted as much when he conceded, "in the corners of our consciousness live on old habits out of the past." Statistics served to underline the situation: although women in the 1980s comprised 36% of the nation's labor force, they comprised only 13% of CPC membership and few of the government's leading officials were women.

Celia Sanchez, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer in Havana on January 11, 1980. Many Cubans were grief-stricken at her death, none more so than Castro. Some Cubans believed that Castro was suddenly deprived of an essential personal and political "gyroscope." He became withdrawn for a number of months, and observers even claimed to detect a perceptible slowing of the wheels of Cuba's governmental machinery in the period after Sanchez's death. In July 1980, the embattled island's revolutionary leadership suffered the loss of another of its leading women when Haydée Santamaria Cuadrado (1927–1980) committed suicide. A veteran of the Sierra Maestra like Sanchez, Santamaria had been a member of the CPC Central Committee since 1965.

Since her death, Celia Sanchez has been virtually canonized by Cuba as the woman who most embodies its revolutionary ideals, with countless hospitals and schools named after her. In January 1985, and again in May 1990, 5 centavo postage stamps were issued in her honor. She was also remembered in 1990 by the minting of 1 peso and 5 peso commemorative coins.


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John Haag , Associate Professor History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Sanchez, Celia (1920–1980)

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Sanchez, Celia (1920–1980)