The revolutionary life of Celia Sánchez

Celia in the Sierra 1958

On this International Women’s Day we focus on the revolutionary life of Celia Sánchez. Sánchez’s transition into an anti-Batista revolutionary began when a little peasant girl known to her, Maria Ochoa, was kidnapped by the Mafia-run casinos to be prostituted out to paedophile tourists and was subsequently murdered. This grotesque murder combined with the inspiration drawn from the Moncada Barracks attack, utterly changed Sánchez’s life trajectory onto a path of resistance that placed her centrally in the evolving circumstances that sealed the fate of the Batista regime.

Celia in the Sierra Maestra 1956 or 1957.

Founder of the 26th of July Movement in Manzanillo, she went on to play a central role in organising the 1956 Granma landing from Cuban soil. Her quick actions in the days after the Granma strayed 13 miles away from the intended destination, where she was waiting with transport, led to her being credited with saving the lives of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and the other 13 survivors of the ill-fated landing from death or capture.

Celia Sánchez and Haydee Santamaria present Fidel with a rifle in 1956

In the year after the Granma, Sánchez opened vital supply lines to the rebels in the Sierra Maestra. She sent money, food and supplies and opened lines of communication that were sorely needed. Sánchez became the first female guerrilla in the Maestra and soon was in the thick of the action, opening up arms supply lines, organising publicity and directing attacks. Her determination and courage inspired the revolutionaries to push their limits and seize their victories. By 1958 she had cofounded the Mariana Grajales Women’s Battalion operating out of La Plata in the Sierra Maestra.

Fidel and Celia stop off in Cienfuegos on the caravan from Santiago de Cuba January 1959.

Shortly after the victory of the revolution, in April 1959, Sánchez went with Fidel on a 12-day trip to the US. Vice President Richard Nixon had managed to get President Eisenhower offside on a golf trip leaving Nixon alone to meet the Cubans.  The talks soon took a turn for the worse with Nixon becoming increasingly confrontational. Back in Cuba, a defiant Sánchez wrote “The Batistianos will never regain control of Cuba as long as I live or as long as Fidel lives.” This was a promise that she was determined to uphold.

Celia in the Sierra 1958

In the years that followed, through Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US embargo, the multiple assassination attempts, and the building of a new socialist economy, Sánchez’s insight and advice proved crucial to Fidel in the development of revolutionary strategy and policies.

Celia Sánchez tended to avoid the limelight and deflected attention from her central role in the building of socialism in Cuba. Her contribution to the revolution and the dependency of the success of the 26th of July Movement on her cool head and focus remains to be fully recognised.

Sánchez served in the Cuban government in the Department of Services of the Council of State until her death from lung cancer in January 1980.

She was but one of the women revolutionaries who played a full and equal role in the Cuban revolution and in the establishment of a more just and equal socialist society in the wake of the corrupt and decadent capitalist dictatorship of Batista.