Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Marta Rojas Legend

 Updated: Saturday, April 7th, 2016 
      If you do not know the legend of Marta Rojas, you do not know enough about U.S.-Cuban relations to even weigh in on the subject. Certainly since the 1898 Spanish-American War and especially since the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Batista-Mafia dictatorship in 1959, the Cuban-U. S. nexus has greatly shaped America's worldwide image, mostly with a negative hue. Cuba, a mere 90 miles off the Florida coast, is only an island...a gorgeous island and the biggest island in the Caribbean, to be sure, but still only an island. Yet, its hostile relationship with the U. S. has elevated Cuba to a spot on the international stage far out of proportion to its size, population, or wealth. For those reasons, and because no other subject has so continuously besmirched America's reputation, I believe it is time for Americans to know Marta Rojas.
        This is Marta Rojas as a precocious little girl growing up in Santiago de Cuba. She was born in 1931. She was audaciously smart and imaginative. In this photo, at age 2, she is well dressed and has her umbrella to protect her from the tropical sun. Holding her suitcase, she is pretending to be going on a trip.
         In her 20s in the early 1950s, the beautiful and well-educated Marta Rojas quickly earned a sterling reputation in Havana as a brilliant young Journalist. She had a lot to cover. In 1952 the U. S. teamed with the Mafia to support the brutal, thieving Batista dictatorship. Even more so than Las Vegas, Havana became the epicenter of the Mafia's drug, gambling, and prostitution operations with the top Mafia kingpins -- Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante Jr., etc. -- calling the shots along with the thieving Fulgencio Batista. And speaking of "shots," there were a lot of those with much of the ammunition paid for by U. S. taxpayers. The Las Vegas-Hollywood crowd -- Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, etc. -- flocked to nefarious, sybaritic Havana. The U. S. government supported the outlandish rip-off because rich Americans were allowed to partake in the rape and robbery of the lush, helpless island. The vast majority of Cubans became outsiders in their own country. A particularly invidious Batista-Mafia ploy still shocks historians: Children were murdered to serve as a warning to peasant families not to resist. {The William Soler Hospital in Cuba today is named for a little boy who was murdered along with 3 of his classmates}. New York Times star journalist Herbert L. Matthews reported on such things; Life Magazine published photos of Cuban mothers, including Willie Soler's mother, bravely marching in the streets carrying signs pointedly accusing Batista of killing their ninos, their children. Still, American citizens didn't give a damn. But some Cubans -- such as a doctor's daughter named Celia Sanchez and a young lawyer named Fidel Castro -- decided to mount a revolution, well knowing that no U.S.-backed dictator had ever remotely been overthrown. 
           All the while, in Batista's Cuba Marta Rojas, the excellent journalist, was a keen observer and supporter of the nascent anti-Batista urban underground, assisting Celia and Fidel anyway she could, such as with information on Batista-Mafia-U.S. activity that she acquired in her role as a trusted journalist.
       On July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro led 120 lightly armed rebels in an ill-conceived attack on the well-fortified Moncada Army Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. All of them were either killed outright or captured soon afterward. Fidel Castro himself {above} was captured. Most of the prisoners were unmercifully tortured for information and then murdered. Fidel was sentenced to 15 years in prison and the plan was to torture and murder him too but that strategy fell victim to Fidel's high-profile as the hope of the island's peasant majority. Also, famed U. S. journalist Herbert L. Matthews supported the rebels and closely monitored Fidel's incarceration. Thus, unlike the other Moncada prisoners, Fidel was neither murdered nor tortured.
       Marta Rojas, trusted by the Batista regime, wrote about the Moncada attack and the subsequent show-trials. Two of the prisoners were the two women who participated in the attack -- Melba Hernandez and Haydee Santamaria. The two revolutionary heroines are shown above being interviewed by Marta Rojas, who doubled as a journalist while being an undercover urban guerrilla. When this photo was taken Marta already knew that Melba and Haydee had been unmercifully tortured; Haydee's beloved brother and her fiance had both been tortured to death as she was tied to a chair and forced to watch, and her fiance's warm testicles were rubbed over her face and chest. As a journalist in Batista's Cuba, Marta couldn't report on such things but she got the information and was allowed to interview Fidel and the two women prisoners so Batista could prove they were still alive because some decent politicians in Washington were reading what Herbert L. Matthews was reporting in the New York Times. Skillfully but dangerously maintaining Batista's trust, Marta requested more interviews with Fidel, pointing out that some in Washington were worried he too would be tortured and murdered. Having access to Fidel's cell, he would write notes and Marta would exit the prison with the notes in her bra. The urban underground would then take the notes from the Isle of Pines prison to Havana and then to Celia Sanchez and her vital guerrilla movement in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. In that fashion Fidel had contact with Celia in 1953-55, long before he ever laid eyes on her in December of 1956. That fortuitous meeting occurred after he joined her revolution after she saved his life when he and 81 other rebels left Mexico on a leaky yacht and then were ambushed by Batista soldiers when they had to abandon the sinking yacht miles up the coast from where their scheduled rendezvous with Celia's rebels waited to protect them. Only 12 of the 82 rebels managed to survive and then join Celia but those 12 included the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. That episode has been depicted in accurate fashion by author Carlos Franqui in his book "The Twelve" but another good source is Georgie Anne Geyer's "Guerrilla Prince."
Herbert L. Matthews, Fidel's important U. S. friend.
         A Wikipedia map showing Granma's journey that took Fidel and 81 rebels from Mexico to its ditching and ambush at Playa Las Coloradas, 15 miles short of the scheduled rendezvous where Celia Sanchez waited.
        In May of 1955 Batista had been pressured by Washington to free Fidel, Haydee, and Melba from the Isle of Pines prison. The above photo of Fidel embracing the two tormented women was taken the day of their release. The U. S. government, embarrassed by the atrocities reported by journalists such as Herbert L. Matthews, had pressured Batista to release the high-profile prisoners as "a good-will gesture" to the peasants. Batista obliged, welcoming the opportunity to kill Fidel away from the prying eyes of journalists like Mr. Matthews. But utilizing safe-houses and plans provided by his wealthy lover Naty Revuelta and rebel leader Celia Sanchez, Fidel exited the island for recruitment missions in Miami, New York, and Mexico before returning to hook-up with Celia Sanchez. After her release Melba did yeoman work with the urban underground and remained fiercely loyal to Fidel and Cuba till she died in 2014. Haydee, once she was freed, made a beeline to join Celia Sanchez in the Sierra Maestra where Haydee became perhaps the fiercest and most motivated female guerrilla fighter history has ever known.
     Haydee Santamaria {right} and Celia Sanchez leading a guerrilla unit.
       Haydee and Celia already had the anti-Batista guerrilla war well underway in southeastern Cuba when Fidel Castro finally joined them after his perilous journey from Mexico City in early December of 1956.
       This photo was taken in April of 1958 and shows Celia, Fidel and Haydee as guerrilla fighters sitting rather relaxed as they listen to citizens of a Cuban town the rebels had captured. The Batista dictatorship was still in power in Havana but the rebels heading into the summer of 1958 were beginning to capture and hold territory as their march to Havana began to take shape. Batista sent a well-armed 14,000-man army that included U.S.-provided warplanes to wipe them out. But after ten days of bitter fighting {July 11-21, 1958}the Battle of Jigue resulted in a tremendous upset rebel victory, heralding the beginning of the end for Batista and, for the first time, gravely worrying and very deeply embarrassing Batista's supporters.
     In the Sierra Maestra Mountains and its foothills, Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria were not only the fiercest guerrilla fighters, they were also the prime recruiters of rebels, weapons, supplies, and money. In the photo above, Celia and Haydee are letting Fidel Castro handle some of the money that helped fund the rebels. Miami and New York City were prime sources of rebel money. An exchange of notes available at the Cuban Historical Society and published in the U. S. by author Julia E. Sweig revealed that Haydee, who preferred fighting, was once irritated when Celia insisted she sail to Miami to recruit some more "needed cash." Celia's primary source for weapons was Caracas where she had cultivated serious ties with top Venezuelan military and government leaders. Within days after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1-1959, Celia flew a reluctant Fidel to Caracas to thank those leaders in Venezuela. By April of 1959 Celia insisted that a still reluctant Fidel fly to the U. S. on a 12-day visit intended to normalize relations with America but Vice President Nixon, the Dulles brothers, and a few other right-wingers in the Eisenhower administration dashed those hopes from then until...well, until the more honest and current administration of Barack Obama. But the photo above is another indication of why Celia Sanchez was the leading player in the Cuban Revolution; Haydee Santamaria was her fiercest ally; and Fidel Castro was always her most vital supporter. As an insider, Marta Rojas knew and knows such facts.
      All the while, Marta Rojas -- the young journalist in Havana that opposed Batista but was trusted by him -- bravely worked in Celia's urban underground on behalf of the revolution. Therefore, from those days to this day, Marta Rojas intimately knew and still knows the facts detailed above. This photo-montage shows a recent image of Marta with a black-and-white photo of Haydee Santamaria and Melba Hernandez when they were tortured prisoners of the Batista dictatorship. After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, all three heroic women -- Marta, Haydee, and Melba -- remained fiercely loyal to the new Cuba they helped forge.
          In December of 1959 it was Marta Rojas {above} who introduced Fidel for his very first televised speech to the nation. Fidel also used Marta's notes to write his historic book about the Moncada trial.
         In the early days of Revolutionary Cuba, this photo shows Fidel Castro smiling proudly at a beaming Marta Rojas. A decade earlier -- 1953-55 -- Fidel was in a Batista prison cell that the journalist Marta regularly visited, supposedly so Batista could show that Fidel had not been murdered. In that manner, Marta initiated the revolution's most vital union, the one between Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez. 
       To this day, Marta Rojas proudly shows off the July 26th banner that Fidel Castro designated as the theme of the Cuban Revolution in honor of the ill-fated but legendary July 26-1953 Moncada attack.
        Today Marta is often the subject of television and newspaper interviews, and not just because she is one of Cuba's greatest revolutionary heroines. As I was told by one of America's best journalists when I was in Cuba to research Celia Sanchez, "Marta knows more about Celia and Cuba than anyone alive today." 
        Even the Miami Herald recognizes the unique greatness of Marta Rojas. The above photo shows renowned American actor Danny Glover hugging Marta. The photo was used to illustrate a major Herald article written by Ron Howell and entitled: "Journalist Marta Rojas: An Unrecognized Witness to Cuban History." Mr. Howell told his Miami Herald readers that Marta is "a victim" of the U. S. embargo because, by dictating the Cuban narrative in the U. S. for so long, the greatness of Marta has remained unknown -- or "unrecognized" -- by propagandized Americans. In the article Mr. Howell also pointed out that Fidel Castro once said that Marta "knew more about" Moncada and other aspects of the Cuban Revolution than he did. Unintimidated Americans like Mr. Glover understand that; other Americans have the right to know it too.
       The Dutch news outlet Mo-Mondiaal Nievws featured one of the best profiles of Marta Rojas. It was written by Alma de Walsche and entitled: "Cuban Journalist and Author Marta Rojas: A Living Legend." The article said Marta got her journalism degree at the University of Havana at age 22 in July of 1953. Then she went home to celebrate in Santiago de Cuba. On July 26, 1953 she heard what she thought were firecrackers but it turned out to be the Fidel Castro-led attack on the Moncada Army Barracks. Marta told Ms. Walsche, "In a few hours time I drifted from watching a festival in Santiago to being a war correspondent." She took notes and photos of the attack and took them to Bohemia Magazine in Havana. The magazine hired her and Marta at age 22 was on her way to becoming one of the greatest journalists and authors in Latin American history. She told Ms. Walsche how she became "sympathetic" to the out-manned rebels trying to defeat the Batista dictatorship. She also told Ms. Walsche: "The U. S. has tried so hard to neglect Cuba's independence. But they didn't succeed. Nowadays Cuba is fully engaged in the unification process, the fight for independence, in Latin America, and now hopefully President Obama will end the embargo. Ojala! Ojala!"
       Today Marta Rojas is renowned as one of Latin America's all-time greatest revolutionaries, journalists, historians, and authors. The U. S. publishing giant Random House is among her international publishers.
       Not only is Marta Rojas a great writer who possesses a veritable trove of knowledge about Cuba, the Cuban Revolution, Revolutionary Cuba and all its major players, but her unique insight and analyses are also considered extremely honest and totally unbiased, legitimizing her views of the Batista-Mafia era and what has followed these last six decades. And that's why I believe, as U.S.-Cuban relations make new headlines in 2016, you need to know Marta Rojas to comprehend exactly what is happening and why.
Marta Rojas 
A True Cuban Legend.
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