One balmy Havana night, toward the end of 1980, the man with whom I was apprenticing as a novice photographer, a couple of others who shared my makeshift darkroom and I were spreading an evening’s worth of prints across our large dining room table to dry. I was looking critically at my images when the phone rang. I no longer remember who called, but the expression on the face of my friend who answered remains with me after all these years: profound sorrow tinged with horror and the hesitant shadow of some other emotion that seemed caught midair between nervous apprehension and an understanding that defied immediate release.
Haydée Santamaría—revolutionary heroine, member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee, visionary president of the country’s important cultural institution Casa de las Américas, and beloved friend to all creative artists who had ever met or found themselves in her presence—was dead. Dead. It took a few moments of stunned silence for the reality to sink in.
The caller said Haydée’s body was lying in state at a nearby funeral parlor. There was no question we would walk the few blocks and join what we knew would be an enormous crowd of grievers. No reach of imagination could predict how large or how intense. As I mechanically positioned the last of my prints on the table and hurriedly dried my hands, I looked to my friend who had answered the phone. I wanted to know what he hadn’t been able to bring himself to say in that first shocking outburst. Macías couldn’t meet my eyes as he responded to my silent question: “She shot herself.”
Suicide is always problematic for those left behind, who cannot approach the emotional state of the person ending her or his life. Radio bembá, or gossip, travels hurricane fast throughout Cuba’s popular culture. Before daybreak, this sort of news would invade every home on the island. It was an event that would elicit a far deeper response than some unexpected change to our food ration book, an attack from the ever-aggressive enemy to the north, or the loss of almost any other beloved public figure—with the exception of Fidel. As far as any of us knew, Haydée was in good health and vibrant with ongoing projects. Her decision to end her life shook us profoundly. It felt personal, and also deeply troubling in a larger more overarching sense.
This was a woman who embodied all that was promising about the revolution: its uniquely Cuban roots and risk, its brilliance, creativity and passion, a genuine appreciation of difference, and the authority to journey where others didn’t know enough or didn’t have the courage to go. One of only two women among 135 combatants who participated in the 1953 attack on Moncada Barracks, she had been imprisoned following that failed attempt. Most of her comrades died in the brief battle or were tortured to death in its aftermath. She lost her brother and her lover, among dozens of close friends. Her narrative of the debacle, Haydée habla del Moncada, is one of the Cuban revolution’s most moving and iconic texts.
Many of the surviving Moncada veterans died during subsequent decades; fewer and fewer remained. But each year, as July 26th approached, those few would dutifully make the rounds of schools, workplaces and military units, telling their collective story, trying to keep the history alive, and providing some continuity for younger generations engaged in a stage of social change that was less dramatic but much more difficult to achieve. It was Che who said winning the war was the easy part. Only a few weeks before her death, Haydée had spoken at the office where one of my friends worked. Later, in the restroom, that friend overheard her murmuring: “I just can’t do this again . . . I can’t.”
Over the ensuing weeks and months, two popular explanations for Haydée’s decision became common currency on the streets of Havana: the emotional strain of having lived through so many years of terror and loss, what today we call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Maybe she had finally reached her limit. It was also rumored that her recent marital separation and the fact that her husband had remarried a younger woman were to blame. People wondered, and came up with these and other possible reasons to try to satisfy their need for answers.
I bought none of them.
I knew Haydée only slightly, although I loved and admired her beyond our casual friendship. We had met on my very first visit to Cuba, in 1967, and from that moment on she personified to me not what the Cuban revolution was but what it could be—free of competing power struggles, inevitable errors, occasional repressive periods, greed and pockets of corruption. On Haydée’s lips revolution seemed simple and exuberantly creative. It meant justice and a better life for every person. Her goodness and imagination refused to recognize the limits imposed by underdevelopment, a corrosively tropical climate, small minds, petty jealousies or even the U.S. blockade.
We exchanged letters, and I sent her snapshots of my children. After I moved to Cuba in 1969, she once impulsively took me to see those pictures tacked up inside her bedroom closet door. I interviewed her at length for my first book about Cuban women. That interview is as cutting-edge in 2011 as it was in 1970. She coerced me into being a judge for the country’s biggest beauty contest, and when I complained that she had forced me into something she must have known I detested, she smiled and admitted she’d done it because she knew I would use the occasion to find a way to help bring such contests to an end. We both suffered sudden and devastating asthma attacks, which she patiently taught me to manage so they would rob me of as little daily energy as possible.
At her wake, among hundreds of other mourners pressed together in the heat of that keening Havana night, someone asked if I would like to stand guard at the head of her open coffin. Family, public figures and friends were taking two-minute shifts. At a certain point I lowered my eyes to Haydée’s reconstructed face. It may have been at that moment that the seed of this essay was born. Since then I have known other suicides, of course—some slow, some fast, some of very close friends—but something about Haydée’s choice and what I believe may have been behind it has stayed with me to this day.
As the funeral parlor filled, and crowds overflowed into the street, an unsettled sentiment surfaced in many conversations. Why was this wake being held at a commercial establishment rather than where other heroes and heroines were mourned in Revolution Square? It was a rhetorical question. We knew the answer: the Communist Party, like the Catholic Church disapproved of suicide; in the former one’s life belonged to the people, in the latter to God. Haydée was being punished for her act. But popular disagreement with the decision became more and more evident. By morning, in an obvious gesture of atonement, she was carried with full honors to the section of Colón Cemetery designated for the nation’s beloved sons and daughters.