Celia Sanchez: Was she Castro's lover?

Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez in 1957
Image caption The first picture of Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez together, photographed in Oriente, eastern Cuba in February 1957

Few doubt that the female revolutionary Celia Sanchez played a key part in the life of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but just how intimate the two of them really were is a debate still going on, 30 years after her death.

Celia Sanchez was at the heart of the Cuban revolution for over two decades and after meeting Fidel Castro in 1957, she became his indispensable aide.

There has been speculation they were lovers. But neither Sanchez when she was alive, nor Castro, ever addressed the rumours. Outside Cuba, little has been written about the role Celia Sanchez played until her death in 1980.

The earliest picture of Sanchez and Castro together was taken when they first met, in 1957, but Sanchez had already played a crucial part in his life.

After Castro made a disastrous landing in Cuba from Mexico in December 1956 - and lost the majority of his men - it was the clandestine network of peasant families organised by Sanchez that was critical to the rebels' survival.

Celia Sanchez Manduley was born in 1920. She grew up in the sugar town of Media Luna, in the tropical east of Cuba, known as Oriente.

Her mother died when she was young, and she was close to her father, Dr Manuel Sanchez Silveira. He was a cultured man and committed to the liberal Orthodox Party. Celia Sanchez learned about politics from him, and as his assistant, she saw the effect of extreme poverty on his patients.

She also became well-known across the region, and her local contacts would be invaluable later.

When Fulgencio Batista took power in Cuba for the second time following a coup in 1952, Sanchez - like millions of Cubans - was outraged. She was convinced it would take violence to overthrow his dictatorship, and began to organise resistance.

Image caption Che Guevara (R) and Celia Sanchez became close friends. When Che Guevara left for what became his last trip, he gave Celia Sanchez his cap as a keepsake

In July 1953, Castro made his first attempt to topple Batista, and attacked the Moncada barracks in Santiago. Sanchez joined Castro's July 26th Movement.

When he returned from exile in Mexico, she organised the transport of supplies up to his rebels in the Sierra Maestra, recruited volunteers, and was one of the main points of contact.

Image caption Nidia Sarabia and Brigadier-General Tete Puebla worked closely with Celia Sanchez

By 1957, in Batista's Cuba, Sanchez was the country's most-wanted woman. When it became too dangerous for her to remain on the plains, she joined Castro up in the Sierra Maestra.

At the command post of La Plata, she had oversight of food, clothes and arms - everything needed to sustain the rebel forces in their guerrilla war. And she was never far from Castro. She also went into battle.

Former guerrilla fighter Brigadier-General Tete Puebla was 15 when she met Sanchez in the Sierra Maestra.

"The first battle where Celia took part was Uvero in May 1957. It was really tough. This was a time when Batista's guards dominated much of the Sierra. They bombed and killed many peasants."

Sanchez had a clear leadership role.

"She was in control of some of those areas where sometimes 40 or 50 people died. Sometimes the guards burned all the houses in a village, so people had nowhere to live. And along with all her other responsibilities, Celia took care of those families too."

Image caption Celia Sanchez oversaw supplies to the rebels including food, clothes, arms and money. She was called 'the godmother' of the Sierra Maestra and Cuba's east

When Castro came to power in 1959, Sanchez remained his most valuable aide, and worked alongside him until her death.

She was in charge of numerous revolutionary projects. From overseeing the "re-education" of the families of anti-Castro insurgents, to founding parks and ensuring Cubans had ice-cream, Celia was the go-to woman.

In Cuba, these are usually presented as the ideas of Castro that were implemented by his trusted assistant. Unfortunately, there are no sources that tell us if Sanchez initiated policy or not. So, for example, we have no idea what her input was during events like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro has never talked about her role at length. And, as far as we know, she did not keep a diary. But Celia Sanchez was very aware of the historical importance of documentary evidence.

During her time in the Sierra Maestra, she kept every scrap of paper, every battle order she could salvage, in order to found a historical archive of the revolution.

Nidia Sarabia recalls helping Sanchez to organise the archive in the 1960s: "She guarded all the paperwork - even when they were being bombarded with napalm. She had this concept that even a small piece of paper from one rebel soldier, one half-literate peasant, had a vital importance."

And it was a project close to her heart.

"It was one of the most important and dearly-held ideas she had," says Ms Sarabia. "And no one else thought of it - maybe Fidel did - but nobody else in the leadership thought we should keep those papers."

Since she died of lung cancer in 1980, Sanchez has become an icon in Cuba. She is seen as someone who, above all, was devoted to the ideals of the revolution and to Castro. She never had a husband and there is no evidence she had any romance after the 1950s.

Castro is married to the mother of five of his children and people who knew Sanchez in Cuba say she was not the former president's lover.

Image caption Respected and trusted, Celia Sanchez became one of the chief organisers of the resistance fighting Cuban president, Fulgencio Batista

But in Miami, 92-year-old Huber Matos - one of Castro's comandantes in the guerrilla movement - tells a different story: "I went to Costa Rica to look for arms to take to the Sierra Maestra.

"When I returned in 1958, there was Celia Sanchez beside Fidel Castro and I realised their relationship wasn't just political, but intimate too."

"They pretended it wasn't, but I didn't have to see them in bed to know they had a relationship that went beyond politics."

Today in Cuba, Huber Matos is viewed by many as a man not to be trusted. He is a disgraced former comandante, who served 20 years in jail for treason and sedition.

In contrast, among the Cuban exiles of Miami, Matos is a hero who denounced communist influence in 1959 and paid for his principles.

Dr Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami, believes Fidel Castro was always Celia Sanchez's priority.

"Fidel Castro first and foremost wanted power. And Celia wanted to keep him there, and truly believed that anyone who challenged Fidel's power needed to be eliminated.

"Firstly it was about her relationship with Fidel," he adds, "and secondly what she wanted for Cuba."

The Fidel-Celia story is yet one more example of how Cuba's revolutionary history remains contested territory between loyalists on the island, and anti-Castro exiles in the US.

According to the historian Tiffany Sippial from Auburn University in Alabama, the absence of testimony from either protagonist allows both sides to construct their own stories.

"In Cuba, it allows everyone to emphasise that Fidel Castro and Celia Sanchez were solely focused on the revolutionary project.

"In Miami, playing up a sexual relationship between them is a way of breaking down the sanctity of their political commitment."

But what is not disputed by either side is the significance of that relationship and the unassailable position of Celia Sanchez at the epicentre of power in Cuba.

In Search of Celia Sanchez is the BBC Radio 3 Sunday Feature and will be broadcast at 19:45 GMT on 11 December. You can also listen online via the BBC iPlayer.

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