The half-century embargo against Cuba has blocked not only the exchange of goods and services between the two nations. It has stifled the fair exchange of ideas and role models that make for true democracy.
In that latter sense, one of the victims of the embargo has been Marta Rojas. Who is she? She was one of the greatest American journalists during the post-World War II period. I use “American” in the wider sense, to encompass the hemisphere known as The Americas, stretching north to south, Canada to Brazil, with all the French-, English- and Spanish-speaking countries in between.
Here are some tidbits about Rojas that would make many journalists, especially those who are women and of color, say, Wow. Rojas calls herself black. Sometimes mulatta. In 1953, when she was a recent college graduate, with ambitions to be a television reporter, she stumbled on a scene near her home city of Santiago. It was an event that changed the course of Cuban and world history.
A law student named Fidel Castro and his compañeros had attacked the Moncada military barracks of then-Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista. The land was strewn with bodies, and Rojas roamed the area with her colleague, photographer Panchito Cano.
Cano shot photos of what they saw, and Rojas helped him sneak them out of the Eastern Province and into Havana, where they were eventually published in the magazine Bohemia.
“Even though the government had then issued a decree banning any reports of the events at Moncada, the pictures were published,” Rojas told me, speaking in Spanish, when I first met her four years ago, when I traveled to Cuba with a group of Stony Brook University students.
Rojas, in those early efforts at reporting, was so bold that she made her father extremely fearful for her well-being. After the Moncada attack, Castro and others were put on trial, and Rojas managed to get into the courtroom. She took notes on Castro’s famous, four-hour long speech, in which he famously declared that one day, La historia me absolverá” — “History will absolve me.” She later turned that story into the book El Juicio de Moncada, — The Trial of Moncada, which is in its eighth edition.
The Batista government, considered corrupt and backed in part by American gangsters, eventually allowed Castro to leave Cuba and go to Mexico. There, across the Gulf, he stayed to gather his thoughts and his plans. Then in November 1956 Castro sailed with scores of fellow rebels from Mexico back to Cuba, on a yacht named Granma. After years of guerrilla warfare, the revolutionaries achieved victory in 1959, defeating Batista’s forces.
At Castro’s press conference in Havana, an American journalist asked the new leader (many would later call him dictator) about the early stages of the anti-Batista campaign — in other words, about Moncada.
Castro said that there was someone in the room who knew more about Moncada than even he did, and he pointed to Marta Rojas, who all but turned red with surprise and embarrassment.
Rojas went on to a stellar career in journalism, writing for the national, government-affiliated newspaper named Granma, after Castro’s attack vessel. She covered Vietnam and wrote about Cuban national and world affairs. In 1979, the Swiss-born Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, the renowned novelist and essayist, wrote: “An agile and talented writer, with a profound dedication to journalism and a writing style that is precise and to the point, and a gift of saying much in few words, Marta Rojas belongs to a group of human beings called reporters, whom [Ernest] Hemingway once honored when he declared that … they, and not he, were the greatest novelists.”
Now in her 80s and living in a small, comfortable apartment in Cuba, Rojas is savoring her second career, as an historical novelist. Her books have been praised throughout Latin America for illuminating Cuba’s racial and social present, with granular details culled from the colonialist past.
American actor Danny Glover contributed an undisclosed bit of money to fund a translation of Rojas’ novel, Santa Lujuría o Papeles de Blanco.
Filled with sexual innuendo — and actual sex — it’s replete with historical context about 18th- and 19th-century Cuba and Florida, Holy Burning Desire tells the story of a mulatto woman and the complexities of race and class in colonial history.
The African-American scholar Miriam DeCosta-Willis has written that the novel stands out in literature because it “focuses on the role of the African-descended woman in the transformation of Spanish American history.”
Marta Rojas merits recognition from her American counterparts, who are so powerful on the world scene and have wrongly, if unknowingly, left her out of their sphere of praise for too many decades. She deserves a Pulitzer Prize or a Polk Award for her life’s work.
After all, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez received thousands of laudatory words from American writers, as well as invitations to be on journalism panels in the land of the free.
Just as the long, deadening embargo of ideas has kept Rojas off the northern hemisphere’s journalism stage, it has deprived so many women, blacks and North American Latinos of a wonderful role model.
Ron Howell, a former journalist, is an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College in New York City.