Marta Rojas

HAVANA, Cuba (WOMENSENEWS)–When Fidel Castro and his followers launched a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953, unleashing the precarious beginnings of the Cuban revolution, a young, female journalism student, Marta Rojas, arrived on the scene.

Rojas, then 22 years old, smuggled out photographic negatives of the captured and dead revolutionaries right under the noses of the guards for publication in Bohemia, a leading Cuban periodical.

A few months later, when Castro was being tried for the assault, Rojas landed one of the few courtroom seats available to the public. She took copious notes as Castro defended himself including his famous declaration: “Condemn me if you will. History will absolve me.”

Although he was sentenced to prison and later to exile in Mexico, Castro and his band of dedicated revolutionaries, including the Argentinean doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, returned to Cuba in 1956 to wage a guerilla war that forced the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, to flee the country on January 1, 1959.

Rojas’ notes from the Moncada trial were used by Castro to write his 1961 book, “History Will Absolve Me.” She also published her own detailed account in a book titled “El Juicio del Moncada” (The Moncada Trial), and became inextricably linked to that pivotal moment in Cuban history.

“She is definitely one of the most famous journalists of revolutionary Cuba,” says Tracey Eaton, the Cuban bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News, noting that Rojas continued to witness the most significant historic events in revolutionary Cuba for the next half-century. “Marta defends the revolution, but not in a blind way,” says Eaton. “She knows its strengths and its weaknesses. She is proud of its accomplishments but honest about its shortcomings.”

While this week saw the release of several political prisoners including the acclaimed poet and journalist Raul Rivero, Cuban journalists, including Rojas, continue to work in a climate where all the media is controlled by the state.

As a staff reporter and writer for Granma, Cuba’s leading newspaper where she continues to work at age 72, Rojas managed to work consistently five decades, covering everything from the war in Vietnam to the plight of Elian Gonzalez from the Cuban perspective. In addition to reporting on important political stories, Rojas has also covered the role of women in society, exploring issues of sexuality machismo and sexism.

Most importantly, Rojas showed the women of her tiny island that it was possible to succeed as a female journalist within Cuba’s largely patriarchal and machismo society if one was determined enough. “She made her mark at a time when the profession was dominated by men,” says Eaton.

Even today, few Cuban female or male journalists have risen to her level of achievement. But certainly there are many more female journalists covering today’s news in Cuba, thanks to her determination, hard work, and uncanny sense at being in the right place at the right time.

“She has been very inspiring and important for many professional women, mainly journalists and those involved in culture, and in general for Cuba’s revolution, and for its history,” Alicia Gonzalez, an official in the Department of Foreign Relations at the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (The Cuban Women’s Federation), says.

A Woman on the Ho Chi Min Trail

During a recent visit to her modest home in Vedado, a suburb of Havana, Rojas shows photos from a Granma assignment as a foreign war correspondent in Vietnam from 1965 to 1975, where on the Ho Chi Min trail she was the only woman in a line of communist soldiers and journalists scrambling across a tree trunk as they forded a stream somewhere deep in the jungle.

In actuality, she says, there were always other Vietnamese women along the trail, usually elderly, aiding the soldiers. She says, “There were these old ladies in crouched positions, boiling water and giving boiled water and rice to the soldiers.”

She adds that these women would also follow the American soldiers’ tracks and report their whereabouts to Ho Chi Min. “So they always knew where the Americans were,” says Rojas.

Some Americans would say Rojas was on the wrong side of the battle, reporting as she did from the communist perspective. She says she was the only foreign journalist allowed to interview Ho Chi Min. But no one could argue she wasn’t gutsy.

“The fact is,” says Sandra Levinson, the executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City, “she’s just about the only woman journalist anywhere to do those things beginning when she did.”

Sometimes she’d travel along the trail at night with Vietcong soldiers who gave her a black dress to better conceal herself. She recalls her anxiety one time when they encountered combat.

“I felt the American B52 fighter bombs falling right around us and there was no place to go for protection,” she says.

The soldiers laughed at her. “They told me: ‘Don’t worry, if you can hear the bombs, they’ve already fallen and you’re still alive,'” recalls Rojas laughing.

One day, after four straight months of reporting from the jungle, the North Vietnamese soldiers asked Rojas what she wanted to eat. “I was so sick of watermelons,” she says, that, just kidding, she told them she wanted to eat ice cream. That evening, a soldier delivered her a box with an ice cream cake inside–a box that clearly came from Saigon.

“That’s how I knew I was near Saigon,” she says. “And I thought, if these guerrillas are so resourceful and connected that they can do this–have a chain of people get that ice cream cake to me in the jungle–the Americans will never win this war.”

Marta Rojas with Fidel Castro

After the Vietnam War ended, Rojas covered events in Guatemala and Haiti and other foreign countries struggling for independence. She spent 17 years managing the overwhelmingly male editorial board of Granma. Even Rojas, who is habitually modest about her achievements, admits it was a challenge for a woman to hold such a position in her society at that time. “I never felt hostility from my male colleagues,” says Rojas, “but I had to fight to get what I wanted. I made myself respected by my behavior and discipline, and by what I did by example.”

Strong Female Characters

In 1997, Rojas won the Premio Nacional de Periodismo (National Journalism Prize) “Jose Marti” for her life’s work, which also extends to fiction writing these days. Not surprisingly, all three of her published novels and her current unfinished novel deal somehow with Cuban history and the struggle of its people to become autonomous. Also at the center of each story is a strong female character.

“My intent is to always have these strong feminine characters in order to break the idea that women are always humble and always depending on the husband,” says Rojas.

Ann Farmer is an independent journalist who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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An interview with writer and journalist Marta Rojas: