A memorable visit with Celia Hart, Cuban Trotskyist feminist

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Celia Hart Santamaría and I met in the lobby of one of Havana’s most exquisite five-star hotels, just a few months before the car accident that killed Celia and her brother in September. The lobby was the size of a football field and the hotel boasted the largest swimming pool in the country. It felt awkwardly contradictory, meeting Cuba’s most prominent Trotskyist in such a glamorous setting.

But Celia showed no concern about our meeting place. She was all about getting down to business — talking about workers, women, and world revolution.

It was actually in Celia herself that I observed the more telling contradictions: between her love of the Cuban revolution and her fear for its future; between her commitment to science and her need for passion; and, perhaps most dramatically, between her grasp of the enormity of the tasks currently facing humanity and the practical restrictions imposed on her as a somewhat isolated Trotskyist in Cuba.

She was driven by the larger picture. A physicist by training, Celia was absolutely convinced of the scientific truthfulness of Marxism. It energized her, because it explained how replacing capitalism with socialism will free the world of war, greed, hunger, racism, and sexism.

Listening to Celia was hearing science spoken by a poet. “Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is one with Einstein’s theory of relativity,” she said. “Both unify time — the past, present, and future. It is no accident that they were conceived around the same time in history.”

But for all her metaphors, she was also uncompromisingly direct. “Socialists talk too much about socialism and not enough about revolution,” she complained. “A socialist who does not focus on the seizure of power is like someone talking about having a baby without making love.”

Growing up, Celia had faith in the revolutionary energy of the Cuban leadership and Cuban people. But then in the 1980s she went to Dresden in East Germany to study physics at the Technical University — and found it odd that she was the first woman to graduate from its doctoral program. Wasn’t it a socialist country? Why were state bureaucrats living a privileged life compared to the toiling masses?

She became disillusioned. She witnessed the self-anointed heirs of Stalin betraying the oppressed of the world by dancing a deceitful and dangerous détente with imperialism.

Celia returned home in crisis. She told me that she truly doubted whether she still believed in socialism. For the first time, the reality of what she was seeing with her own eyes did not match what she had learned from people she trusted.

Fortunately, Celia’s father, a leader in the 1959 revolution, came to her aid. He gave her what writings he had by Leon Trotsky. Celia’s life changed forever. She became a born-again revolutionary.

Celia studied the difference between Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution, which posits that either socialist revolution continues to advance throughout the world or it retreats in defeat, and Stalin’s opposing notion of “socialism in one country.” Only the former had the evidence of history in its favor. The latter was a theoretical and practical impossibility.

It became clear to her why her beloved Cuban revolution was in danger, and she committed herself to promoting Trotskyism in Cuba.

But, at times, Celia let her sense of urgency get the better of her scientific mind. She was relatively uncritical of the program of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, and did not explain clearly enough that Venezuelan workers must become the agents of the revolutionary process if it is to succeed.

On the other hand, she recognized the singularly crucial role of U.S. revolution in making the success of revolt elsewhere possible. And she understood the two great forces propelling the U.S. working class forward — Black liberation and women’s liberation.

Celia thought she could help the first of these by launching a united campaign demanding freedom for Black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and for the Cuban Five, persecuted by the U.S. government on phony terrorism charges.

She also quickly agreed to send greetings to the Radical Women conference in October. When I presented her with a fiery red Radical Women t-shirt, she donned it in a flash, a proud, revolutionary smile spreading across her lovely face.

Celia is gone. But if my encounter with her was not unique, there are many people around the world who were touched by her energy and love, and who carry her spirit aloft as we dedicate ourselves to building a better world.

Baltimore neurologist and anti-war activist Steven Strauss can be contacted at fspbaltimore@hotmail.com.

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