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'I never stayed to see if they were dead': Natalia Bolivar, 82, unsentimental about role in Cuban Revolution

At 82 and with an upper-class pedigree, Natalia Bolivar doesn't seem like the typical Cuban revolutionary. That is, until she matter-of-factly begins to recount how she stormed a Havana police station wielding a machine gun, smuggled arms to opposition groups and had all her ribs broken during a police interrogation.

Bolivar is renowned anthropologist today, but in 1950s, she was part of underground that helped topple Batista

Natalia Bolivar, 82, was one of a small but committed band of women who took part in the Cuban Revolution to overthrow the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. She went on to be a renowned anthropologist, authoring several books on Afro-Cuban religion and culture. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

With the help of her walker, 82-year-old Natalia Bolivar slowly shuffles over to the rocking chair in her Havana apartment, gently lowers herself onto the cushioned seat and proceeds to talk about her expertise in art, culture and hand grenades.

Born into an upper class family descended from the same bloodline as the famed Latin American independence leader Simon Bolivar, she is a renowned anthropologist and expert on Afro-Cuban culture.

But before she was that, she was a revolutionary in the movement led by the late Fidel Castro that overthrew the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

The hands she used to paint some of the art that adorns the walls of her apartment were used for more violent ends during the Cuban Revolution of the late 1950s.

Bolivar, seen above with Fidel Castro, was rewarded for her participation in the revolution after the fall of the Batista regime in January 1959. She held several positions in the new government before settling into the life of a scholar. (Submitted by Natalia Bolivar)

"I had a .45, then I had a .38 and then I had a machine gun," she said of her personal arsenal at the time.

Bolivar says she used the machine gun when she and two friends launched an attack on a police station in Havana in November 1958, just a couple of months before the end of the revolutionary war.

Did she kill anyone in that raid?

"Yes, I suppose so," she said matter-of-factly. "I never stayed to see if they were dead."

Tour guide turned gun-runner

Bolivar is as frank about the police station raid as she is about the torture she endured at the hands Batista loyalists.

Critics of Castro, who died a little over a week ago at the age of 90, point to the human rights abuses committed during the five decades of his repressive rule. But his regime began, at least in part, as a response to similar abuses carried out by the Batista government.

The people here were very excited to do something about  Batista , because there had been many deaths and many people tortured.- Natalia Bolivar, 82

"The people here were very excited to do something about Batista, because there had been many deaths and many people tortured," Bolivar said.

Her body might be frail, but her mind is certainly not, and she can recount in vivid detail the role she played in helping overthrow Batista.

Back then, many of her university friends who organized themselves against his dictatorial regime became targets of violent crackdowns. She describes those students as "valiant" and says it was their actions that spurred her to join the cause.

She became a member of the Revolutionary Directorate, one of several rebel groups, including Castro's 26th of July Movement, leading the revolution, and was active in the so-called urban underground operating in Havana, Santiago de Cuba and other cities.

A protest against police violence organized by women in the late 1950s. The sign in the background reads 'Stop assassinating our children - Cuban mothers.' By 1957, the police forces had become 'increasingly brutal,' according to historian Michelle Chase, who has studied the Cuban Revolution. (Private collection of Silvia Arrom)

"The rebels in the mountains, [that] was full-on warfare, a guerilla war against a regular army … but the people in the city were trying to live clandestinely," said Michelle Chase, an assistant professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at Pace University in New York who wrote a book about the role of women in the Cuban Revolution. 

They had their regular job during the day, and on the side, they were … hiding weapons in their house, hiding propaganda.- Michelle Chase, historian, Pace University

"They had their regular job during the day, and on the side, they were … hiding weapons in their house, hiding propaganda in their house."

In Bolivar's case, she was working as a tour guide at Havana's Palace of Fine Arts, a job that allowed her to maintain the pretense of being an upper-class socialite.

All the while, she was secretly working with the anti-Batista movement. 

While Castro's rebel army waged a guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra mountains in the southeast of Cuba, revolutionaries in the cities led a clandestine war of sabotage and propaganda and helped funnel guns and supplies to the rebels. (AFP/Getty Images)

Bolivar was leading a group of tourists through the Palace of Fine Arts on March 13, 1957, when armed members of the Revolutionary Directorate stormed the nearby presidential palace in an attempt to assassinate Batista. Believing the attack had originated in the museum, the military responded by shelling the front entrance.

Bolivar says she ran to a balcony and watched the attack unfold. She witnessed some of the students who took part being gunned down, including one of her good friends. Thirty-five students and five guards reportedly died in the assault, and the student movement lost its leader, Jose Antonio Echeverria, who was killed after briefly taking over the airwaves of the national radio station while the palace attack was in progress.

On March 13, 1957, Bolivar watched from a balcony of the Palace of Fine Arts where she worked as her fellow student revolutionaries were gunned down as they tried to storm the presidential palace, above, and assassinate Batista. Forty students and five guards reportedly died in the attack. (Central Press/Getty Images)

Women key to success of movement

One of Bolivar's responsibilities as a member of the underground was helping fellow revolutionaries get political asylum. That meant hiding them and helping them sneak into embassies of countries sympathetic to the movement, such as Brazil, and eventually to safety.

She says she also stored, supplied and transferred weapons — guns, bazookas, grenades — to opposition groups and rebels in different parts of Cuba.

Women participated in the revolution to varying degrees, says Chase. Some organized protests like the one above; others distributed propaganda material or helped hide rebels from the authorities. A small group fought alongside the men in Castro's rebel army. (Private collection of Silvia Arrom)

Bolivar said she was already familiar with some of the weapons. A U.S. cousin, a veteran of the Second World War, had taught her how to use a grenade and how to shoot and clean a gun when she was 10.

The tasks Bolivar did were typical of women in the revolution, said Chase, who interviewed Bolivar when researching her book, Revolution Within the Revolution: Women and Gender Politics in Cuba, 1952-1962.

Women made up about 10-15 per cent of the armed, active wing of the movement, but many more participated in other ways, organizing protests or doing the logistical work key to sustaining the revolution, Chase said.

"They would distribute clandestine flyers or periodicals; they collected funds; they worked as messengers; they transported weapons and medicine; they ran these safe houses; they visited men in prison," Chase said. "They did extremely important work."

One of their most important tasks was notifying families when a member of the underground had been arrested, publicizing their arrest and ensuring there was an official record of it.

"Once people were identified, they were in serious danger of being tortured or killed," Chase said.

'They broke all my ribs'

Bolivar experienced this firsthand when she was arrested in July 1958 after one of the members of the underground was tortured by police and revealed her activities.

They put sticks of iron in the ear … and then they broke all my ribs punching me.- Natalia Bolivar

"They put sticks of iron in the ear. This ear, I don't hear nothing," she said, pointing to the right side of her head as she described her time in police custody. "And then they broke all my ribs punching me."

Reflecting on it, "I was a punching bag for them," she says with a laugh.

Bolivar says the police threatened to put her in cement boots, throw her into the sea and let her drown.

Bolivar's mugshot from 1958. Owing to her family's wealth and connections to the Batista regime, she was eventually released from police custody - but not before being tortured. (Provided by Natalia Bolivar)

"So, when they showed me the cement, I began to say things to them so they could kill me," she said. "Because it was better to be killed [right there] than to be thrown in the sea alive."

Chase says such behaviour was not out of character for police who, at the time, were punishing urban populations for supporting the rebel army, which was gaining ground against Batista's forces in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

"The police became increasingly brutal throughout the course of the insurrection against Batista," Chase said. "In 1955, police would have been attacking protesters with their batons, maybe water hoses … By 1957, 58, the police were starting to essentially abduct insurrectionists from their homes, torture them and kill them. They executed some people right on the streets."

A page from one of the clandestine periodicals put out by Mujeres Oposicionistas Unidas (Opposition Women United), one of several all-women groups that formed during the revolution. The page describes how Bolivar was taken from her home in the night of July 18, 1958, driven out to a lake in the Country Club area of Havana and 'savagely' beaten by 12 men. (Provided by Michelle Chase)

Bolivar was lucky. Since her family did business with Batista, they were able to intervene to secure her release — which she says was ordered by Batista himself.

She refused to provide police with the names of fellow members of the underground and says she would have sacrificed her life to remain silent.

"When you get in this movement, which is very dangerous … you have the mentality to say to yourself you can be killed in any moment."

Fearing for her safety, her family arranged for her to move to the U.S.

She refused and continued in the underground movement, eventually taking part in the unsuccessful attack on the Havana police station in November 1958. Her small team shot at police, but despite being "very well armed," they eventually had to flee the scene.

An article from Jan. 9, 1959, in the Prensa Libre (Free Press) newspaper praising Bolivar's heroic deeds during the revolution and announcing she and other members of the Revolutionary Directorate would be taking over the Palace of Fine Arts. Bolivar is second from left. (Provided by Michelle Chase)

She escaped unharmed, and a month and a half later, the revolution was over. Batista fled the country, and Castro was the new leader.

Unlike many of the women who were never rewarded for their part in the revolution, Bolivar held a number of different senior positions in the new government, including a directorship at the museum where she had been a guide. She says she spent a lot of time with Castro and had a very good relationship with him.

Asked whether the revolution just replaced one brutal dictator with another, Bolivar bristles.

While they helped bring the revolution about, many women in today's Cuba struggle to make ends meet. Bolivar, however, remains a fierce defender of Castro's legacy. 'You can't put the man as a god. Everybody has something good and something bad,' she says of the late dictator. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

"No, no, no, no," she says in Castro's defence.

"You are a human being. You're not a god. You can't put the man as a god. Everybody has something good and something bad.

"I think Fidel is a very special man. So special that you don't have an adjective for him."

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      About the Author

      Mark Gollom

      Reporter

      Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

      With files from Kazi Stastna