A hero of a reporter, who covered wars, 80 years old and still writing

Video by Paul Harding
Text by Ron Howell and David Morris

HAVANA – In a quiet, residential neighborhood here, there lives an icon. Marta Rojas is unknown to most Americans, but is celebrated by journalists and others throughout Latin America for her daring work as a journalist during the onset of the Cuban Revolution.

Rojas, now 80, sits comfortably in a rocking chair as she reflects on the summer of 1953, the summer the course of her life began to change along with the course of Cuban history.

Rojas, then a recent college graduate who had majored in broadcast journalism, was on a simple freelance assignment with photographer Panchito Cano covering the annual carnival festivities in her native city of Santiago.

But on the 26th of July, she and the whole city of Santiago were stunned by a surprise attack on the local military barracks known as Moncada. The attack was carried out by a then-unknown young law school graduate named Fidel Castro.

Marta Rojas looking over her manuscript at her house in Cuba. Paul Harding/JWW

Rojas, with cunning and determination, went on to report and write about the assault, its deadly results and the following courtroom trials of Castro and the other revolutionaries.

When Castro finally succeeded in overthrowing the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the new revolutionary leader held a press conference in the capital city of Havana.

An American journalist asked Castro to speak about the Moncada episode, during which he was imprisoned after many of his fellow revolutionaries were shot in battle or assassinated. Castro answered that there was a journalist among them who knew more about Moncada than he did.

Pointing to Rojas, Castro invited her to sit at the microphone. It was a heady moment for Rojas, who was still in her 20s.

These days, Rojas is writing novels, historical fiction about Cuban race relations and the nation’s Spanish colonial era.

But it’s her work as a journalist that is held in high regard by her fellow Cubans.

For ten years she covered the Vietnam war, off and on, and published profiles of Cuban political and historical figures.

In America, a Cuban blogger Yoanis Sanchez, is being recognized by journalists lately for her subversive 140-character tweets.

Rojas, on the other hand, was celebrated in 1979 by the late Swiss-born Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier –- known as one of Latin America’s finest writers -– in the following way:

“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 human beings called reporters whom Hemingway once honored when he declared that . . . they, and not he, were the greatest novelists . . .”

Here is a translation from Rojas’s book, The Trial of Moncada, which contains the reporting Rojas did following the Moncada attack in 1953. The book is in its eighth edition.

“With his eyes fixed on the military guard, the accused man (Castro) extended his captive hands. The cuffs of his shirt were soaked with sweat. He was outfitted in his only suit that was of sea-blue linen. That day was one of the hottest days in the summer of 1953 in Santiago, as the sun drowned the Hall of Justice courtroom. Though the shutters were opened, indeed, stretched wide, forming a window on all sides, not even a flicker of a breeze penetrated the room. Beads of sweat poured down the face and neck of Fidel, but he did not appear bothered in the least. Fidel was wearing a red tie with black polka dots, black shoes and socks of that color, too. And old and spent belt was pulled around his waist, and his pants, at the belt, were pulled into creases, revealing that he had become considerably thinner during those two months in the jail.”

Rojas spends much of her time with her beloved little dog Tequila, proud to tell anyone who asks about her work as a journalist.

“Journalism is easy compared to writing literature. What I dedicate myself most to now is literature.”

Translations by Professor Ron Howell