She was from a family with a mambí heritage. She was one of those women who, in the 20th century, left her university title hanging next to her lawyer’s gown and devoted herself, body and soul, to the struggle against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.
Melba Hernández del Rey’s strong character was in line with her decision to become a guerrilla of the Cuban revolutionary movement led by Fidel Castro.
As one of the 1953 Moncada combatants, she was witness to the torture and assassination of her comrades-in-arms. During their trial she denounced the disappearance of some, such as Abel Santamaría, and denied the alleged death of Fidel in revolutionary action.
A “consecrated love for freedom, whose principles we are willing to die for,” had led her to participate in such a feat, as she stated in a radio broadcast after leaving prison.
This public confession made clear that Melba was moved by ideals. Nothing could be more firm, and all too risky, during the days of the military dictatorship.
She lived on the edge over the following years: 1954, 1955, 1956. She undertook meticulous work first in organizing the notes that Fidel was able to smuggle out from the prison where he was held, and then in the clandestine distribution of that plea, which came to be known as History Will Absolve Me. After barely resting in Mexico, where she helped organize the Granma yacht expedition and the resumption of armed insurrection in Cuba, as a member of the July 26 Movement she joined the group of rebels in the Sierra Maestra.
With the victory of the revolutionary forces, Melba did not rest. There was a lot to do yet and she was active in the new front, with different weapons, but the same aims of social justice and a love of all human beings.
In the opinion of Mirta Muñiz Egea, Melba’s co-worker during that period, her activities in the field of international solidarity were prolific following the 1959 revolutionary triumph.
She notes that she met Melba after the Moncada assault, and that at the beginning of the Revolution they shared a certain closeness, as they both undertook television work.
But it was a coincidence that united them in the same working team. Mirta explains that on December 20, 1963, she attended an act at the Cuban Workers’ Federation theater, where Che was to speak in defense of the people of South Vietnam, and when she arrived she noticed that “there was just Melba, sitting in an armchair, and him.” When Che saw her enter, he asked whether she had anything to do with the organization of the event, to which she replied with a no, and he then set her an irrevocable mission: “Well, from now on you will prepare these acts.”
She recalls that from that day forward, a campaign of solidarity with the Vietnamese cause began, presided by Melba Hernández, who managed to bring together people of different specialties and form the Solidarity with South Vietnam Committee initially and, as the war advanced, with other countries such as Laos and Cambodia.
In the 1960s, Melba put her boots and uniform back on, but this time as a solidarity missionary. On this occasion, her principles and faith in humankind took her to the mountains of Laos.
Mirta tells how they lived for a month in the caves where the Lao people sheltered, in one of which they met Prince Souphanouvong, who led the war in that territory.
“That man had a little map of Cuba behind his desk, and a copy of Granma newspaper before him, and told Melba: I’m trying to learn Spanish so when I meet Fidel I can speak to him in Spanish.”
“When we said goodbye, he went out, and in front of the cave he cut a flower for each of the women in the delegation, a sensitivity and concern for the human being in the midst of war, bombings, and horrors.”
Mirta, a woman who trained in the world of public relations, advertising, propaganda and journalism, recognizes that beyond being years of political activism and immense voluntary solidarity, that social mobilization and concern for the peoples of Asia was thanks to Melba’s organizational and persuasive capacity. “Fidel was the architect of this whole project and she was the one who made it a reality,” she states.
Mirta describes Melba as “a demanding woman, but very flattering when things went well.”
Not all bosses, she argues, are so quick to scold you and then to hail you. “If it was necessary to knock someone on the head she did so, and if it was necessary to give them a flower also.”
I never saw her demand what she did not demand of herself first. She was always willing to go wherever she was needed, to undertake the necessary work, Mirta adds.
“She was a person with great human sensitivity. The Vietnamese called her mom and she was very open, very human, she could pinpoint where the problems were and tried to solve them.”
Mirta highlights that following the Vietnamese victory in 1975, the Solidarity Committee Melba had formed dissolved, and friendship associations were created with each of these Asian countries, while Melba continued her work as General Secretary of the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL).
The project to support other nations in conflict, including Korea, Syria, Algeria, Lebanon and others, was then expanded.
“For the publicity work and all the collaboration there was no specific budget and therein lies the great work of Melba, in which she signed people up to this cause who did not seek something in return but sought to contribute, and thus she managed to unite the wills of great scientists, doctors, Cuban artists; in which she ensured that workers and campesinos knew and talked about the Vietnamese or Lao people, and also that the voice of those countries was heard in international events through Cuba,” Mirta concludes.
A life devoted to others is how Mirta remembers her compañera of so many trips and causes, who helped to forge, to her understanding, one of the largest mass movements in favor of global solidarity.