Cuban journalist and author Marta Rojas

‘A living legend.’ A good number of Cuban men and women could wear that title: musicians, politicians, athletes and writers. Marta Rojas is one of them.
Rojas’ professional carriere as a journalist started simultaneously with the early revolutionary days. That marked her historical mission. Rojas, almost 78, takes pride and dignity looking back at the revolution, which will blow it 50 years’ candles in January 2009. “For as long the mind is sane, a journalist knows no rest.”
Santiago de Cuba is a place full of history. This southern province was the cradle of the Cuban revolution. Here Fidel Castro and 155 companions held an armed attack place against the Moncada Barracks (July 1953). It provided the necessary arms to chase the dictator Batista.
Marta Rojas is proud to originate from Santiago. The Santiageños may show darker skin than the people from Havana, it doesn’t make them feel any less. “We always say that we are going to Havana to make the capital progress”, she chuckles.
Between ’49 and ’53 Rojas was studying journalism in Havana. Those days, it was very common for women to pursue that kind of education. Cuba was one of the most progressive countries in both American continents regarding women’s rights.      
Rojas graduated when she was 22 (July 1953) and returned home for a well earned holiday. “I  immediately wanted to launch my new career, so I decided to cover the Santiago feria (July 24, 25 and 26). It’s about the easiest thing you can imagine for a journalist. I found a photographer that wanted to work together, and off we went. On days like that the party goes on until the morning. The 26th we suddenly heard blasts. I thought it was fireworks but my photographer said it was gunfire. We looked for the place it was coming from and so we witnessed Fidel’s hold-up on the Moncada Barracks. In a few hours time I drifted from covering a festival into becoming a  war journalist.”
Rojas took her story and the photo’s back to Havana. The Bohemia magazine was interested in the photos, not the story. The holdup led to censoring: only the army could gave its version of the facts. Bohemia Magazine did however offer Rojas a job. But before taking up her work there, she went back to Santiago to complete her report on the hold-up. This way she witnessed also the trial against Fidel Castro.
In 1960, once the revolution has been established, the first edition of her book Moncada: un juicio inédito (Moncada, an inedited trial) was published. Eight more editions would follow. Rojas takes special pride in the result. ‘I only wanted my story to be published. I never thought it would become a book. First I felt a professional urge to do this. Later, during my writing, I grew sympathy for these people and finally I got politically engaged. It all happened in this order.’
Cuba and the US are close neighbors. Throughout history they shared good and bad days. ‘The same winds blow over Cuba and Miami; the same hurricane ravages both regions’, says Rojas. ‘We never had a problem with the American people. And it was not Cuba to sever all relations.’ The quest for Cuban sovereignty dates back 150 years. It began with José Marti in 1868. Cuba was the last stronghold of the ancien régime and the last of the Spanish colonies to become independent. But the US, who interfered in the struggle, took all credit for the victory.
Cuba became independent in 1898, when Spain and the US signed the Treaty of Paris. For decades it was Cuba who fought the battle; but it was the US who not only seized the victory but also the control of the island. Spain withdrew its troops, soon to be replaced by an American occupation force. Rojas: ‘The Cuban state was born in frustration because the US wouldn’t allow us our own existence.’ The successive Cuban heads of state showed various degrees and corruption and all of them knuckled under to the Americans. These governments were clueless about sovereignty.’
The land struggle was probably the tenderest issue. A large part of the soil was owned by Americans. Rojas: ‘Americans could purchase land for a few pennies per hectare. Half of the Santiago province was the property of United Fruit Company. Not only the vast estates but also the mines ware owned by Americans.’ The confiscation off all these properties during the revolution has always lied heavy on the stomach of the US.
Rojas: ‘At first the americans thought that Fidel wouldn’t go that far, being the son of a large landowner. His father was Spanish and owned a sugar cane plantation. Also, Fidel went to a catholic college and showed all signs to become a bourgeois, not a revolutionary. Only when he enforced land reforms, nationalized companies and halved house prices, they knew he was being serious. So they pondered on overthrowing him. Then already, in the early phase, began the US boycott and the period of scantiness on the island.’
The revolution had been in danger on numerous occasions: the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), the Missile Crisis (1962) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991).
Rojas: ‘The US are above all vexed by the example that Cuba has set for the neighboring countries. Although economically superior, those countries were sincerely respectful for our ways: our resistance to US, the elimination of illiteracy, our dealing with hurricanes and even our willingness for international humanitarian assistance. Even to the US when Katrina had ravaged their shores.’
I put forward that from our perspective the human rights’ issue is a tricky matter. Rojas thinks this is false propaganda. ‘This argument is always used against Cuba. But nobody talks about the dictators Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Pinochet (Chile), or Videla (Argentina). And what about the trade embargo of the US against Cuba? Isn’t that a violation of human rights? Off course we are not perfect; and perhaps we could have done better then we did. But we have always shown international solidarity. We gave other countries courage and inspiration: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Honduras. And even Brazil, a subcontinent on itself, seeks our expertise for some technological and scientific issues.’
According to Rojas, each generation in Cuba has a part to play: to build, to develop, to adjust and to find new challenges. She is proud on the way she followed and is grateful for all the opportunities she got. ‘Life has been good to me. I got on this track thanks to my passion for my job.’

Rojas believes journalism to be a rewarding profession. It brings many opportunities and you get into contact with various people. She profited from these opportunities and contacts to realize another dream: writing novels.
Rojas: ‘In the nineties my newspaper was reduced from seventeen to four pages. The format was also adapted into a smaller kind. I had to write in twenty lines where I used to have eight pages to cover. So I had more time to write.’

Roja’s first novel El columpio de Rey Espencer (columpio means swing, adw) told the story of latinos who migrated from Haïti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico to Cuba during the first decades of the 20th century.

In the nineties Rojas travelled as a journalist to Andalusia and visited the archives of the Spanish colonization in Latin America. She discovered a document about a law titled ‘How to make America white’. This allowed purchasing from the king a proof that you are white – even when you were not. Rojas: ‘The document included the words “with thanks the king to enact this document”. It was a very nice law, and I decided to use it as motive for a novel. That was Santa Lujuria (Lujuria means adultery, adw), about the relationship between a landowner and his slave. The novel was published at the same time that Michael Jackson was besieged by the media, which was a funny coincidence.’

Several more novels followed later, all with a historical link. At the moment the journalist is working on a novel about the forced immigration of Chinese to Cuba after 1947.

Rojas is optimistic about the future. ‘The US tried so hard to neglect Cuba. But they didn’t succeed.’ Her eyes are shining as she says: ‘Nowadays Cuba is fully engaged in the unification process of Latin America. And hopefully president Obama will end the embargo. Ojalá!’

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