Melba Hernandez was one of two women who helped Fidel Castro launch his revolutionary battle with a failed attack on a military barracks in 1953, and who was later named a "heroine of the Cuban Revolution". With her white curls, Hernandez was occasionally seen at official events in her later years, accompanied by one or the other of the Castro brothers. Fidel stepped down due to ill health in 2006, passing command to his younger brother Raul.
Born in the town of Cruces in 1921, Hernandez was five years older than Fidel Castro and remained loyal to him throughout her life. At the time of the 26 July 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks in the eastern city of Santiago, Hernandez, like Castro, was a young lawyer fed up with government corruption under Fulgencio Batista, who had seized power in a 1952 coup. She obtained 100 uniforms for the attackers from an army sergeant who later joined the movement.
She and the only other woman involved, Haydee Santamaria, sewed insignia showing military ranks on to the uniforms. At a farm in the hours before the operation, the women ironed the uniforms.
The assault failed miserably, with many attackers killed and the rest, including Castro, arrested. The women, who were waiting nearby to provide medical assistance, were also jailed. Hernandez and Santamaria were freed months before the men and organised support rallies. They also distributed writings by Castro smuggled from behind bars, essays that helped rally sympathy for the revolutionaries.
Castro corresponded frequently with Hernandez from prison, giving instructions on helping run his July 26 Movement. After the remaining rebels were freed, Hernandez travelled to Mexico with the group, including her new husband and fellow revolutionary Jesus Montane, to help organise a guerrilla army. She did not, however, join the band that sailed from Mexico to launch an uprising in Cuba's eastern Sierra Maestra.
A member of the rebels' national directorate, Hernandez became a member of the guerrilla army's Third Front. Batista fled on 1 January 1959, and Castro took power soon after. Hernandez later helped found the Communist Party of Cuba and served as ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia. She also was secretary-general of the Organisation for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, a group founded in Cuba in 1966 to support independence struggles in developing nations.
Melba Hernandez Rodriguez del Rey, revolutionary: born 28 July 1921; married Jesus Montane (died 1999); died 9 March 2014.