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Margaret Randall’s Years in Cuba

Margaret Randall, To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 256 pages, $24.95, paperback.

Mickey Ellinger (mickeye@igc.org) and Jody Sokolower (jsokolower@earthlink.net) are writers and long-time anti-imperialist activists who have worked together for more than 30 years. Mickey writes regularly for progressive publications, including News from Native California; Race, Poverty and the Environment. Jody’s essay “Gathering Rage Revisited” was published on MRzine October 28, 2009. She is currently production and policy editor of Rethinking Schools, which publishes books and a quarterly magazine for teachers and education activists.

Margaret Randall has always been too much of a feminist for the socialists and too much of a socialist for the feminists. She is one of the foremost oral historians of recent revolutionary history and, more specifically, of the history of women in revolutions. Yet her work has been consistently undervalued. Her memoir, To Change the World: My Years in Cuba, is a rare double opportunity: an intimate look at the Cuban Revolution from 1969 to 1980, and a fascinating portrait of the development of a historian, poet, and political thinker. “I speak as an artist,” she explains. “I speak as a woman who raised four children…suffered repression, and experienced the joy of helping to create a new society. I speak as a lesbian, intimately familiar with what hate can do to human beings. I speak as someone who contributed to and benefited from one of the twentieth century’s great sociopolitical experiments.”

Raised in Scarsdale and Albuquerque, Randall moved to New York City as a young woman in 1959 to become a writer, and gravitated to radical literary and artistic circles. The Cuban Revolution captured her imagination; she tried to deliver a home-cooked paella to Fidel Castro on his 1960 visit to New York. She visited Cuba for the first time in 1961, moved there in 1969, and lived in Havana until 1980. As she says, “there was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when some in my generation believed we could change the world.” Cuban socialism, with its literacy campaigns, its internationalism, and its brilliantly evocative posters, represented this dream for Randall, as it did for people all over the world.

Randall went to Cuba from Mexico, where she was coeditor of the radical literary journal El Corno Emplumado. The Mexico City repression after the student revolt of 1968 drove her underground. Trapped in Mexico without a passport, running from the police, she was forced to send her four children—the youngest only three months old—to Cuba alone. The Cuban government made sure that the children were cared for, but it was months before she saw them again. After the family was reunited, Randall sent her school-age children to becas (semi-boarding schools where they spent the week at school, coming home for the weekend), a decision she now regrets.

Her mixed feelings about some of her parenting choices will resonate with many activist parents: “We often talked about having to sacrifice attention to one’s own sons and daughters in the context of our efforts to make a better world for all children. It was a choice I shared with many parents of that time and place. As critical as I am today, the decision seemed right back then.”

To Change the World is a vibrant picture of Randall’s life in Cuba. She stood in line to buy food with her family’s ration cards, participated in her neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, and embarrassed her daughters by arguing with catcalling men on the street. Her apartment was a gathering place for a broad range of writers, artists, and international visitors, so there are vignettes of revolutionary and artistic icons, including Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Haydeé Santamaría, Daniel and Humberto Ortega, and Daisy Zamora.

But don’t be deceived by these cameo appearances. To Change the World is far more than a memoir. Randall uses the memoir form to probe the strengths and weaknesses of the Cuban Revolution in that period through her own eyes as a participant in the Cuban cultural community, developing feminist, and maturing writer, poet, and photographer. While still in Mexico, Randall read and was excited by the developing feminist theories in the United States and Europe. One of her first editorial projects in Cuba was collecting and translating an anthology of articles—Las Mujeres—representing the new feminism, which was printed in Cuba for distribution throughout Latin America. Then she wondered how the Cuban Revolution had specifically affected the lives of women.

I decided I wanted to find out what life for Cuban women was like. What their participation in the revolutionary process had been. How their lives had been changed or not by the victory of 1959. Socialism promised radical change. Was this change freeing, using, overlooking, or abusing women? Or perhaps some uniquely Cuban combination?…I believed in the power of stories, and I knew that if I could interview Cuban women, listen to them talk about their lives and research the larger picture, I would gain valuable insights into their situation.

The Cuban government supported Randall’s plan to interview dozens of women throughout the country about the impact of the revolution on their lives. Those interviews became her first oral history, Cuban Women Now. Randall was such a fresh-eyed feminist that she saw the contradictions clearly and expressed them vividly: “As for what the Cuban revolution has meant for women, as I learned by interviewing hundreds, producing several books and many articles, and by living in the country for 11 years, it has meant both immense change and no small amount of frustration.”

The Cuban Revolution transformed women’s lives. Literacy, free education, the right to safe abortion, free comprehensive health care, meals provided at schools and workplaces—all these revolutionary changes were huge gains for Cuban women. At the same time, official Cuba was suspicious of feminism.

The Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) had been established at the beginning of the revolution in order to organize women around the new social goals and make their needs known to Party leadership….But the FMC never embraced a feminist ideology. On the contrary, its upper echelons, like the revolutionary leadership overall, made it clear that decolonization was the priority and they considered feminism an imported bourgeois notion that would ultimately divide the working class….In 1993, long after I left Cuba, a group of brilliant feminists began getting together to talk about gender on the island. They felt it was obscene that four decades after the triumph of the revolution, and especially with the surge in tourism, denigrating stereotypes of women could still be seen in the media….At first they tried to interest the FMC in their ideas. They thought the mass women’s organization would welcome their input. Not so. FMC leadership felt threatened and did everything possible to discourage those they must have believed were treading on their territory.

The group was refused permission to travel to the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing and was forced to disband in 1996. The women were told they could not meet as a group and had to cease all workshops and publishing. “As it has done rather consistently through close to half a century of revolution, the Cuban Communist Party used the ever-present threat from the north to legitimize a lack of support for diverse efforts and justify repressive measures.”

But today, Randall adds almost immediately, “there are signs of hope,” such as the efforts of young Cuban activists, including Mariela Castro Espín, youngest daughter of President Raul Castro and FMC founder Vilma Espín, to ensure rights, including the right to marry, to the Cuban lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

This kind of examination of the contradictory pulls in the Cuban experience lies at the heart of Randall’s book. For readers who have lived through the inconsistencies of radical organizations anywhere in the last forty years, her stubborn support for socialism, while criticizing the shortcomings of an actual revolutionary project, is instructive. “The coexistence of these parallel and competing influences may have been one of the Cuban revolution’s salvations, one reason it lives, in the face of so many attempts to destroy it.”

The most intense example of these forces is Randall’s description of el quinquenio gris (the five-year gray period) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, threatened by attacks on the revolution, “a Stalinist rigidity was applied to those who wrote, painted, acted, sang, danced or took part in other of the arts; and to those who were ideologically or sexually different.” Fidel Castro’s famous dictum to artists—“within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing”—set the stage for ongoing struggle in Cuba for writers and artists who supported the revolution. Although Randall lived in Cuba during the height of this cultural and political repression, for much of that time, she didn’t realize it: “Perhaps because those affected generally remained silent about what they were going through, perhaps because the art world was so exciting (despite the restraints), or perhaps because I was slow to grasp certain cultural cues and many of us came to understand the era better in retrospect, I was barely aware of the excessive control and what it meant for Cuban creatives at the time.”

One of the first victims of el quinquenio gris was the Cuban journal Pensamiento Critico, which Randall calls “a compendium of the very best Latin American revolutionary thought in a variety of fields: the social sciences, psychology, economic theory, history, decolonization, sociology and the arts. The journal’s brilliant minds belonged to a new generation of Marxists.” The Cuban Communist Party shut down Pensamiento Critico after fifty-three issues, in 1971. During the same period, Luis Pavón Tamayo was appointed head of the National Culture Council. Among his “initial victims” were Silvio Rodriguez, Pablo Milanés, Noel Nícola, and Sara González—founding members of La Nueva Trova, The New Song Movement—who were prevented from performing on television, radio, or in the country’s theatres. But other organizations, including Casa de las Américas under Haydeé Santamaría, stepped in to promote the work of these brilliant artists. As Randall says, “the sheer genius of their art gained them an enthusiastic audience. In a few years, they were considered valued ambassadors of the revolution.” As Randall explains: “One of the revolution’s saving graces has been the fact that when it comes to freedom and repression, parallel tendencies have generally competed. Men and women with a profoundly analytical sensibility have vied with mediocre, often ignorant or unthinking middle management types who revel in using their quota of power against others. The cultural scene is no exception.”

Randall herself experienced the pressures of the gray period:

Perhaps because I had been friendly with the CUSO representative [a Canadian later accused of being a spy], perhaps because I was outspokenly critical on issues of gender and sexual identity, perhaps because my friends included revolutionaries who did not subscribe to the Cuban line, perhaps for some other reason or all of these, there came a time when some in Cuba began to distrust me….For an activist there are probably few things worse than losing the confidence of your political comrades without reason. Because you have done nothing to lose it, there is nothing you can do to gain it back.

Randall remained in Cuba until her name was cleared, but then she felt it was time to move on. She moved to Nicaragua, whose revolution sparked some of her best known works of oral history with women.

This is an untidy book, which can be unsettling, but it is also invigorating. It jumps back and forth between everyday events—such as Margaret’s daughter Sarah and other girls at their beca refusing to wash and iron the male students’ uniforms—and broad theoretical questions about the relation between power and empowerment in the Cuban Revolution. Randall stubbornly tracks the contradictory tendencies toward creativity and free expression versus repressive rigidity—in contexts ranging from the failed ten-million-ton sugar harvest to gay rights. It asks far more questions than it answers.

But if you are willing to tolerate ambiguity and contradiction, To Change the World is invaluable reading for those of us who continue to believe that another world is possible. Randall is an articulate critic of socialism’s failure to incorporate feminism, which she believes is central to its capacity to be genuinely transformative, but her critique is entirely within her commitment to socialism. “Let me be clear. I love the ideals of the Cuban revolution….I have supported and continue to support the Cuban revolution….The human spirit is resilient. But it requires freedom.”

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