Sunday June 17, 2018

An American Feminist in Cuba: Margaret Randall and To Change the World

As the 2017 Havana Book Fair pays homage to her today, the 80-year-old writer reflects on her years on the island

Margaret Randall with the Argentine investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh, co-founder of the Prensa Latina news agency, Havana, 1968

Courtesy Havana Times

Poet, writer, photographer, social activist, and feminist, Margaret Randall spent more than a decade of her life in Cuba, writing and editing books of poetry, social history, and more—most recently, Only the Road / Solo el camino: Eight Decades of Cuban Poetry (Duke University Press, 2016). 

A Spanish translation of her memoir, To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (Rutgers University Press, 2009) was recently published in Cuba by Ediciones Matanzas. This afternoon, a tribute to Margaret Randall will be presented as part of the program at the Havana Book Fair.

Laura Ruiz Montes—herself a poet, editor, essayist and translator—recently spoke with Randall about her experiences in Cuba.

Randall, second from right, at the Congreso Cultural de La Habana, January 1968. Journalist Rodolfo Walsh is at center; at right is Argentine artist Antonio Seguí

Courtesy Margaret Randall

You were active in the student movement in Mexico in the late 1960s. Amid the mounting repression, how did you manage to get to Havana in 1969?

Getting to Cuba was complicated. When the repression hit, it was clear that I could not remain in Mexico. Cuban comrades at the embassy told me that if I could get to Prague—one of the bridges between the capitalist and socialist worlds in those years—they would be able to get me to Havana. Cuba had already received my four children, the youngest just three months old. My partner of those years traveled legally, through Madrid. 

I, on the other hand, didn’t have papers. So I had to cross the border between Mexico and the United States in the back of a refrigerator truck, hidden between sides of beef. I traveled from there to the border with Canada, showing a copy of the birth certificate that had my old US nationality. I continued on by bus to Toronto.

From there I took a plane to Paris and another to Prague, never crossing the security lines—that is to say, never actually entering France. In Prague the Cubans were waiting for me.

My trip was made more difficult by the fact that I was ill, and almost as soon as I arrived in Cuba they had to remove one of my kidneys. The whole odyssey took almost three months, and I suffered periodic fevers. From Prague to Havana there was only one flight a week at that time and I had to wait my turn.

Randall with her first camera, Havana, 1978

Courtesy Margaret Randall

What was it like to live the reality of everyday life in Cuba?

Our arrival in Cuba, in the fall of 1969, meant an 180-degree change in my life and the life of my family. There were six of us: my partner, myself, and my four children. The oldest was eight and the youngest, as I said, was only three months old.

Cuba took us in as it took in so many in those years. We chose to live as much as possible as Cubans did, and little by little learned about life in a revolutionary society, with all its benefits and problems.

The experience gave me a great deal: the idea that “another world is possible.” It also taught us firsthand about the difficulties inherent in making such dramatic systemic change.

As a mother of four children, education was one of the things that most interested me. From my youngest, who spent time in a State daycare center, to my two oldest, who completed their university degrees there, they all received a good education—one based on values of emulation rather than competition, a combination of manual and intellectual work, and more.

Universal healthcare was another achievement we lived firsthand. Soon after we arrived, my daughter Ximena had to undergo a delicate ear operation. It was a great success. The surgeon saved her life, and I can still remember the president of our CDR [Committee for the Defense of the Revolution] explaining to me that if no one in my family was able to give the blood donation required, he would get someone on the block to do so. That was a profound experience, also described in my book.

Casa de las Américas, 1970: from left, Randall; Rodolfo Walsh; French/Mexican anthropologist Laurette Séourné; Silvia Gil; Alfredo Guevara, director of the Cuban Film Institute; Manuel Galich, vice president of Casa de las Américas; Haydée Santamaría, founding director of Casa de las Américas; and Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa. Randall would later write a biography of Santamaría, published in the US in 2015.

Courtesy Margaret Randall

What about controversial cultural issues, like homophobia or the banning of rock music?

I didn’t yet identify as a lesbian, but of course I did perceive the homophobia that existed in Cuba at the time. I had published a small book call Las mujeres. It covered women’s experience in several different revolutions, and there was a reference to the Cuban position at the time. I remember that a friend, a professor at the University of Havana, called me one day and pointed to that reference as something I shouldn’t have put in the book. That surprised me.

I also knew there was an official refusal to play music by the Beatles, and that rock music was also not looked upon favorably. I thought those attitudes and policies were unfortunate, but I also knew that Cuba had to find its own cultural way. As a foreigner, I was there to learn, not to criticize (although I confess that I did criticize at times, at least with trusted friends).

Randall, center, with Silvia Gil and others at a cigar factory in Havana, 1970

Courtesy Margaret Randall

How did you cope with everyday economic shortages and volunteer work? And the almost incessant reactions from Cuban men?

I had chosen to live with a Cuban ration book rather than the one they offered to foreigners at the time. I felt the shortages, of course, but I wanted to live as much as possible like the Cuban people did.

On the other hand, as a foreigner I knew I had certain privileges. For example, I could leave the country and return as I pleased.

I was happy to participate in voluntary work.

As far as the catcalls men shouted or whispered at women in the street—women of any age, beautiful or not—they always annoyed me a great deal. I experienced that practice as a lack of respect, and I can’t deny it. In the book there is an anecdote about how I reacted to those catcalls and how my two teenage daughters reacted to my reaction.

Courtesy Margaret Randall

The book La mujer cubana ahora (Cuban Women Now), published in Cuba in 1972, had several international editions, and was highly regarded by the leftist and feminist movements of the time. How did that book come about?

At the end of my time in Mexico I discovered feminism, and I arrived in Cuba eager to learn how the Revolution had changed—or not changed—the lives of Cuban women. I began working at a publishing house under the umbrella of the Cuban Book Institute. It was called Ambito, and wouldn’t last long.

Cover for the Canadian edition of Cuban Women Now

Courtesy Margaret Randall

My boss there was a young military man with an amazing sensibility. When I told him I wanted to launch an oral history project with women, he supported me. I didn’t have a formal education that would have prepared me for that sort of project, so I had to invent as I went along. I was able to travel throughout the country, interviewing women from different backgrounds, classes, ages, and experience, and it was a great learning experience for me. It was also my first book of this type; in the following years I would write 20 or so more. Cuban Women Now carried the voices of Cuban women abroad, and working on the book taught me a great deal.

What contributions do you think you made to Cuba? And what was Cuba’s contribution to your own self-awareness?

Cuba gave me so much: a life experience in a socialist country that taught me it is possible to build a more just society. I don’t know what I gave Cuba, and in any case it’s for others to say. I know that at times my feminism was too much for the Cuba of those years. My opinions and attitudes weren’t always well received. With the passage of time, I think we’ve come closer together, Cuba and I.

Margaret Randall today.

Courtesy CiberCuba

Perhaps it’s in the field of literature that I may have been able to give something of value. A group of young poets frequented my apartment and together we read the best literature of the time from North and South America. We received visits from some of the great poets of the era. And we honed our own craft.

Courtesy Margaret Randall

In time I produced an anthology that proved important to Cuban women poets, and in that sense perhaps I contributed something, because that anthology helped demonstrate that women poets are as worthy of being heard as men.

I did that anthology after having done another that included fifteen young Cuban poets, only two of them women. I realized my error, and decided to rectify it with the anthology of women. And although that book went out of print years ago, it remains a reference for those interested in poetry on the Island. But the group of young poets I’ve mentioned also gave me a great deal, and several of them remain close friends. 

Courtesy Margaret Randall

To Change the World: My Years in Cuba (Cambiar el mundo. Mis años en Cuba) has now been published in Cuba. What does that mean for you?

I’ve always wanted to see this particular book published in Cuba. I’ve wanted to share my experience of living there then with the people of Cuba. I’ve wanted to share my point of view. Five years ago someone requested the book for Editorial UNEAC, but then three years went by and I heard nothing more about it. The project seemed destined to die, surrounded by that silence that so often accompanies lack of transparency.

Then a friend offered to try to find out what had happened, and discovered that the book’s publication had been authorized long before. At that point I took it away from the person who had asked me for it and gave it to Ediciones Matanzas, whose director and list of titles impressed me.

The world has changed, Cuba has changed, and I think the life we led in the 1970s may be of interest. I am very happy that the book has come out from Ediciones Matanzas and that it will finally be read by those to whom it is addressed.

At the 2017 Havana Book Fair, a tribute to Margaret Randall takes place today, February 16, at 2 p.m. in the Sala Manuel Galich. Speakers include Norberto Codina, Alex Fleites, Arturo Arango, and Juan Luis Martín, in a panel moderated by Alfredo Zaldívar. The trovadores Lien y Rey will also perform. The 2017 Havana Book Fair continues through Sunday, Feburary 19.

Laura Ruiz Montes (Matanzas, 1966). Graduate in History. Poet, editor, essayist and translator. Principal editor for Vigia Editions, director of La Revista del Vigía and the online magazine Mar Desnudo. She has published many poetry books, including Transparencies (Red Mountain Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2016); Fe de erratas (collected poems, Editiones Aldabón, Colección la insula barataria. Matanzas, 2015), and Otro retorno al país natal (Ediciones Matanzas, 2012). Awarded the Premio Nacional de la Crítica Literaria (National Prize for Literary Criticism).