Cuba Wanted Her Fishermen Back

By Margaret Randall*

Excerpt From “To Change the World, My Years in Cuba”

Margaret with her four children Sarah, Ximena, Ana and Gregory.  Havana 1973.
Margaret with her four children Sarah, Ximena, Ana and Gregory. Havana 1973.

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 21 – The news spread via radio bemba [the grapevine] and every other communication medium.  Eleven Cuban fishermen had been attacked, their small boats capsized, the men themselves kidnapped.  They were being held on a Caribbean atoll.  The rightist group Alfa 66 claimed responsibility for the operation, and demanded a number of counterrevolutionary prisoners in exchange for their release.

Cuba wanted her fishermen back. Havana’s streets filled with people.  Many carried signs proclaiming the country’s sovereignty.  Short poems were angry and also filled with the culture’s unique brand of comedic irony.

I was beginning to understand why the Cuban revolution was so often referred to as Marxism in Spanish.  Some placards displayed pictures of donkeys, and a few people led live donkeys with sandwich signs sporting the slogan: Nixon is My Son.

The X in Nixon was a swastika and this was true in the official press as well. Other placards read: We will not trade the sons of our people for lousy mercenary worms, Nixon: Out of Cambodia Out of Vietnam, Give Us Back Our Brothers, We Demand the Release of our Fishermen.

Since the early sixties, when the United States had broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Swiss Embassy handled transactions between the two countries. An Interests Section occupied offices in the old U.S. embassy building, a foreshortened glass and steel UN look alike located on the malecón a few blocks from our apartment.

From our balcony we saw dozens, then hundreds and finally thousands of people gathering before the building. That first night hundreds camped out.  The kids were home from school for the weekend and joined me in bringing the demonstrators coffee and squares of bread-from the two loaves our family received each day.

The next morning the crowds increased.  Looking down from our window I could see workers constructing a platform across the street from the Interests Section.  Mostly the assemblage milled about sharing thermoses of coffee and conversing.  Periodically, as if on cue, everyone shouted: We demand the return of our fishermen!  Or Cuba sí, Yankees no!

Although Alpha 66 was made up of anti Castro Cubans, everyone knew the U.S. was behind this latest act of aggression, just as it was behind each new assault upon the revolution.

The phone rang. It was Rolando Rodríguez, director of the Book Institute.  Despite the fact that I worked at the Institute I hadn’t seen Rolando since the Orfilas had given us refuge in Mexico and he’d come to visit one night.

He wanted to know if I’d be home for a while, said he wanted to bring someone over. The man who arrived with the head of the Institute was a Party official.  He said it was important to encourage people to stay in the streets, keep their spirits high.  Cuba might be a small country, he said, but we would show the world we won’t stand for this attack upon our sovereignty.  We’ll remain firm until our fishermen are returned.

Cuban Secretary of State Raul Roa signs a copy of his book for Margaret.  Moderna Poesia bookstore, Havana 1977. Photo: Macias
Cuban Secretary of State Raul Roa signs a copy of his book for Margaret. Moderna Poesia bookstore, Havana 1977. Photo: Macias

Of course I agreed.  I knew these two men weren’t in my apartment to state the obvious.  They wanted my help with something.  Soon the Party official revealed what it was: There are at least fifteen thousand people out there right now, he waved his hand in the direction of the malecón, and we think the crowd will continue to grow.

Party members always spoke in plural.  It was a way of downplaying the individual and emphasizing the collective and was a custom I myself would adopt for a number of years, although I never thought of joining the Party.  We’re inviting a few distinguished personalities to speak to them tonight, the man added, to encourage them to keep their spirits up.

I was flattered to hear myself referred to as a distinguished personality.  I also felt honored.  The comrade continued: We have asked Che’s father to address the people.  And Camilo Torres’ mother.  Several representatives from Latin American revolutionary movements will be among the speakers.  We would like you to join them if you’re willing.

I didn’t represent any revolutionary movement anywhere, although I was supportive of many. Neither was I the father of the Heroic Guerrilla, as Che was known, or the seventy year old mother of the Colombian priest turned revolutionary martyr.

Still, I was thrilled to be asked to speak to the crowd that grew larger with each passing hour.  I knew I was being recruited in representation of progressive U.S. Americans.  I told the men sitting in my living room I’d consider it an honor to participate.  Someone will pick you up at five thirty, one of them said.

To be continued on Wednesday with the excerpt “Bad Press”

*Randall, Margaret. To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Copyright © 2009 by Margaret Randall. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.