By Margaret Randall* from: “To Change the World, My Years in Cuba”
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 19 – Fidel and his men-and some women-had several things in their favor: most important history. A succession of Cuban administrations, up to and including the Batista dictatorship, had exploited and oppressed the island’s people while profits accrued to foreign interests and a small domestic bourgeoisie.
Cuba’s natural resources-sugarcane, tobacco, citrus fruits, fishing, cattle and as yet unrefined nickel-were worked by the country’s poor but did nothing to improve their hard lives. Basically a one crop economy before the revolutionary takeover, there’d been no attempt at diversification, or long or mid range planning aimed at raising quality of life.
Before the revolution a good half of Cuba’s children didn’t attend school. A high percentage of its population was illiterate or semiliterate. Health care didn’t reach the rural areas and in the cities was only available to those who could afford to pay. People routinely died of curable diseases.
Above and beyond these and other indicators, though, was a commodity international capital couldn’t quantify, and still tends to ignore. That commodity was pride. As small and relatively insignificant an island playground as Cuba seemed to the U.S., its people believed they had a right to their lives. They were fiercely proud and tired of being abused.
An oft repeated story features a U.S. Marine, drunk after a night on the town, climbing up on the downtown monument to Cuba’s nineteenth century hero, José Martí, and urinating on the statue. More than any other event this one symbolized the assault upon a people’s dignity that could only be met with decolonization and ferocious self reliance.
A small country with a modest population showed the world that it could, when mobilized by intelligence, courage and charisma, channel a pride that translates to fierce patriotism.
That patriotism gave birth to a David capable of holding off Goliath. The image was often used to encourage people, get them to make that extra bit of effort. Patriotism is double edged though.
Fed by nationalism, it develops along a steep curve. It can be a force for independence and creativity but also promotes an insular and defensive disconnection, smug sense of superiority, energetic controls, withering of openness, and unwillingness to allow access to a free flowing exchange of ideas.
Cuba’s nationalism showed itself capable of standing up to every kind of attack, and for decades. The jury was still out on how it would shape the country’s future.
We wasted no time in embracing its vibrant present. Our arrival in Cuba coincided with the end of the Cuban revolution’s first brave decade. We lived there through the end of the second, and one of my daughters, Sarah, remained even longer. I went to work in publishing and culture, Robert in radio. We experienced life in a nation constantly besieged by U.S. aggression, an experience that signaled a one hundred eighty degree change from our earlier conditioning.
We took part in the people’s militia, participated in the activities of our neighborhood block committee, did all kinds of voluntary work and were involved in many of the revolution’s early campaigns to prevent disease, discuss collective problems and write new law.
Participation in the establishment of a revitalized union movement and genuinely democratic forms of governance were among my most satisfying learning experiences.
I remember one project I came up with that initially brought great glory to our local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Blood was always needed, and the CDRs were charged with encouraging people to donate when they could. With our continual flood of foreign visitors I had a readymade source; most people were delighted to be able to contribute in this way and our block always had more donations than any other.
I can still see little Ana, aged six or seven, trotting a large group of friends and acquaintances to the blood bank on 23rd Street. Over a period of years our family must have been responsible for hundreds of such donations. Eventually, though, some higher up realized that taking foreigners’ blood might be misconstrued and we were asked to stop.
We also lived through painful setbacks, such as the failure of the ten million ton goal for the 1969-1970 sugar cane harvest. And embarrassing errors in judgment, among these the resistance to a gender analysis of society, a crackdown on small independent producers and repair people, the excesses of the Heberto Padilla affair, periodic repression against gay and lesbian citizens, and the unchecked frustration and anger unleashed against those who chose to avail themselves of the Mariel boatlift.
Sometimes, to my shame, I bore silent witness to these disasters or too readily supported the official position when a more critical stance would have been truer to my sense of things. Sometimes I spoke out against them: never a welcome contribution from a foreign woman.
Writing today, almost forty years later, there is always the risk of imprinting current analysis on the ways in which we saw things then. I want to resist this as much as possible.
It is important to remember that we were part of something collective and all embracing, something huge. We followed our leaders but also contributed to the values, thought processes, and choices that shaped their decisions. We were motivated by the sense that we were making revolution: changing our world for the better.
Cuba was at a disadvantage when faced with the power and reach of the United States. We were forever cautioned against playing into the enemy’s hands, or providing it with information it could use against the revolution.
I often felt I was walking an extremely narrow road between unquestioning support and a more complex reading of events. I generally came down on the side of what the revolutionary leadership proposed although this did not prevent me, several years later, from becoming suspect in the eyes of some.
To be continued on Monday with the excerpt: “Cuba Wanted Her Fisherman Back”
*Randall, Margaret. To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Copyright © 2009 by Margaret Randall. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.