HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 18 – To Change the World: My Years in Cuba came out at the beginning of the year. It had been a difficult book to write and I wondered how it would be received, by those inside as well as outside Cuba.
Almost immediately a few close friends expressed their glowing appreciation of the book, but reviews took a while in coming. The very first public commentary came from the Havana Times, which published a number of excerpts, but almost no one commented on them. I remained hungry for feedback.
Gradually reviews did begin to appear. In The National Catholic Reporter, Demetria Martínez noted that the book was “neither a superficial apology nor gratuitous attack” and ended by declaring it “a riveting account that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.”
Minrose Gwin, in The Women’s Review of Books, wrote that “one of the many remarkable things about Randall’s book is the delicate pivot between past and present. She doesn’t let herself off the hook and, while she still believes in socialism and the necessity of art to politics, she articulates serious doubts about revolution and its affiliation with coercive and often violent modes of power. . . To Change the World is a gripping, affecting narrative . . . and a cautionary look at how and why the reach of revolution can fall short of its grasp. In the end, though, Randall remains hopeful; Cuba, she writes ‘taught us another future is possible.'”
High praise. And welcome. But praise wasn’t all I was after. I continued to long for dialogue. What did those of my generation, especially those who shared my knowledge of Cuba, think of my book? How did it read to a much younger person, living in a world so different from the one in which we came of age? And, most importantly, what did my friends inside Cuba think of what I had written?
Almost a year after my book’s publication, I still have no answer to the last question. Although I managed to send a number of copies down, to date I have received a single response: pleasant enough but completely devoid of engagement with polemics of any kind.
The fact that the book is in English may have something to do with this. The fact that both the U.S. and Cuba have limited communication certainly has stood in the way of sending large numbers of copies to friends on the island. I have expressed an interest in bringing the book to Havana’s Book Fair, but without response to date. One Cuban friend told me she didn’t think people in Cuba are ready for a book like mine, and suggested I was naïve to expect feedback.
Over the past several months I have traveled with To Change the World, and the response at presentations has been exciting. I’ve read from the book in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Salem, Oregon; Norman, Oklahoma; and Waterloo, Ontario (Canada). I have upcoming engagements in Tucson, Arizona; Colorado Springs; and New York City.
I’ve chosen a variety of passages to read, all short enough to work well in this sort of setting and covering personal moments as well as the larger issues of health, education, culture, evolving political participation, voluntary work, internationalism, women in revolution and making new law. I usually read for 45 minutes or so, and allow an equal amount of time for discussion. It is at these question and answer sessions that the most gratifying exchanges have taken place.
In the United States, over close to half a century, most information about the Cuban revolution has come from a lying mainstream press or a Left intent on focusing on Cuba’s many achievements and downplaying any problems-for so many years progressive people believed that publicly discussing trouble areas would “give arguments to the enemy,” as if the enemy needed our arguments to engage in its gratuitous attacks. Those who defied the travel ban and went to Cuba to see for themselves almost always came back surprised at the complexities. In the last two decades misinformation has mostly been replaced with no information.
In the United States today, young people know little about our Civil Rights movement, our country’s war in Vietnam, or the astonishing fact that in 1959 a tiny island nation 90 miles from U.S. shores had the audacity to overthrow a U.S.-backed dictator and embark upon its own idea of what it wanted its future to look like.
History is badly taught in the United States. This is clearly intentional. It has long been deemed more manageable that U.S. Americans not know how other people live, the ways in which their values and aspirations may differ from ours, or even about our own struggles in earlier times. Control of a population is so much easier when it is kept unaware.
I wanted to do two things with my book: evoke the excitement and hope of a time when those of my generation really did believe we could help make the world a better place, and portray the Cuban revolution, during the years I was privileged to share in its daily life, in all its courage and creativity and without overlooking its contradictions. This is a book told in the voice of then but overlaid as well with the voice of now. After experiencing the first few public discussions, I also realized how important it is to provide forums where questions can be asked about a place and time still largely cloaked in silence.
Did you feel like you belonged?
“What was it like to be so cut off from the rest of the world?” “Was it hard to endure Cuban food rationing all those years?” “What kind of an education did your children receive, and how has it influenced the way they raised their own kids?” “What does it feel like to know your healthcare needs will be met?” “How have Cuban women’s lives improved with the revolution, and how have they remained the same?” “Did you always feel like an outsider,” one young woman asked, “or did you come to feel like you belonged in revolutionary Cuba?”
These and similar questions follow each of my presentations. Occasionally someone who has visited the island comes up with a question about how the revolution has changed over time, what the dissolution of the socialist camp has meant to the country, or which elements of social change have remained strong and which have faded in the context of those policy adaptations necessary to the revolution’s survival.
To date the question that has moved me the most came from a young man at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. He prefaced it by saying he was 14 years old when the United States suffered the attack of September 11, 2001, and that his whole political coming of age has taken place in that context. Sam, for that was his name, seemed as pessimistic about the possibility of real social change in the United States as I am, as disappointed by the Obama administration’s unwillingness or inability to carry out the promises made during the campaign.
His question wasn’t really about Cuba, and it wasn’t unusual: “If you think back,” he asked, “can you pin-point a moment in time beyond which there was no turning back, when the downward spiral took on a velocity of its own?” He used the metaphor of an onion, referring to its many layers as symbolic of moments in history. This metaphor remained with me, eventually birthing the following poem:
Peeling the Onion
–for Sam Menefee-Liby
Miguel Hernández and his onion
flash before me,
his prison cell.
Spain’s fading war we learn
was good despite
dead poets, lingering loss.
The young man tossing this onion
into my sea of questions
says he was 14
when the planes hit the towers
billowing smoke repeating
across our TV screens
says his coming of age was shaped
by its aftermath, how we
as a nation answered hate with hate.
He says this or maybe it’s me
fills in the blanks
between image and meaning.
The onion is in my hands, its raw skin
stinging my eyes.
He wants me to peel it back
find that moment when history
might have righted itself,
we could have chosen
another path, turned it around,
held a future
we cannot find today.
He is asking when it went wrong
where we met
the wall of no return.
Memory ricochets inside my skull.
I am older than old
my infant self
tumbling head-on toward me
and trusted maps.
Onions always make me cry. I peel
layer after layer
discard the papery inner core.
He is not asking where we failed
or what went wrong
but when. I hear myself answer
Vietnam. McCarthy. Cold War politics
or before. Manifest Destiny.
The Middle Passage. Dirty blankets.
Those who came from the east
looking for freedom
destroying the freedom of others.
Those who came from the south
with gunpowder and Cross
looking for gold on a desert clad in sun.
The wall keeping out and in, the fence
forever cutting a people
off from itself.
The onion peels until nothing is left.
My tears dry. Where can we go
when memory sleeps?
Give a man a gun, the soldier said,
and chances are
he won’t kill easily.
You have to teach a man to kill.
And when you do
how do you teach him to stop?