Tribute to Margaret Randall at Casa de las Americas, Havana

by Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — For those of us who didn’t know her before, she could have been just another leftist, caught up in the stir of the early years of Cuba’s revolutionary victory. However, after listening to her friends speak about her and reading the book To Change the World: My Years in Cuba, you get another impression about her.

Going beyond ideology, we cannot forget to admire her constant searching, her analysis of reality and her questioning.

Now, at 80 years old, Margaret Randall has come to Cuba to present the Spanish edition of her book “To Change the World” and receive a tribute at the Casa de las Americas. Old friends were invited to the event which turned into a pleasant space for reminiscing.

Alex Fleites, director of the literary magazine Amnios, recalled how “Margaret, her family, her apartment on Linea Street, were a school of emotions, a place which is always good to return to, an incomplete conversation and not because it was interrupted, but because we never stop talking about the things that really matter.”

When Margaret came to live on the island in 1969, she had already published at least one book and had run the literary magazine El Corno Emplumado, along with Sergio Mondragon, in Mexico. According to poet Alex Fleites, that magazine was ahead of its time of what would later be recognized as Postmodernism.

Margaret Randall with Roberto Fernandez Retamar

In Havana, she surrounded her family and her home with young Cubans who were eager to expand their horizons, finding a bridge in her between the freedom of learning to the fullest and the strict controls and prejudice at that time. They used to go to her house “to have faith, to imagine an inclusive world, full of love, to balance the fascinating heroic deeds in our history without the right to be sad or laugh for no apparent reason, a place where doubting doesn’t mean you’re a wimp.”

Sociologist Juan Luis Martin met her at the Social Sciences Publishers and they established “a very deep friendship which has had very strong ethical and human implications.” Martin believes that she “deserves a tribute not only for her poetry but because of her human values and her adherence to them throughout her life.”

He described how “her simplicity, the breadth and depth of her ideas and vision of the world” caught his attention from the very beginning. Her work is dominated by social interest rather than individual interests. Her work hasn’t been conceived to earn money but to enrichen and develop social consciousness.”

Meanwhile, the editor of Gaceta de Cuba magazine, Norberto Codina, kept his speech very short; he only told those present how the idea of a Cuban edition of “Change the world” was born in his house and then disappeared. Luckily, the publishing house Ediciones Matanzas has now made this a reality. He recalled that this January marked the 50 year anniversary of Margaret’s first visit to Cuba. He assured that since then she has remained very close to the island, concerned about its future.

Margaret presenting her book with Juan Luis Martin (l) and Alfredo Zaldivar (r),

Arturo Arango presented the book, along with memories of Margaret’s years in Cuba. His story began with Randall approaching “the group of young writers who used to meet together on Saturday afternoons at UNEAC, which the Hermanos Saiz Brigade used to oversee at that time, in the mid-1970s. It wasn’t long before Randall’s house became a hangout for some of these young Cubans.

They used to print the Roque Dalton literary workshop’s newsletter there, they talked, created, read. They also got to meet writers who they already admired for their work: Cortazar, Benedetti, Ernesto Cardenal, among others. According to Arango, she “was essential in making our world view more complete, thanks to her we had access to finding out about historic events, information, theories which were lacking in the dogmatic Cuban context back then. Margaret’s life took over extremely wide and diverse spaces, and we became contaminated with them.”

Arturo Arango advances the fact that Randall, in her book, tells us about the climate of mistrust which people experienced during those years. After almost three decades behind us, she tries to understand who she was, who her children were, who we all were back then.” And he underlines “the moral clarity the book is conceived and written with; its touching sincerity from the beginning until the end, as much as her sense of gratitude.”

Zaida del Río presenting Margaret with one of her works.

Arango believes that “Change the World” “is a deeply critical book because it is, first and foremost, self-critical” and it doesn’t ignore the contexts. He claims that “there isn’t disappointment, priorities are reestablished, and ideas are updated.” I think that the penultimate chapter – A Question of power – “is particularly useful given the situation we live in today. The revolutionary Margaret Randall looks over the ideological processes she was involved in, her relationship with fighters in Latin America, especially from Cuba and Nicaragua, and renews the idea of Socialism.”

To that effect, Arango cites an interesting paragraph from the book where Randall explains: “I still believe in Socialism, but I would like to see a version which honors a broader range of ideas, which practices the freedom to dissent, recognizing differences and looking for a balance where individual identity and collective concerns can live together. Maybe the only way to manage such a change is to revolutionize consciences before struggling for taking over power or, at least, doing it at the same time.”

Margaret Randall proves that life experience is essential when it comes to analyzing circumstances and she questions positions, attitudes, thoughts, failures and achievements like any other human being.

Her feminist ideas, for example, weren’t looked upon favorably in the 1970s, neither was her lack of inhibition, and I’m sure that her coming from an enemy country ran her into quite a few disagreements with some “revolutionaries”.

Something remains very clear after having read her book and having listened to her friends: Randall is a journalist, photographer, poet, storyteller, researcher, translator and editor and all of these give her different outlooks on the reality she experiences, but she is also – especially so – a human being, a woman who asks herself how she can be better.

Setting the debate of whether she was a foreigner with benefits or not aside, what makes Margaret stand out is the fact that she never stopped being herself in a country which she admired but that never understood her. A country where she came into direct conflict with other ways of seeing the world and, at the same time, she passed on her energy to many young Cubans who opened up their intellectual and spiritual horizons just being in her presence.

One thought on “Tribute to Margaret Randall at Casa de las Americas, Havana

  • A very interesting portrait. Young people who were in support of the revolution, but chafing at the restrictions on debate, looking for a place to wrestle with ideas.
    It could be argued that the restrictions on debate were imposed from the outside by the hostility of the US, but it must be admitted that such restrictions are a setback, not an advance.

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