HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 17 – The victory of the Cuban revolution was one of those events that marked the death of one era, birth of another. A line as sharp as any in history but with subtleties difficult to grasp at the time, at least for someone of my background and experience.
I understood that certain values and attitudes would persist; they might take generations to change. But this understanding was intellectual. How the holdovers might look, how they affected the way people lived, or accepted or resisted change: all that was harder to predict.
What I knew was that the people of a small Caribbean island, just ninety miles from U.S. shores, had challenged neocolonialism. They had won freedom from a brutal dictator and his northern boss. Cause enough for celebration.
Like many in my generation-I was born in 1936-the Cuban revolution excited my sense of possibility. So geographically close. So culturally and linguistically familiar, and displaying such sudden and unexpected bravado.
My immediate and passionate engagement with Cuba was more emotional than political. The radical shift so close to home immediately elicited insinuations and then outright attacks in my own country’s mainstream press. But for the first year at least most progressive U.S. Americans applauded Cuba’s new government.
At Spanish Refugee Aid, Nancy also shared my enthusiasm for the new revolution but, like many progressive people of her generation, she’d been traumatized by Soviet style communism and soon began to distance herself, fearing what she thought might be a repetition of Stalin’s crimes. I was a good deal younger than Nancy. I didn’t share her points of reference and remained supportive.
At the corner of Eleventh Street and Broadway, in the same building that housed SRA’s one room office, the New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee soon opened its doors. I became friendly with some of its staff, asked questions, continued to feel an emotional attraction to the revolution that had so emphatically marked its territory and was demanding its right to an independent future.
The Kennedy administration began its many pronged efforts-some overt, others covert-to bring the new revolution to its knees. (I’d voted for Kennedy in 1960, the first time I’d been old enough to cast my ballot. It was a vote against Nixon, whose transparent megalomania and crass anticommunism frightened me. Writing today, I realize how infrequently I’ve been able to vote for a U.S. presidential candidate; in our version of the democratic process, mine has almost always been a vote against.)
In June 1961 six other artists and I wrote a Declaration of Conscience in support of Cuba’s sovereignty. It was signed by many and published in Monthly Review. The New York Fair Play for Cuba Committee organized its first trip to the island. I thought of going but was afraid. To hide my fear I said my son was still too young for that sort of travel and I didn’t want to leave him behind.
The poet LeRoi Jones, who would later reinvent himself as Amiri Baraka, went on that initial trip. So did another friend, Marc Schleifer, who in time would rename himself Suleiman Abdullah. LeRoi and Marc were two of those who had written that declaration with me; the others were painter Elaine de Kooning, poet Diane di Prima, writer and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and novelist and all around cultural figure Norman Mailer.
Marc would remain on the island for a number of years and participate in the defense of the increasingly vulnerable project. He was in Cuba in April, 1961 when the failed Bay of Pigs invasion took place.
To be continued on Saturday with the excerpt: “Patriotism is Always Double-Edged”
*Randall, Margaret. To Change the World: My Years in Cuba. Copyright © 2009 by Margaret Randall. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.