Five years ago Margaret Randall would not have given this interview.
"Five years ago," she says, "I had a very black-and-white sense of a large establishment newspaper in a place like the United States. One of the things that has happened to me out of experience and out of revolutionary practice is coming to the conclusion that people are human beings.People are good and bad everywhere. Five years ago I was a much more schematic person. In that sense I've changed a lot."
Margaret Randall is an American poet. She lives in Cuba with Antonio, a Colombian revolutionary, and with her four children, by three different fathers. None of her children speaks English.
Margaret Randall is 40 years old now. And she wants to come home. But things are not simple. She has no passport. But then, things never are simple for Margaret Randall. Hers is the saga of a Marxist Mary Hartman.
She considers herself a revolutionary, speaks of socialism, communism with intensity and passion.
If she could, Margaret Randall would reject the things about her own country she has aisparaged and embrace whole-heartedly and with total conviction the new country she lives in.
But she can't There is too much of America in her. Too much middle-class background for her to ever be anything else. And so she is tormented. Tormented because what she thought she wanted to reject is now no longer available to her. What she valued so little is now the most important thing in her life. And because she can't have it, it makes her want it more: an American expatriate, a prisoner of ideology.
Her long dark hair is graying rapidly, and the furrows in her brow are deeply etched. She has put on weight in Cuba; the years of eating black beans and rice have taken their toll on her figure. She has a high voice with which she speaks in rapid, fluent Spanish to her red-haired, 8-year-old daughter Anna when she comes home from school. But in English she still has strong traces of a Brooklyn accent.
The interview is being held in her apartment, a large and spacious five-bedroom apartment in a high-rise overlooking the ocean in downtown Havana. The furniture is torn, shabby, faded, what little there is. One long lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. The only decorations are posters of Che Guevara, pictures of Fidel Castro and faces of Vietnamese peasants. During the interview she excuses herself to finish the washing and dishes while the one hour of water is in effect that evening.
Antonio, the man she lives with, is busily vacuuming the bedroom and halls; it is his turn to clean. He is a tiny wiry, very Latin looking man, with dark flashing eyes, dark skin, a days growth of black beard, large mustache and gentle smile. He appears to say hello in Spanish, then goes back to his cleaning.
To understand how she came to live in Cuba under such peculiar circumstances one must know the story of her life, a story even Norman Lear would find hard to believe.
Margaret Randall was born in New York City to a "middle-class Jewish family." Her father, the son of a wealthy family, was not a success. His small pipecleaning store on Wall Street went bankrupt and the family packed up and moved from Scarsdale to New Mexico when Margaret was 11. There her father, after selling men's clothes, became a cellist, her mother a painter. The Husband
Margaret Randall was a restless girl and when she was 17, after an unhappy and "boring" year at the University of New Mexico, she married a boy from a rich midwestern family. "I was a virgin when I got married." They bought a motor scooter and two of them headed for India.
They made it to Spain where they ran out of money. She got a job as a maid in a Spanish boarding house, he worked on the American Air Force base. It was, for them, a lark.
"At that point," says Randall, "I had absolutely no social consciousness at all. I didn't know a Democrat from a Republican and I had never even heard the word Communist."
Finally they returned to Albuquerque where they bought a house and settled down. "Our marriage was really horrifying," she remembers. "But at that time I just assumed that you got married and stayed married. But he became mentally ill."
Fortunately, they never had any children and she was able to divorce her husband by the time she was 21 and moved to New York City, where she hoped to become a writer. New York
Things were not as easy as she had hoped and she ended up working as a waitress, a secretary, an artist's model and a worker in a feather factory in the garment district. But she was writing poetry on the side and begun to publish some in little poetry magazines around the city. She began reading poetry in the Village and to identify herself with a group called the "Black Mountain Poets."
"I was certainly losing a lot of illusions about myself and the world. I was a very provincial kid. I lived on the Lower East Side, worked at a lot of jobs, had an incredible number of affairs with people, most of them miserable short-term affairs. I had decided after my first marriage that I would never get married again or be able to have a stable long-term relationship with a man. So I made up my mind I wanted to have a baby. I was 24." Joel
At the time she was seeing a poet named Joel off and on. "We hardly ever talked, we just slept together. I decided very methodically to get pregnant by him. He reacted very strongly, thought I would try to make him marry me and left. My parents couldn't believe it. My father kept saying 'Anyone can make a mistake. I'll pay for an abortion.'"
But Margaret Randall remained undaunted. She got pregnant and nine months later she had a son, Gregory.
By that time, she had become increasingly involved in politics. "I began to march in demonstrations in 1961 and I was very attracted by the Cuban revolution. I thought Fidel was wonderful and the revolution terrific. I always defended Fidel in arguments, but I didn't know why. It was just intuitive."
But she was making only $60 a week working for the Spanish Refugee Aid and she found that taking care of a baby alone and trying to work at the same time was a very difficult way of life. "I was tired of all the affairs and tired of not seeing my son."
So when Gregory was 10 months old she got fed up with New York and moved to Mexico City. She had no friends and $500. Mexico City
She got odd jobs at first, translating comic books, doing some freelance writing, and soon fell in with a group of poets, many American, many of whom were heavily into drugs.
It was in that group that she met her second husband, a Mexican poet named Sergio. They were almost immediately married. She was 25, he 26.
"That," she says with a deep sigh, "was the worst experience I ever had with a man in my life. The kind of sexism I found in him was totally different from anything I had ever seen in a North American." That marriage lasted seven years.
"I really was in love with him at the time," she says. "We were very romantic. He was politically more advanced that I was, a member of the Communist Party, and he made me feel like an inept, stupid North American who didn't know what was going on in th third world . . ."
But Randall learned fast and soon the two of them founded a literary magazine together. It was bilingual, and they called it "The Plumed Horn," "El Horno Emplumado." The magazine was a quarterly, 250-page publication financed by government grants from universities and foundations. "It became," says Randall, "a very important magazine in literary circles both in the United States and Mexico."
The magazine was also developing a reputation as a voice for radicals.
In 1963 Randall had her first daughter, Sarah, and in 1964, another girl, Ximena. Unfortunately, by then Sergio, much to Randall's distress, was becoming a mystic. "He was moving toward yoga and I was becoming more politicized. He was a Zen Buddhist and I was a Marxist. It was pulling us apart."
"Sergio was becoming more and more mystical. And less and less inclined to work.But we had three kids to feed. So I became their sole supporter.
Margaret Randall said it was this state of affairs that caused her to make what she now says was the greatest mistake of her life: She gave up her American citizenship.
"I wanted to work but I didn't have the papers and if I became a Mexican citizen I would have much better opportunities. I still thought then that I would be married to Sergio all my life and live there and the paper part didn't seem important. I didn't think there was anything to it."
"Also I wanted to travel to Cuba and meet a group of poets I had been in touch with. As an American citizen I would not be allowed back into Mexico. At any rate, it was a terrible mistake."
She learned just how terrible shortly afterwards when she and Sergio were invited to give a two-month series of poetry lectures at 20 American universities and take the children.
She blithely went to the American Embassy for a visa and was denied it. The reason given: She was a member of the Communist Party.
"I was not," she says, "though I was quite political."
Sergio and the children went off without her, the universities intervened, and she was allowed a temporary travel permit so she could join them.
When she went back to Mexico Randall became a midwife. "I loved it. I wanted to contribute in some way. I delivered several hundred babies in the misery belt in Mexico. That really politicized me. Those women weren't fed enough to have milk in their breasts."
During January 1967 Margaret Randall decided to visit Cuba for a month-long conference of poets at the old Dupont estate at Veradero Beach.
"I said then that I had died and gone to heaven and been reborn in Cuba."
"I was," she says, "completely captivated by seeing a new revolution. I had read Marx and Lenin but I was heavily impressed by the human aspect of seeing people with dignity.
"Sergio, at that time, was teaching English at the university and my children were being taken care of by our two maids so I stayed on in Cuba for another month. Cuba changed my life. Politically. Socially. Personally. I came back to mexico and told Sergio I was leaving him. I couldn't stand my life. Cuba gave me the courage. I became my own person. We split."
For the next year and a half Randall lived alone and supported her children, running the magazine with Sergio helping. "But I wanted the magazine to be much more political, he wanted it to be love and flowers, a peacenik thing. So I did it myself. That was a very strong period of my life."
And she was increasingly involved with radical Mexican politics. Robert
In February of 1968 Margaret Randall met Robert. He too was a poet. He was 21 and she 30. "He was hippie, involved in an LSD-type scene with no politics at all. We really fell in love."
Robert got a job, took on her whole family, learned Spanish, became a devoted father and also, more importantly, very politicized. They never married but were to live together seven years. "It was a very wonderful relationship. Though we had struggles over sexism, monogamy, fidelity. He wanted a child very much. I thought I wasn't going to have any more. But I made the decision to take out my IUD and have Anna."
She was pregnant at the time of the student riots in October, 1968. "I was responsible for hiding 16 comrades who had participated. My participation was not heroic."
As Margaret Randall tells the aftermath: In June of 1967 two Mexican agents came to her house and confiscated her passport, which she has not seen again. Two days later her son Gregory was held by the Mexican police for 36 hours. The next day Margaret and Robert went underground. For three months they hid, moving almost constantly. But she was sick, as was the baby, and they couldn't keep it up. They decided, through some Cuban friends, to send the children to Cuba. They would follow as soon as they could. Cuba
She bought a forged passport for $20 and in January she and Robert walked across the U.S. border with $1,500 in cash from selling their car. He flew to America to spend a few weeks with his parents; she flew to Dallas, then to Chicago, then took a bus to Toronto, a plane to Paris and another plane to Prague. There she waited 19 days for a flight to Cuba, delirious by this time from a kidney infection from which she almost died.
When she finally arrived in Cuba, Robert had been there and found the children. She was immediately operated on.
They went to work soon thereafter she for the Book Institute, he for Radio Havana, and a few months later they were assigned an apartment in one of the beautiful modern buildings over-looking the ocean in downtown Havana. The older children went right away to Cuban boarding schools, five days a week.
"I had friends here already," she says. "I was known among the intellectuals. Unfortunately Robert was 'Margaret Randall's husband' and it was the beginning of great problems in our relationship.
"The life was very different, the housework very difficult with water only one hour a day and no maid. We're in heaven now by comparison. Everything was rationed. The lines were so long, the food monotonous. We'd eat the same things every day and only had three eggs a week, and no cheese or butter.
"We made a decision not to accept a foreigner ration book, and we demanded the Cuban ration book. We had our contradictions. We were petit bourgeois North Americans who always had everything they wanted. Robert was an intellectual North American man. He was pretty liberated. But when we started standing in lines and cleaning house, we struggled. We fought battles American women fought but in isolation."
"We were very integrated into the Cuban life. We belonged to the militia, the CDR (neighborhood groups) and I belonged to the Cuban Federation of Women. Our kids were in Cuban schools."
But for Margaret and Robert, the situation gradually worsened. "Our relationship was doomed from the beginning because of the age difference," she says."What that meant in terms of experience and because of my whole struggle for integrity as a woman . . . I had a couple of other relationship (he said he approved of) but then he'd get impotent for a year. We were great comrades, friends.But one of our problems was that he was not an exile. We were in Cuba, not because he had a problem but because I had a problem. He wanted to go back to the States. Your home is your home. We separated in December 1975. He left Cuba last June.
"Those years," recalls Randall, "Were years of maturing, not only of me as a person but especially my concept of me as a writer. I had to learn to fit my desire to be successful, well known, famous, and my desire to get my message across, how to fit this into service of the revolution without that meaning that I was just writing pamphlets."
"It was a struggle to maintain my integrity. And it was a very intense experience. What does it mean to write for The People?
"I feel one must take sides in a struggle. What is that terrible phrase in the bourgeois language, (I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' Well, I hate that. One has values in life and they are what they are." Antonio
Five years ago Margaret Randall met a Colombian revolutionary named Antonio Castro.
Now 37, he is the son of a Colombian peasant who moved to Venezuela and came to Cuba after having been involved in a revolutionary struggle in Venezuela, spending several years in prison, and was deported. He brought a friend with him, also in the struggle, who had been wounded by five bullets, and after years in the prison with no medical care at all was left totally paralyzed. Antonio is his sole caretaker and for this reason Antonio is unable to work full time. The Cuban government gives him 50 pesos a week which he must give to his Cuban wife (from whom he is divorced) and child.
He and Margaret began living together shortly after Robert left. They work together traveling around, giving workshops in Cuba, music and poetry. Antonio plays the guitar and sings, she reads poetry. She supports the six of them on $300 a month. Margaret
Margaret Randall has learned a lot in the seven years. One of the things she has come to understand is this: "It is very important not to be overly romantic about revolution. When I came to Cuba my first project was to do a book on Cuban women. I traveled all over the country for two years. The ideas and expectations I brought to the situation and project were formed by my middle-class background."
"One of the best things I did was to go to North Vietnam and see that there are mediocre people there like everywhere else.
"There is a tendency in capitalistic countries to think of revolution as a schematic thing, forgetting that revolutions are made by people and that there are a lot of contradictions.
"Well, there are a lot of problems here, underdevelopment, housing, education. The exciting thing is to see them make mistakes and try again. I love it so much more for being able to criticize it and see it for what it is. I love it so much I don't want people to be romantic about it."
She admits that she is probably more idealistic than the Cubans about the revolution, "but it's not being Cuban, it's not having been here, not being involved on a day-to-day basis.
"I think I've changed a tremendous amount," says Randall. "I feel like the last 10 years of my life I've grown up. Cuba has a tremendous proletarian effect on me. For the first time in my life I feel like one of the people. I can't tell whether the change is because I've been in Cuba or because I'm 40 years old."
Margaret Randall, by her own admission, is just coming out of the worst two years of her life. "Breaking up with Robert was real anguish. I couldn't write for eight months. I would wake up in the morning, say, now I'm going to get up, now I'm going to boil an egg and get through the day that way. I suppose I have been very very tired. I've felt very heavily the emotional responsibility of the kids. I've been very very f-up. I've felt divided in four different pieces. With not enough for myself. Now I'm beginning to feel energy, I'm ready to work again."
Antonio will not always be there to help here. He will go back to his homeland and take up his struggle soon.
For the last few years Margaret Randall has been involved in her own struggle to get her American citizenship back so she can return to her naive country.
"Here I don't worry if the kids are sick, if my asthma gets back, if Antonio has ulcers because we have free medical care. I don't worry about education, it's free and that's a source of happiness. You ask if I can be happy in a capitalistic society. Here I know my daughters can go out in the street without being raped, that my children will not have to face the risk of someone selling them morphine. Well, that kind of happiness can't be found in a capitalistic society.
"You ask if I would not be tempted to plant bombs to change the society. I've never planted bombs. That's not how you change things in the United States. But it would be a lie to say I would not work for social change."
She shrugs, a little embarrassed now at what she is about to say, a little apologetic for the obvious irony there.
"What I want out of life, is to contribute as much as possible to make a better world."
"What I can I say? I'm American. I want to go home."