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“She Led by Transgression”: Margaret Randall on Cuban Feminist Haydée Santamaría

Margaret Randall discusses her new book about legendary Cuban revolutionary feminist Haydee Santamaria Cuadrado.

(Image: Duke University Press)

The award-winning author and oral historian Margaret Randall first met Cuban revolutionary Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado in 1967 at a gathering of poets and critics held to celebrate Ruben Dario, the great Nicaraguan modernist.

“I was immediately attracted to her passion, to the way she looked everyone in the eye, really saw us, really listened,” Randall told me, adding that she met Santamaría again at the Havana Cultural Congress in 1968 and got to know her better after she went to live in Cuba in 1969. “She was always special to me. She seemed to embody the best of that human capital that had risked so much to change their nation’s future.”

Now Randall has released a new book, Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression. Beautifully crafted, comprehensive and emotionally riveting, the book illustrates with historical precision and emotional power the life and times of one of the great revolutionary figures of all time.

Randall herself is also an inspiring figure whose work I have been following since the late 1980s when I read her oral history, Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle, which had won praise from luminaries, such as Adrienne Rich and musicians, such as Holly Near.

Randall made international headlines when, after moving to Cuba in 1969 and marrying a Mexican citizen (and presumably giving up her US citizenship), she returned to the US in 1984 and was ordered deported under the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Opinions expressed in some of her books were judged to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.” She was defended by the Center for Constitutional Rights and was supported by numerous influential writers and artists. In 1989, she won her case for reinstatement of citizenship. In 1990, she was awarded the Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett grant for writers victimized by political repression. And in 2004, she was awarded PEN New Mexico’s Dorothy Doyle Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and Human Rights Activism. She lives with painter Barbara Byers, her companion of 30 years, in New Mexico. I recently spoke with Randall to talk about the legendary Cuban revolutionary, feminist and champion of the arts featured in her latest book. In this interview Randall reveals how one woman committed to revolutionary ideals can help to change the course of history.

Peter McLaren: Haydée Santamaría Cuadrado was one of the few revolutionaries who participated in all aspects of the revolution against Cuba’s reviled dictator, Fulgencio Batista. She was a revolutionary whose life embodied the phrase, “the duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution.” Why haven’t more people in North America heard about Haydée Santamaría? And what do you hope to accomplish with your book about her life?

Margaret Randall: Peter, your summary of my book about Haydée is a good one, and yet — just as with the book itself — Haydée Santamaría was such a brilliant and complex figure it is difficult to capture her in just a few paragraphs. I can only surmise that a non-Cuban readership has not previously heard more about her because she was a woman, because she was always self-effacing and, to some extent, because her suicide made her difficult for biographers to deal with, at least early on. With my book, I hope to bring her story to a much wider audience. The distance of time may also have made a deeper consideration possible. Not being afraid to look at the whole human being, I hope to have presented a more nuanced picture of her life. She was as important to the Cuban revolution and what it has given the world after the military phase of struggle as she was during that phase. The issues she had to grapple with as director of Casa de las Americas [a legendary organization known for cultivating sociocultural relations with countries from Latin America, the Caribbean and the rest of the world] are ones that continue to challenge us — inside Cuba and out — and I hope readers will learn from the innovative and honorable ways in which she dealt with those challenges. Most of all, though, I hope my book will allow more people insight into a beautifully relevant human being.

There existed a repressive period of time that Cubans today have variously described as the Quinquenio Gris (the gray years between 1971-1976), La Hora de Los Chacales (the time of the jackals) or the Decenio Negro (10 black years from 1971-1981). For instance, the University of Havana’s philosophy department was shut down and the magazine Pensamiento Critico was closed. You write how Haydée managed to rescue artists, such as singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, from reeducation camps set up during this time by party militants. And as you note, Haydée protected and promoted members of La Nueva Trova and other marginalized artists, writers and musicians who were sometimes victimized by party functionaries under the influence of Soviet communism. In your opinion, how did Haydée sustain her belief in the revolution during these tremendously difficult times in Cuba when some people on the left were abandoning Cuba as a repressive Stalinist state? Public discussion of these years didn’t really begin until 2007.

For Haydée, changing society, making it more just and equitable, was always paramount. No one who left the country or abandoned the revolutionary project could have shaken her faith. Some of those departures were disappointments to her, because loyalty was something she favored above all else. But she was always clear in terms of the project and those working in it. She was one of those people who believed in working for change from the inside. And the way she herself exercised power, the model she created at Casa de las Americas, was something we would do well to emulate today.

Haydée lived only long enough to experience the beginnings of the Quinquenio Gris. Had she lived longer, I am confident she would have contributed to bringing it to an end sooner. And I am more than confident that she would have made sure that public discussion of its ills happened long before 2007.

Haydée was very much a feminist in a very patriarchal society. In your book, Haydée’s feminist politics appear very much entwined in her belief that “culture is the highest form of politics.” Can you comment?

Haydée’s feminism was one of her most interesting qualities. Bear in mind that she was born in the early years of the 20th century and died in 1980, when feminism as a philosophy had not yet taken hold in Cuba. She was also not someone who got her politics from books…. She simply believed in justice — for everyone. Without putting labels on her ideas or actions, she just naturally saw people and situations, saw what was needed. My book is filled with anecdotes and stories about the ways in which she lived these convictions.

Today, you describe Casa de las Americas as embodying the legacy of Haydée in its “attention to detail, democratic and horizontal working relationships,” as well as a staff consisting of majority women, lesbians and gay men, people of color and people from many different backgrounds who are experts in their fields contributing mightily to today’s work at the institution. You knew Haydée Santamaría personally, and you contributed to the life of Casa, even serving as a judge in a poetry competition there. You also spent time living and producing your art in Cuba during formative years in the country’s development of a revolutionary society. You experienced attempts by the US to build not only an economic blockade, but as you note in your book, a cultural blockade against the revolution. Can you speak to your time living in Cuba and how you came to choose Haydée Santamaría as the topic of your latest work? To what extent did she influence your own writing?

Up to and following her death, I wanted to write about her. And I did, in different ways. Several of my earlier books have shorter pieces with her as protagonist. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to go deeper, present her life more fully. As the years passed, I began to think I had missed the opportunity to write the book I wanted. But my partner began insisting it was “now or never.” I realized she was right. So, in 2013 I spent some time in Cuba doing the necessary fieldwork. And I was finally able to produce the book that had been developing within me.

I first visited Cuba in 1987 at the invitation of my mentor, Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire. I was already familiar with your 1981 book, Sandino’s Daughters, which you updated in 1994. I have visited Cuba numerous times since 1987, but have never apprised myself of the opportunity to learn more about HaydéeSantamaría — until your book, released last year. What has been the reception to your book so far?

The reception to my book has been very positive — overwhelming, in fact. Along with Sandino’s Daughters, my early book about the Sandinista women of Nicaragua, it may well turn out to be among my most successful. Readers and listeners seem to respond to the combination of history and personal story. Usually, a year or two after a book comes out, interest in it subsides. But with Haydée, I continue to receive invitations to read and discuss it, continue to get letters commenting on it, even inquiries about translating and publishing it in other languages.

In your opinion, is there an ideological disjunction between the younger generation in Cuba, who are witnessing an opening up of the government towards more provisions for personalized entrepreneurship and a thawing of relationships with the United States, and the older generation of workers, artists and intellectuals who are perhaps more likely to view individuals as part of a collective in which the interests of individuals are coincidental with the best interests of society itself, a society connected by a multitude of social, cultural and historical ties and whose appreciation of the revolutionary past still serves to guide their lives?

Yes, I do see that disjuncture. And it’s only logical. The older generation knew what life in Cuba was like before the revolution of 1959. For the younger [generation], it is only a story, told by parents or grandparents. The world has changed, very fast in many ways, and the US blockade against Cuba has kept life on the island quite isolated and separate. It is natural that younger Cubans want to connect with the outside world, travel, etc. And it is also natural that many older Cubans are exhausted by a half century of scarcity and struggle. I think many younger Cubans also feel it is time that the older generation relinquish control of politics in the country and give them a chance to find their own solutions or make their own mistakes.

With the December 2014 reestablishment of diplomatic relations, it is to be hoped that the blockade will eventually also be lifted. Raul Castro, since assuming the Cuban presidency in 2008, has himself removed many of the obstacles to Cubans connecting with the rest of the world. Much on the island is experiencing change, some of it very fast and all of it extremely complex. It will be for the Cubans themselves to decide what kind of a society they want now, how hard they will fight to retain some of the revolution’s enormous achievements (universal health care and education, etc.) and what risks they are willing to take. A truly nurturing society must find ways to combine individual freedom with the collective good.

You reproduce part of Haydée’s 1977 letter to Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal. As a guest on “Alo Presidente,” a Venezuelan television show hosted by the late President Hugo Chavez, I listened to Ernesto give an eloquent speech about Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. My sense is that Haydée would have shared Ernesto’s enthusiasm for President Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Do you agree?

I am sure Haydée would have shared the enthusiasm for Chavez as a liberator of his people; she found all liberators interesting and worthy of support. I think she might also have been wary of some of his male rhetoric. I know she would have been angered by US interference in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Haydée was bolivariano in the deepest sense of that word. She believed in the liberation of Latin America that Che [Guevara] and so many others fought and died for. At the same time, her feminist sensibility might have made her watchful and cautious when faced with the sweeping pronouncements of powerful men.

Your own life embodies indomitable and courageous revolutionary ideals. You were influenced by the beat poets early in your life, you participated in 1968 in Mexico’s student movement, lived in Nicaragua from 1980-1984, visited North Vietnam in 1974. You’ve published over a hundred books, founded or cofounded and edited very influential international literary journals, and have yourself been the target of political repression. You have won major awards for your writing and human rights activism and your work continues to influence young people who are searching for ways to live courageously, seeking justice, even if this means living dangerously. An hour-long documentary about your life is called The Unapologetic Life of Margaret Randall. I like that title. What projects are you currently engaged in? And what projects are you planning for the future?

I don’t think of my life as having been courageous so much as my having been at the right place at the right time. I sought out the front lines in both art and social change, and was fortunate to find myself on those front lines from time to time, and to have survived. I am closing in on 80 now, so I am not as physically active as I once was. But I am still writing a great deal, and have a number of new books just out or appearing soon. The most recent collection of my own poems, She Becomes Time, appeared from Wings Press in June. Around the same time, Talking Stick was published by Igneo in Miami. The latter is a collection of interviews and conversations with me done by a variety of people over a 30-year period. In October, Duke University Press — the same publisher that brought out my book about Haydée — will release Only the Road/Solo el Camino, a large bilingual anthology of eight decades of Cuban poetry. I selected the 56 poets, from those living in the diaspora as well as on the island, did all the translations, and wrote the lengthy introduction and notes. At this time, when Cuba is so much in the news but not always in the most realistic way, I hope that book will give a sense of the country through the sensibilities of its poets. Working on that project also led to my translating four books by individual Cuban poets; these will appear from different US publishers in the coming months. And finally, I recently finished a book about Cuban internationalism, Exporting Revolution: Cuba’s Global Solidarity, which Duke will bring out in the spring of 2017. So I haven’t slowed down. Not yet.

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