Revolutionary Transgressions: an Interview With Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall is a poet, essayist, oral historian, translator, photographer and social activist who was born and raised in New York City. She lived in Latin America for 23 years. In México from 1962 to 1969, she and Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón co-edited El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn, a bilingual literary quarterly that published some of the best new work of the sixties. She lived and worked in Cuba 1969 to 1981, then in Nicaragua until she returned to the United States in 1984, settling in Albuquerque. She spent the rest of the 1980s fighting a US government deportation order, because it found some of her writing to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.” With the support of many writers and others, she won her case in 1989. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, she taught at several universities, most often Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Randall’s most recent poetry titles include My Town, As if the Empty Chair/Como si la silla vacía; The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones; Daughter of Lady Jaguar Shark; and About Little Charlie Lindbergh, all from Wings Press in San Antonio. Two of her most recent books are from Duke Press: Che on My Mind (2013), which she calls a feminist poet’s reminiscence of Che Guevara, and Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression, published in 2015.

Margaret Randall lives in New Mexico with her partner (now wife) of 29 years, the painter Barbara Byers, and travels extensively to read, lecture and teach.

In this interview, Randall talks about her new book on Haydée Santamaría, about Che, about feminism, about her years living and raising her children in Cuba, about the draconian US immigration policies she experienced, and about the possible future of Cuba free of US boycott.

RDO: Why did you decide to write a book on Haydée Santamaría?

MR: I don’t think I decided to write about Haydée. She has long been there, in the wings, waiting as it were for me to take her on. I met Haydée on my first visit to Cuba, in January of 1967. Casa de las Américas, the cultural institution she headed, invited a number of poets from different countries to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the great Nicaraguan modernist, Rubén Darío. The event was called “Encuentro con Rubén Darío” (Meeting with Ruben Dario, in English), and many years later, when the US government was trying to deport me because of ideas expressed in some of my books, during my deportation hearing the prosecuting attorney accused me of “having traveled to Cuba in 1967 to meet with Ruben Dario”–who of course had been dead for many years. Haydée impressed me as much as anyone or any thing on that first visit. She was a country woman with a sixth-grade education, who nevertheless was the only woman who had taken part in every phase of the revolutionary struggle. Upon victory, and despite not having studied art history or having earned any university degree, she was charged with founding and running an institution that would cut through the cultural part of the many-pronged blockade being launched even then by the United States. She quickly made Casa into an institution respected throughout the world, one that brought artists, writers, thinkers and others to Cuba, and made Cuban art and writing known beyond the country’s borders. Haydée was a visionary. And it wasn’t only how she created cultural bridges that was so astonishing; she ran Casa in a highly unusual, absolutely horizontal way. For Haydée, inclusion was paramount. During sad periods of repression, she protected gay artists and writers, giving them a place to work and space to create. I was immediately attracted to her energy, her openness, her brilliance. I returned to Cuba, to attend the Cultural Congress of Havana, in January of 1968. On that visit I deepened my relationship with Haydée. And when my family and I went to live in Cuba, at the end of 1969, our friendship continued. I remember her once spontaneously telling me: “Get in the car” and driving me out to her home. She led me upstairs to her bedroom, opened her closet door, and showed me a collage of children’s faces there. Immediately I saw the faces of my own four children, in a couple of snapshots I had sent her the year before. I was incredibly moved to see those snapshots inside her closet. I started suffering from asthma in Cuba, and Haydée had suffered from the disease most of her life. That was something else that brought us together.

These few personal anecdotes only scratch the surface. My book is filled with many more–and also with the much more important story of Haydée’s life, her struggle, profound losses, creativity and the enormous energy she expended on changing society. For me, personally, she was a friend and mentor. In the larger world, she was probably those things for many… perhaps almost everyone who had the privilege of knowing her.

When I finally realized it was “now or never” with regard to the book, I sent a proposal to my editor at Duke University Press. She loved the idea and encouraged me. I went to Cuba in 2014 to do the necessary fieldwork. The Cubans were immensely generous. They opened their archives, arranged interviews with family members and work colleagues, made it possible for me to go to the sugar plantation in the middle of the island where Haydée was born and spent her first years. They made hundreds of photographs available, gave me films and videos… in short, were forthcoming in every way.

The book I wrote is mine, my interpretation of Haydée’s life and dramatic death by suicide. I am sure all those of us who were privileged to know Haydée has his or her own version of her life and death. I hope mine will be a contribution toward understanding a complex and astonishing woman.

RDO: Death by suicide can cast a shadow over the life well-lived; however you don’t frame Haydée’s life in the context of ultimate suicide. Was that difficult coming to terms with?

MR: Not at all. Because I knew Haydée, knew the people she worked with, knew her life over many years, her suicide never cast a shadow over her life for me. It was tragic, yes. And shocking for those who knew her as exuberant, playful, possessed of an enormous energy, the energy that made it possible for her to take such an important role in so many phases of revolutionary struggle, to found and for 20 years run one of the most exciting arts institutions on the Continent, raise two biological children and many more orphaned by the Latin American wars of the 1960s-’80s, and never stop fighting for what she believed in, no matter the circumstances. To those who didn’t know her well, Haydée managed to hide her deep depression, a depression that plagued her at least since the loss of her brother and her partner at Moncada. Those who did know her well, understood the energy it often took for her simply to get out of bed in the morning.

Sadly, Haydée’s suicide did cast a shadow over her life for the Cuban Revolution as an institution. Like Catholics, whose lives belong to God, the lives of Communists belong to the Party. This was the way suicide was seen (condemned) in 1980 Cuba. And depression was little understood as well. Many felt they could only explain Haydée’s fatal decision by believing she must have been mad in her final moments. And even then, the fact that she took her life precluded the Revolution taking its leave of her as they would have another comrade with a similar history. Instead of laying her body out and mourning it in the Plaza of the Revolution, her wake was held at a commercial funeral parlor. I was there, along with perhaps 3,000 others. It was a time of grief and there was also an edge of confusion, even anger in that somber hall. Those who loved her could not understand why she had not been accorded full revolutionary honors. But the next morning thousands followed her casket on its slow journey to the cemetery. The people were showing their affection.

In every interview I did for my book, I asked the interviewee what he or she thought about Haydée’s suicide. Most explained it through the idea of momentary madness. I disagree. For me, Haydée simply could not live any longer. Her ghosts were too present, the business of living too painful. For me, her suicide was a final act of freedom. I believe she knew her work was done, and that she could leave confident in the will of others to carry it forward. And they have. What she created at Casa de las Americas remains: the horizontal structure, the respect for difference, the inclusiveness, and the knowledge that art is the highest form of social change. Walking through the building’s broad doors, those who knew Haydée feel her presence. Those who only know her story, or may not even have heard it, feel something different: a true space of freedom and creativity.

RDO: This was a difficult time for the Cuban Revolution, Haydée’s suicide right in the middle of the 6 months–April to October, 1980–exodus of tens of thousand of Cubans to the United States, the so-called “Mariel boat lift.” During the second half of July 1980, I was in Copenhagen at the second United Nations’ World Conference on Women, having been one of the organizers of the parallel non-governmental conference. My hotel roommate was a young Cuban woman, a member of the Cuban delegation staying in that hotel. She was devastated that her own brother, a lawyer, had left. Then, the news came of Haydée’s suicide. There was a delegation of thirty or so Cuban women at the conference, and they were in shock and thought it might have to do with Mariel. Do you think there was a connection?

MR: When someone commits suicide, people always wonder why. What may have been the tipping point? Could I have done something? It was no different in Haydée’s case, perhaps more intense in fact because she was such a well-known and beloved figure. You are right, the Mariel exodus of 125,000 Cubans began just prior to Haydée’s death, and I am sure she found it unsettling. She must have wondered why the Revolution couldn’t have made a better life for those who felt the need to leave. But other important events–personal as well as public–also affected Haydée around that time. Her dear friend Celia Sánchez died of cancer in January of 1980. Many said that Celia, because of her own history, was the only woman who really understood Haydée and could lift her up when she was down. Haydée’s husband, Armando Hart, also left her after twenty years of marriage, and he did so in a particularly painful way when she was traveling. And she had also suffered a serious automobile accident several months before. So, there were many different things that could have contributed to her decision. With all of them, I still tend to believe that she was tired of living or, better said, could not continue to live. Her losses–at Moncada and of other comrades later, including Ché Guevara, who had been murdered in Bolivia at the end of 1967, all weighed heavily on her. I explore all these possibilities in the book. I transcribe a particular conversation a friend of mine overheard two days before Haydée’s death, which I believe explains a lot. But I won’t give that away here, because I want people to read the book.

RDO: Let’s go back to the Cuban revolutionary movement in the 1950s; as we are well aware, women’s liberation and feminism were not on the agenda of social movements and revolutionary movements during that time. How is it that Haydée and the other revolutionary Cuban women were able to be an essential element of that movement and the ultimate victory? 

MR: This is a complex question. I address it in the book. Not only were the 1950s a particularly restrictive time for women in general, they were even more so for someone like Haydée who came from a rural environment in which women were expected to marry, have children, or become “spinsters” who did charitable work in their communities. Those were basically the options open to them. One of the first questions I asked, when I went to Cuba to do my fieldwork, was why a woman as brilliant as Haydée had not gone on to middle or high school… or university. I can only say that Haydée was exceptional. She felt suffocated in her childhood environment, and was determined to escape it. Her younger brother Abel, to whom she was always very close, understood her anguish, and when he went to Havana to live in the early 1950s, he quickly called for her to come too. Several books and articles have assumed that he wanted her there to cook and clean for him. I don’t think so. I believe he knew what she was facing and wanted to give her the opportunity to be involved in the revolutionary movement he was discovering. Although there were few women in that movement at the beginning, there were some. Haydée and Melba Hernandez were the only two who participated in the attack on Moncada Garrison, but others were involved in other ways. Once Haydée had experienced battle, there was no stopping her. She hated violence, but was determined to see the struggle through to victory. In prison, in the underground, in the mountains, and outside the country when she went to the United States to buy weaponry from the Mafia, she often used what we used to call “feminine wiles” to pass unobserved or do what she needed to do. On more than one occasion she also said that although she was a very forward-thinking woman for her time, she felt that she had to be careful not to act in a way that might reflect negatively on the movement–there were so many prejudices around how women were supposed to dress, speak, act.

As the revolutionary struggle continued through that decade, more and more women took part. As you know, the Cuban Revolution did a lot for women, in terms of education, jobs, equal pay for equal work, healthcare, and more. It could have done more if it had been willing to look at power as a political category and done a gender analysis of Cuban society. They are beginning to do this now, but they lost a lot of time. In my opinion, Haydée was a feminist before the word was spoken in Cuba. She had a natural sense of justice that embraced all groups and individuals. She railed against gendered language. On several occasions she went to Central Committee Communist Party meetings dressed as a man, to protest the male chauvinism she saw. Had she lived longer, I have no doubt she would have embraced the most sophisticated feminist ideas.

RDO: Your prior book with Duke University Press was Ché on My Mind. Talk a bit about Che in the Cuban Revolution and how did Haydée relate to him.

MR: Che was, of course, a major figure in the Cuban Revolution. In fact, he was the figure that most profoundly shaped my generation of social change activists. There has been so much talk about Ché over the years in terms of his relationship with Fidel… Was there a conflict between the two men? Was there room for both in the Cuban Revolution? Why did Che go to Bolivia, to a spot so poorly chosen for guerrilla warfare? Was Fidel glad or sorry to see him go? And so forth.

My book pays attention to those dramatic–but in my mind ultimately secondary—questions, and I do come down on one side or another on most of the major issues. But I am much more interested in probing Che’s mind, his ethical stance, which is where I believe his great contribution lies. Che on My Mind is really a series of meditations: poetic and feminist in nature. One of them is about Che and Haydée.

I think they were astonishingly alike, although on the surface they couldn’t have seemed more different. Both were romantics whose dream of continental liberation was paramount in their lives. In fact, Haydée always said that Che promised to take her with him when he went on to other lands, and she did not forgive him the fact that he didn’t. They were close friends. They shared a certain “purity” if you will, an absolute commitment to revolutionary values that seemed rigid to many. And both lived their ideas fully.

I think Che’s death in Bolivia affected Haydée profoundly. It may even have been one of the things that made her realize she could not live any longer.

Both books, Che on My Mind and Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression have long passages about both revolutionaries. Of course Che is known in every corner of the world, while Haydée–being a woman–is known almost nowhere outside Cuba.

I hope my books remedy that to some small degree.

RDO: In this same period that you were friends with Haydée, the 1970s, you were a single mother of four children living and working in Cuba; as such, how did you experience Cuban society during that time?

MR: I wasn’t really a single mother by then. I was living with Robert Cohen, a US American poet who was the father of my fourth child, my daughter Ana. He assumed the joy and responsibility of fathering the other three as well. And Sergio Mondragón, who was Sarah and Ximena’s father, also loved all the kids. He came to Cuba a couple of times during that decade, to visit them.

But in some ways you are right. I had given birth to my oldest, my son Gregory, on my own in New York in 1960. He came with me to Mexico, where we lived in the 1960s, during which time he accepted Sergio as his father, and later also Robert. (Gregory’s biological father, with whom he would develop a relationship later in life and one that lasted until his progenitor died, was the US poet Joel Oppenheimer.) So I was certainly the “constant” in my children’s lives.

Your question is particularly interesting in the context of parental roles among revolutionaries of the era. We were all deeply involved in trying to create a new society, one that would be more just in terms of national independence, class and race relations, and–at least in our discourse–also as regarded gender. This was long before LGBTQ issues were raised, of course. Gender was raised, but as I say, more in discourse than in our day to day lives.

But I discovered feminism in Mexico, at the end of my time there, when the first articles from US and European feminists began to appear. One of those was your own, Roxanne, “Motherhood: Fragments of an Autobiography,” and I included it along with other texts in a small book I prepared for Siglo XXI Editores, called Las mujeres. Feminism wasn’t academic theory to me, but something to be lived. I needed it.

And so, when I got to Cuba at the end of 1969 I was already trying to incorporate feminist values into my family life. This meant that my mothering was circumscribed in two ways: as a revolutionary involved in trying to make the world a better place for all children, and as a feminist who demanded from my partner equal involvement in household tasks, and wanted to imbue my children with those values as well–my son as well as my daughters.

The Cuban Revolution, on the other hand, although promoting change in many important areas, rejected feminism as bourgeois and as being against the unity of the working class. Additionally, Cuban society was still quite old-fashioned when it came to how male and female children were raised. So I experienced quite a bit of conflict in terms of my ideas and goals. I gave my children much more freedom than most Cuban children had, something looked down upon by other parents. Their father and I sent them to boarding school, because we believed it was the most revolutionary education and of course it allowed us to work long hours. In retrospect I believe we put them in those schools much too young, and a couple of them still resent it. I can remember discussions with neighbors, in which I was all but termed “an unnatural mother” because of some of my ideas.

Having said all this, to answer your question more directly I experienced Cuban society as exhilarating, exciting, and amazing. I loved being part of a project that was making itself from the inside out. I felt privileged to be living in a place where real equality seemed to be the collective goal. I thrilled to meetings in which drafts of new law were discussed, and my neighbors or colleagues and I could have input into those laws. I also felt privileged, especially as a mother, to live in a society that saw health and education as basic human rights, and that was developing an outstanding system of universal health care that freed me from worry when my children were ill. One of my daughters, Ximena, came to Cuba with a serious ear infection. She had had it almost from birth. An operation that would have cost thousands in Mexico and tens of thousands in the United States dealt with her problem successfully and without any cost to us. My children got good educations for the time. Two of them finished their undergraduate university degrees in Cuba, and when my son went on to Paris and studied for his Ph.D, his professors were impressed with the depth of his knowledge.

The issue of how revolutionary parents may have failed our own children is still with me to some degree. And it is with many others, especially women (who always seemed to be expected to do more than the men). A number of important books have been written by some of the children who grew up in such environments. One of them is Every Secret Thing, by Giliam Slovo (South African revolutionaries Ruth First and Joe Slovo’s daughter).

I think about these things, of course, even today. But all in all, I think we revolutionaries of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s gave our children love and a sterling set of values.

RDO: The second half of the 1970s was a time of developing revolutions in Nicaragua and El Salvador culminating in the Sandinista victory in 1979. Had Haydée and Casa de las Americas and you worked with Central American revolutionary writers and artists?

MR: Yes, very much so. And I would say that in large measure the fact that I had so many contacts with Central American writers and artists was because Haydée, and Casa, brought them to Cuba. Although I will also say that I knew a number of important Central American revolutionary writers and artists from my time in Mexico, prior to my arrival on the Island. Through El Corno Emplumado, the bilingual literary journal I co-founded and co-edited for eight years in Mexico, I came to know many of them and their work. For example, the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, who would later be the Sandinistas’ first Minister of Culture (and with whom I would work my first year in Nicaragua) was someone I met through El Corno. He published in our first issue (1962). I also met Salvadoran Roque Dalton in Mexico, when he appeared at our International Gathering of Poets there in February 1964. In Mexico I already knew of the work of Guatemalan Otto-Rene Castillo, who had just been murdered in the jungles of his country. I translated a book of his poems, Let’s Go, Country, which came out a couple of years later in London (from Cape Goliard). Mexico had a long history of giving refuge to political exiles, and there were many in that country during the 1960s and 1970s. Miguel Donoso Pareja from Ecuador was another good friend who, incidentally, recently died back in the country of his birth.

Once I moved to Cuba, of course, I met many more of the brave men and women fighting for the liberation of their countries… both Central Americans and those from other parts of the continent. And many of them were writers or artists. Manlio Argueta became a good friend. Juan Gelman and Eduardo Galeano were frequent visitors to our home. And we knew many of the Sandinistas, including Doris Tijerino, with whom I wrote a book in 1975. (The United Nations had named 1975 The International Year of the Woman, and I did the book with Doris hoping to bring attention, through the life of a single woman combatant, to the Sandinista struggle about which few in the US then knew.)

The list of names is a long one, and if I try to complete it I’m sure I will only succeed in leaving many out. Casa de las Américas was, in fact, largely staffed by Central and South American artists and writers fleeing repression in their countries. The Guatemalan Manuel Galich was a founding member; when I got to Cuba he headed Casa’s theater section. Galich had been a member of Jacobo Arbenz’s short-lived cabinet. Mario Benedetti, Carlos María Gutiérrez and Eduardo Galeano of Uruguay, René Depestre of Haiti, and Roque Dalton of El Salvador were all members of Casa’s advisory committee. Depending upon how long each of these writers had to stay in Cuba, they might hold positions at the institution.

Additionally, Casa always featured visits and traveling shows from Latin American artists and writers, photographers, sculptors, and theater people. All these events were free, and we got a great education in the continent’s artistic tendencies by attending those shows and lectures or performances. During my years in Cuba, frequent visitors to Casa included Gabriel García Márquez, Laurette Séjourné, Roberto Matta, María Esther Gilio and others.

All of the above meant that my life continued to open to the influences of what was going on in the arts in the southern part of the Western Hemisphere. It was such a rich time. I owe my broad perspective to Haydée, and those like her, who battled every obstacle to break through the cultural blockade that the United States worked so hard to erect. The US waged its war with money and arms. Cuba, Haydée, Casa, et al waged theirs with passion, outreach, and enormous hard work.

RDO: That certainly was my strong impression of Cuba when I first visited in 1970, as it seemed the whole world was, or the best of the whole world either had been or was or would be in Cuba, so cosmopolitan and international. In your recent trips to Cuba, do you find that some of this political and cultural vibrancy has survived the past 25 years of continued US sanctions along with the loss of economic assistance from the socialist bloc countries?

MR: That’s a good question, because obviously a great deal has changed: due to the US blockade, the implosion of the Socialist Bloc, the wear and tear of time. But Cuba continues to be culturally vibrant against all odds.

And this is not only because many of the world’s most exciting artists and writers and others continue to visit and perform and show there, but because Cubans themselves have developed a cultural vibrancy, based on a creative exuberance that predates the Revolution but that the Revolution has been able to nurture and promote. In Cuba there are a whole series of “cultural hot spots.” These include, but are not limited to, Casa de las Américas, UNEAC (the Artists and Writers Union), ICAIC (the film industry headquarters), Vigía (a publishing collective in Matanzas) and other provincial endeavors, more museums than any country its size can be expected to have, great theaters, parks, and other cultural spaces. Cubans love to sing, dance, play music, revel in the yearly carnival (which is also the scene of tremendous creativity, with traditional neighborhood comparsas and richly costumed participants). Cubans link culture and revolution, art and revolution, creativity and revolution… which is why I think they will always possess a tremendous cultural vibrancy.

In using the words cosmopolitan and international, you’re signaling something important. One of the great things the Cuban Revolution has done, is making Cubans aware of the rest of the world, and its place in that world.

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have gone and continue to go on internationalist missions to places around the globe that need their services, where terrible natural disasters have taken place or pandemics threaten the very survival of their societies. The Cuban internationalists returning from those places bring with them an appreciation for other cultures, other music, other dances, other languages and literature. This too contributes to the cosmopolitan nature of a very small island in the middle of the Caribbean.

RDO: One continuing historical issue, derived, not just in Cuba, but the whole western hemisphere under European and Euroamerican colonialism, is the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and nearly 4 centuries of chattel slavery, with Cuba as one of the longest lasting slave colonies. In light of Cuba’s majority Afro-Cuban population, why are Cuban political, military, and cultural institutions dominated by Euro-Cubans? What were Haydée’s views on the problem of racial discrimination, and how did you deal with it while living there? 

MR: I believe Haydée was utterly devoid of racism. At least that is what I felt from seeing her in public and private, observing the racial integration of Casa, which had many more Afro-Cubans than most other Cuban institutions, and by reading her comments on the issue. In Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression, I quote her reminiscences in this regard: her memories of playing with Black children on the sugar plantation on which she grew up, and how that led people to accuse her of “communism” and so forth. In my book I go into some detail about Haydée’s innate sense of justice, which led her to take an advanced position–in actions as well as words–on all such issues: race, class, gender, even her inclusionary attitude toward gay Cubans (something not talked about openly at the time).

There are many differences of opinion regarding Cuba’s racial makeup. Some consider the population majority Afro-Cuban, as you do. Certain scholars say Afro-Cubans make up as little as 12% of the population. In the United States any Black blood identifies a person as Black. But in Cuba, long before the Revolution came to power, Cubans identified as Black, White and Mulatto, with separate social clubs for each group. This also contributes to the difficulty in establishing a precise statistic.

In 1975, when Cuba decided to send troops to Angola, Fidel spoke passionately of Cuba as a country built by African slaves, and that fighting in Africa would be a way of paying that old debt. It might be argued that this was official rhetoric, but I don’t think so. Three hundred thirty thousand Cubans fought in Angola alone, and more than 2,000 died there. Hundreds fought in other Black African countries. I witnessed the frustration of many who volunteered to go and were rejected because they didn’t have the physical or psychological qualities needed. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Cuban campaign in Angola, named “Carlota” after a slave who had rebelled at the Triunvirato sugar mill in Matanzas province in 1843, was genuine and meant a great deal to everyone involved.

Having said all this, it is absolutely true that the Cuban Revolution has done far less than it should have in dealing with racism. You are right: Cuban institutions still LOOK overwhelmingly White, whatever the true percentages may be. This is shameful by any standard. Racism still exists in Cuba, and so does colorism.

There are pockets within the Cuban Revolution that have always seemed to me to be particularly revolutionary–as I understand that word. That is to say, more inclusive, more outspoken, more creative, more of a reflection of what we all hope the new man and new woman will be. Casa was, and remains, such a place, and this is Haydée’s legacy. But there are others.

Still, the nation as a whole has a lot of catching up to do. Cubans of color have begun to discuss this problem openly, something that didn’t happen when I lived in Cuba in the 1970s. This leadership on the part of Afro-Cubans themselves, will be important I think, in achieving progress in this area.

On the other hand, Cuba’s current economic problems, and the big changes it is going through as a result of US world hegemony and the renewal of diplomatic relations with the United States, may diminish these struggles, or at least continue to push them into the background for awhile.

RDO: During the 1980s, the United States welcomed Cubans and Nicaraguans who left their countries as political refugees, while the terrorized populations of El Salvador and Guatemala, US allies making war on their peoples’ demands for democracy, were blocked from immigration. US government manipulation of political refugee status and immigration continues today. Tell about your immigration case.

MR: The case is narrated in detail in my book, Coming Back to the USA: Peace without Complacency, published by West End Press. My immigration case was 1985 to the end of 1989. I returned to the US in 1984, hoping to get a green card and then reapply for citizenship. I had inadvertently lost my US citizenship in 1967 when, for purely economic reasons, I had taken out Mexican citizenship. I was married to a Mexican at the time, living in Mexico, with three young children, and my husband never had much work. I knew Mexican citizenship would make it easier for me to find a job. I told the people at the US consulate that I did not want to lose my US citizenship, but they said I already had. In those days you could not have dual citizenship–though actually that was just beginning to change.  So my predicament all those years later came because I had lost my US citizenship and had to reapply for it. But of course in the interim I had written a number of books, some of them containing opinions opposed to US policy in Vietnam and Central America. When I was called in to the immigration office in Albuquerque to be interviewed regarding my application, I found myself in a small room with a large table on which seven of my books were opened to different passages, all of which were underlined in yellow magic marker. I answered all questions honestly. I believed I had a right to my opinions, whether or not they coincided with US government policy. Furthermore, they were opinions shared by millions of US Americans. After that interview, though, it was obvious it wasn’t going to be a smooth ride. It was then that the Center for Constitutional Rights agreed to defend me. In October of 1985 I received a response to my request for residency from the INS. It told me my request was denied, and gave me 28 days to leave the country. I opted to stay and fight.

I was charged under the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, a law that had been passed by Congress over President Truman’s veto. McCarran-Walter at the time listed 34 reasons why a person could be denied entrance into the US: these included being a member of a Communist, Socialist or Anarchist Party (being a member of a Fascist Party was not grounds for exclusion), having “meaningful association” with members of such parties, being mentally ill, being gay. This latter was an issue for me, because I actually came out to myself as a lesbian right in the middle of my case, and began living with Barbara soon thereafter. The McCarran-Walter clause under which I was charged was popularly referred to as “the ideological exclusion” clause. My deportation order stated that my work was found to be “against the good order and happiness of the United States.”

As you may remember, I had a great deal of support from many quarters: writers, artists, public intellectuals, academia, and lots of just plain ordinary people who respect freedom of opinion and dissent. CCR helped me establish some 25 defense committees across the country, that held raffles, house parties, did direct mail campaigns, had bowl-a-thons, speak-ins and so forth to raise the money needed for my defense. All in all, it cost a quarter of a million dollars to defend me, not to mention our taxpayer’s money the government spent on its prosecution. I received hundreds and hundreds of donations, ranging from $5 to $5,000. I personally answered every one of them.

I also traveled back and forth across the country during those almost five years, appearing on TV shows such as USA Today, Nightline, and so forth. I was working full time, trying to bury the PTSD I had brought home with me from the war in Nicaragua, living without my children for the first time, and fighting my case. I had also discovered that my maternal grandfather incested me when I was an infant. And of course I had come out as a lesbian. Nevertheless, I continued to write–a number of books–and I always felt it was a privilege to fight for my right to remain in this country because I knew how many thousands of immigrants were being thrown out without the support I enjoyed.

My first trial was in the spring of 1986, at the immigration court in El Paso, Texas. That trial lasted four days. Many people came to support me in the courtroom, including some of the survivors of the 1954 Salt of the Earth Strike (who lived in nearby Bayard, New Mexico), Adrienne Rich, Jules Lobel and others. My lawyers–Michael Ratner, David Cole and Michael Maggio–were fantastic. But we lost. Then the case wended its way up the ladder from one court to another. I kept on losing. But then, in August of 1989, very unexpectedly, I won. The Court of Immigration Appeals in Washington DC rendered a 3-2 decision in my favor, restoring my citizenship at the same time as awarding me residency. Five years had passed. I was happy that my case could set a precedent for subsequent immigration struggles. But of course US immigration law remains outrageously unjust, as we know. Today the boogyman (or woman) is no longer a Communist but a Muslim.

RDO: Your concern about growing US American corporate and cultural presence in Cuba as relations between the two countries are normalized brings me to my final question: What other concerns do you have about this future, and can you suggest how the longtime Cuban support apparatus in the US might play a role if any?

MR: You know, Roxanne, I have a lot of concerns about Cuba… although not necessarily those that others express. Some analysts are afraid of US influence, and influence by the Cuban exile community–both economic and cultural. I see this influence as pretty much inevitable, as Cuba moves toward an economy with a greater market input. But I have a lot of confidence in the Cuban Revolution being able to retain its greatest achievements, or at least to do so to a large degree: universal healthcare, free education, greater equality in access to work and in working conditions, respect for other countries, and the internationalist solidarity for which the Revolution is known.

Things change. For example, whereas Cuban doctors and teachers once worked without being paid by the countries that received them, today they still do in cases of natural disasters or when the receptor nation is very poor, but when a country can afford to pay for these services, it does. Cuban professionals are greatly sought after around the world, for their expertise, dedication and sense of sacrifice. They no longer go everywhere for free, but the spirit of their collaboration remains the same. So this is an example of how some things have changed with the times, but essentially remained the same.

Here in the United States, because of the way information (and misinformation) about Cuba has been given in the press for so many decades, people have a tendency to put too much emphasis on the United States and not enough on Cuba. I even see this on the Left. Many people simply assume that the US will be calling the shots and our government will determine what happens next in terms of the opening begun on December 17, 2014. I tend to put more stock in Cuba. I believe the Revolution will have to make some concessions, but that it will choose them carefully; and that it won’t give in on questions of principle. For example, I believe the Revolution will be careful about US companies once again wielding inordinate power with regard to business in Cuba. I don’t believe that Cuba will give up political refugees such as Assata Shakur.

I do believe that our longtime Cuban support apparatus has an important role to play. It played a big role in helping get things to their current state, although they were a long time in coming. US solidarity with Cuba did a lot to free the Cuban Five. Its most important ongoing task is to continue to work to lift the blockade, which will be very difficult given the composition of Congress. But it is clear that the blockade is the greatest obstacle to Cuba being able to occupy a level playing field internationally. And even after the blockade is lifted, the playing field will hardly be level, because the nefarious effects of more than five decades of blockade have been extremely costly.

Most of all, I have learned to expect surprises from Cuba. The Revolution has shown itself to be creative and resilient.

RDO: Thank you Margaret.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.