By Margaret Randall for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on November 23, 2009


To Change the World was the hardest of all my books to write. I was determined to be honest, even when I knew this would produce a book many of my comrades on the Left might find wanting.

I could hear their complaints every time I began to write: “As foreigners, how can we know what Cuba’s really like? Don’t our bourgeois notions distort our perspective? Why reveal material that the Enemy can exploit? Isn’t the U.S. blockade to blame for Cuba’s problems?”

I’d heard these arguments for years; they seemed specious at best. I’d lived and worked in Cuba for eleven years and had something to say.

Even more complex than enumerating what I see as the Revolution’s mistakes, though, was the challenge of painting a real picture of what it was like for several generations of progressive people in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to participate in the twentieth century’s most exciting project of social change: what it felt like to help build a new society, one based on equality of opportunity and fairness.

I lived in Cuba from 1969 through 1980; three of my four children remained there longer. I could draw on my own memories as well as theirs and was fortunate to have the journal I’d kept, which detailed events, people, anecdotes of all sorts. I even had photographs. As I wrote, I drew on all these sources. Sometimes one of my children or a friend would remember something differently. When consulting my journal didn’t help, I opted for including both versions.

I wanted the differences between living in Cuba in my thirties and remembering it in my seventies to be as palpable as the changes in the Revolution itself. Passion and immediacy in the first instance, a longer view and more historically situated analysis in the second.

It may be impossible to convey the world we lived in then. Socialism was alive and well across large parts of the globe, and newly liberated countries were emerging; movement and possibility seemed to favor the poor. In the book, I tell a story about going out with a Friday evening voluntary brigade to dig potatoes in Havana’s green belt and finding those newly harvested potatoes on the grocery store shelf Monday morning.

I describe the difficulties and exuberance of helping to write new law; attending an all-night session of the incipient People’s Courts (set up to deal with civil cases); the struggle to replace traditional values; the pitfalls and successes in my children’s educations. I tried to portray what elements were sacrificed, and why, despite its shortcomings, I think the Cuban Revolution remains an example of social change that merits an unbiased look.

When To Change the World came out this spring, the responses surprised me. I began doing presentations about the book, and audiences have been extremely positive. People seem to appreciate my nuanced view, and the Q and A sessions have been among the liveliest and most in-depth I’ve experienced. Several readers, whose opinions I value, have written glowing praise.

On the down side, reviews have been very slow in coming. A number of people with their own entrenched analyses of the Cuban Revolution have remained silent, at least with me. And although I have sent several copies of the book to friends in Cuba, to date I’ve only received one communication beyond a simple acknowledgement of receipt.

Perhaps some believe historic perspective requires a longer wait. I disagree. The old stories are fading fast and with them a world in which they may find contextualization. I see my personal contribution to Cuba’s contemporary history as one among many, and I hope to read others in the coming years.


Margaret Randall is a feminist writer, photographer and social activist. She lived in Latin America (Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua) for almost a quarter century, returning to the U.S. in 1984 only to face deportation because of the content of some of her books. With much support she won her case in 1989. Since then, she has taught at several U.S. universities, written a number of books, and traveled widely to speak and read her poetry. Among her most recent titles are To Change the World, Their Backs to the Sea, and My Town (forthcoming). Her web page is

Read Minrose Gwin’s review of To Change the World in the November/December issue of WRB.


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