The Operating System

Gregory Randall, “To Have Been There Then,” translated by Margaret Randall. EXCERPT : INTRODUCTION


The Operating System is excited to give you this sneak peek into the forthcoming To Have Been There Then: Memories of Cuba, 1969-1983by Gregory Randall, translated by Margaret Randall.
For your listening pleasure, we’ve created a Spotify playlist full of musicians mentioned in the book, of songs specifically from that time — you can steep yourselves in the sounds of Cuba and Latin America while you read.
For reflections from and more information about the author and translator as well as advance praise from readers, please check out this post about the book.
And join us in New York City at Bowery Poetry Club on January 8th for a special launch event with Gregory and Margaret Randall, moderated by OS Founder/Managing Editor Lynne DeSilva-Johnson.

“Be there when it happens; write it down!”
– Joel Oppenheimer

I was lucky enough to live in Cuba from 1969 to 1983. I arrived at the age of eight and departed when I was twenty-three. I began fourth grade there and by the time I left had finished my undergraduate degree in engineering. In Cuba I witnessed and took part in one of the most interesting experiments of the twentieth century, perhaps in the entire history of humankind. It’s not often that a society actually tries to build a better world, truly prioritizing the interests of the majority. Even less often does such an experience last so many years. As time has passed I have learned how exceptional this process was. Cuba marked me profoundly. I am a proud son of the Cuban Revolution.

I left the country in 1983. At the time I never thought I’d be away so long, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I was able to return. Between those two years the world had changed a great deal. The Socialist bloc became mired in a terminal crisis and disappeared as such. The Latin American dictatorships had given way to democratic administrations, but the revolution we’d dreamed hadn’t been possible. Globally an ideological crisis took hold of the left, and for many years our certainties were replaced by doubts, and then by a deep crisis of its own. During the 1960s and ’70s it looked as if we would be able to build a more just and beautiful world. Currently many of us are overwhelmed by pessimism. Today individualism would seem to be the most powerful mover of people, and yesterday’s collective dreams seem impossible.

In the years since I left Cuba, my compañera Laura and I built our nest with the materials that country had given us. We lived in France for eleven years; since 1994 we’ve been in Uruguay. Our youthful ideas kept pulsing in our veins and helped guide us through turbulent waters. In this nest our three children were born: Lía, Martín and Daniel. They arrived with tenderness and love, each with her or his unique curiosity and strong character. And they became the mirrors in which we are able to glimpse the rawest and most palpable features of our own past. They came into our lives with all those attributes with which children always captivate their parents. But one of the greatest gifts they have given me is the discovery that through them I can go on nurturing my own youthful dreams. In my adolescence collective work took precedence over the individual, even over the family. Now it seemed our children were our utopia.

In 1994 Laura, the children and I went to live in Uruguay. I began to teach at the University of the Republic. All these years, first in France and later here, I have continued to speak publicly about my ideas. Over lunches, with colleagues or students I’ve often reminisced about the highlights of our life in Cuba. My opinions of the current international situation continue to be marked by that experience. As time passed I could see how ordinary people were finding it more and more difficult to understand the reality I had experienced. Many believed life in Cuba to be a carbon copy of that in the Soviet Union. All sophistication of analysis was lost and the implosion of Soviet socialism took with it any possibility of imagining an alternative to capitalism as we know it. As the years went by I realized that the histories I told were becoming legends. Today’s young people weren’t even born when I left Cuba.

A few years ago I was walking one day on the beach at Santa Lucía del Este with my son Daniel. Our dog ran happily across the sand. We were having one of those important father/son conversations, the kind that is a gift and remains engraved in memory. Daniel is a very sensitive person, someone who can’t bear injustice whether aimed at a person or a bird. At one point in our conversation he began to rebuke me. He pointed out that I’d done nothing to try to change the world. He criticized the fact that although conscious of injustice I’d remained passive. He accused me of being a coward. It was then that I understood I had been excessively discreet. Within the family we’d always talked about the world, the injustices that exist and the imperative to fight against them, about Cuba and the various attempts at social change that had taken place throughout the twentieth century. But old habits had kept me from speaking of my own participation in that great collective effort. It wasn’t that I’d been particularly important. I was a foot soldier, one among many. But the need for discretion had taught me to be extremely careful. Now I discovered that my sons, who were ten and thirteen, and my daughter who was fifteen, knew nothing about my political past. I explained to my children that I too had wanted to change the world. My participation had been modest and without much success, but it wasn’t true that I’d sat back while others participated.

For centuries people have been fighting for a better world. This rich history is plagued by defeats as well as producing a few victories. And it’s always been possible to pass on the relevant experiences. Young people in the 1960s learned from the struggles of Algeria, Vietnam and China, from the resistance to fascism, from revolutionary Spain. Those struggles in turn were influenced by the Russian revolution and from the Anarchist battles at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Farther back was Garibaldi and the Paris Commune, the French Revolution and the European revolutions of 1848. But my conversation with Daniel left me thinking. Could the defeat we suffered have been so profound that it stopped us even from speaking?

I believe this has been one of the most abrupt breaks in historic memory. Our generation’s protagonists haven’t told our sons and daughters what we went through. It’s true that much of what we did may seem absurd today. History tends to be written by the winners and they shape it as they see fit. But the absurdity is an optical illusion. The dreams we had back then are only absurd when seen through today’s “common sense” lens. Contemporary society isn’t very satisfying and its profound contradictions are visible everywhere. We know that our system doesn’t work, but lack the imagination to propose an alternative. Defeat has left us reeling. All the more reason for us to pass on to today’s youth the experiences of the recent past. They are essential for building the future.

At that moment I decided to write this book. Not in order to talk about what I did, which wasn’t that important, but to speak of what it was like for a child and young person like myself to live in Cuba when I was growing up. I decided to try to transmit what we felt, what we did, the atmosphere we breathed. Of course as I speak of that part of my life I must speak about Cuba and about myself. I was a pure product of those times. All my parental figures were deeply involved in the struggles of those years and participated in them intensely; they were protagonists. As a child I lived in that whirlwind. Later, as a young man, I also participated: one more in a great army. I believe this story is interesting from the point of view of a child of the 1960s and also as the testimony of someone who lived in Cuba during that era.

In 2003 I returned to the island for the first time in twenty years. There had been many changes but from the moment I exited the airport I began reconnecting with the Cuba I had known. It was as if an invisible thread continued to link the present with the past. I immediately felt at home. I walked along those streets lined with luxuriant trees, their roots cutting through the sidewalks bordered by houses that seemed frozen in time. I filled my lungs with the salt air of the Caribbean as I wandered back to the scenes of my earlier life. Each night I wrote long letters to Laura, filled with the day’s impressions. When I got home I had twenty pages. The years went by and I slowly digested those notes. There were many more lunches over which I shared with all manner of listeners the passages I’d reconstructed. I took stock of their reactions, their questions. And so this book was born.

In 2006 my friend Guillermo Sapiro invited me to spend a year at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. This was a rare privilege. During my sabbatical I was simply able to learn at his side, to study and spend time with my family. These were months given over to the intimacy of everyday connection. In the beauty of the city and company of so many generous friends I was able to relax. This was a time in which Laura and I, astonished, were also able to witness the political awakenings of our own children. All three became passionately involved in the struggle against the war in Iraq, and it was in this context that we saw them take their first steps motivated by the same ideals that had compelled us thirty years before. Was the circle beginning to close? One day I called my mother and proposed a shared adventure: that the two of us write our memories of Cuba. We could embark on a work in four hands, she from her point of view and I from mine. My mother, with her customary efficiency and craft, began immediately. I kept mulling over my ideas.

In January of 2007 my mother came to visit us in Uruguay. When I realized only a month remained before her arrival I had no choice but to sit down and begin to write. A few intense weeks later I had a first rough draft. For five years I had been juggling the material; some fragments were already practically written in my head. On that visit my mother and I spent several days reading each other’s manuscripts, critiquing one another, exchanging ideas.

In February of 2007 my father Robert, my sisters Sarah, Ximena, Ana and I spent a long weekend together in New York City. I already had a first draft of this book and had sent it to each of them prior to our getting together. That meeting had an intensity difficult to describe. The four of us found ourselves together for the first time in ten years. There was so much accumulated and so little time in which to express it. Reading the draft I’d sent became the catalyst for a flood of memories and emotions. Sarah talked about how, on the plane from Mexico City to New York, she’d been reading the text and her seat mates had to be wondering what was going on with this woman who laughed and cried uncontrollably. Something that seemed immediately obvious to Robert as well as to Sarah and Ximena, but had escaped me completely, was that in more than a hundred pages there was almost nothing about our family or my childhood games with my sisters. I was stunned. I had spent months delving into and writing the memoir, yet that essential part of our lives had resisted coming to the surface. Even then, when faced with the evidence of its absence, I was unable to remember many details or anecdotes. Had I erased all that, or kept it hidden like some intimate and precious treasure? My own memories don’t coincide with many of those my sisters have, what happened back then is disfigured by the passage of time and each of us sees the events through our individual experiences and sensibilities. Still, we retain the same general sense of our lives back then, the same nostalgia for a bygone era and shared history which, in broad strokes, is one and the same. We also love each other intensely, a love so strong it is almost painful, and which expressed itself over that weekend in one long hug: holding onto one another, silent, crying.

Sarah and Ximena couldn’t understand that our “family emulations” didn’t even appear in all those pages. They had been particularly traumatic for the two of them. And so I decided to mention them even though in that strange selective process that takes place in memory I had almost erased the experience. The only way I can begin to explain all that is that in our family my parents’ extremism, including those criticism self-criticism sessions, coexisted with a great love which went a long way toward neutralizing that sort of craziness. This is how this book came into being, through dialogues with many different people who read the manuscript and gave me their impressions. Some of them are protagonists of one part of this story or another; others hadn’t even been born when it took place.

I spent 2007 and 2008 polishing that first version of the book, and many people contributed to the process. At the end of 2008 my mother translated my text into English and in January of 2009 she again came to visit us in Uruguay. At that point she and I had a fascinating experience: for several hours each day she would read the English text out loud and I would correct her translation. Listening to my story in another language enabled me to discover a number of repetitions and issues that seemed unclear. I was able to improve the Spanish after working on the English.

As I was writing this book life produced yet another surprise. At the end of 2008 the world sank into a crisis as serious as any we’ve known. What at first seemed a problem limited to a rash of mortgage defaults in the United States quickly spread to include badly bundled loans, suspect derivatives, and a breakdown of the entire credit system, expanding throughout other areas of the economy. This has now become a world-wide economic depression. Concepts that just a few months before seemed antiquated or absurd (state control of the economy, nationalization of the banks, etc.) suddenly seemed respectable options, and ideas that had dominated economic theory for the past twenty years no longer seemed so infallible. All of a sudden the “free market” may not be the “natural” way of organizing the economy. The notion that history can be explained through class struggle seems interesting once again. And even the president of the United States has publicly stated that labor unions aren’t part of the problem but part of the solution. I think that crisis expresses the profound mismatch inherent to capitalist society, which optimizes profit and not the satisfaction of human needs. Its logic is destructive both to the internal equilibrium of society and to the equilibrium between human beings and nature. One has the sense that this may be the crisis that forces all humanity to recognize the need for a different type of social organization. But what do we, who dreamed of social revolution, have to offer in this dilemma? The experiments of the past century demonstrated a little of what a world centered on human need might look like, but they also proved unable to devise a sustainable alternative. In a situation like this, an alternative is necessary. These are among the most exciting moments in history. Crises are enormous opportunities to invent new and workable solutions. Young people today are the ones who must show us the way, and we all have the obligation of contributing the experiences of the past.

I am grateful to many people for their help with this book. My gratitude goes especially to Margaret Randall, Robert Cohen, Ximena Mondragón, Sarah Mondragón, Sergio Mondragón, Martín Randall, Igor Paklin, Igor León, Daniel Viñar, Marcelo Beralmío, Rafael Grompone, Laura Carlevaro, Lía Randall, Daniel Randall, Arturo Arango, Pablo Carlevaro, Emilia Carlevaro, Andrés Elena, Vivian Elena, Alex Fleites, Gadiel Seroussi, Nicolás Duffau, Alvaro Giusto, Omar Gil, Jules Lobel, and Jane Norling. I also want to acknowledge the generosity of Jean Michel Morel and Guillermo Sapiro who several times invited me abroad to work. These trips make it possible for me to escape the pressure of everyday commitments and allow me to walk the streets of Paris, Barcelona or Minneapolis; they gave me the context and time to concentrate and write.
This book is organized in chapters which are built around the moments and spaces that most profoundly shaped my years in Cuba. They don’t possess a clearly chronological structure, although several make more sense if read in the order in which they appear. I have decided to refer to certain themes from different angles, sometimes by way of time travel both forward and back. I hope in this way to have presented a story in which everything falls into place.

As I worked on this project I was faced with a number of questions: should I write what I felt back then or analyze those times from today’s perspective? I decided to place myself as much as possible in the times in which the story unfolds. I wanted to transmit the atmosphere and also what we believed so many years ago. There are many references to figures or movements that marked the 1960s and ’70s. Insofar as possible I have retained the language of the times. I don’t believe it’s possible to describe what we felt back then in the “politically correct” language of today. By the same token time passes more rapidly than we imagine, and commonly understood concepts may no longer be understood as they once were. In a few short years words have come to mean something very different from their original definitions. In every historic period language is the vehicle through which the dominant ideology exerts its influence. Many friends who read this manuscript told me they felt I needed to define certain basic concepts. They said many readers simply wouldn’t understand what I was saying. After giving this some thought I decided not to burden the book with too much of this sort of explanation but rather to invite those who are interested to consult other books that further explain different aspects of this history. I’ve included a section at the end with brief descriptions of some of the names and organizations mentioned throughout.

T[/dropcaphere is one concept, though, which I would like to clarify, and this is the concept of revolution. The Cuban revolution is the protagonist of this book, but new generations have grown up with the language made popular by Ronald Reagan, a language that completely distorts the meaning of a great many words. Today we associate the concept of revolution much more with technological or scientific advances, or with the efforts of neo-conservatives to destroy the tools society developed in order to support the weakest among us. A revolution is the process through which the social structure undergoes profound change in a very short period of time. In the context of this book I use the definition most commonly used in the decade of the sixties of the last century, that is in reference to social revolution and more specifically the effort to destroy capitalism, a system based on class differences and the exploitation of the majority by a small group in power, and to replace it with a more just social organization aimed at satisfying human need and not simply producing profit for the few. In this context a revolutionary is someone who actively works for the revolution, often devoting all his or her energies toward that end, and a counterrevolutionary is someone who actively opposes the revolution. Struggle, in this context, is the act of making social revolution.

A second question I encountered while writing this book has to do with the depth with which I felt it necessary to explain certain aspects of the Cuban revolution. Often one comes across concepts that are simply incomprehensible to today’s readers. In such cases I give a brief explanation, perhaps including some critique from today’s point of view. It is difficult to do this impartially. It’s been more than twenty years since I’ve lived in Cuba, and it’s hard to be critical from the outside. As the years go by my respect for what the Cuban revolution has been able to achieve grows exponentially. At the same time I am more and more convinced that mine was an extraordinary privilege: to have been there then.

A third issue concerns the tension between Cuba’s story and the story of my life. I decided to approach this from various angles. I am the one telling this story: someone who has lived a particular life, product of a particular time and place. My vision of the Cuban experience is profoundly shaped by my personal experience. Cuba, back then, was at the center of a space that stretched far beyond its own borders. I inhabited that space. I witnessed something unprecedented and unique: a people constructing a world of justice and solidarity, a joyous population touching the sky with its fingertips.

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  1. […] for a special playlist of songs of the era created from musicians mentioned in its pages – here. . Please join us in New York at Bowery Poetry Club on January 8th in celebration of the […]

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