In September 1958, I tried to join Fidel Castro’s guerrillas. I was fourteen, the ‘love child’ of a family of poor peasants. But I was not really all that different from those around me: I knew what poverty meant, what real hunger was like, and I had experienced injustice and corruption at first-hand: in fact, just before I left, I came across a number of young men from the quarter where we lived: they had been strung up from the trees, lynched by Fulgencio Batista’s henchmen because of their supposed connections with the 26th of July Movement, led by Castro from the Sierra Maestra. That was where I wanted to be; I had nothing to lose.
But the rebels didn’t take me. They didn’t take me in part because of my age, but mostly because I did not carry a weapon – a rifle or a machine-gun. That was what the guerrillas needed; they had more than enough men. I was in a difficult position: I could not go back home, because everyone now knew, thanks to my relatives’ evident concern for my well-being, that I was a ‘no-good rebel’. So I wandered the hills. From time to time, I spent a few weeks at the house of an aunt and uncle: they were also peasants and happy to shelter me as long as I did the jobs they hated.
With the fall of Batista’s government – brought about more by panic and rumour than by confrontations with the guerrillas – I could come out of the hills, but I couldn’t return either to the house where I grew up or to the village. I felt too much loathing. But things were going to be different now. There had been a revolution. I could escape the confines of poverty and the family.
And, at first, escape seemed possible. I got a scholarship from the Revolutionary Government to study agricultural economics. I was a young Communist (‘young rebels’, we called ourselves then), and in the following year I began a newly established course on agrarian planning at the University of Havana. I was living in the capital’s most luxurious hotel, the Havana Hilton no less, converted overnight into the Free Havana. My prospects – like those of many intelligent young people – seemed bright and full of potential. I was busy, reading constantly, and immersed in the complete works of Marx and Lenin (an official part of the course). I didn’t have the time, the opportunity, or the capacity– the desire even– to understand that I was also witnessing the signs that a totalitarian state was in embryo. We had, after all, just overthrown a dictatorship. I had other concerns – from the poetic to the erotic. I was experiencing other revolutions.
But three years later, I was no longer a student at the university: I had been expelled, having shown that I had all the marks of a dubious morality and a dubious ideology. My friends began to disappear: they were said to be deviants – sexual deviants or political ones; it didn’t much matter. They were interned in ‘rehabilitation camps’, where they were forced to work twelve hours a day and were not allowed beyond the guarded fence. In short, they were in concentration camps.
Some years before, a law had been passed: it made military service compulsory and prohibited anyone of military age (between fifteen and twenty-eight) from leaving the country. For me, military service would certainly have meant the ‘rehabilitation camps’. And so, again, I did what I could to avoid the law and to survive. I moved house eleven times. I changed jobs as many times again. I was trying to disappear, to be invisible – to be as inconspicuous as possible. The police were already engaged – and very successfully too – in the ‘round-up of anti-social elements’. Later on, there were other laws: one which prohibited people from moving house or changing jobs; and another, establishing the Census of Population and Housing as well as the National Identification Board, under which every Cuban was issued with an identity card. On it was your number, your photo, and virtually your entire life history. It was an offence not to show your card at every one of the innumerable police checks. Being invisible became impossible.
I had not yet been to prison, and, intent on not being repressed, had written two novels, Celestino antes del alba (Celestino, before Dawn) and El mundo alucinante (The Hallucinating World). Both were smuggled out of Cuba and published in France, an act which later would also be considered a crime, if done without the consent of the State. Other laws and regulations followed: there were ration books; there was the National Revolutionary Militia which meant that we had to do night-guard duty after a full day’s work – a day sometimes as long as twelve hours; there was the ‘voluntary day of productive work’, which involved spending weekends working on a State plantation in the country; and, finally, there was the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution set up on every block of the city to watch every move and every aspect of our social, sexual and family life. The Defence of the Revolution also required us to do night-guard duty as well; we were also expected to pay monthly dues to support it.
In 1968, the year the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, Fidel Castro gave a speech, in which he not only endorsed the invasion, but asked – and in the course of his speech, authorized – that, in similar circumstances, the Soviet Union should invade Cuba: it was a duty.
Virtually overnight, we were banned from the beaches, which were converted (Soviet-style) into Workers’ Social Circles where, in order to bathe or just look at the sea and the horizon, we had to present our membership cards bearing the seal of our trade union and a stamp proving we had paid our monthly dues. All this merely to gain entry to a beach – where we would meet only the embittered faces of our comrades and enemies from work and those of the police, watching us. And, invariably, I suppose, the best beaches – the Miramar Yacht Club, the Comodoro, El Salado and the area of the Varadero known as the ‘Dupont Development’ (previously in the hands of the bourgeoisie) – were taken by the secret police, army officers, and Russian ‘technicians’. We, the liberated workers, had a coastline of rocks. It must be remembered – if I seem to dwell on this – that Cuba is long and narrow and, most important, an island: life gains its meaning, its amplitude and brilliance, by the sea. To deny Cubans the sea is to deny them their past, their legends, their solace – the sense of the infinite.
And then, in 1971, eleven years after the Revolution, we lost even more: our artistic freedom. And it began with the Padilla case.
On 20 March 1971, the poet Heberto Padilla and his wife Belkis Cuza Malé were arrested and taken to one of the State Security prison cells. The place was notorious throughout Cuba for its horrors – each cell was about two metres square, soundproofed, with one bare lightbulb and a small hatch in an iron door at which the guard occasionally appeared. Padilla was sent there because Castro wanted a retraction: his work, critical of the State, was not only being published abroad but was attracting the admiration of young Cuban writers. Castro wanted Padilla humiliated, and he resorted to a method known for its effectiveness: torture. For thirty-seven days, Padilla was threatened with life imprisonment and with death. He was interned in a lunatic asylum, he was beaten, and he was tortured constantly. After thirty-seven days, Castro got what he wanted: a retraction and a repudiation of Padilla’s closest friends. Including Lezama Lima – who had awarded Padilla the national poetry prize, for Fuera del juego (Out of Play) and Belkis Cuza Malé, Padilla’s wife.
After the Padilla affair, the writer was seen in a different way: he was a worker – no different from any other – because ‘he writes with his hands.’ Magic realism, for instance, was now seen as a ‘decrepit and picturesque vision fast being overtaken and left behind by the new social, scientific and revolutionary awareness’. What was most sinister about this new awareness – this ‘superstalinization’ – was the fine detail of its realization. The least significant details of our private lives swelled enormous dossiers. And, in the case of writers like Lezama Lima and Virgilio Peñera, after-dinner conversations were meticulously tape-recorded by the secret police. We had lost our freedom to write and to publish; now we lost the freedom to think out loud or have a private conversation with a friend. Above all, we lost – and Padilla was only the scapegoat – our dignity.
Cuban intellectuals were mocked. They were dismissed. They were asked to come face to face with police terror. They were, absolutely and justifiably, afraid. And they had only a few choices available to them: self-betrayal, cynicism, prison or suicide – exile was not a choice. Some committed suicide, among them the poet Marta Vignier and the novelist José Hernández. Some – like Nicolás Guillén, Roberto Fernández Retamar, Lisandro Otero and many others – betrayed themselves and became high-ranking servants of the State and thus of its system of repression. Some, less well known, took a heroic stance and lost their lives – or a great part of their lives – in prison: Jorge Valls, Ángel Cuadra and Armando Valladares. The rest of them chose cynicism: the cynicism of silence, the cynicism of cowardice, the cynicism of waiting through a pregnant pause that could (and in some cases did) last a lifetime. You survived as best you could: accepting, pretending to accept, applauding or simply not resisting the resolutions that condemned us as writers: condemned us to being invisible. Secretly, though, we persisted. We persisted in writing, and, at the risk of going to prison, we sometimes smuggled our writings out of the island. For there is a golden rule common to all writers under Communist regimes: a manuscript which has not yet crossed the frontier is a manuscript still to be written.
Lezama Lima continued to be paid his modest civil servant’s salary as long as he did not open his mouth and, like Padilla and Virgilio Piñera, was prohibited from publishing and, as far as possible, from writing. I, like many others, had to take part in book-signings at the Cuban Writers’ and Artists’ Union, but I was not allowed to go over the proofs of the magazine of which I was supposedly editor. Clearly, my hands were contaminated and could have stained these texts written by Lieutenant Luis Pavón and José Antonio Portuondo, the Plekhanov and Zhdanov of Cuban Stalinism. How right they were to say that the ‘intellectual works with his hands’.
A small group of friends still met secretly for readings and discussions, and managed to accumulate quite a number of unpublished texts. We even put together a magazine, Ah, la marea (Ah, the tide!) of which we produced six typewritten copies. We were our own public.
Virgilio Piñera, knowing he was a condemned man, dedicated his time to writing, rewriting and revising everything, even his previously published works. He worked like someone – and so it proved to be – drawing up his last testament. A testament which, naturally, found its way straight to Castro’s insatiable police. José Lezama Lima found consolation in work as well. Every time we met, he cited the example of Racine who, while writing a defence of the Sun King and editing the History of France, was also, in the shadows, writing The Secret History of Jansenism. Perhaps in our modest way, we were a little like Racine, and, in admiring and pitying him, we pitied ourselves. Lezama also often quoted Antonio Pérez: ‘Only the strongest stomachs can digest poison.’ Lezama and Virgilio both had strong stomachs and swallowed a lot of poison – all that they could – but that poison finally destroyed them. Their work was cut short and their early writings have been altered and distorted. Now both these persecuted authors, censored and mutilated by the system, are seen as its passionate defenders. In this, perfect totalitarian systems have always been in the vanguard: they modify not only the past and the future, but they also abolish the present.
I knew that I could survive only by writing. I finished several books of poems, a volume of short stories, two novels, including Otra vez el mar (Once more the Sea), a work which, having been put in the hands of my then best friend, Señor Aurelio Cortés, was delivered immediately into those of the police, and so had to be rewritten several times.1 I was lucky enough to be able to smuggle nearly all these manuscripts out of Cuba.
By 1974, I had published several books abroad that had been banned in Cuba. And with the introduction of two new laws – one directed against ‘Delinquency and Ideological Diversionism’ and the other meant to protect ‘Family, Youth and the National Patrimony’ – I, like others, was finally ready for prison. For years, I had been under the close watch of the State secret police and the secret police I lived with – my relatives. My room was searched, I was pursued, beaten up and humiliated in every sense of the word. And, finally, I was arrested. I was kept in a temporary cell before being sent to a top security prison – El Morro – but I managed to escape. For forty-five days I was free. I was thirty years old, and had never experienced a freedom of this sort – the ephemeral freedom of a fugitive. I composed and sent a document to France addressed to the UN, to UNESCO, and to the International Red Cross, summarizing some of my vicissitudes and humiliations. I was then recaptured, and taken to the notorious (because so horrific) State Security Prison. Its cells were in a former Jesuit monastery, the windows of which had been bricked up.
I have never been a hero – I am not the stuff of which they are made: I signed anything they put in front of me. Whether I signed or refused to sign the papers – documents and documents that amounted to an exhaustive mea culpa, a passionate repentance of my whole life – was a matter of indifference to my conscience. How could I take them seriously? Could anyone reading the statement I had sent to Paris really believe that a fortnight later, writing from a State Security prison cell, I could declare that I was enchanted with my life in Cuba? Was that pantomime the reality or was there another, more profound reality, to which I could perhaps, if I lived, bear witness one day? By taking the whole drama seriously didn’t I run the risk of making it seem important and even relevant? Or are all these questions merely the justifications of a coward?
For many years now life in Cuba has operated on at least two levels. There is the official one, a long-running performance of assemblies, voluntary work, political circles, unending speeches, applause, parades and the reading of the State newspapers – the only ones published. Then there is real life: our secret resentments, our dreams, our longing for revenge, our grudges, our loves, our rages. To sign a recantation before a torturer – who will, if we refuse, destroy us – is the most terrible weapon we have. I do not even think I need historical corroboration. In the document sent to the outside world I had in any event already stated, with the foresight totalitarian systems engender, that what I wrote was the truth even if later I might be forced to deny it. Others have had and will have more heroic courage than mine. But no divinity ever visited me in my cell, only the guard on duty with his hackneyed, sinister jibes and questions. I was, you see, a confessed homosexual in a society structured around an overdeveloped supermachismo that was wholeheartedly supported by the State’s discriminatory laws. I was fair game for abuse. And to save myself I had to rely on my limited resources of guile. I was crafty and contriving and cynical, and found myself therefore once more in the open prison two years later, and, after four years, out of the open prison which the island has become.
During that time I passed from being a non-person to being a non-writer. I could not live; I survived. I kept a photo of myself as a youth. I framed it, placed it in the middle of the room, and every now and then I would put some flowers before it, as one does for the dead. This impressed my visitors, most of whom were policemen often disguised as criminals, who viewed my intellectual and physical death with great enthusiasm. But secretly I knew that somewhere someone was waiting for me: the things most dear to me, the pages I had written clandestinely, were safe. Of course, a lieutenant (the one looking after my case) visited me nearly every week. To this person, who obviously rejoiced in being a member of the Holy Castro Inquisition, I had to tell my whole life story, inform him of every step taken, every action. So as to avoid getting my friends in trouble, I put a notice on my door: ‘Visits are appreciated but not received.’ If I evaded or failed to mention anything (however insignificant) the officious lieutenant always picked me up on it and made a great fuss: the tap-tap of a typewriter was an enemy to be silenced; a letter sent abroad was a proof of infidelity; the praising of a Western writer was a betrayal.
In May 1980, when I at last found myself on a boat, leaving the loved and hated shores of my island, taking with me only the clothes I was wearing, I knew that the monumental charade I had sustained for more than twenty years had finally brought its reward: I was going to a place where I could shout. And before making my final exit I closed with an act worthy, I think, of a comic opera. Just as we were leaving, we had to sign a confession (yet another) in which we declared that we were truly immoral people, unworthy of living in an ‘enlightened’ society. I wrote a frenzied and pathetic diatribe against myself, addressing the whole lament to none other than ‘Comrade’ Fidel Castro. The immigration official and the State Security agent smiled at me in satisfaction.
Photograph © Bud Ellison
1 Parts of this book were translated and published under the title ‘Coming down from the Mountains’ in Granta 13: After the Revolution.