G. Cabrera Infante
Sebastian Venable, the poet as pervert in Suddenly Last Summer, claimed as new and personal an old and decadent dictum now rephrased to suit the stage: ‘The life of the poet is the work of the poet and the work of the poet is the life of the poet.’ This is Oscar Wilde as rewritten by Tennessee Williams. The author of that gruesome playlet must have had in mind the notorious Algerian meeting near the fin de siecle in which Wilde, holding Bosie’s hand, boasted before a timid André Gide of having put all his genius into his life (looking at Bosie) but only his talent (looking at Gide) into his writing – and in the same bad breath told Gide, a prim and puritanical pederast, that there was an Arab boy he shouldn’t miss au poil for all the mint tea in Araby! Williams made his poet pervert die cannibalised on a Mediterranean beach. A film of the same summerish title and along similar lines, but in which the star was a Venus flytrap, was shot in Mexico and exhibited in the late Fifties but is now screened only in the late late shows. Unnaturally, the Mediterranean youth became riotous hungry children – of Sanchez perhaps? – eager to devour the pederast poet. As with so much of the propaganda posing as art which is made by American libbers with lots of reactionary American money (see Reds – or rather don’t), the spectator never knows, in two dimensions, if he is watching a battle of attrition in the Third World, or an act of contrition for (not against) Plutocracy. But Pluto is a monster of such frightful mien that only Dickens could look it in the face and not vomit sweet and sour curses like ‘imperialists’, ‘exploiters’.
This frantic fable is merely a grand-guignol with delusions of a grander guignol, and is apposite only because you cannot understand Heberto Padilla’s poems unless you know about Padilla’s hard times in Cuba. With him, as Sebastian Venable pretended, the life of the poet is really the work of the poet, and Padilla has spent half his life (and most of his oeuvre) hostage to a tyrant. Therefore to know Padilla’s life and work you must first know the tyrant – at least what’s left of him. What’s left and what’s right too. This tyrant, as you might have guessed (what with Padilla being a Cuban poet in exile), is called Fidel Castro, or, as the Times insists on calling him, Dr Castro.
If they ever erect a statue to Fidel Castro in Britain (why not – after all, he rules in the name of Marx and this German machine of hatred has his statue here, when neither Nietzsche nor D’Annunzio have one), this will be a monument to the unknown tyrant. In fact, the British know less about Cuba now than they did about Argentina before the Falklands fiasco. Then all they knew was that that country, where the gaucho roams free on the pampas, invented the tango and was ruled by a fake blonde actress called Evita. She sang ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina’ at every crisis, political or personal, or at curtain calls – whichever came first. (Usually the curtain call came first.) Of course, it’s easier to know about an inept military dictatorship than to find out about a successful totalitarian tyranny. This can be clearly seen in opaque Spain under Franco, as opposed to Ceausescu’s shadow fiefdom in Rumania or Enver Hoxha’s total black-out over Albania – of which all one knows for sure is that its capital is aptly named Tirana.
I’ve already told readers of the London Review of Books (in the 4-17 June 1981 issue) all about those brave encounters with Fidel Castro (hereinafter called the Tyrant) that Heberto Padilla (the Poet) has had in the past. We left the Tyrant saying goodbye to the Poet, in his fashion, from the door of one of his many dens in Havana. The Tyrant has no fixed abode: the whole of Cuba is his maze and he is central to it, but his hell is a spiral with no centre. When the Poet, with a desire called Theseus (Deseo in Spanish), left the labyrinth, it was with the help of an unlikely Ariadne whose name on the ballot for President of the USA in 1980 was Senator Edward Kennedy. When Kennedy blandly welcomed the Poet at the airport in Naxos or Nassau, all he said was ‘Hello! Goodbye! I must be going!’ – and he then disappeared. The Poet was now on his own, with the dangerous knowledge that he had not really slain the monster but only wounded his pride, thick as his hide. Once more he had to live by his wits.
In his new country the Poet heard threats from the Tyrant’s henchmen but never from the Beast himself, a proud monster. His pursuers were worried (agents are a worried lot) about the Poet’s singing. Not that they feared he would compose lyrics for songs and sing them too: they were fretted by the possibility that he might write about the maze that some visitors had called a magnificent building – some even said that it had the shape of things to come! The Poet knew it was a spydrome.
He wrote poems, gave lectures, and even published a novel he had cunningly smuggled out of the island. This book showed that nightmares are the dream History is made of. of. Just like Goya, only worse. Just like Shakespeare in Macbeth, though not happening in Scotland in the remote past, but now, today, in the murky waters of present-day politics where the ceremony of innocence – a baptism in fetid fonts – is drowned in obscene shouts: Heil Hitler! Evviva Il Duce! Viva Fidel! The Beast is full of passionate intensity – while the best not only lack the right convictions but sometimes also entertain the Above all, while the best are the guests, like King Duncan, of the Beast.
Two English writers went to Cuba. One went after Fidel Castro became lord and master of the island or rather archipelago. The other went before and after that unholy second coming. Edna O’Brien, poor girl, visited Cuba the way Alice travelled to the other side of the looking-glass – darkly but gladly. England can be so boring on a wet afternoon! Besides she had never tasted looking-glass milk. That’s what they call the daiquiri in Havana. She was given a guided tour of the island (left side only), and talked to some minor leaders who quickly assured her that they were major leaders. Her photographer took colour pictures everywhere it was allowed – weather permitting. She brought back, a trophy from the other world, a pitiful portrait of a shirtless and shoeless peasant with his wife (they looked like the Arnolfini couple in the mirror), whose misery, like everything that’s rotten in Cuba today, was made in the USA – before the Revolution. She had got what she took for the lot – plus the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine and a vast spread inside. Unfortunately, she had been had.
In Cuba, any national who comes in close contact with a foreigner (especially if he is a journalist or a writer, professions valued by totalitarian regimes, who know their worth in propaganda) belongs to the State Security or the G2, or must obtain clearance to entertain any alien visitors. Foreign Affairs officials, functionaries from the Tourist Commission and the junior executives of the Writers Union who bid you welcome at the airport, and bid you goodbye as well, all wear crocodile smiles. But so do guides, interpreters and even that nice old gentleman you meet everywhere you go. Yes, that one who sports the kind smile of a crocodile with dentures: he works for the G2 too. In Cuba not only Big Brother is watching you. So is his Little Brother, Raul Castro.
Ms O’Brien talked in her article about the infamos (her italics), who looked to her – how should she put it? – well, weird. You know, different. Those infamos must have looked the way late hippies look to any pink punk of today. But beatniks, hippies and even pallid punks are all equally forbidden in Cuba, according to a law against ‘extravagant and antisocial behaviour’. Such behaviour includes the social crimes of wearing jeans and/or sneakers, failing to cut your hair short and even sporting a beard – unless your name is Fidel Castro or you are one of the happy few old-time comandantes from the Sierra guerrillas. What Edna O’Brien misheard was the word enfermos (literally the sick ones, socially sick), and that’s how those poor purple people were known before they were labelled escoria (scum) and expelled from Cuba to the United States as undesirables via the port of Mariel in 1980. Those that were lucky enough to classify as pederasts, lesbians and bums left Mariel as escoria to become gusanos (worms) on landing in Miami. All these labels were concocted by Dr Castro, a linguist as imaginative as Dr Goebbels.
Vol. 4 No. 24 · 30 December 1982
SIR: I know of no contemporary writer who has been living off the same old tale as long as Guillermo Cabrera Infante. It was in June 1981 that I read his ‘Bites from the Bearded Crocodile’ (LRB, 4 June 1981), with one of those apocalyptic headlines on the cover, ‘What Happened in Cuba’, and the solitary, taciturn face without a crowd staring out from it. I had recently arrived in England from Havana and was amazed that someone who for over fifteen years had been out of his native country, Cuba – my country – should attempt the remembrance of things for him long passed. I was especially amazed since Guillermito, as he was known in his early satiric days, was one of those writers who never did know what happened. His Cuba was the seedy night-life of Havana PM and an incongruous cultural élite unable to grasp the real meaning of change. It was clear to me then that the celebrated English edition of his Three Trapped Tigers was the pretext for him to capitalise on that ‘British ignorance of Cuba’ he cites so much, to elaborate his own, highly personalised and highly biased account. The outpouring of hate in his ‘Bites’ brought little new. It was largely a rehash of gnawing thoughts on culture – or for him the lack of it – in Cuba today.
CAIN was the nom de plume of CAbrera INfante back in his film critic, Havana PM days. He was one of a generation of writers and artists whose dilemma was that of the wider neo-colonial Cuba of their times. The weakness of the national bourgeoisie and bourgeois culture, on the one hand, and the great material and cultural deprivation of Cuba’s workers and peasants, on the other, contrived to produce a cultural hybrid. These were writers and artists who scorned our neo-colonial structures and yet were highly influenced by international bourgeois thought, both aesthetically and morally. The divorce between them and their society fostered a critical attitude, a nonconformism, an intellectual rebelliousness that had few roots in the wider society. Finding little outlet in the precarious and coercive media and publishing world of the time, the rebels – with or without cause – found refuge in the café talk, cynicism and satire of the intellectual déclassé, spurned and nauseated by society.
In 1959, our intellectual déclassés swelled in number as those who had emigrated in the Fifties to Paris, New York, London, Barcelona and Milan began to return from their voluntary exile. For them, the Revolution was to be the realisation of their life-dream. Their fervour found expression in books, articles, reportage, songs, hymns, film, dance … The bubble had to burst, and it did so around a weekly literary review called Lunes de Revolucion, one of whose editors was Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and a film called PM, made by Guillermo’s brother Saba. A short independent production, it became the cause célèbre of the Lunes group in opposition to the incipient revolutionary film institute, the ICAIC. Guillermo’s ‘Bites’ on this were so partial that he didn’t tell all, nor was all that he told true. A film about a night’s orgy in Havana dockland, it was attacked, after its television screening, as both denigratory and inopportune. It portrayed the black population in roles associated with the state of oppression from which they were in process of liberation. It did so, moreover, in a slavish imitation of free-cinema style. Coming a month and a half after the mercenaries’ invasion at the Bay of Pigs, when the Revolution had been under mortal threat, it jarred particularly with the post-victory euphoria of a people. What was perhaps only a mildly offensive film was seen as irresponsible both to the Revolution and to the cultural tasks of those privileged to have the costly medium of cinema at their disposal. ICAIC’s decision was to delay wider cinema distribution.
To write or not to write, an oversimplified freedom-of-expression debate, was the alibi of CAIN and his lot in the review they mourn so much. Now, in November 1982, intrepid readers of the London Review of Books are again treated to a deliriously self-indulgent, cynical/lyrical exercise in the form of ‘Infante’s Inferno’, wherein the author – trapped in his own fourth circle – returns to the royal company of the Divine Comedy (LRB, 18 November). His voice rises yet again in the chorus (au nom de Dieu et mon Droit) of cultural Cold War veterans. A curious review article this, in which literary criticism of Padilla’s Legacies is much foreshadowed by renewed political diatribe, as if CAIN were finding reconciliation with Abel. God creates them and the Devil unites them, as my old gran used to say.
Padilla, of course, was the poet who once upon a time enacted a verbal hara-kiri, in public. There were many then who thought he had betrayed the age-old poetic profession and eschewed the friendship the poet holds so much in esteem. In his statement to writer friends in the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, Padilla said, among other things: ‘I defended Guillermo Cabrera Infante. And who was that Guillermo Cabrera Infante – the man we all know? Guillermo Cabrera Infante was always a misfit, not only with regard to the Revolution, but a social misfit par excellence, a man of the humblest extraction, a poor man, a man who, I don’t know why, has been bitter since adolescence …’ Now, in a different time and space, they whisper secrets to each other over the phone. But, loyal to his enemies and traitor to his friends, each knows the foot that causes the other to stumble.
As far as Valladares is concerned, it is strange that Amnesty International should have accorded him ‘prisoner of conscience’ status. Who’s kidding whom? As far as I know, Valladares was not writing at the time of his crime. He was tried and sentenced in 1961 to 30 years’ imprisonment (later reduced to 25) as one of a group of 17, largely ex-Batista police (including Valladares himself). The charges were possession of gelignite, bombs and ammunition, conspiracy, manufacture of arms and explosives, hiding fugitives from justice and ties with the CIA: not literary heresy. It was only later that his one book of poems, From My Wheelchair, emerged abroad. Second-rate poetry to say the least, it received promotion in the West that can only be attributed to a wider campaign to discredit Cuba both culturally and judicially. Where were the arguments for torture when, after 21 years in Cuban jails – eminently more humane than Britain’s if the case of the recently released Jimmy Boyle is anything to go by – Valladares walked on and off the plane to Paris, making a mockery of Amnesty’s gift and the title of his book?
The problem is that Valladares, Padilla and Cabrera Infante have a ready-made audience. Their ‘human condition’ has been glamorised, marketed, and endowed with certain privileges that at times pander more to vanity than to the bank account but often (if truth be known) pander to both. The Infante Guillermo Cabrera seems to thrive on his ‘dissidence’ and talks of other Cuban ‘dissidents’ as if it were a specialty of Cuban cuisine.
For the few writers and artists who have left our country, many have stayed and many more have emerged, to place Cuba on the cultural map of the world in a way it had not been before. From Guillermo’s ‘ignorant peasants, uncouth town-dwellers and ungracious provincials’ who were the Revolution’s becados or ‘grantees’ has come a new generation of artistic talent and diversity, greater than he – more caudillo perhaps than Mosley – could ever suspect.
Such is Mr Cabrera’s unidimensional thought – ‘Cuba is a Communist country and a Communist country is a world of deceit and lies’ – that he would perhaps do well to remember the desperate shouts of Green Beret-trained Cuban mercenaries surrendering at the Bay of Pigs in 1961: ‘Don’t kill me, don’t kill me, I was tricked.’ Nobody killed them, and if they were tricked it was more a case of them deceiving themselves. They were, in the final analysis, digging graves, not for their bodies, but for their phantasmagorical beliefs.
To quote from a particularly apt verse written by Cuba’s 19th-century writer and independence leader, José Marti:
We were a masquerade
in breeches from England,
jacket from the United States
and Spanish matador’s hat.
We were a vision
with breast of an athlete,
hands of a fop,
and brow of an infant.
Can our Infant really be so ignorant of a people who in making their revolution have embarked on the – albeit tortuous – path that strives toward a genuinely Cuban mass culture?
But then, to go back to the beginning, Guillermo Cabrera Infante is not only a much-embittered and out-of-touch man now: he never did know what happened in Cuba. There, a real revolution is taking place, and that means on the cultural plane as well. Literary and film workshops, dance, theatre and music groups have sprung up all over the island. Spanning people from all walks of life, young and old alike, the art that is being produced is not all good, but a lot is, and is not divorced from the popular origins of the Revolution. Very much from within, it has little of the undue romanticism or scepticism of the ‘outsider’.
Not everyone aspires to be a great writer or artist, but everyone does stand to profit from a cultural experience. There will always be those individualistic individuals who cannot accept this and who shoot off through space like meteorites dazed and fragmented by the electrical discharges of our time. The world is such that a revolution is no Sunday outing. It is a cataclysm that brings heart-rending upheavals, but which above all opens up dazzling possibilities of making a better world – including the world of cultural expatriate satellites in which Infants in breeches spin.
I do not believe in individual salvation. I understand, as many of our people do, those who dedicate their lives to collective betterment. Seen like this, Cuba’s writers and artists who stand with the people can say of our Revolution what Marti also said so long ago: ‘Our salvation lies together, or together we are damned.’
Pedro Perez Sarduy
Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: When one attacks one should get one’s facts correct. This Mr Cabrera (LRB, 18 November 1982) has failed to do. I last visited Cuba in 1966 (the only time I encountered Castro) and I met Torrijos for the first time in 1976. I never visited Castro on my way to Panama. Nor in my article published in 1966 did I speculate on what would have happened if Haydée Santamaria had been killed in the assault on Moncada Barracks.
SIR: As a mid-life newcomer to the study of English Literature who has completed a course or two at a local university, who has surveyed a few volumes of literary theory and read a few dozen papers on the giants in the language, and who has read LRB, NYRB and TLS for a year or so, I suppose I am not really qualified to comment on your contributors. I’m still asking: What is Literature? And that is the point. After a busy day which included a chapter or so of For Whom the Bell Tolls, I sat down with a pint of beer and experienced ‘Infante’s Inferno’. This isn’t litchacha, I thought, this is a terrific conversation over jug of wine with a friend who has also just discovered the wonders of language, the fun of it, and its pain. Infante plays with words, tells anecdotes, gossips, argues politics, uses lines from other writers, and also does what he is probably supposed to do, reviews the book in question. How different form the arid writing I’ve encountered so often in my quest for literary erudition! At this point a wise teacher would probably suggest more concentration on primary sources, and I would have to agree. It has to be asked: Is what Infante writes ‘critical literature’? It seems more like a hot and cool discussion. I can feel the writer’s conspiratorial whispers, his angry thumping of the table, his sitting back and drawing conclusions. Do such human gestures have a place in an academic, or at least intellectual, publication? The beer was my usual brand, so I can’t blame my reaction on that. In any case, thank you for printing the piece. I am certain that whether that jug is drained or not, we would have to conclude, to use my newly-acquired Hemingway Spanish, that Infante has cojones..
Vol. 5 No. 2 · 3 February 1983
SIR: Who is Pedro Perez, and why is he saying these ludicrous things about me? He claims he knew me as Cain but I swear I don’t know him from Adam. His letter (Letters, 30 December 1982) I do recognise, though. It’s the typical production of the apparatchik: a massive missive made in Moscow, that Mecca of the political meccano. This letter is, in fact, a lie a line. I don’t have the time, nor LRB the space, to answer it now. Pity. You see, I enjoy detecting the hidden Goebbels in every party political broadcast. However, I can’t help wondering what Señor Perez is doing so far from the socialist sun, living in this conservative, capitalist cesspool, this septic isle, this England?
I never ‘attacked’ Graham Greene as he claims (Letters, 10 January). I merely quoted from his paean to Fidel Castro (which still remains without disavowal from the novelist) to illustrate how some British writers, whatever their reasons or motives, have consistently misinformed the British public on the Cuban issue – and have never recanted. I also commented on Greene’s baffling (at least to me) admiration for a cruel and ruthless tyrant. He’s right, though, about who introduced whom at Plaza de la Catedral that Havana night in 1959 when they were shooting Greene’s screenplay. I introduced Fidel Castro to Carol Reed. I also introduced him to Alec Guinness, and even to Noel Coward. I had to. I was the only Cuban official there who had any English. I must have confused them with each other and all of them with Graham Greene. But I have an excuse for that embarrassing gaffe. You see, for me then, all Englishmen looked alike.
I never kept tabs on Greene’s trips to Panama or on his flight routes. True, Torrijos was not my cup of tea when he was alive and playing host to writers who love strongmen. General Torrijos is dead now, so I’ll leave him to heaven. Cuba is more than somebody else’s facts. She is my constant concern. But Greene, like many modern writers, confuses facts with truth. He of all people should know that the Gospels are revealed truth – but are they fact? Moreover, he seems to believe that dates are facts. Is the year Jesus was born faith or fact? For a doubting Catholic, Greene reveals himself to be as factual as a materialist.
In fact (I beg your pardon), Mr Greene really objects only to two dates of mine, but it makes it seem as if my article, like an oasis palm-tree, were full of dates. As a matter of fact (bis), he takes exception to one single date: when he last visited Cuba and met Fidel Castro. Immediately after, he wrote his lyrical account of his visit with the Elusive Leader. Greene has never, not even now, had trouble with Castro’s cant – or with his own conscience. At that time, 1966, this dissembling dictator had remained in office for seven long years – without ever being elected, not even in a Mexican-fashion election. The aftermath of Castro’s seizure of power was thousands of ‘enemies of the Revolution’ shot by firing-squad, and tens of thousands running for cover into exile. Censorship was not selective: it was rampant, blind and total. There were only two newspapers left then from the ten or twelve being published in Havana in 1959. One of those newspapers was the Cuban Pravda, called Granma (the one Greene mentions cutely in his story as ‘the daily paper with what seems to be an odd nursery title’), and large labour camps for homosexuals only (Castro’s convertibles) were already blooming like flowers all over that island Greene crisscrossed from west to east on a bus. But I suspect that Mr Green would call all this a fairy-tale.
A writer of fiction asks me, who was writing about politics and poetry, to have my facts right. Curiouser still, Greene does not mention my quotes from his fictive piece in which he calls Cuba a pleasure-capital (sic) under Batista. But it is true that Mr Greene never said that Haydée Santamaria died in the assault on Moncada Barracks. Instead the man who gave us Our Man in Havana (set, I suppose, in a pleasure-country) concocts yet another ‘Cuban’ fiction about some mean and evil (but bungling) ‘assassins’, who tail Heroine Haydée’s car to kill her – what else? Their ploy was that once she was dead and about to be buried, foreign agents (who else?) could kill Castro, a revolutionary Romeo, come to kneel at the martyr’s tomb in grief.
The above looks as if lifted from a Costa-Gavras Greek tract: Z or Oedipus Tyrannus. It is – in fact – the plot of a John Huston melodrama: the oldie We were strangers, set in Havana during the Machado dictatorship of the Thirties. The bloody truth is that Haydée Santamaria (I know this for a fact), disillusioned with Castro and the nasty regime she helped to establish in Cuba, shot herself through the mouth with a .45 Colt pistol. Fictional counter-revolutionary assassins didn’t kill her. Castro did. That’s a fact.
G. Cabrera Infante
Vol. 5 No. 4 · 3 March 1983
SIR: It is now three months since my release from prison, thanks to the intervention of the President of France, François Mitterrand. It was a lengthy struggle, involving governments like those of Venezuela and Sweden, international organisations, intellectuals and the press, which created the conditions for my release. I was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. I received the ‘Liberty’ prize given by the PEN Club, and committees were created to fight for my freedom. Since my departure, I have denounced the criminal and merciless system which enslaves the Cuban people and which tortures and murders my friends in prison. I was guest of honour of the American Ambassador before the United Nations, Mrs Jeane Kirkpatrick, during a lunch in the Press Club in Washington and also before the US Congress, where I gave testimony before various commissions to tell the truth about Cuba. This has unleashed a campaign of calumnies against me, with the purpose of discrediting and frightening me into silence.
I am not a terrorist and I was not sent to prison for a criminal offence. They had me under house arrest, and they never found arms, explosives, or any evidence that could compromise me. In two interrogations by officers of the Political Police they told me that, although they did not have any material evidence against me, they were convinced that I was a potential enemy of the Revolution. This was due to the fact that I expressed my dislike of Communism in the Ministry of Posts, which is where I worked. I was imprisoned for expressing my ideas verbally, and not for any other reason. I was not a member of the Secret Police during Batista (Letters, 30 December 1982). If I had been, when the Revolution took power I would surely have been shot or sent to prison, and could never have been a functionary of the Revolutionary Government. I did work for a branch of the Batista Government, however. I was in charge of interviewing the civilians who wanted to enrol in the National Police, in order to judge the educational level of the candidates. My job was therefore of an administrative nature; I never chased after thieves or revolutionaries.
To the campaign of lies mounted against me I answer as follows. Since the forces of Castro seized power in 1959, Cuba has been under martial law. There is no definite limit to the powers of the State. The present Cuban constitution stales that you cannot exercise any rights that are contrary to the objectives of the Marxist Government. Cuba has approximately ten million inhabitants, and about one million Cubans are overseas, in order to escape Communism. In Cuba there is a brutal dictatorship. Castro remains in power thanks to his tanks, guns and the terror of the Political Police, who don’t even flinch from torturing old ladies like my poor mother, whom Colonel Manuel Blanco Fernandez and Major Guido forced to write a confession, dictated by them, in which she said that I was an enemy of the people and deserved to be punished: this confession they brought to me in prison in order to demoralise me. All human freedom has been suppressed in Cuba: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, the right to assemble, religious freedom, the right to organise or join an independent union, the right to move about within the country or to travel abroad, the freedom to leave prison after sentence has been completed. As a result of this repression, thousands of Cubans have been executed, tens of thousands imprisoned, and hundreds of thousands have fled abroad.
The Cuban regime has extended the working week to a six-day week. The five-day week, which had been one of the achievements of the Union movement in Cuba, has been abolished. The Cuban workers work six days a week and on Sunday they have to do what is called ‘voluntary labour’. A worker who did not do any would be accused of lacking revolutionary fervour and taken before a Labour Council, who would administer very humiliating public warnings: he could be transferred to an inferior badly-paid job and even be sacked. It is demanded that a worker has to put in a ten, 12 and even 14-hour day in many of the factories and even in the building trade. Since 1962, the regime has decreed a rationing system which gives the people only four and a half pounds of meat and coffee per year. Even the sugar is rationed.
There is no outside means of information available in Cuba: the only papers in circulation are the official ones. The allegations of equality in the Cuban regime are also false. The Government Directive, the Central Committee of the Party, the Colonels of the Political Police, and other high-ranking functionaries, do not live in the same way as the rest of the Cuban people. All of them form a ‘new class’. They shop in special places.
In Cuba there are approximately one hundred and forty thousand prisoners, including ordinary prisoners and political ones. There are 68 prisons in the provinces – in other words, there are four for each province. There are also concentration camps, barracks with high barbed-wire fences, guards with machine-guns, searchlights and guard dogs. In addition, there are hordes of prisoners who are serving short sentences of who are about to complete their sentences. They die all over the island building roads, stables and buildings. The tourists see these men doing this work and do not realise that they are prisoners. But the worst of all of these are the so-called maximum security prisons – where I was for 22 years. They beat you up regularly, you are allowed no visitors, letters, medical assistance, sun. Right now there are hundreds of my colleagues living like this, and when they complete their sentences they aren’t released.
Vol. 5 No. 7 · 21 April 1983
SIR: As The former editor of Revolucion, the journal of revolutionary thought which led the independent, radical wing of ‘26 de Julio’ in opposition to pro-Soviets and conservatives, I would like to join the debate in the London Review and to record a few facts which decisively influenced the destiny of Cuba and the Cuban revolution. The journal was founded during the time of the anti-Batista underground; Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who had fought with us against the dictatorship, edited its cultural supplement, Lunes. In April of 1961, some time after the Bay of Pigs conflict, we at the newspaper saw that it was up to us to defend ourselves against a revolution that had already begun to devour its own sons.
We were not alone, nor were we a mere handful of deluded artists and writers. Thousands of union leaders, students and workers fought the same battle, as did all of those who were in the Sierra Maestra and on the plains in 1957 with Che Guevara and Raul Castro when we discussed the now historic words: ‘The solution to the problems of the world lies behind the so-called Iron Curtain.’ We replied: we want to be free from North American domination, but we do not want to fall under Soviet control. So we all had our bones broken: the unions, the university, the workers who had lost their unions, the peasants who had watched their land pass out of the control of the latifundista and into the hands of the slate, the militiamen who had lost their militia, the people who had lost their revolution. In our vast failure to invent a new revolution – not Communist (the Cuban Communists did not participate in the struggle), nor Marxist, nor under Soviet influence, but a revolution suited to the needs and aspirations of what the complacent call the ‘third world’ – more than a hundred thousand Cubans were imprisoned or shot, or merely disappeared. We invented a new form of navigation: the boat people, defying sharks (not of the Hemingway variety), the Gulf Stream, the powerful Kalashnikovs of State Security, a million exiles (15 per cent of the country’s population) from the Sovietisation and militarisation of Cuba, the ruination of the economy, food rationing and socialist bread lines. All dreams, liberty gone: the end of a new, Latin American, free-thinking culture.
One year later the Soviet Ambassador, Kudriatsev, was directing a conspiracy organised by Escalante and the old-school Communists. Frightened by the protest of the people who rebelled against fear and hunger, carrying their empty pots and demanding bread and liberty, threatened by the Russian Frankenstein he had himself created, Fidel Castro attacked the Communists, making them responsible for all the failures that had occurred, and for all the atrocities that had been committed.
Since in England there is freedom to speak of these things, I would like to propose that the London Review enable the English to read Lunes, Revolucion, PM, all the documents, and hear the voices of union leaders such as David Salvador y Aguilera, of those who underwent twenty years in the prisons of the Tropical Gulag, of the families of gunned-down revolutionaries. They should have the chance to study the statistics and compare how much a Cuban consumed then with how much he consumes today. They should get to know the miseries of the transportation system, the new unemployment, the longest prison sentences in the world, the black-out on media information, the censorship of philosophy, art and literature: liberty is a ghost. Castro, the guerrilla, has transformed Cuba into the Americas’ second military power. A hundred thousand Cuban officials and soldiers, police, technical workers, construction workers and political literacy workers are functioning under Soviet orders in several countries on three continents. Tossed by Cuban Communist airmen our of Soviet Migs, Communist bombs – made in the USSR – release their ‘liberating’ cargo on the heads of the socialist guerrillas of Eritrea.
Among the nations of Latin America, Cuba fought the longest for its independence from Spain, and won its liberation from North American domination in the least time. And it might be the first to free itself from the Soviet Union. This may seem optimistic. But if he has so much power, why is Castro afraid? Why so many jails and so much terror? He knows from experience that Communism is only useful in conquering new countries. Not in the creation of new societies.