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The Case of Heberto Padilla

Last month The New York Review published a report that Heberto Padilla, perhaps the best of the Cuban poets of the revolutionary generation, that is, men who, like most of the Cuban leaders, have just reached forty, had been jailed on March 20 without charges being brought against him [NYR, May 6]. With this report appeared a letter expressing concern addressed to Fidel Castro and signed by prominent European and Latin American intellectuals who have often demonstrated their support of the Cuban revolution. Since then Le Monde has reported that Padilla was released on April 25 and that he issued a statement of self-criticism written in jail. On April 27 he read this recantation to a meeting of the Cuban Writers’ Union (UNEAC). Shocking news, but this is not the first time Padilla has been in trouble.

In 1968, when asked by the Associated Press how he felt about the attack in Verde Olivo, the Cuban Army magazine, on the volume of his poetry that had just won the annual prize awarded by UNEAC, Padilla replied,

I always dislike articles that attack me, for after the first natural unhappy reaction they cause I spend whole hours trying to confront the image that my adversary offers me with that which I have of myself, and that is a process which is really anguished.

The Verde Olivo attack had followed attempts, ostensibly by the leadership of UNEAC, to influence the jury not to award the prize in poetry to Padilla or to Anton Arrufat in playwriting. I say ostensibly because it was the Cuban Communist Party and not UNEAC that had taken on this minor literary battle as a major project, and Verde Olivo‘s article, as well as others that subsequently appeared in the same magazine attacking various groups of writers, was reprinted in Granma, the Party organ, and distributed throughout the Party for discussion.

I was in Cuba at the time and the most pessimistic of the Cubans I talked to expected that Padilla’s book would not be published and that he would be sent to a work farm for rehabilitation. Neither happened; the book was published, with an introduction condemning it as counterrevolutionary by the Executive Committee of UNEAC, and Padilla was not arrested. He was without a job for a long time, however, and it was not until about a year ago, when he appealed directly to Fidel, that he was given one at the University of Havana.

In his statement of self-criticism last month, Padilla adopted—with what anguish one can well imagine—the image that his adversaries offered: he described himself as an Iago, counterrevolutionary, subtle, insidious, malignant, the source for all the criticism of Cuba that foreign writers like K.S. Karol and René Dumont have published. It now falls to those of us who are his friends as well as friends of the Cuban revolution to suffer the anguish—perhaps for more than whole hours—of the image that he and the revolution offer us of themselves.

At this writing, almost nothing about Padilla’s case has appeared here or in the Cuban press. What I learned at the end of April came from Le Monde, which first published the fact of his arrest and subsequently that of his release, as well as extracts of his statement and a short account of his appearance at the UNEAC meeting; the last three reports were culled from dispatches by Prensa Latina, the Cuban news agency. At the end of the first week in May Padilla’s statement and a speech given by Fidel on April 30 became available in New York from official Cuban sources, both after a delay unusual for the Cubans and, in the case of Padilla’s statement, with the omission of at least one section which had appeared in the version released by Prensa Latina in Paris. The significance of this deletion I shall point out below.

In any case, it immediately became apparent that the letter to Fidel Castro published in The New York Review had little chance of success, for Le Monde reported that Fidel himself affirmed that he “had personally ordered the arrest of Padilla” and added that other Cuban intellectuals could suffer the same fate. To a gathering of university students Fidel indirectly replied to the intellectuals’ letter with the statement that Cubans would see now who are really the friends of Cuba, accusing those who have interested themselves in Padilla’s case of imposing conditions on their friendship.

On April 30 Fidel, speaking to the closing session of the First National Congress of Education and Culture, made himself even more explicit, though he still did not mention the letter from the intellectuals nor, this time, Padilla’s name. In a long aside he attacked “bourgeois liberals” who are not interested, he said, in the real problems of Cuba but in the problems “lost sheep may have with the revolution because they have not been given the right to continue to spread poison and malice within the revolution.” He scoffed at “certain books” published in the past that would no longer be published in Cuba; inveighed against literary magazines—“paid for by imperialism”—which will carry “these rumors and little problems”; denounced “shameless semi-leftists” living in “bourgeois salons, ten thousand miles away”; and announced they would no longer be allowed to be on national or international juries in Cuba—indeed, to get a prize “they’ll have to be real revolutionaries, real writers and poets.”

It would have been interesting if Fidel had said to those young educators he was addressing at the congress that he was referring to, among others, Sartre and de Beauvoir and to the four major Latin American novelists, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Maria Vargas Llosa, whose works have made the face of that continent visible throughout the world. And, closer to home, that one signatory of the letter was Carlos Franqui, who as organizer of the clandestine press for the 26 of July Movement ran risks as great as the fighters in the Sierra Maestre faced, and who at the moment finds himself in Rome.

Fidel’s present position represents as much of an about-face as Padilla’s and has perhaps been arrived at with as much anguish. But since Fidel has been working out his ideological development in public for thirteen years, the process may be easier for him. Early in 1968, some eight months before Padilla first got into trouble, Fidel delivered l’envoi to the Cultural Congress held in Havana. It was an extraordinary speech. He was still suffering personally from the death of el Che, with that depth of feeling that the twelve who began the fight in the Sierra Maestre have for one another; at one point he offered to exchange all political prisoners in Cuba for “the body of our Comandante.”

More significant, in the light of what Le Monde and Fidel’s April 30 speech report, was his tribute to the intellectuals at the congress—and they included most of the signatories of the recent appeal in Padilla’s behalf—whose presence, Fidel said, did Cuba honor. It was they and not the Communist Parties of the West, he said, who had come to Cuba’s defense during the missile crisis. Moreover, he came so close to an open denunciation of Soviet domestic and international policies that those of us there worried for Cuba’s economic survival.

Soon after came the trial of Anibal Escalante, the former leader of the old Communist Party. He was charged with attempting to persuade the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia to apply economic pressure to force the Cuban leadership to reverse its policies to ones that the Soviet Union would no doubt prefer. By the standards of judgment recently applied in Cuba, all these acts of Fidel’s are sins for which he has yet to castigate himself, and it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that Padilla, along with most of the artistic community of Havana, is playing the role of scapegoat.

Except that “playing” is a cynical and unfeeling verb to use for Padilla’s experience of the last two months. The language and tone of his self-denunciation are so unlike those of his work and his personal manner that an old friend, the Cuban novelist Juan Arcocha, declared in Le Monde that it could only have been extracted under torture. 1 In his statement, Padilla began by reproaching himself for his literary vanity and political and intellectual fatuity and went on to confess that he had defamed every project of the revolution; had attacked unjustly his “old friend,” the novelist Lisandro Otero, the writer and bureaucrat who in 1968 was said to have organized the attack on Padilla; had defended Cabrera Infante, a Cuban novelist who defected; that instead of being grateful to the revolution for publishing his work he had become a procurer of the revolution to draw attention to himself; that he had passed on to Karol and Dumont erroneous analyses of Cuban political life that became the basis of their books on Cuba, as had the defeatist analyses he gave the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger.

Again and again he returns to his personal faults: his egoism, his infatuation with himself, his desire for publication and fame abroad.

I knew that each blow against whatever aspect of the revolution would increase my popularity with those so-called liberal and democratic journalists and writers who were more preoccupied with the conflicts of one intellectual than with the imperialist bombing of Vietnam.

He called on other writers—among them his wife Belkis Cuza Male, Pablo Armando Fernandez, Cesar Lopez, Manuel Diaz Martinez—to overcome their weaknesses which “could lead them to political and moral degradation,” and Le Monde reports that at the UNEAC meeting each of these writers arose and confessed his faults.

With his confession Padilla undercuts the friends who might come to his defense (Karol and Dumont are said to be “CIA agents” and the others are “so-called liberal and democratic journalists”) and does so in a rhetoric so alien to the character of his work and his sensibility that the fragments of the recantation in Le Monde read like a plea for disbelief. Indeed, Arcocha affirms that Padilla never met Dumont. The lumping together of Karol and Dumont is an imprecision of which Padilla was formerly incapable; both men are socialists but very different in their criticism of the Cuban revolutionary experience.

We are being asked to believe that Padilla could have supplied “erroneous analyses” to bolster any argument; and that he could believe these men to be CIA agents. (The disappearance of the entire passage on Karol and Dumont from the version of Padilla’s statement issued in New York may mean that the Cubans wish us to forget an accusation which is so easily disproved.) And that Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who gave up a teaching post in an American university in response to the Cubans’ call to intellectuals to break their ties with the United States, is an enemy of the Cuban revolution.

  1. 1

    One of the most disquieting features of Le Monde‘s reports is a quotation from Prensa Latina‘s dispatch describing Padilla’s appearance at the UNEAC meeting as “choking from the heat in the salon.” Since Padilla’s statement of self-castigation was signed on April 5 and he was not released until twenty days later, one naturally worries about any description of his physical condition which does not seem normal.

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