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I was in Cuba at the time and the most pessimistic of the Cubans I talked to expected that Padilla’s book would not be published and that he would be sent to a work farm for rehabilitation.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.
And that Padilla defended Cabrera Infante when he in fact brilliantly refuted him once he defected. While Cabrera Infante lived in London with the permission of the Cuban authorities, having been deprived of his post at the Brussels embassy in a manner that the foreign ministry has never satisfactorily explained, Padilla had the courage to mention this in print and to decry the neglect that his novel suffered in Cuba; but these circumstances are now forgotten in the confession.
But enough: there is more to be said about Padilla’s confessions than that they are false. One must ask if the faults to which he confessed are the charge for which he was imprisoned. Are these crimes? Is not writing often an act of egoism which is accompanied by the desire to be published abroad? Even if his confessions were true—and they are patently false—Padilla had a right to his views and to impart them to whomever he wished. The revolution does not prosecute the counterrevolutionaries living in Cuba who are not shy about complaining to foreigners (some were so bold as to do so on camera in Saul Laudau’s movie), or those hundreds of thousands who by the very act of applying for exile announce their intention of lending their voices to the attacks by Cuba’s enemies abroad. Does it need to be said to the Cuban leaders that a socialist society particularly needs to encourage criticism and open discussion?
In 1965 or 1966 Fidel discussed with Lee Lockwood, the American journalist, the possibility that when Cuba’s resources were less limited they would publish counterrevolutionary books. He argued that the government did not do so then because, with its limited resources, this would mean sacrificing publication of textbooks and acknowledged classics of world literature. A reasonable enough argument. The text of the Lockwood interview was reviewed and approved by Fidel, and one could say that his statement then was made with more care than are most of his extemporaneous speeches.
I especially am a partisan of the widest possible discussion in the intellectual realm…. I believe that ideas must be able to defend themselves. I am opposed to the blacklist of books, prohibited films, and all such things.
His statement was no surprise, only a confirmation of the stand that he had taken in 1961 when the first open battle occurred in Cuba between the artistic community and what the signatories of the New York Review letter to Fidel call “sectarian tendencies.” That battle was over the suppression of a short documentary called “PM” on the night life of old Havana. At the meeting of a group that was to become the Writers’ Union, Fidel intervened and spoke at length on the role of the intellectual. The leaders of the prerevolutionary Communist Party who had called the meeting expecting to set a cultural line similar to the Soviet Union’s lost the day. But the film was never distributed.
The next effort of the “sectarians” came when the UMAP was instituted. The initials UMAP stand for Military Units for Aid to Production, which were set up to include only young men of draft age whose moral outlook did not, in the eyes of the authorities, make them fit for regular military duty. The units became a catchall for homosexuals and other undesirables and in fact functioned as prison camps. In 1966 five prominent artists were called to report to the UMAP, presumably because they were homosexuals. The UNEAC general membership met in emergency session and both demanded unanimously that the order be rescinded and condemned the UMAP. It was then that Fidel promised that the UMAP would be dissolved, and he and others, I was told, personally apologized to the five artists. But just as in the first battle the film was never shown, the action of the UNEAC and the dissolution of the UMAP were never publicly discussed, in print or otherwise.
Three years later, toward the end of 1968—it seemed then that the old CP members and the new cultural bureaucrats needed these three-year intervals to regroup their forces—came the attack on the UNEAC prizes. It was a bold attempt because the juries for each category had been composed not just of Cuban writers but also of prominent ones from abroad (J.M. Cohen, the English critic, was on the poetry jury). Before the prizes were announced many attempts were made to persuade the jurors to change their decisions.
One member of the jury who was under pressure to do so was the poet Manuel Diaz Martinez. He was probably called on to recant at the recent UNEAC meeting because of his vote for Padilla on the poetry jury in 1968. Until then Diaz had published only the kind of exemplary revolutionary poetry that the “sectarians” approved. Indeed he was a member of the Party, and was consequently thought to be the ideal choice for swinging the committee away from Padilla’s manuscript. To the Party’s surprise, he not only refused but said that even if the rest of the jury changed its vote he would not. The jury remained unanimous in its selection of Padilla and added to the announcement of the prize that no “honorable mentions” would be made because no manuscript came near in quality to the collection submitted by Padilla.
There were many anecdotes and jokes in the intellectual community of Havana in those days, and I daresay a large part of the membership of UNEAC should have recanted last month, not just those whom Padilla singled out. By the new standards of judgment there are few Cuban artists who are without sin. In 1968 Nicolas Guillén, the grand old poet of Cuba and a lifelong Communist, was in charge of many of the Party’s maneuvers to change the decisions of the jurors. He finally desisted, I was told, when it became obvious that no respectable writer would support him. He was said then to have refused to act like “a performing monkey,” and it is interesting that Le Monde reports that although he is president of UNEAC he did not preside at the recent UNEAC meeting because of illness.
Of course Lisandro Otero, the “old friend” whom Padilla now says he unjustly attacked, was public enough in his accusations in 1968, but it was the general opinion in Havana that he was reacting, with all the power that his position as Vice Minister of Culture gave him, to a bad review of his novel that Padilla had written. All this was (and is) a miserable business and seemed to many in 1968 mainly embittered literary feuding, without ideological content.
But of course there was ideological content. The denunciatory statement by the Executive Committee of UNEAC inserted as an introduction to Padilla’s book—unsigned by individuals since that would have revealed that the famous Cuban poet and novelist José Lezama Lima was both a member of the Committee and of the jury that awarded the poetry prize—was pure Zhdanovite argument, impervious to literary irony, deaf to poetry, and quick to quote out of context lines that any reader could see were prorevolutionary.
The 1968 statement by UNEAC was forthright about only one thing: its defense of the Soviet Union. A group of poems in the book entitled “The Iron Brich Tree” derive from Padilla’s two-year stay in that country, and it was obvious Padilla wrote them to tell his countrymen that the USSR was not a socialist society they should emulate. It is interesting that although the articles that appeared in Verde Olivo in 1968 were highly charged with the usual arguments about ivory tower aesthetes who are divorced from the life of the people—all the clichés of Stalinist literary criticism—the main object of their attack was Padilla, whose work is deeply concerned with the experience of living in a revolutionary country.
The UNEAC Committee seemed not to have read, in 1968, the statement of theme that each contestant for the literary prizes was required to submit with his manuscript. Padilla’s was: “Life is not a walk across an open field.” The jury’s statement, as presumably written by Diaz Martinez, followed the Committee’s introduction in the book. Among other things it stated:
The strength of this book, and what gives it its revolutionary significance, lies precisely in the fact that it is not apologetic but critical, polemical, and is connected in its essence to the idea that the revolution is the only possible solution for the problems that obsess its author, which are those of the epoch which has been given us to live.
Life is not a walk across an open field. This simple statement is characteristic of Padilla’s work: his insistence on the facts of experience and his refusal to comfort us when the experience is harsh. From that derives his power and his ability to carry the reader with him when he leaps to startling perceptions and exhortations. For example, the UNEAC Committee accused him of feeling compassion for exiles and criminals in a poem which, literally translated, reads in part:
But our enemies go out, at dawn, to die
One judges them
Proves their guilt
But, in any case, they go out later to die.
The poem goes on to speak of “Those who flee / And those who do not understand / Or those who (understanding) weaken.” The list continues and it becomes unmistakable that the poet is speaking of the voluntary exiles and criminals for whom the UNEAC Committee apparently felt only loathing and that he is reminding his readers of their humanity. Yet it is this compassion that makes real Padilla’s affirmation of the revolutionary experience; addressing himself to the revolution in the final stanza, he ends: “We shall continue to write with your implacable chalk / Our Patria o Muerte.”2
Life is not a walk across an open field. In 1968, trying to explain to myself the distaste that Padilla’s enemies felt for him, I wondered if it were not the absence of rhetoric in his poems that so grated on them. Spanish and Latin American poetry is full of bombast and easy rhythms and alliterations—almost a fault of the language, it sometimes seems—and Padilla’s has none of that. Nor is he in the symbolist and surrealist tradition that began with Ruben Dario. He is, perhaps, most influenced by the Oxford group of the Thirties. But certainly also by Antonio Machado, whom only the passage of time has revealed to Spanish readers as their greatest poet of this century.
But while Machado is honored, his style has influenced few poets writing in Spanish. When the fascists approached Barcelona during the civil war, Machado walked with his country-men on the road to France and he died in one of those concentration camps the French set up for Spanish refugees. The road out of Havana, however, leads to Miami, and Padilla may well consider Miami a worse place to live than a jail cell. Since his recantation I would not predict any future action of Padilla’s, but he did say in his reply of 1968 to the renegade Cabrera Infante: “I am here and will continue here…. For a revolutionary writer there is no alternative: the Revolution or nothing.”
I do not want to forget one lesson of Padilla’s poetry—that even the fate of a single person cannot be glossed over. But I cannot help but ask what his incarceration and recantation signify for the Cuban people. That is the barrier to be leaped in this argument. The battle that the Soviet-oriented Cuban leaders—and they now seem to include Fidel—have recurrently fought with the Cuban intellectuals is a false one. It is a substitute for, a distraction from, a more difficult battle—to solve the nation’s economic problems. It is false too because the leaders try to believe that the recalcitrant artists are one thing and the people another. But if you silence one group it is very likely that you are not listening to the other.
The Cuban people are both the means and measure of socialism’s success. This is something the Cuban revolutionary leaders know, but after so many reverses—not all of their own making—the leaders may have their doubts. And so they cling now to the Soviet Union and its ways because that seems a less chancy road out of their troubles. Or because the pressure from the USSR that Anibal Escalante so much favored has been really applied at last. It was not always so. The Cuban people may still find a way of making their own leaders recant.
In 1968 the leadership decided, in a burst of revolutionary asceticism, that all bars and night clubs would be closed and that the July 26 carnivals in Santiago for St. James Day would not be held. As the date drew near, the neighborhood groups who traditionally take part in the carnival with dances and songs began to take out their drums and air their costumes and rehearse as if the carnival would be held. And it was. The Party without discussion relented and supplied the rum and beer and food and lights.
Perhaps there is hope. In the last paragraph of his book on Cuba, Karol says,
They [the Cubans] still have the means to start on a road that will lead them to a free and equal society. One does not have to be a dreamer to think that this is, in fact, the road they will choose.
June 3, 1971
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. ↩
The recent poems by Padilla that appear in this issue are proof of the falsity of last month’s confession that he fawned on visitors from abroad and rebut the UNEAC Committee’s attack in 1968; in particular, the charge that he is frightened of history while “a revolutionary does not fear history but sees it as confirmation of his confidence in the transformation of life.” (Effulgent determinists spout such formulations, not Marxists.) Yet the second time that I read these witty and moving poems I saw and heard them through the gray eyes and tin ears of bureaucrats and feared that there may be more choked recantations yet to come from Padilla. ↩