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I was in Cuba at the time and the most pessimistic of the Cubans I talked to expected that Padilla’s book would not be published and that he would be sent to a work farm for rehabilitation.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.

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