Breaking Up with Castro

Self-Portrait of the Other: A Memoir

by Heberto Padilla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp., $19.95

In March 1980 the poet Heberto Padilla, after futilely asking permission to leave Cuba for some ten years, was summoned by Fidel Castro who told him that he could now go. “Intellectuals,” he told Padilla, “are generally not interested in the social aspect of a revolution.” As early as 1961, at a meeting with artists and writers, Castro defined the role of intellectuals: everything was permissible within the revolution and nothing was permissible against it.

In the early days of the revolution intellectuals such as Padilla were sent abroad as missionaries to convert the European left to become enthusiastic admirers of what was happening in Cuba. Sartre led the chorus of supporters in Paris. But by the mid-1960s there were discordant voices and they found an echo in Cuba itself among those who could no longer “swallow toads,” as the revolution veered off course and assumed many of the features of a police state. As the Egyptian economist Raouf Kahlil, an early admirer of Nasser, told me, there came a time in his country when one could no longer say, “I admire the revolution, but….” In Cuba Fidel Castro’s brother, Raúl, could not tolerate “buts.” Intellectuals, he said, must join the cultural militia of socialist realism. If they refused they must be humiliated into submission. He was convinced that the international travels and contacts with communist intellectuals made them obnoxious because they privately indulged in criticism of the revolution and damaged its reputation abroad. On the other hand, when it was useful, they could conveniently be cast as foreign agents in the pay of the CIA. State Security was the instrument of what Padilla calls Raúl Castro’s “iron-fisted policy.”

All revolutions, as Tocqueville observed, provide a repeat performance of some previous revolution. The Castro brothers were resurrecting Robespierre’s preferred technique: the use of blanket accusations of treason to eliminate enemies of the revolution, who would be denounced by neighborhood committees. The Cuban variant on the Jacobin model was the attack on homosexuals. Revolutionary puritanism, the cult of austerity cultivated by the Sea-Green Incorruptible of 1792, became combined with a conviction that sexual deviants must, by definition, be political dissidents. Even Sartre was troubled about this. “A society without Jews such as Cuba,” he remarked to Padilla, “will end up inventing them. Perhaps the homosexuals are the Jews of Cuba.” 1

The Padilla case was the cause célèbre of Raúl Castro’s campaign against intellectuals. Padilla was a distinguished younger poet in a country where poets abound, sanctified by the revolutionary tradition: José Martí, the martyr-hero of the Cuban struggle for independence against Spain, was a poet. However much his message has been distorted by Castro, he remains the untouchable father of Castro’s own revolution. (Juan Marinello, the leading communist intellectual whom Padilla once admired but whom he later dismissed as a bombastic spokesman for leftist clichés, knew Martí’s speeches by heart.) A common language gives Latin American poets an audience throughout the continent: Neruda is read in Mexico, Octavio…

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