By Jorge Luis Romeu

    HISPANIC LINK                                                             
    For Op/ed or Literary Section
    Column #1

    Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, who wrote the book of poems Fuera del Juego 
in the late '60s and was rewarded with imprisonment by the Cuban government, 
died recently in relative obscurity at the University of Alabama, where he 
spent his last years teaching.
     Even though we met only a couple of times during Cuban-exile literary 
conferences at Columbia and Rutgers, I feel a sadness that is very personal. 
I owe him a big one.
   Padilla was a living indictment for one of the darkest sides of Fidel 
Castro's regime: intellectual  oppression. I know. He and I share some common 
experiences. In fact, if it had not been for Padilla, the story of my life 
might have included an additional tragic chapter. 
   Padilla was born in 1931 in Pinar del Río, a Cuban  province known as The 
Cinderella. He overcame the poverty and other obstacles of such a region 
and found his way to Havana. There, in the late '50s, he began participating 
in literary circles.  At the start of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, he joined 
the group of young artists and writers  who formed the UNEAC, the official 
writers union, and published his first literary works.
   In 1968, Padilla  won the Julián del Casal's UNEAC literary competition 
with Fuera del Juego. But the award was withdrawn by government "request."
   Padilla  fell in disgrace. His work was critical of Fidel Castro's Cuba 
and this wasn't to be tolerated. Padilla and his wife, Belkis Cuza Male, also 
a Cuban writer, were arrested and subjected to long interrogations and 
imprisonment. Finally, in 1971, Padilla was forced to retract the messages of 
his poetry in public. He did so at a writer's meeting reminiscent of Stalin's 
era. After that, he accepted what work he could find as a translator until in 
1980, at the request of several international and political figures, the 
Cuban government allowed him to go into exile.
    This year 1968 was one of great political trauma all over the world. In 
the United States, the nation became divided over the Vietnam war; vicious 
conflict between the police and protestors marred the Chicago Democratic 
Convention.  In Mexico, student riots resulted in the Tlatelolco massacre. In 
France there were student revolts; in Prague, there was a drastic change in 
the communist government, followed by a Russian invasion.   
   In Cuba, we had the "Ofensiva Revolucionaria," the island's version of the 
Maoist Cultural Revolution, where whatever had been left of small, private 
enterprise -- pop and mom stores, shoeshine stands, bars -- was taken over by 
the government. These were also the years of mass expulsions of college 
students, of massive confinements to the UMAP forced labor camps and of the 
Camarioca  Boatlift,  the forerunner of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
   In such politically charged context, it is not difficult to understand why 
Padilla's  problems were so large. His forced retraction was so repugnant 
that even some members of the international community of leftist artists, 
including Sartre, Paz, Vargas Llosa and Fellini, wrote a public letter of 
protest to Castro.
   That letter resulted in Padilla's release, but he remained ostracized 
until he was able to leave the country years later.
   A few years later, in 1979, I was arrested for writing and publishing a 
book of short stories that dealt with Cuba's social problems. Like Padilla, I 
had to submit to interrogation. I was threatened with a 12-year prison 
sentence for my literary activities.  
   Our lives were about to share another common thread.
   For, as one of many college students expelled from the University of 
Havana in
1965, I had been sent to the UMAP labor camps. There,
I spent two years working in the cane fields of Camaguey.
   After my release, I wrote a book of short stories about UMAP,  Los Unos, 
Los Otros y El Seibo. Published in the United States in 1971, it was 
appraised as one of the two best short story books in Dr. Seymour 
Menton's study, "Prose Fiction of the Cuban Revolution." 
   Menton classified my work, published under the pen name Beltrán de Quiros, 
with that of the exiled writers. The nom de plume was one my father had used 
for many years in Cuban newspapers and magazines.
   It was tracked back to me and earned me another visit by the Cuban Secret 
Police. I can still close my eyes and see my small rectangular cell, with only 
one small couch, no windows and a constant, searing light at secret police 
headquarters, Villa Marista. I was allowed only my underwear. I can remember 
the cold, the air conditioner humming at full blast. A guard would lead me to 
the interrogator's office. There, spotlight in my eyes, I was asked again and 
again, for hours, how was I able to get the book out of the country? They just
couldn't believe I had sent every story, one by one, in the mail.
   At one of the first interrogation sessions, I made a discrete but clear 
reference to Padilla and to the fact that I still had other 30 stories 
outside of the country, awaiting publication .
  In the end, because of the Padilla precedent and international clamor his 
long imprisonment generated, I was deemed guilty, but released -- "liberado 
   Afterwards, I was harassed to the point that, even when I obtained a valid 
U.S. resident visa, my sister had to come from Florida for me in a shrimp 
trawler during the Mariel boatlift.
    My second book, La Otra Cara de la Moneda, was published a few years 
later, in 1984.
    In my mind, there is no question that, without the Padilla precedent, I 
would have rotted in the oblivion of a Cuban jail for 12 years. And I have 
always thought about how hard it must have been for Padilla to denounce his 
friends publicly and apologize for something he surely was so proud of:  
writing his poetry book. 
   I remember Heberto Padilla as one of Cuba's first peaceful dissidents. 
And, of course, as a very fine poet.

   (Dr. Jorge Luis Romeu, a 1994 Fulbright Senior Scholar to Mexico, is an 
Emeritus Faculty member of the State University of New York.  He directs the 
Juárez-Lincoln-Martí International Education Project. Dr. Romeu may be 
contacted by e-mail at

   (c) 2001, Hispanic Link News Service, Distributed by Los Angeles Times 
   Column 1