THE POET WHO ADDED 12 YEARS TO MY LIFE
By Jorge Luis Romeu
For Op/ed or Literary Section
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 But the award was withdrawn by government "request."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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org)
(c) 2001, Hispanic Link News Service, Distributed by Los Angeles Times