Cuba’s “Padilla Affair” 40-Years On

Alfredo Fernandez

Heberto Padilla

The date April 27, 1971 seems unimportant, though it certainly is. That was the occasion when a good part of the world’s intellectuals officially broke with the Cuban Revolution.

It turns out that on that evening at the headquarters of the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC) would be held one of the most sinister acts in self-incrimination that has ever taken place in the western hemisphere.

The victim would be no one other than a poet, Heberto Padilla (Pinar del Rio January 20, 1932 – Alabama, USA, September 24, 2000).

His agony had begun exactly four years earlier, in 1967, when the jury of UNEAC’s Julian del Casal Poetry Award, which was presided over by the poet and novelist Jose Lezama Lima, awarded him first prize for his book “Fuera del juego” (Out of the Game). This writing dealt with a relationship that is rarely addressed in Cuban literature: the one between poetry and history.

The book has verses such as this one, which demonstrates that “difficult relationship”:

There it is again, miserable humiliation
Looking at you with its dog eyes
Throwing you against new dates
And names.

Get up coward.
And go back to your hole like yesterday, rejected,
Bowing your head yet again,
You see, history is a blow that you have to learn to take.
History is that place that affirms us and rips us apart.
History is that rat that every night goes up the stairs.
History is riffraff
That also jumps in bed with the grand prostitute.

It turns out that the poet Padilla had worked at the beginning of the 1960s in the Cuban embassy in London, where — as he would years later recall in his book La mala memoria (The Bad Memory) — he struck up friendships with exiled intellectuals and artists from the socialist camp, people like the Czechs Otta Sic and Kerl Kosic; Poles such as Oscar Lange and Leazek Kolakowsky; Hungaria’s Georg Lukas, and Russian such as Evgueni Evtuchenko, who warned him about the rigors of life under socialism. They were, in a certain way, the driving force behind his famous book.

This act of “self-incrimination,” held in Havana’s UNEAC before the most important Cuban intellectuals of the moment, followed the arrest of Padilla and his wife (the poet Belkis Cuza Malé) the previous month by the forces of Cuban state security.

There, he was “prepared” for this day when “miraculously” the poet Padilla was presented in the packed Villena Room of UNEAC. Not only was he “repentant” for having written Fuera del juego, but he also admitted to have been a mistaken “bourgeois writer, unworthy of being read by the workers and unable to understand the complexity of the revolutionary process.” During that painful ceremony the poet also spoke about his inevitable need to think and act as “someone on the side of the Revolution.”

The Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC).

Padilla, during his self-recrimination, implicated other artists and writers, who too had to castigate themselves for their poor relationships with the “historical moment that the country was living through.”

Intellectuals around the world, especially those who until that moment had shown their unconditional support for the Cuban Revolution, didn’t swallow the hook. The theatrical staging of “show trials” was already known; Stalin had used them for the first time in 1938 during those sadly celebrated “Moscow Trials.”

Therefore the “regret” shown by the poet Padilla produced an effect completely opposite to the one desired.

Intellectuals who until then had supported the Cuban Revolution signed a letter in which they condemned the fact and added that they were withdrawing their support for the Cuban movement as they had begun to perceive it as a simple dictatorship.

In this way, Nobel laureates in literature Jean Paul Sartre, Octavio Paz and Mario Vargas Llosa, along with distinguished writers Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Susan Sontang, Luis and Juan Goytisolo, etc., would also sign the missive. The writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and Mario Benedetti, though they condemned the act, maintained their friendly relations with the Cuban government.

Starting from that event, Padilla would still have to live nine years of ostracism, until 1980, when he left the country. But it was the writer Reinaldo Arenas in his book Antes que anochezca (Before It Gets Dark) who describes the poet Heberto Padilla the last time he saw him on the island:

“When we got to the corner of 20th Street and Fifth Avenue in Miramar, I saw Heberto Padilla along with one of those big trees that grew there; he approached walking down the sidewalk; pale, dumpy and lonely – it was the image of destruction. They had also succeeded at “rehabilitating” him; now he strolled between those trees like a ghost.”

The Padilla affair not only meant a “parting of the waters” in the relationship between world intellectuals with the Cuban Revolution, it also marked the explicit beginning of a policy of “parametraje” (parameterization) toward the island’s artists by the state.

This was a policy that Cuban intellectual Ambrosio Fornet dubbed “El Quinquenio Gris” (“The Five-year Gray Period”), which in reality extended until 1980. This made it impossible for anyone to work in the area of culture who “didn’t situate themselves within the political and moral parameters” demanded by the revolutionary government.

Parameterization had as its aim to push to one side of the revolutionary process all homosexuals and anyone whose social posture could be considered “doubtful” toward the Revolution or of “ideological diversionism.”

Given the importance of this event for understanding the Cuban Revolution, I believe that we shouldn’t overlook the “celebration” of the fortieth year of this the event that went down in the history of Cuba as “The Padilla Affair.”

One thought on “Cuba’s “Padilla Affair” 40-Years On

  • Man on the Edge

    He is not the man who goes over the wall,
    feeling himself enclosed by his times,
    nor is he the fugitive breathing hard
    hidden in the back of a truck
    fleeing from the terrorists,
    nor is he the poor guy with the canceled passport
    who is always trying to cross a new border.

    He lives on this side of heroics
    -in that dark part-
    but never gets rattled or surprised.
    He does not want to be a hero,
    not even a romantic
    around whom we might
    weave a legend.

    He is sentenced to this life, and, what terrifies him more,
    condemned irretrievably to his own time.
    He is headless at two in the morning,
    going from one room to another
    like an enormous wind
    which barely survives in the wind outside.
    Every morning he begins again
    as if he were an Italian actor.
    He stops dead
    as if someone had just stolen his being.

    No looking glass would dare reflect
    this fallen mouth, this wisdom gone bankrupt.

    – Herberto Padilla

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