Cuba is “Different” From Venezuela and the Ukraine

Interview with Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura

Daniel Garcia Marco (dpa)

Leonardo Padura. File photo by David Garten.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura does not believe his country could witness the kind of protests now taking place in the Ukraine and Venezuela, a close ally of the Cuban government.

Padura, one of the most internationally renowned Cuban intellectuals today, visiting Miami since last Sunday, believes that such factors as the social changes once legitimated in Cuba, the absence of high levels of violence and the inexistence of a political project by an organized opposition, prevent what is happening in Caracas and Kiev from taking place in Havana.

“The conditions haven’t come about. The conditions haven’t been allowed to come about,” Padura said during an interview with DPA in Miami, where he made several public appearances and compared Cuba to Venezuela and the Ukraine, countries currently shaken by vigorous anti-government protests.

“I believe this has prevented protests of this type, even when there are people who are more or less unhappy,” 58-year-old Padura stated. The author is critical of Raul Castro’s government but refuses to do politics through his novels.

Author of the best-selling The Man Who Loved Dogs and the more recent Heretics, Padura sees changes in Miami’s Cuban community and calls on the United States to take the next step and lift the embargo, a demand that is gaining strength in both Florida and Washington.

dpa: You were afraid to come to Miami before.

Padura: There was a time when there were people in Miami who were fairly aggressive with Cuban artists who came here. It would have been very unpleasant for me to have had someone accuse me of something that isn’t my fault. That said, the cultural and social perspective of Miami’s Cuban community has evolved a lot.

dpa: There are less and less hardliners in the émigré community and even anti-embargo currents in Miami. How does all this look to you from a distance?

Padura: The embargo is a political rather than economic mistake, even though, economically speaking, it affects the average Cuban most of all. It has been used by both sides as a pretext to keep tensions high. The day in which relations between Cuba and the United States become normal, it will be like waking up from a nightmare for Cubans living on the island and in Miami. The dragon that was devouring me was part of that nightmare.

dpa: Is the end of the “nightmare” in sight?

Padura: The times are better. There are reasons to think this is the best moment to overcome our differences. I see changes in the Cuban community here, there are changes taking place in Washington, in Havana, in the way people who live in Cuba think. If you add everything up, I think the result is rather promising.

dpa: What’s the next step and who is going to take it?

Padura: The United States should take the first step by assuming an attitude that is a bit more logical. If there are American companies selling products to Cuba, if there are so many businesspeople interested in investing in Cuba, if there are even Cuban-American businesspeople who have expressed an interest in establishing financial relations with Cuba, the step should be taken at this end, which is where the embargo is being maintained.

dpa: When will there be a political reform in Cuba?

Padura: It’s coming and, in fact, it’s already happening. This past month, during the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), there were reports of dissidents who were detained for two or four hours. Before, they would have been detained for two or four years, the difference is notable. There’s more permissiveness in Cuba.

dpa: Are you, as a writer, an example of that permissiveness?

Padura: The fact I was awarded the National Literature Award is. A few years ago, no one would have thought it possible, because I am far from being a pro-government writer.

dpa: Is the liberalization process a mere cosmetic change, or do people believe in it?

Padura: I think things have changed. A process of change started in Cuba in the 90s. When I published my first novels about Mario Conde, I wasn’t the well-known writer I am today, and, still, the novels were published and got awards. They had fairly strong criticisms and nothing happened. Some writers are silenced more than others, are given less promotion than they deserve. I think this is a rather clumsy attitude on behalf of Cuba’s cultural policies.

dpa: Why do you pay tribute to heretics in your last novel?

Padura: Heresy is one of the forces that have moved humanity forward. If all of us had been orthodox, we’d be pretty screwed. Without breaking rules thought to be immutable, society would not have developed.

dpa: Are you a heretic?

Padura: I am a heterodox person, an anti-orthodox person, rather than a heretic. I haven’t been arrested enough to be a heretic. I try to think differently, I don’t like being forced to think as others want me to.

dpa: Why haven’t the kinds of things we’ve been seeing in Caracas and Kiev these days ever happened in Havana?

Padura: The conditions haven’t come about. The conditions haven’t been allowed to come about. There isn’t a political project in Cuba that could oppose the government, the dissident movement itself is divided and has been deeply penetrated by Cuban intelligence. Levels of violence in Cuban society have never been too high.

The fact things have never gone past a given point has, I think prevented protests of this kind, even though there are people who are more or less unhappy. I believe the Cuban project resulted in a true revolution. In the 60s, a different society was created, and it enjoyed the support of the majority at the time. Perhaps it doesn’t enjoy the same levels of support and acceptance today, but it created its own legitimacy. That makes it different from Venezuela and the Ukraine.

21 thoughts on “Cuba is “Different” From Venezuela and the Ukraine

  • March 1, 2014 at 7:34 am

    Padura’s assessment rings true. The state of the opposition is different in Cuba. That stands to reason as Cuba is in a different place with it’s economy and personal freedoms. The average Cuban is not looking for whole sale regime change. He is looking for more economic freedom to elevate his life. This is the will of the common man looking for a little better life. A very human desire.

  • February 28, 2014 at 11:33 am

    I perfectly happy to hear your personal opinions on Padura, or any other Cuban writers. That’s why I share my personal opinions on Cuban literature. It’s odd that you pre-emptively self-censor your own comments in expectation of criticisms I have never made. I think that’s called “projection”.

    I didn’t ignore your examples, I addressed them, and dismissed them as examples of “strong criticism”. They’re mild criticisms of safe targets. The Castro regime is always denouncing corruption of public officials. Having such characters in his novels is a cautious way to write and is hardly an example of brave or outspoken criticism. On the other hand, you have ignored my examples and accuse me of saying things I did not say.

    Let me be clear on this point: nowhere did I say that Padura must write what I think he should write.

    You are quite correct, official attitudes toward writers have varied greatly over the years. After a very brief period of liberation and experimentation in Cuban literature, the Castro regime quickly clamped down on not only dissident or critical writers, but also on content they declared was decadent or immoral. Since the 1990’s the attitudes have softened a little bit, but not much. Writers can now address issues like homosexuality and official corruption, provided they stay clear of accusing actual high officials of those problems. Writers are still banned, arrested, harassed and jailed in Cuba today and the works of great Cuban writers such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas are officially banned.

    I happen to think that’s a terrible tragedy, one of many, inflicted on the Cuban people by the Castro regime who have imposed a cultural embargo on the Cuban people.

    According to PEN Canada, only China, Iran & Burma imprison more writers than does Cuba. In a report from 2010, of the 30 writers imprisoned for their work in the Western hemisphere, 26 of them were in Cuba. The writer and blogger Ángel Santiesteban Prats languishes in a Cuban jail on trumped up charges because his writing was too critical for the regime.

    That is why I take exception to the comments Padura made pointing to his own cautious work as an example of growing artistic freedom in Cuba. It simply is not so.

  • February 28, 2014 at 8:01 am

    Right, you really have pissed me off now. I have read all the Conde novels. I quoted the blurb as an independent third party, because if I had stated the same thing myself, all you would have said “that’s only your opinion, he’s not really a high ranking official bla, bla, bla, etc “. I didn’t want to give too much of the plot away for other potential readers, but many of the books have very negative portrayals of high ranking officials (including Havana Red).
    He is writing fiction not a political speech. You seem to think it necessary for him to pepper the text with the words “dictator” in order to be strongly critical.
    I agree that there have been many examples of injustices, but it’s not the whole picture. Things have varied over the years and there have been plenty of examples of strong criticisms as well as mild criticisms. You ignore the example I gave. Of course this doesn’t fit in with your world view.

  • February 27, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    I read his novels, not just the blurb. The ministry of industry official is revealed to be corrupt and ready to jump to Miami: a safe target. Havana Red touches on the issue of homophobia but it was written only long after the regime de-criminalized homosexuality. All you have to do is look at how Arenas and Pineiro were treated to know how vicious the Castros & Che were toward gays.

    Again, I have to point out, I did not say anywhere that Padura must write this it that. I merely point out his writing is not strongly critical as he claimed it is.

    Strawberry & Chocolate is a beautiful film. Now consider how many of the artists mentioned obliquely were treated.

    There have been several artists who’s criticisms became stronger over the years, so true. And like the example I gave above, and many others, once they cross a certain line they are anathema to the regime. Just try to find Arenas’ books in Cuba today! Or Piniero. Or dozens of other fine Cuban writers in exile, like Infante or Zoe Valdez. Censorship and intellectual repression persists in Cuba today.

  • February 27, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    What I find annoying is that you assume Padura would say everything you want him to (including naming names), but doesn’t because he is being cautious. He doesn’t criticise the embargo either. Is that because he is being cautious in case of a future US administration?

    But as it happens I don’t agree that he hasn’t made strong criticisms of the regime. For example Havana Blue the blurb states “Rafael Morín Rodríguez, a high-level official in the ministry for industry” who is strongly criticised. In Havana Red the father of the transvestite is a high level official who is criticised as well. The series is all very negative about most things in cuban society but then the genre is noir.

    I don’t really care whether you want to put him in the category of dissident or not. I don’t see things as simplistic as that. There are plenty of examples of artists and works of art that are critical eg Strawberry and Chocolate and there are artists who have become more critical over the years. The scope of intellectual freedom isn’t as bleak as you like to portray.

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