Resurrecting Padilla, Stirring Up a Chapter of the Dark Past

Heberto Padilla

By Javier Herrera

HAVANA TIMES – The documentary “El caso Padilla” (The Padilla Case), made by filmmaker Pavel Giroud, a Cuban now living in Spain, has caused quite a stir after it was screened in Panama. The documentary shares common ground with the heart-rending German movie Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), when it comes to recovering historical memory and the methods political police used against intellectuals. However, they are extremely different in the fact that El Caso Padilla doesn’t deal with characters created by the director, but rather with real people and lives, names and surnames that many Cubans recognize.

The movie talks about the famous case of intellectual and poet Heberto Padilla in 1971, which sadly gave way to the notorious Five Grey Years of Cuban intellectuality.

Padilla was born in Pinar del Rio on January 20, 1932. He studied Journalism at Havana University and Humanities at universities in the U.S. He also studied three years of Law at Havana University, but he didn’t finish this degree. His educational background also included Language studies abroad, and he was fluent in English, German, Russian, Italian and Greek.

Heberto Padilla worked as a journalist, magazine director, translator, and he founded a couple of youth magazines, while also being a correspondent for different newspapers. Passionate about poetry, he used this medium to express himself and it led to his greatest achievements, as well as his fall into disgrace.

The Cuban Revolution’s victory caught him in New York, and he didn’t think a second before joining the Revolution with all of his youthful enthusiasm. He was affectionately and warmly welcomed by Cuban intellectuals, and he soon found himself a part of the budding revolution, thanks to his previous contact with leader Fidel Castro back in 1951 perhaps. He took on different leadership roles, and even represented the Ministry of Foreign Trade in the Soviet Bloc.

Upon his return from the Soviet Bloc in 1966, he came back with a critical view of Cuban and socialist reality on the whole. A passionate intellectual, his way of thinking became clear both in private conversations as well as in his work, giving birth to his heretical – we could say dissident -, collection of poems Fuera del Juego, which won the Julian del Casal Prize from the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) in 1968.

From that moment onwards, he became the target of critique and controversy within circles of Cuban intellectuals, as well as those responsible for censorship.  On March 20, 1971, after a recital at the Writers’ Union where he read his book of poems Provocaciones, Padilla was arrested alongside his wife and taken to State Security’s offices at the barracks of the sinister and fearful Villa Marista.

After 52 days in prison under the ambiguous charge of “Subversive Activities”, Padilla was released and then summoned to a talk with artists and close friends the following day. During the meeting, the freshly-released prisoner made a pathetic mea culpa in which he rejected his previous work, life and the ideas he’d expressed, in true “Moscow trials” fashion. The humiliation was so great that he even implicated several close artists and even his wife Belkis Cruza Male, who was also a writer.

Even though the self-critical Moscow Trials normally ended with the death of the prisoner, this wasn’t the end for Heberto. Maybe he would have preferred death to the most dreaded Hell for artists and writers. Padilla was sentenced to ostracism, he was distanced from any artistic activity and lived a precarious life with a few translations here and there which he did for the Cuban Book Institute, including an anthology of English romantic poetry.

After huge pressure from the international community, Padilla was granted authorization to leave the country in 1980, following his wife’s steps, who had been living in Miami since the year before. Spiritually exhausted, he was never the same again, although that didn’t stop him from working as a professor at different universities and going to different intellectual events. Consumed by alcohol and diabetes, he passed away on November 25, 2000, after suffering a third heart attack at 68 years old. (Curiously Fidel Castro died on the same day 16 years later.)

The Padilla Case marked a before and after in the Cuban Revolution’s far-from-idyllic relationship with intellectual circles worldwide. Those reviled by this cruel display of sadism against the Cuban intellectual included Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Jean-Paul Sartre, Susan Sontag, Mario Vargas Llosa, and many other intellectuals who had harsh words to say about the Revolution and its leaders. It’s necessary to point out that some of the intellectuals who protested broke all ties with the Cuban Government and even with the Left in general, but many others took back their words in different ways and picked up their toxic and tense courtship with the Left.

It’s good to let the intellectuals who still hold onto their fling with the Cuban Government know that Stalinist cultural policies are far from being over in Cuba. Fifty years after the moral self-lynching of Heberto Padilla, the well-known association Casa de las Americas, revictimized the man again by rereading the case in 2021. At that time, Abel Prieto and writer Jaime Gomez Triana attacked the poet again and said that the “confession answered to a plan that Padilla himself had come up with” and they labeled it a “great promotional maneuver” that “had mass media’s enthusiastic support, as well as the swollen egos of many foreign intellectuals involved.”

The 27N protest at the Ministry of Culture.

The same intellectuality demanding social justice is turning a deaf ear and blind eye as dozens of Padilla cases take place in today’s Cuba.  Dozens of artists in Cuba are being persecuted today by State Security and the Police. Every now and again, they are arrested, interrogated, and threatened in the Police jail cells.  Some of these contemporary artists are being charged with fabricated crimes such as Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara or Maikel Castillo. Others are being banished as if it were the 19th century, while others suffer banishment by traveling abroad and finding out that they are unable to reenter the country by Cuban authorities, such as the case of art curator Anamelis Ramos. There are still others who are being punished by not being able to leave the country to take part in events linked to their art or to make personal trips, such as the case of poet Ariel Maceo Telles.

They are trying to ignore the dozens of artists that led a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture and were received with police repression and an aggressive minister who threw out a couple of punches and smashed cellphones. This same intellectuality that still gives a nod to Cuban dictators is pretending to ignore the existence of Decree-Law 349, which they are using to try and regulate what is considered Art and who is an artist, spreading fear and anxiety among artists and intellectuals who are committed to the truth.

Going back to the commotion surrounding the documentary El Caso Padilla, many people are rebuking filmmaker Pavel Giroud for not having released all of the archives he may have in his possession to make the film. Pavel was asked where the original tapes used in the filming came from and he is being asked to give up his sources. Regardless of everyone’s general and individual opinion, even regardless of my own personal opinion, I believe that this documentary is a priceless testimony and that it belongs to all of us somehow. I believe that this film forms a key part of the Cuban history we need to write over the past 64 years, which has been hidden and twisted by Castro circles of power. 

It’s worth pointing out that Padilla’s self-incriminating speech was specifically recorded so that Fidel Castro could watch it and revel in the poet’s humiliation. Thus, it’s hard for dozens of copies of archive material to be within anyone’s reach. I believe that both Giroud and his sources that got him the precious tape have taken huge risks that are worthy of our respect.

Pavel himself is finding it hard to go back to his country without running the risk of being arrested, interrogated, accused and sentenced in a false trial. The source of the original tapes must be people who are highly trusted with access to archive material and, as such, would be in great danger if their names were even to come out. In fact, I’m sure the witch hunt to find the source of the leak has already begun.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.