The Padilla Confessions and Rehash of an Unfinished Debate 

By Jorge Luis Lanza Caride*

HAVANA TIMES – It seems like the ghost of Cuban writer Heberto Padilla (1932-2001) has been floating about around us nowadays in the turbulent 21st century Cuba, where many young people haven’t even heard of the author of the incendiary book of poems Fuera de juego (1968), which won the Julian del Casal prize awarded by UNEAC with a note that deemed this work contrary to the principles of the Cuban Revolution.

Decades have passed since that awful event, which some academics believed to be a completely closed chapter in public debate, and Pavel Giroud, renowned Cuban filmmaker now based in Spain (La edad de la peseta and El acompañante), finished his documentary El caso Padilla (2022). It was censored in Cuba and even though some digital copies were already doing the rounds among Cuban viewers, controversy surrounding the subject has been stirred again ever since reviews and articles about Pavel Giroud’s movie began to circulate on social media and in independent media, including speculations about how he was able to access the archive material.

Given the limited space I have here, I won’t analyze El caso Padilla with the rigor this subject demands. Instead, I want to address some ideas about what happened on that historic night of April 27, 1971, when Padilla gave his famous Autocritica (self-criticism) at UNEAC headquarters, along with other intellectuals including his own wife Belkis Cuza Male.

Even though the documentary focuses on the most anecdotal aspect of the subject that is Padilla’s Confession at UNEAC, it sidesteps going deep into some contextual history linked to Padilla’s Autocritica, which makes it hard to fully understand the matter at hand with all of its complexities and points of view.

Let’s not forget that Padilla had held different official positions for the revolutionary Government since the mid-1960s, going to visit the former bloc of Socialist countries, and when he returned to the island in 1966, he began to experience disenchantment with the young Cuban Revolution, discrepancies which he only dared to vent in private spaces.

The event that led to his arrest by State Security, alongside his wife the poet Belkis Cuza Male on March 20th 1971, was a poetry recital of his book of poems Provocaciones that was held at UNEAC headquarters, charged with the false accusation of subversive activity, and he was detained for more than 30 days in State Security’s Villa Marista prison.

The Padilla sham that pathetic night of April 27th has been interpreted as a clear act of simulation practised by an artist who was acting under pressure and psychological torture in true old school Moscow Trials style (1936-1938), and in Prague in the early 1950s, mainly as an allegory to the latter where Communist leader Rudolf Slánský was executed, which is masterfully portrayed in the movie The Confession by filmmaker Costa Gavras, based on the book of the same name by novelist Arthur London.

It is precisely the wide range of archive photos in this masterful documentary that are very revealing and allow us to further understand the context and circumstances which led to the Padilla case, such as those linked to Fidel Castro’s support of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact to the brutal invasion of Czechoslovakia with the objective of crushing desires for radical reform from the so-called Prague Spring in 1968, the prelude that warned many intellectuals about the path the Cuban Revolution had taken towards Stalinism. 

For the vast majority of left-wing intellectuals, both European and Latin American, that sympathized with the Cuban Revolution, these events and the Cuban Government’s alliance with the former USSR indicated a betrayal of Latin American revolutionary ideals, who didn’t accept Cuba would fall under the Soviet Bloc and its satellite nations’ iron curtain. It made perfect sense that Padilla’s arrest would act as a catalyst for its breakup with the Cuban Revolution.

This diverse group of intellectuals – not only in aesthetic terms but also in ideology – who decided to break away from the Cuban Revolution after Padilla’s arrest included figures such as Peruvian novelist and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mario Vargas Llosa, Simone de Beauvoir, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, US writer Susan Sontag, to name a few. They appear in the documentary thanks to Pavel Giroud’s excellent and archaeological hunt for information, selecting and consulting historic sources in the creation process.

If Padilla’s simulation surprised and made many writers uneasy at the time, those thinking that Padilla had acted that night without any pressure and acting coherently. Their psychological reactions have proved the exact opposite over time, as the truth has flourished and many of them were able to understand and see that event as a humiliating act that confused many people in and outside Cuba, but it didn’t deceive the intellectual community in the West who understood the message Padilla was sending to the intellectual world perfectly.

Thus, Pavel Giroud’s main contribution by discovering this archive material and using it in his documentary has been to provide an essential historic source to any historian interested in investigating the event as objectively as possible. The use of archive photos gives us the keys to understanding Padilla’s behavior that historic night, decades later.

We can not only see Virgilio Pinera in the documentary’s images, who had said “I’m very afraid!” at the meeting of intellectuals with Fidel Castro at the National Library in 1961, a prelude of what would come later in the ‘60s; Reinaldo Arenas, who gave us a heartbreaking testimony in his autobiography that was called Before night falls (1993), which was translated to the screen by filmmaker Julian Schnabell in the film of the same name starring Javier Bardem.

The documentary ends with the striking images of the brave artists who protested outside the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020, not only to demand free spaces for creating that are still today banned by censors, but also to say this is enough and to end a repressive past that we can never go back to, even though many censors are clinging on to re-edit it. 

*Film critic