Four years ago, I received a telephone call from a stranger who asked me if I would be willing to visit with Major William Galvez, one of Fidel Castro’s legendary companions in Granma’s landing, whom I had not seen since 1961 during my visit to the Isle of Youth at the start of the revolution. I said I’d be glad to. It was my first contact with someone from the inner circles since the rift between the leftist intellectuals and Castro, beginning with the Padilla affair. I set up the appointment at the Glacier Cafe in Marrakech Plaza. We caught up quickly despite how long it had been, and we reminisced about old times from our last meeting: how the beach hotels were quickly abandoned by their owners once the dictator Batista was ousted, and how the soldiers danced with the island girls to the rhythm of a song which we both knew by heart.
After chatting for a few minutes, Galvez, now retired and given in entirely to the revolution’s history, got right to the point: What did I have against Cuba? I hadn’t bought into imperialism like others and I defended good causes. So why was I so reluctant about Cuba? “Now,” he said to me, “homosexuals aren’t persecuted like they once mistakenly were during the ’60s and ’70s, and African religions were gaining strength and enjoyed complete freedom.” I replied that I had nothing against Cuba — just the opposite. Cuba was one thing and the system that continued in power was another. The Cuba I lived will always remain with me and I missed it, but my disagreements with the regime were deep. I could not simply discuss them over coffee. After going over a list of acquaintances that we could send our regards to — I asked him to say hi to Anton Arrufat but not Fernandez Retamar — we then had a friendly goodbye.
After leafing through the pages of my report, “Pueblo en Marcha,” published first in the newspaper Revolucion, first written to Carlos Franqui and later as a book in Paris, I was brought back to the time of my short-lived revolutionary enthusiasm. The concept is basically the same as in “Campos de Nijar,” except that the cries of misery, which at that time were prevalent in southern Spain, were replaced with the praise of social change ushered in on the island by the revolution.
Propaganda literature? Yes and no. Yes, because it emphasizes the positive aspects brought about by the revolution and leaves out everything that doesn’t harmonize with it. No, because my enthusiasm in 1961 was as sincere as that of the thousands upon thousands of literacy tutors coming from the “Brigadas Conrado Benitez” or from “Patria o muerte.” It was impossible coming from a country under Franco’s rule not to let yourself be won over by that exciting time.
Wishful thinking, utopianism? The experience of what happened after the fact leads me to say yes. But the feelings of equality and brotherhood lived by a then young generation, willing to sacrifice their lives for said feelings, deserve the utmost respect. We could not have foreseen the bureaucratic stagnation and paralysis of the police force that would come because of the monopoly of power, as happened in the Soviet model. As 20th century history would teach us, when literature transforms itself into a weapon it ceases to be literature. It is, at heart, creation that never ceases to renew itself, bringing itself into question, and doubting itself, always aware that it must never claim to know the answer, but rather ask new questions. Those who have lived through a turbulent revolution, whether it was Spain’s in 1936 or Cuba’s when Batista was overthrown, were incapable of stopping the embrace of a cause that at the time seemed admirable and just. Only opportunists or those blinded by an ideology can keep their spirits up rather than realizing, in despair, that a new, ominous period in history has just begun. Luis Cernuda penned a beautiful poem about the unscathed truth of withered illusion.
“Island accent, sweet to the ear; warm intimacy with the Havanans whom you bump into on the street … “ How was it that the experiences of the time came to be replaced by the nightmare which swooped down upon my fellow Cubans: harassment, prison, alienation, exile? As I spoke with Major William Galvez, my thoughts turned to Virgilio Piñera, Walterio Carbonell, Calvert Casey, Reinaldo Arenas, Cabrera Infant — an entire generation, which at first was sympathetic to the revolutionary cause and which would then have to bear the weight of a system that cut short their dreams and strangled their lives. The cruel reality of UMAP’s (Military Units to Aid Production) labor camps, in which tens of thousands of homosexuals ended up, and the horror lived by intellectuals during Padilla’s nightmarish and despicable trial … how could those memories be erased at the stroke of a pen? And what of the bitterness and frustration of those of us who, at first attracted by the bait of a fairer society, can honestly say that we once supported a totalitarian government that can trace itself to the now defunct Soviet Union?
Will the negotiations between Obama and Raul Castro, which have as their main purpose the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S., actually introduce real change on the island’s interior? I believe so, before too long at least. Cuban society is not as rigid as it was in the 1970s or 1980s. The courageous efforts of human rights advocates have created little pockets of freedom in Cuba’s heart, and the moderate measures to open up the economy and the granting of passports for overseas travel are additional steps on the path toward a civil society that yearns to be free from the straitjacket still holding it back.
The expected arrival of millions of American and European tourists and contact through social media with the rest of the world will slowly create, as happened in Spain in the 1960s, a new and irreversible state. Franco’s regime didn’t fall from the opposition fighting back. It collapsed from its own anachronism. What seemed to be dammed up is now flowing freely. In today’s world, the old excuse of attributing all evil to Yankee imperialism has stopped working. Those fighting for an open and diverse society in the island’s interior must demand a series of absolute measures like those recommended by journalist and blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose articles I actively follow: freedom of expression and association … Those of us who make up Cuba on the outside, who share the dreams of millions of Cubans for a better life, must keep our hopes and support with them in this new period of generational evolution and change that are soon to come.
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