The gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas would have turned 77 this year had he not died in New York on 7 December 1990, in an apparent suicide, driven to despair by exile and the ravages of Aids on his body. “I really cannot say that I want to die,” Arenas forlornly writes in his memoir Before Night Falls, translated from the Spanish by Dolores M Koch, “yet I believe that when the alternative is suffering and pain without hope, death is a thousand times better.”
When Arenas died, he had been an émigré in the United States for a decade, having fled Cuba and the “horrors” of Fidel Castro’s revolution, one of the more than 100 000 people who left as part of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. The mass exodus of Cubans to the US, which enabled Arenas to flee his persecution and surveillance by Castro’s secret police, happened by chance. (Castro opened the prison gates, and let out “undesirables” to become part of the exodus).
In April 1980, a driver drove a bus full of passengers into the Peruvian embassy, where he sought political asylum; so did the rest of the passengers. When Castro demanded that the refugees be returned, the Peruvian ambassador countered that the embassy was sovereign territory and, anyway, the refugees had a right to seek political asylum under international law. (Cubans weren’t allowed to leave the island, “in itself a crime”, unless with an exit visa.) In a moment of pique Castro must have later regretted, he withdrew the security at the embassy.
When news spread that there were no guards at the Peruvian embassy, about 10 800 Cubans flocked inside; another 100 000 waited outside. “The events at the Peruvian embassy were the first mass rebellion by the Cuban people against the Castro dictatorship,” Arenas writes, where people openly insulted Castro, “calling him a coward, a criminal, and demanding freedom.” Among those seeking asylum were former top-level government bureaucrats, Communist Youth Organisation card-carrying members and ordinary Cubans.
To Africans, some of whom were recipients of Castro’s generosity, the Cuba Arenas invokes is scarcely believable. This can’t be the same Castro who sent Cuban soldiers in 1975 to shore up the MPLA government in Angola, and whose participation in the Cuito Cuanavale battle against apartheid South Africa’s army was a decisive move in the freeing of Namibia and the dismantling of legalised racism in South Africa.
Likewise, the Congolese would probably say, surely, this can’t be the same Castro who named a Cuban city “Patricio Lumumba”, in memory of the slain nationalist, and who authorised Che Guevara to travel to the Congo in the wake of Lumumba’s death to try to organise a revolution, together with Laurent-Désiré Kabila and other Lumumbaist remnants.
It wasn’t just war and soldiers, as Zimbabweans of a certain generation would probably interject: we went through schools whose science and maths teachers were trained in Cuba, part of an agreement reached by Castro and Robert Mugabe in the mid 1980s. Even today, years after Castro’s death, many hospitals in Africa and Latin America are staffed by Cuban medical personnel. Surely, the health and education that Castro championed and made possible abroad must have been mandatory, and universal, for Cubans at home.
Have Arenas’s personal grievances forced him to ignore what is sometimes called the bigger picture? But, together with our sense of disbelief, we should also wonder: Why would all these people want to flee Castro’s glorious revolution for the “decadence” of the West?
In some ways, the contradiction of the Castro dilemma is akin to the one the late Zimbabwean ruler’s reign poses: Is it possible to be at once a “revolutionary” and a brutal autocrat? When you emerge from a police state, how do you dismantle it without retaining its inner, brutal core? How do you establish a democracy when a superpower across the sea is eager to restore the revolutionary state to a client state? In the attempt to answer these questions, it’s very important to listen to the witness testimonies of those who lived under their rule.
Reinaldo Arenas was born in 1943 in Perronales County, in Oriente province, eastern Cuba, during the reign of the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and grew up in a home dominated by his grandmother. Arenas enjoyed his formative years: “I think the splendour of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions and people who were indifferent toward me.”
As a kid, he loved eating dirt; and, as a result, his belly was distended, full of worms. It is in the peasant country where he discovered his sexuality, first with his female cousin, then with the domestic animals, and later with other boys. “In the country, it is a rare man who has not had sexual relations with another man.” But in that macho society, it was a weakness to appear to be gay; therefore, he acted out his “manliness” until one day at school one of Arenas’s classmates broke it down with a “diabolical sincerity” and directness: “Look, Reinaldo, you are a faggot. Do you know what a faggot is? It’s a man who likes other men. A faggot, that’s what you are.”
As this revelation was dawning on him, Batista’s dictatorship was under challenge from the Castro-led rebels, the 26th of July Movement; in the surrounding mountains, a fight had started and government troops were fleeing. In 1958, poor and faced with the collapse of the country — with “little food and no electricity” — Arenas contemplated joining the revolution, yet he was only 14. After finally making contact with guerillas, he was told: “We have plenty of guerillas; what we need is weapons.”
Without a gun, he was excess to the needs of the revolution. After some days with the guerillas, he returned home. When his grandmother saw him, she let out a scream; Arenas had become a person of interest to Batista’s enforcers. On the day of his departure, Arenas had left a note, a kind of a manifesto, declaring that he was off to join the rebels.
Now Castro’s rebels in the mountains had to accept him — with or without a weapon. “During my whole time with the rebels I never took part in any battle” and “never even witnessed a battle”. Yet, within a year, to the rebels’ surprise, Batista fled, and the revolution was won. “There was a surge of enthusiasm, great fanfare” — but also “a new terror”.
The new terror was directed at soldiers of the defeated regime, its spies, and Masferrer “tigers” (a category of Cuban politician who could also be a gangster) who had defended the previous government. Because the targets were widely hated, there was no outrage against the summary justice.
Arenas, literally a child of the revolution, had much to gain from the new status quo, and soon got a place at a technical college, where he enrolled as a student of agricultural accounts, which he studied alongside texts by Marx, Lenin and other communist thinkers.
There was something else besides the bearded, erudite charm of these thinkers: what Arenas calls a “virile militancy”. But he was scared to explore this homoerotic zone, because the consequences were drastic: expulsion or even jail. “Being a faggot in Cuba was one of the worst disasters that could ever happen to anyone.”
It became clear early on that there would be no democratic elections, and that Castro would become a kind of “maximum leader”. Not only that, in cases in which Castro (a trained lawyer) had a vested interest, he could even play the role of prosecutor and judge. There was a case in which a court acquitted some airforce pilots who had been accused of bombing the city of Santiago de Cuba. However, Castro set himself up as prosecutor and judge and sent them away to more than 20 years in prison. “The judge, who had a long rebel beard [and] had declared them innocent, shot himself.”
As Castro’s control over Cuba soon became entrenched, it was impossible to trust anyone, not even one’s friends, because of the bearded leader’s vast network of secret policemen and informers. “This was one of the vicious acts perpetrated by Castro: to break the bonds of friendship.”
However, Arenas is sympathetic and philosophical about it all: “Cuba is a police state,” he observes, and it follows that, “the most practical solution for many is to become policemen.” (Yet, as in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the threat to Cuba wasn’t abstract: it was all too real.)
Even access to the beach was policed. Not all beaches were open to ordinary Cubans and getting to the one beach that was allowed could take more than six hours for Havana residents. Arenas asks: “How could you live on an island and have no access to the sea?”
Arenas had a huge sexual appetite, and by his calculation, he might have had sex with about 5 000 men: random gay men, married men, fellow writers, Castro’s spies, sometimes even cops. One day he met a police officer in a toilet and after a “memorable” sexual encounter, the cop put on his officious tone. “Come with me. You are under arrest for being queer,” he said, after which he marched him to the police station.
Summing up the 1960s, when the laws against homosexuality were entered into Cuba’s statute books, Arenas writes: “I think that in Cuba there was never more fucking than in those years.” His conclusion was: “I think that the sexual revolution actually came about as a result of the existing sexual repression. Perhaps as a protest against the regime, homosexuality began to flourish with ever increasing defiance.”
It wasn’t just about sex, Arenas was also busy working. His break into the world of letters occurred when he won a literary competition that resulted in a transfer to the National Library. This is when his literary education began, and where he would meet his mentors and lifelong friends like the authors Virgilio Piñera Llera and José Lezama Lima.
The result of Arena’s literary travails were Singing from the Well, the award-winning The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando and With My Eyes Closed, a collection of short stories published in Uruguay.
It wasn’t only the critics who were aware of the works and the important and fresh voice from Cuba; so were the mandarins at state security, who maintained a surveillance state on everyone and everything, including literary production. “By the year 1969 I was already being subjected to persistent harassment by state security, and feared for the manuscripts I was continually producing.”
The spies wanted to know how he had smuggled the manuscripts out, who his foreign connections were and what else he was working on. After finishing a novel, Arenas couldn’t keep it in the hovels in which he lived, but passed it on to friends. One of these friends had read one manuscript — “a gift from the sea, and the product of 10 years of disappointments endured under the Fidel Castro regime” — but misunderstood his backhanded tribute, and had destroyed it. Arenas was so distraught at the loss that he even considered murdering the friend.
In the end, state security got him, ostensibly for his homosexuality, although the real reason was his fiction. After failing to escape to Guantánamo, nominally Cuban territory but administered by the US (he would have had to swim through an alligator-infested river to reach freedom), Arenas was incarcerated at the El Morro prison, a key installation in Castro’s infrastructure of prisons and labour camps. He received his freedom only after signing a Soviet-style confession, admitting he was a “counter-revolutionary”, and that he regretted his “ideological weakness”.
Arenas’s memoir is a hallucinatory account, spiced with tedious detail but also with the profound — a document that gives us an unvarnished peek into an alternative Cuba, the one menaced by secret policemen, full of suffering and, at the top of it all, Fidel Castro, the “maximum ruler”.
Before Night Falls is published by Penguin Random House