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The story of Cuba’s difficult relationship with revolutionary writers

Fidel Castro welcomed writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Allen Ginsberg—but eventually most of the literati sought to distance themselves from the Cuban leader
August 25, 2021

A freedom fighter who curtailed civil liberties, a bibliophile who took books out of circulation, and a lover of words who enforced censorship. Fidel Castro, who Gabriel García Márquez described as “a voracious reader,” had a complicated and bellicose relationship with writers.

In his days as a guerrilla insurgent, when his revolution was just a romantic hypothesis, Castro adroitly courted the international press from his hideout in the Sierra Maestra, charming journalists with his aspirations for liberal democracy and references to the Graeco-Persian War. When the rebels overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Castro’s triumph was joyously received by writers worldwide. In the early moments of his five-decade rule, he vigorously promoted Latin American literature— sponsoring prizes, hosting events and granting residencies. It was in Cuba that Carlos Fuentes wrote The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), one of the cornerstones of what scholars called the “Latin American boom.”

Castro welcomed Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Allen Ginsberg on official visits to the island. He received visits and endorsements from the luminaries of Latin American letters—Fuentes, Pablo Neruda, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez. García Márquez even argued that the “boom” was made possible by the Cuban revolution:

“Every Latin American writer of that generation had been writing for 20 years,” he told the Paris Review, “but the European and American publishers had very little interest in them. When the Cuban Revolution started there was suddenly a great interest about Cuba and Latin America.”

But whilst Castro was pursuing the great writers of the era, he was imposing tight controls on freedom of expression in Cuba, shutting down magazines and newspapers. By the 1970s, after local writers were imprisoned and forced into exile for proposing alternative visions for Cuba’s future, most of Castro’s high-profile overseas advocates withdrew their approval.

Allen Ginsberg epitomises the about-turn. In 1960, Ginsberg welcomed Castro to New York during the Cuban leader’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly. Ginsberg, one of the leaders of the American counterculture, saw in Castro’s extraordinary story a lived version of beat poetry. He also shared Castro’s distaste for US imperialism and the power of its corporations. “Every time I open my mouth on Cuba,” he wrote to his father in 1961, “I get accused of being a Red or Red-dupe.”

Ginsberg finally visited Cuba in 1965 for an all-expenses-paid trip to judge one of the island’s literary prizes. In a matter of days, he was deported. His crimes were a combination of criticising the pseudo-liberalism of the revolution, associating with young poets at odds with Castro, and homosexual adventurism.

Ginsberg was furious to learn that the police were arresting Cuban beatniks for having spoken to him—or for wearing tight trousers, which the government seems to have equated with political subversion. The authorities told their guest to keep criticisms of the revolution to himself. Instead, as Ginsberg recalled, “I just shot my mouth off.” 

At 8.25 one morning, three and a half hours after getting in from an all-night spree, Ginsberg “woke with a sudden knock on the door.” He was told to pack, not allowed to make calls, and whisked to the airport.

During his time in Havana, Ginsberg had been on the edge of a paranoia-induced nervous breakdown. Later he would write of his abrupt deportation: “Relieved really, it was only the airport, for Prague, not a jail or interrogation about the boys or pot or gossip or Che Guevara’s narcissism.”

Ginsberg’s reflections on the revolution he witnessed first-hand were ambivalent. In his zany way he saw his experience as “half Kafkian and half funny.” He remained somewhat “sympathetic” towards Cuba, which he described as “both great and horrible, half police state half summer camp.”

Back in 1961, Ginsberg had anticipated Castro’s crackdown on free speech, writing in characteristic style in his journal: “Castro of Cuba, a big cigar and he wants to be a hero too, He thinks of his name in the future & shuts down the Moons of the Revolution” [sic: the journal Castro shut down was Lunes de Revolución—Monday of Revolution]. Now he understood the extent of government control.

In the ensuing decades, Ginsberg retracted his optimism and, in 1973, eight years after his visit, he described the Cuba’s leaders as “Nixonettes” who went around “accusing everybody they didn’t like of being faggots.” Later that year, the government sentenced Manuel Ballagas—one of the young beatniks, with whom Ginsberg had maintained a correspondence—to four years in prison for disparaging the revolution and for sending “social information” to Ginsberg.

Ginsberg had misinterpreted the Cuban revolutionaries’ long hair and bushy beards for a social and artistic aesthetic. Instead of fun-loving hippies, the Cubans were socially conservative. They promoted homophobia, maintained a hard-line stance against drugs, and quelled free speech. As he wrote in “Capitol Air” (1980), “I don’t like Communist Censorship of my books//I don’t like Marxists complaining about my books//I don’t like Castro insulting members of my sex.”

If Ginsberg’s departure from revolutionary apologist owed much to his own experiences, then for the majority of Castro’s supporters, the shift came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the severity of Castro’s policies became clear. In 1968, the Cuban leader refused to condemn the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that brutally put down the Prague Spring—the movement that aspired to create “socialism with a human face.” And in 1971, Castro imprisoned Heberto Padilla—a poet and former supporter—for criticising his government.

Padilla’s incarceration prompted a wave of protest in intellectual circles. Italo Calvino, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many more signed open letters to Castro in Le Monde and the New York Review of Books condemning Padilla’s detention.

Sartre’s censure was particularly embarrassing for Castro, who had given the French writer a personal tour of the island in 1960. Observing a revolution enacting so many of his ideas—ideas he hoped would be replicated in an independent Algeria—Sartre’s dispatches for the French press gushingly commended his host, whom he called “the man of everything, able to view the whole,” and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom he later described as “the most complete human being of our age.”

But even before the imprisonment of Padilla—in fact, just months after his visit—Sartre’s enthusiasm for the revolution was waning. He abandoned “an enormous work on Cuba,” and blocked a collected edition of his Cuban essays and dispatches from being published in French. When Castro imprisoned Padilla, whom Sartre had met, the Frenchman remarked:

“Our talks with Fidel and especially Che were great, and very inspirational. But it didn’t last long. The repression to hide the inefficiency became so pervasive. Revolutionaries inevitably become guilty of the same crimes as those they overthrow…You don’t arrest and jail those who disagree with you.”

Castro responded with a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack on the revolution’s Parisian detractors who were little more than “bourgeois liberal gentlemen...two-bit agents of colonialism…agents of the CIA and the intelligence services of imperialism.”

Sartre’s focus rolled away from Cuba, but in 1978 he was moved to co-sign another open letter—this time calling upon Castro to release one of his earliest supporters, Martha Frayde, a gynaecologist who had previously been in prison under Batista. Frayde, who had longstanding concerns over the sovietisation of the revolution, had been sentenced to 29 years in prison for espionage.

Another giant of the age whose support for Cuba turned after Castro’s heavy-handed treatment of his critics was Susan Sontag. Sontag, who once wrote that, “Ever since my three month visit to Cuba in the summer of 1960, the Cuban revolution has been dear to me, and Che, along with Fidel, have been heroes and cherished models,” changed her mind around the time of the Padilla Affair. When Padilla was forced into exile in 1979, he stayed in Sontag’s New York home for six months. In 1982, Sontag told the New York Times that a “very large portion of the left has underestimated the wickedness of the Communists. It’s a mistake I shared from the early 60’s, when I went to Cuba and was terrifically impressed with the Cuban revolution.” In 2003, when the government gave decades-long prison sentences to 78 dissidents, Sontag made headlines when she called the silence of Castro’s steadfast friend Gabriel García Márquez “unforgiveable.”

The Colombian was Castro’s most high-profile supporter. As a journalist, he covered the early days of Castro’s rule, and would compare him to two of the great Latin American freedom fighters—Simón Bolívar and José Martí. He accepted a house in Havana, worked for the revolution’s news agency (Prensa Latina), and would even send drafts of his novels to Castro for advice.

García Márquez regularly raised concerns about the Cuban revolution, but never broke with its leader. The friends disagreed over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and on numerous occasions García Márquez tried to prevent the executions of senior military figures and counter-revolutionaries. He had a hand in the release of Padilla, and left Prensa Latina after its leadership became dogmatic. After his resignation, it was said in Havana that “García Márquez went over to the counter-revolution.” That was mere communist hyperbole. As García Márquez told an interviewer, “I criticise him [Castro] in private, not public.”

It was this approach that provoked Sontag’s censure. In his defence, García Márquez may have felt he could influence Castro more through sympathetic criticism than through outright denunciation. As García Márquez’s friend, the Colombian journalist Enrique Santos Calderón, commented: “Gabo knows perfectly well what the Cuban government is, he has no illusions about that reality, but Fidel is his friend. And he has decided to live with the contradictions.”

Writers in Cuba did not have that luxury. The literary star of the Castro period, Reinaldo Arenas, was hounded by the secret police, imprisoned, and left the island under a false name. Arenas, a peasant who briefly fought for Castro’s guerrilla army during the insurrection, wrote a damning memoir, Before Night Falls (1992), in which he recounts his persecution as a freethinker and a homosexual. Reflecting on Castro’s regime, Arenas described it as “even harsher” than the Batista dictatorship it overthrew.

Decades later, Cuban writers are still harassed. They are arbitrarily detained, placed under house arrest, and find their channels of communication blocked. The cases of Arenas and Padilla are touchstones for today’s free-speech campaigners and remind us that although Castro wooed writers during his revolution’s honeymoon, most of the literati soon sought a divorce.

Correction: This article was amended on 26th August 2021 to remove the assertion that Allen Ginsberg had helped pay for Manuel Ballagas's passage to the US.