Sex, Fiction, and Truth: Reinaldo Arenas and the Cuban Revolution
[Editorial note: This sweeping review responds to a new film which smears the Cuban revolution and presents a range of questions on the politics of “the sexual revolution.” New ground for SeeingRed.com, this far-reaching work on gay rights, women's liberation, and the evolution of the Cuban revolution represents both a contribution to and initiation of a discussion. Given its breadth, value, and length, readers are advised to print it out.]
BEFORE NIGHT FALLS. Starring Javier Bardem, Olivier Martínez, Andrea di Stefano, Johnny Depp, and Michael Wincott. Directed by Julian Schnabel. Based on the memoir by Reinaldo Arenas. Grandview Pictures, Fine Line Films 2000.
LOS ANGELES (27 January 2001) -- The buzz on Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel’s new film now showing in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco prior to national release, has begun and has yet to peak. It won the Grand Jury Prize last year at the Venice International Film Festival and the prestigious American Film Institute named it “Movie of the Year.”
The film’s star, Javier Bardem, received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of self-exiled Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas on whose autobiographical memoir of the same name the movie is based. He was cited as best actor at the Venice festival, as well as by the National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics, and Southeastern Critics, and will likely receive a nomination for an Academy Award.
The film, its director, and cast have been nominated for four Independent Spirit awards, the leading prize for independent films, and has made over 50 U.S. reviewers’ top ten lists.
New York Times movie critic Stephen Holden’s year-end thumbnail sketch of the film could serve as boilerplate for the acclaim. “Imagined in vivid painterly strokes,” he states, “and a screenplay that incorporates swatches of its subject’s writing, Julian Schnabel’s biography of exiled gay Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas portrays him as a martyred victim of Fidel Castro’s revolution.” Newsweek’s David Ansen raves that it’s “lyrical, sensual and shattering…a devastating indictment of the Castro regime.”
“I don’t know much about politics,” Schnabel told the LA Weekly, but “instinctively felt something in common with [Arenas]…and I tried to be true to his voice. Obviously, it’s a Latin story—but it’s against totalitarianism in any country. It’s about tolerance.”
Truth is, Before Night Falls is eminently political, a carefully crafted, sophisticated repudiation of the Cuban revolution, betrayed by the dictatorial power of the omnipresent Tyrant, Fidel Castro. Its blatant errors of omission and commission simply showcase the narcissism of its subject, of whose vision Schnabel is so enamored, and thus feels no compunction to embellish, regardless of facts. It would, however, be facile to dismiss the film for these reasons. Before Night Falls raises serious questions about and charges against the conduct of the Cuban revolution. These merit a thorough response.
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Filming in Mérida and Veracruz, Mexico, using snatches of archival footage from Cuba, Schnabel fashions a fusion of images that are lush, even breathtaking in their beauty, then graphic, harsh, and harrowing—all in the service of the stylized, sanitized confection that Arenas becomes. As much as the book Before Night Falls is a tirade against the revolution, for Schnabel it lacks sufficient dramatic pop. To remedy this, he introduces further outrageous lies to propel the plot to its objective function: slandering all the Cuban the revolution was, and is. This method is hardly original, and parallels that employed by Arenas, who began the book while still in Cuba and finished it on his deathbed. (Before Night Falls was published in English three years later.) Arenas’ memoir interweaves his own and Cuba’s history, reconstructed and reinvented where necessary to conform to his hatred of the revolutionary government (incidentally, a position he did not always hold).
Javier Bardem, the Spanish actor who plays the adult Arenas and narrates the film, inhabits the role with exuberant talent and obvious sympathy. He eerily resembles the writer, who died penniless in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment. (Arenas, ravaged by AIDS, committed suicide in New York in 1990.) His “farewell letter,” sent to and published by the U.S. press, raised the “hope that Cuba will soon be free” and urged “Cuban people out of the country as well as those on the Island to continue fighting for freedom.” At the Before Night Falls movie website, the letter is edited to omit the “only person” Arenas held “accountable” for his decision to kill himself—you guessed it—“Fidel Castro.”
Bardem gets the politics of this, as he stated in Interview magazine, noting he was “really proud” of the film because “it deals with intolerance.” In the same issue, Schnabel described how “very brave it was for [Bardem] to play Reinaldo, a role that so clearly defines the intolerance of Castro” because the actor “comes from a family of Communists.”
Meanwhile the cinematic and technical qualities of the film raise it far above B-movie mediocrity. Progressive Hollywood drapes over this production, lending virtual pro bono proof that this isn't a rightist screed, but an exercise in [gag] the irrepressibility of the human spirit.
Johnny Depp does a star turn as an imprisoned transvestite and an over-the-top cartoon of a steely prison official who extracts a self-abnegating confession from the imprisoned Arenas, demanding the poet fellate the barrel of his .45 automatic. So what if this is pure invention by Schnabel? So what if the official threatens Arenas with “disappearence” should he not sign, while the undisputed historical fact is that --unlike numerous countries where governments count on U.S. support, military training, and torture instruction-- there has never been a “disappeared person” in Cuba? It's Johnny Depp ... and he's good.
Sean Penn has a cameo as a peasant who, unlike his brothers, doesn’t join the rebels in the fight against the Batista dictatorship. And Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson contribute original compositions to the evocative score of Cuba music, which includes tunes by the legendary Benny More.
You get the picture.
Before Night Falls is fixed in the dominant image of Arena's descriptions of “horrific” repression, particularly of gay Cubans. Brief symbolic allusion is made to the impact of Soviet advisers, whose presence signals the nullification of the revolution's original impulse. Newsreel clips of Fidel Castro --with the Dictator’s apparently harsh words narrating scenes of police and military brutality-- bracket scenes of personal betrayal and humiliating self-criticisms.
In a key episode, the film shows a group in an apartment watching a televised recantation, presumably by prize-winning poet Heberto Padilla (whose 1971 real-life arrest and public confession for insufficient commitment to the revolution represented a nadir in Cuban cultural life). The scene ends with the suicidal leap of a woman in the group, apparently one of several politically-incorrect writers and artists cited by Padilla in his apologia. Another Schnabel fabrication.
Time folds in on all these sketches, which hurtle forward after one another in defiance of any historical framework and in negation of historical accuracy.
Conditions that bred the revolution in the first place are unmentioned or, rather, animate Arenas’ poetic claim that “the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals, apparitions.” This would be news to the rural poor whose experience with bucolic super-exploitation convinced them to sustain the Rebel Army against Batista’s guns, tanks, and bombers.
A brief scene of the teenaged Reinaldo hopping on the back of a truck full of triumphant combatants in Holguín is meant to give substance to the biographical assertion that Arenas “joined Castro’s guerrillas.” But being swept up into the mass enthusiasm unleashed by the pending victory is a far cry from carrying out guerrilla actions or urban organizing --against which the dictatorship extracted a price of 30,000 civilian deaths. Yet even Schnabel’s filmed snippet is at odds with what Arenas states in his memoir.
When Arenas sought to enlist in the Rebel Army, he was told—as was the norm—that he had to obtain his own weapon, by a killing a Batista cop and taking it from killing him. Arenas failed in the mission, but still returned to the mountains. The guerrilleros couldn't return him to Holguín, for certain arrest and torture awaited. They allowed the teenager to stay. Arenas wrote that he ate occasional meals with a nearby aunt. “I never took part in any battle; I never even witnessed a battle; those battles were more myth than reality,” he claimed. Two years of revolutionary battle against the tyranny was, according to Arenas, “a war of words.”
As late as 1968, however, the Arenas who existed prior to his autobiographical revision was an ardent defender of the revolution. He was interviewed as such, and as a widely-respected poet and writer of the new generation by Harry Ring, a veteran socialist journalist who spent three months in Cuba reporting for the Militant. Thirty-three years later, Ring still remembers the impression left by his encounter with Arenas as the partisan of the revolutionary process, even if Arenas' recreated character in Before Night Falls has “disappeared” it.
Devoid from the film are any of Cuba’s social and economic transformations—from the most extensive land reform in the history of the Americas to nationalization of the country’s foreign-owned resources—all forged by popular mobilization. About the historic literacy drive, the creation of medical services in the countryside, the elimination of Jim Crow-style discrimination, nada. The audience sees only the substitution of one barely-mentioned tyranny to another --now headed “by a dictator much worse than Batista,” as Arenas wrote.
Interventionist hostility from Washington that revolutionary changes incited—from the U.S.'s terrorist contra bands to the U.S.-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the imposition of the embargo, and the so-called Cuban missile crisis—have no place in Schnabel's screenplay (co-written with Cunningham O’Keefe and Lazaro Gómez Carríles, Arenas’ long-time friend).
The implication is unavoidable: the enemy of the Cuban people is at home, bearded, and in olive-green uniforms—not in the United States.
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The Cuban revolution’s record on homosexuals' rights has been the subject of disinformation and misinformation for decades. Previous efforts by Cuba’s enemies to make use of the government’s 1960s and 70s deficiencies in this area were crowned by Néstor Almendros’ 1984 “documentary” Improper Conduct, which is laden with fabrications, distortions and half-truths.
But this campaign began to founder in the face of significant changes in Cuba. This evolution is symbolized in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s landmark Cuban film, Strawberry and Chocolate (released in the U.S. in 1994), which skewered dogmatic features of Cuban Communist Party and attacked anti-gay prejudices.
Still, back comes Before Night Falls as the slick, biopic offspring of Improper Conduct-- an attempt to revive the anti-Cuba crusade of its discredited forebearer. No surprise here. For while ultra-right ideologues simply deny the Revolution's irrefutable gains, shrewder opponents of the Cuban government have long targeted its policies regarding gays as an opening for insidious attack. This serves Washington’s central campaign against Cuba —the government’s alleged violation of "human rights"— a campaign which began virtually with the victory of the revolution and has continued without pause ever since.
The extension of Cuban gay rights over the past decade and a half—and the cessation of the most onerous policies befalling homosexuals another fifteen years earlier —is a corollary to the expansion of working peoples' rights there. More and more taboos have crumbled under the impact of ever-widening debate and discussion over economic, political, and cultural questions.
A review of this process is useful for anyone who wants clarification of and answers to the issues raised in Before Night Falls, particularly as they pertain to homosexuality.
The liberating results of the first socialist revolution in the Americas created a new and unprecedented climate of freedom in Cuba. Sweeping reforms --from the dismantling of the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship’s secret police to the abolition of racist laws-- unleashed a blossoming of the arts, culture, music, and popular access to them. As the priorities of the working people and the rural poor assumed precedence, a women’s liberation movement was born. It challenged the reality and legacy of female oppression, sexual second-class citizenship, and discrimination. Daycare became a right. Rigid divorce laws were dramatically eased. By 1963, laws criminalizing abortion were overturned, and the right to reproductive freedom was institutionalized.
While this sea change affected gays and lesbians, the Cuban revolution did not take the same pioneering steps as the Bolsheviks did in the first months of the Russian revolution. Indeed, it would have been virtually impossible for the new generation that assumed power in 1959 to know about such advances in the first place.
In December 1917, the Soviet regime struck down the reactionary anti-homosexual laws of the Czarist tyranny. This unprecedented act flowed from the course of launching programs and policies aimed at the emancipation of the oppressed female sex. “The relationship of Soviet law to the sexual sphere is based on the principle that the demands of the vast majority of the people correspond to and are in harmony with the findings of contemporary science,” wrote Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene in his 1923 book, The Sexual Revolution in Russia.
“Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle,” Batkis stated, “the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon…Soviet legislation treats [homosexual practices] exactly the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse. All forms of sexual intercourse are private matters.” [emphasis in original]
“The [October] revolution let nothing remain of the old despotic and infinitely unscientific laws; it did not tread the path of reformist bourgeois legislation which, with juristic subtlety, still hangs on to the concept of property in the sexual sphere, and ultimately demands that the double standard hold sway over sexual life. These laws always come about by disregarding science,” Batkis explained. Restating Bolshevik theory and practice, he located the liberation of women in the overthrow of capitalist property relations, and the super-exploitation of the oppressed female sex therein.
“No society in the world whole world set these goals, whose problems confronted no previous revolution,” Batkis wrote.
The Stalin-led political counterrevolution that enthroned bureaucratic reaction in the late 1920s and early 1930s necessarily targeted the most enlightened aspects of Soviet law to cement its unchallenged rule. As the conservative-minded regime consolidated its perks and privileges by driving working people out of politics and government, it dismembered artistic and literary freedom, rolled back critical gains for women, and formalized restrictive cultural and social policies. Stalin’s personal intervention led to the criminalization of homosexuality in 1934, imposing a federal penalty of five years imprisonment for consensual acts between adult males. In 1935, to further enshrine norms enforcing the “new family,” the government outlawed abortion, which had been legalized in the earliest months of the revolutionary regime.
The noted Russian novelist Maxim Gorki, reduced to the status of literary shill for the ruling caste, announced in a state-sponsored tract “in the fascist countries, homosexuality, which ruins youth, flourishes without punishment; in the country where the proletariat has audaciously achieved social power, homosexuality has been declared a social crime and is heavily punished.” All this defined the “communist” position on gays—a pitiful echo of capitalist reaction and prejudice, couched in the vocabulary of Marxism.
Stalinist pseudo-science maintained that homosexuality was a manifestation of “bourgeois decadence” and “moral degeneration.” Freud, who counseled that homosexuality was a naturally occurring sexual phenomenon, was banned. Multiple births by women in the USSR were awarded with medals and money. As late as 1971, the newly published Great Soviet Encyclopedia defined homosexuality as “a sexual perversion consisting in unnatural attraction to persons of the same sex. It occurs in both sexes. The penal statutes of the USSR, the socialist countries, and even some bourgeois states, provide for the punishment of homosexuality.” This, after New York City’s Stonewall rebellion became the symbolic launching of the modern movement for gay liberation.
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It was such “orthodoxy” that the Cuban revolutionaries who came of age in the 1950s met as they embraced Marxism, first in the pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party which agreed to shoulder arms in the last year of the revolutionary war. Their leadership and several thousand cadres formed an important component of the series of united revolutionary organization that emerged after power was taken in 1959, culminating with the formation of the Cuban Communist Party in 1965. This process led the new generation to subsequent relations with the USSR, China, and the “world communist movement.” It was through this distorted lens that they viewed the march of history and the final word on questions once in dispute.
To arrive at a position “in harmony with the findings of contemporary science,” Cuba’s young revolutionaries would have to undertake the titanic task of cutting through the offal of “official Marxism” in all fields to find their way to the emancipating ideas and experiences from the early Soviet regime, led by Lenin’s Bolshevik party. These rich debates, documents, resolutions, and records of events were entombed in historical solitary confinement by the infallible commissars of “developed socialism.” Their instructors, catechisms and manuals—backed by truncheon and boot—brooked no question, let alone opposition.
Lacking any living connection to the most advanced, scientific position taken by earlier generations of revolutionists, Cuba’s militants emerged in an international setting in which homosexuality was severely repressed in the so-called developed world, unspeakably taboo in the Third World, and condemned as a crime against nature by those who, in the name of communism, held the reins of government in the rest of the planet.
Cuba not immune to reality
The Cuban revolution neither then, nor in retrospect, could be expected to vault single-handedly over such international and historic obstacles. Further, some—either from ignorance, demagogy, or both—identified male homosexuality with the pornography and commercialization of sex endemic to pre-revolutionary Havana. The allure of illicit gay sex was a component of the prostitution industry that indentured and exploited 100,000 women (of a population of six million) to serve the tourist trade, and made Havana infamous as the biggest brothel in the Caribbean. And the sex business fit neatly into lucrative gambling, casino, and drug enterprises that befouled Cuba.
It would take time, and struggle, to unwind the contradiction between the profoundly progressive content of the changes shaped by the collective actions of the Cuban people, on the one hand, and—on the other—homophobia. This phenomenon based itself on a powerful combination of native machismo (anchored in capitalist colonial social and economic relations) and the cultural backwardness it nurtured, (reinforced by clerical reaction and the mysticism of the Catholic Church)—all then buttressed by “scientific” tutelage from Moscow.
While allowing that “a homosexual” could exhibit a “correct political position,” Fidel Castro told U.S. journalist Lee Lockwood in an extensive 1965 interview (published as the book, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel) “we would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true Revolutionary, a true Communist. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant Communist should be.”
“But above all,” the Cuban leader continued, “I do not believe anybody has a definitive answer as to what causes homosexuality. I think the problem must be considered very carefully. But I will be frank and say that homosexuals should not be allowed in positions where they are able to exert positions of influence on young people.”
The Cuban leader located his approach in the context of “the conditions under which we live”—while the impact of the Bay Pigs and the October crisis remained fresh—and the necessity to “inculcate in our youth the spirit of discipline, of struggle, of work. This attitude may or may not be correct, but it is our honest feeling.”
Military Units to Aid Production
In 1965, the Cuban government initiated the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), which Before Night Falls seizes upon to alleged sweeping antigay imprisonment. Cuban soldiers and police brought thousands of alleged delinquents, from gays and lesbians to Jehovah’s Witnesses, to work camps to satisfy military obligations that the government determined couldn't take place in the regular armed forces. Duties of the UMAP focused on labor related to sugar harvests. Unlike other initiatives by the government, little was reported in the Cuban media about the UMAP. Nonetheless, the program sparked protest in Cuba by the National Union of Artists and Writers (UNEAC), as well as by prominent international allies of the revolution.
Cubans interviewed in 1970 and 1971 by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal is his exhilarating book, In Cuba (dedicated to “the Cuban people and to Fidel”) speak freely in opposition to the UMAP, with several offering opinions about their abolition in 1967. “I was in one,” a young miliciano, a poet, tells Cardenal, “not as a prisoner but as a guard. Yes, a jailer. I saw the bad business, but we were just on guard. They told Fidel about what was going on. One night he broke into the camp and lay down in a one of the hammocks to see what kind of treatment a prisoner gets. The prisoners slept in hammocks. They were whacked with saber whacks if they didn’t get up. The guards would cut their hammock cords. When one guard raised his saber he found himself staring at Fidel; he almost dropped dead.” The youth went on to describe other abuses Fidel saw. “That’s another of Fidel’s exploits,” he said, “Fidel is the man of the unexpected visits.”
Castro, the miliciano told Cardenal, “suppressed” the camps, “but nobody mentions them.”
Another youth who served in the camp explains that despite the experience, “we who were in the UMAP discovered that the Revolution and the UMAP were separable. And we said to ourselves: We won’t leave Cuba, we’ll stay and make what is bad not bad." After three years the UMAP ended with Fidel’s speech.”
A “young Marxist revolutionary” tells Cardenal a story. “A hundred boys from the Communist Youth were stripped of their identity cards and all other identification and delivered to the UMAP as prisoners, to see how they would be treated. It was a highly secret operation. Not even their families knew of this plan. Afterward the boys told what had happened. And they put an end to the UMAP.”
“We consider [the UMAP] a really sad thing in Cuban history,” Monika Krause, one of revolutionary Cuba’s pioneer sexologists told Boston’s Gay Community News in a 1984 interview. “It was the expression of ignorance and unreasonable aversion to homosexuality…We feel it has been an obligation of our system to change those attitudes which could have created UMAP. Because in a socialist society, there can be no discrimination.”
Arenas' “sexual revolution"
In contrast, Arenas affirms in the film that his circle fought repression by “having sex.”
In his book, he describes a conversation with a companion—after a trip to the Isle of Pines, where he claims they had sex with “an entire regiment”—as the two “take inventory of the men we had slept with until then; this was sometime in 1968. I came to the conclusion, after complicated mathematical calculations, that I had sex with about five thousand men.” His partner arrived at a similar figure. They were not “the only ones carried away by this kind of erotic rage; everybody was: the [armed forces] recruits who spent months of abstinence, and the whole population.” (All this, while an alleged island-wide pogrom against homosexual men had swept Cuba.)
“I think,” Arenas wrote, “that the sexual revolution actually came about as a result of the existing sexual repression.” Inasmuch as this nugget suggests a stab at politics by Arenas, it is wrong from all angles.
The sexual revolution in Cuba began with the fight to emancipate women from centuries of oppression, exploitation, and backwardness wrought by colonialism and the country’s dependence on the imperialist metropolis. The signal step in this process was the effort to incorporate women in productive economic activity --female toil prior to 1959 was mostly domestic servitude or prostitution in the gambling dens and brothels owned by U.S. investors and the Mafia. The forging of economic independence for women began to free them from compulsory marriage and their isolation and oppression in the home, center of their “free” toil.
Within this context, the new government abolished the sex trade, closed the whorehouses, and inaugurated a special program to educate and train Cuban prostitutes for real employment. It banned pornography, a prohibition enforced to this day. Divorce became easily obtainable, and birth control (like other medicines) was free of charge. Increasingly, informal marriage began to parallel civil marriage, with the government treating the children of such unions --or those of single parents-- equally. Today, no child in Cuba is born “out of wedlock.” This reactionary concept became superseded by social responsibility for child rearing, plus conditions and consciousness that eliminated the definition of woman, wife, and offspring as male property.
The battle for women’s equality --backed by the revolution and waged in the context of forging a new ethic of human solidarity in the work of building a free society-- further focused the explicit aim of the struggle that began in the Sierra Maestra mountains of creating new men and women. This permanent effort drew as irreplaceable partners science and education in the fight to confront and conquer prejudice—including in sexual matters.
In their struggle for equality, Cuban women and their allies inevitably encountered resistance on questions ranging from employment in traditionally male occupations and the “double burden” of housework and jobs, to sexual freedom. “Women’s participation in the revolution was a revolution in the revolution,” Fidel Castro told a leadership meeting of the Federation of Cuban Women in 1966, “and if we were asked what the most revolutionary thing is that the revolution is doing, we would answer that it is precisely this—the revolution that is occurring among the women of our country.”
In the course of such political mobilization and struggle, new values were being created as society was transformed—a stated goal of the central leadership of the revolution. This generated a morality far surpassing the “ethics” that govern human relations in any other country. Accomplishments concretizing these core principles are the framework for the expansion of gay rights. (Many of the challenges women undertook and achieved in the early period of the new society are chronicled in Women and the Cuban Revolution, by Elizabeth Stone, whose collection includes important speeches and documents; and Cuban Women Now, by Margaret Randall, with a range of informative first person accounts.)
Promiscuity vs. self-worth
For Arenas, the struggle for women’s liberation did not exist. Numberless sexual encounters (in his case, between men) --with the sole criterion of quantity-- is a version shared by many self-proclaimed advocates of “the sexual revolution.” This definition has served only to gut the concept of its historic substance and curdle its revolutionary social content into an unrelenting search for individual sexual satiation as the center of life. There is nothing at all progressive about this —it is the pornographic response to sexual repression which dehumanizes both genders, irrespective of sexual orientation. Contrary to poet William Blake’s axiom of self-indulgence, the “road of excess” does not “lead to the palace of wisdom.” The consequences of such a belief are documented in Randy Shilts’ groundbreaking narrative on the AIDS pandemic, And the Band Played On.
Arenas’ sexual credo was the opposite of the central element the revolution sought to inculcate in the free women and men who discovered their talents and capacities in responding to it complicated challenges— self-worth. Human sexual liberation, freed from the fetters of repressive norms, requires such a dignified starting point as negation of the alienating and abusive fetishism that defines sex and sexuality.
Patriarchal ideology, the product of millennia, had as its genesis the triumph of men over women in the battle for the surplus society produced. This world-historic defeat of the matriarchy put the family in the center of the rise of private property and the state—as described by Frederik Engels in The Rise of Private Property, the Family, and the State.
“What we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationships after the impending effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish,” Engels wrote. “But what will be added? That will be settled after a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in all their lives had had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, one the practice of each individual—and that’s the end of it.”
Economic compulsion for marriage, the subordination of the woman to the isolated unpaid labor of household drudgery and “maternal” tasks, and her domination by the patriarch are material foundations for the sexual ideology that oppresses her—an ideology that necessarily places homosexuality beyond the pale. How consciously these matters are understood and confronted determine just how emancipating “the sexual revolution” will be as it inevitably emerges from the broader, more decisive revolutionary struggle to overturn capitalism and begin building socialism.
“Three passions ruled the life and death of Reinaldo Arenas,” the anti-communist Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante stated glowingly in the Spanish newspaper El País, reviewing the book Before Night Falls. These were “literature (not as a game, but as a consuming fire), passive sex, and active politics. Of the three, the dominant passion was evidently, sex. Not only in his life, but also in his work. He was the chronicler of a country ruled not by the already impotent Fidel Castro, but by sex…he lived a life whose beginning and end were indeed the same: from the start, one long, sustained sexual act.” Like others who renounce Cuba, Cabrera Infante fixates on the personal figure of Castro to deny the revolution's popular base, without which Fidel and the leadership of which he is part, would have been overthrown long ago. Interviewed in Improper Conduct, he claimed Cuba’s treatment of gays was comparable to the Nazi extermination of Jews at Auschwitz.
But while Arenas reveled in boasting of his sexual prowess and profligacy, Schnabel (cognizant of current frowning upon such promiscuity) employs the director’s right of sleight of hand to clean up Arena’s act. He refurbishes the writer’s frenetic, anonymous coupling as cute, pouting lustiness, tinged with enduring rural innocence.
Arenas as writer
In 1963, Arena’s prize-winning novel, Singing from the Well (still available in Cuba) was printed. His work had been favorably judged by Alejo Carpentier, whose own intricate prose style influenced and presaged Garbriel Garcia Márquez. But unlike Carpentier, Arenas’ trajectory placed him on a collision course not only with erroneous policies of the revolution, but the struggle of the Cuban people for their liberation. Had Arenas’ been able to hew to this complex process, his talent—on display in such vibrant works such as Old Rosa, which recalls the young García Márquez and the outstanding Portuguese novelist José Saramago—might have been inoculated from the debilitating poison of the obsessive bitterness that so defined and disfigured his later work. He was unable to realize, as the young Cuban ordered to an UMAP to Ernesto Cardenal, that “the Revolution and the UMAP were separable. And we said to ourselves: We won’t leave Cuba, we’ll stay and make what is bad not bad.”
Examples of endurance and abandonment
The life and status of José Lezema Lima, author of Cuba’s greatest novel, Paradiso—who was vilified by assorted hacks in 1960s for being a “dissident,” and for the lyrical tome’s homosexual subtext—likewise presents an alternative to Arenas, despite the film’s attempt to portray him as a cosmopolitan foe of the revolution. Lezama Lima, who was gay, defended the Cuban government and Castro to Ernesto Cardenal in 1970, while explaining he was not a “political animal.” He remained in Havana until his death. A young member of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations told me last year he, like other students of Cuban literature, had read Lezama Lima’s lush, extraordinary book in high school. “It’s my favorite novel,” he said.
Paradiso “had never been censored,” Cuba’s leading filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea told Cineaste in 1995. “What happened was that after the book was published, the entire printing was withdrawn from publication because the book contained a chapter with references to homosexuality. Such a repressive action was idiotic. Later, however, the book did circulate freely.”
Pablo Armando Fernández, who “confessed” his alleged ideological weakness during the Padilla events, and was for a period deprived of the ability to publish his poetry (he learned the printer’s trade to survive) also refused the temptation to abandon ship. Today he has achieved Cuba’s highest awards for poetry, and argues for his country’s sovereignty in presentations and readings in the United States.
Meanwhile, Padilla immigrated to the United States in 1979 and became rental property for anti-Cuba propagandists. This included collaborating on Improper Conduct (where Padilla embarrassed himself by charging that “the Cuban leadership,” while persecuting “gay men,” avoided harassing lesbians because they “excite them. Nothing excites the primitive Cuban mind like two women in bed.”)
Identifying and assessing errors
Notwithstanding Padilla's departure and subsequent rightward evolution, his mistreatment --and the victimization that other intellectuals and artists faced-- became the subject of condemnation by Cuba’s leaders. Abel Prieto—at the time of this mid 1990s interview with Cuba’s contrapunto magazine president of UNEAC [Artists and Writers Union] and the youngest member of the Communist Party’s Politburo—put it this way: “I am sure the Padilla case was an error,” referring to the exile as “a good poet.”
“Padilla’s famous self-criticism was a ridiculous trap into which fell the comrades involved in this. Very brave, revolutionary, and intellectual people believed this theater, this self-criticism,” Prieto noted. Referring to a documentary made at the time of the events, hailing the confession, Prieto termed the film “very sad, because it’s a sort of caricature of the Moscow proceedings”—caricature being the operative word here. After all, had a real “Moscow-type" regime existed in Havana, today Cuba would be a tropical Bulgaria and history would have transpired far differently, leaving the people of the world in a far more difficult situation. The filmed record, Prieto noted, was “buffoonery.”
Precisely because Cuba was never a “satellite” of the USSR—much to Washington’s regret—its leadership was capable of leading a struggle to reroute the revolution from detours to its original revolutionary course. Such political advances in Cuba enabled the contemporary observer to understand that the Padilla events transpired, as Prieto stated, in “a climate of myopia or delirium.”
Prieto is currently Cuba’s minister of Culture.
Before Night Falls uses a voice over, which the moviegoer is supposed to believe is that that of Fidel Castro, to justify previous mistreatments. The unidentified narrator intones the words (from a speech Castro made to Cuban intellectuals at the time) “within the revolution, everything; outside the revolution, nothing.” In fact, what the Cuban leader stated was substantially different: “against the revolution, nothing.”
Just how this would be applied has always been the subject of constant elaboration, practice, and debate—all within the permanent environment of unrelenting U.S. hostility, which has continued to ratchet up throughout the 1990s.
In 1970, three years after the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia and the subsequent decline of the Latin American revolutionary movement, Cuba’s central leadership was unable to fulfill its promise to mobilize the population sufficiently to harvest an ultimately-utopian goal of 10 million tons of sugar. This setback for the revolutionary regime shifted the balance of political weight from forces led by Fidel Castro to those who favored deeper economic integration with Moscow. This decision, and all that politically and culturally came to accompany such a relationship, yielded unanticipated consequences. Soon thereafter, Cuba dropped its plan to become self-sufficient in food production in favor of membership in the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance, which federated the economic plans of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations.
This was the backdrop in 1971 to the first National Congress on Education and Culture—and, not coincidentally, the arrest of Herberto Padilla. Outside Cuba, that act was protested by figures loyal to Cuba, including Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jean-Paul Sartre. They distinguished themselves from other intellectuals and writers who used the injustice of the moment to break with the revolution.
In its most glaring resolution, the congress declared: “The social pathological character of homosexual deviations was recognized. It was resolved that all manifestations of homosexual deviations are to be firmly rejected and prevented from spreading.” This proclamation gave impulse to deny employment to gays in any institutions that influenced youth. As well, the congress declared gays should not “represent Cuba” abroad.
This campaign stimulated protest in Cuba by artists, writers, and others, as well as by international partisans of Cuba with impeccable revolutionary credentials. Joseph Hansen, a veteran leader of the Socialist Workers Party who from the earliest day of the revolution assiduously reported and helped win it support, noted that “the pillorying of homosexuals” was a “bad indication” of deeper, but not insurmountable, problems [1978 introduction to his book The Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution].
Walking in Havana on a hot August day in 1980, I sought relief from the oppressive humidity by ducking into the air-conditioned public lobby of the Czech Embassy. When I entered, I was confronted by a display on “Ideological Diversionism”—a chilling formulation produced by the Soviet bureaucracy’s norm of amalgamating, stigmatizing, and outlawing its galaxy of enemies, both real and imagined. There, in a glass case, was state’s evidence, provided by Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior: a copy of Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed; a magazine homosexual eroticism; and a Zionist tract. Despite the cool temperatures in the room, it was empty.
Outside, many Cubans worried about Moscow’s repeated warnings to the Polish Solidarity labor movement. “We are against intervention,” many of them told me, concerned about U.S. retaliation for such a move.
Reinaldo Arenas’ second novel, despite being cited for merit by UNEAC, was rejected for publication unless references to homosexuality were expunged. Arenas refused, and began smuggling his books out of Cuba. In 1973, he was arrested for child molestation, a charge he denied. This event is portrayed in the film as a frame-up of a chaste Arenas, with no basis in fact. In his memoir, however, Arenas writes of the occasion that he and a friend “had sex in the mangroves with some young guys.”
He is jailed, but slips out, and is on the run.
Arenas’ increasingly anti-revolutionary proclamations and connections with foreign embassies for purposes of sending manuscripts abroad lead the Cuban government to declare him an agent of U.S. intelligence.
He is recaptured. His imprisonment is shown in the movie in a set imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. Arenas signs a debasing confession (thanks to the persuasive powers of Johnny Depp) gets released. Next, the film fast-forwards over his life as a squatter with other disgruntled Cubans until the 1980 Mariel boatlift and departure of 125,000 citizens to the United States. The next 10 years are condensed into a few moments in the film.
Arenas’ arrival, and his experiences in Miami --briefly mentioned in the book-- are entirely absent from the film. This is, perhaps, because he believed the city was “a caricature of Cuba, the worst of Cuba,” owing to its ultra-machiste swagger, he wrote. To the “hell” that was Cuba, he announced Miami was “purgatory,” a proclamation that, along with his open homosexuality, did not endear him to the traditional ex-Cuban ultra-rightists in southern Florida. Arenas used this friction to perpetuate the myth that he was neither of “left” nor “right,” as if his sexual preference enabled him to transcend judgment based on the political content of his deeds.
Moving to New York City, Arenas became an organizer of actions against the Cuban revolution. These included his own speaking tours, collaboration with Néstor Almendros in the making of Improper Conduct, and petition campaigns denouncing the “Castro dictatorship.” All these projects, described con gusto in the memoir, are excised from the film.
In 1984 his novella, The Brightest Star, appeared in English. It is dedicated to his friend, Nelson Rodríguez Leyva, who in 1971 detonated a hand grenade in failed attempt to hijack a Cubana jetliner to the United States. Captured, he was tried and executed. Arenas hailed his act. “I often think of that moment when, grenade in hand, flying over the Island with its concentration camps and jails, Nelson, in the air, at last felt free, perhaps for the only time in his short life,” Arenas wrote, explaining the dedication.
The author Arenas briefly surveys his last decade of life in the United States, a sad reenactment of his life in Cuba: nameless and numberless sexual liaisons, imagined encounters with “witches,” monomaniacal diatribes against Fidel Castro, and ceaseless derision of international literary figures—his more famous rivals—who defend Cuba. Carlos Fuentes, he snipes, behaves “like a computer…the extreme opposite of what I would consider to be a real writer.” Eduardo Galeano is “a front man for Castro.” Gabriel García Márquez is a “born opportunist. His work, although not without merit, is permeated with cheap populism.”
Above all, Arenas became politically paranoid, seeing what he termed “Castrist agents” everywhere. The root of this phobia was not their presence, but the fact that Arenas often encountered defenders of Cuba when he spoke. In the face of such ripostes, he imagined receiving “death threats from the Cuban State Security” and alleged he was the target of assassination attempts, break-ins and black bag jobs.
None of this, with the exception of quick reference to Arenas’ sexual activity, finds its way into the film. The movie quickly dissolves into the lonely tragedy of his death, editorially enhanced for cinematic effect. Weakened by AIDS, he is hospitalized, but lacking insurance, is released to return to his hovel. To be sure, this is an indictment of the harshness of life in the United States (and bolsters the film's credibility and liberal credentials). These “sufferings of exile,” Arenas wrote in his “farewell letter,” along with “the diseases contracted…would probably never have happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country.”
Arenas killed himself. But director Schnabel, in an apparent pitch for an extra dose of sympathy, reconfigures the suicide into an act of euthanasia at hands of close friend Lazaro Gómez.
Arenas’ 1990 death bed prediction that Cuba “will be free”—which echoed the intoxicated hopes of Cuban-American reactionaries everywhere of celebrating the post-Soviet Navidad in Havana—proved to be as empty as his tragic life became.
* * *
In 1975, the Cuban Supreme Court overturned Resolution Number 3 of the Council of Culture (predecessor of the Ministry of Culture). This rule had been used to implement the anti-gay declarations of the 1971 cultural congress, setting “parameters” limiting employment of homosexuals in the arts and education.
In 1975, after extensive popular debate and discussion, Cuba adopted its Family Code. Among other wide-ranging changes, it called for equal sharing of child-care and other domestic responsibilities by men and women, further institutionalizing female equality as a goal of the new society
In 1979, the new Cuban penal code decriminalized homosexuality.
In 1982, In Defense of Love, by Dr. Sigfried Schnabel, became a bestseller in Cuba, due to its frank and honest treatment of human sexuality. Homosexuality, Schnabl wrote, “is not a sickness, but a variant of human sexuality.”
“No ‘natural’ moral norms or sentiments are inherent in humanity,” she explained. “The sole natural inclination is sexual desire itself; the specific customs with which people satisfy their desire, and all that transpires between the sexes is the product of specific culture.” Thus, anti-gay bigotry in the culture inherited by revolutionary Cuba should be rejected. “It would be wrong to disqualify a homosexual because of his or her sexual preference or to interpret homosexuality as a debility of character, something that many do, unfortunately, due to ignorance, lack of comprehension, and prejudice.”
Soon afterwards, Cuba’s Ministry of Culture published Schnabl’s popular Man and Woman in Intimacy, which devoted an entire chapter to homosexuality.
The book enumerates and rejects a series of superstitious claims purporting to reveal the supposed cause of homosexuality. “All these ‘theories’—that up until recently were supported by certain specialists,” Schnabl wrote, “have not the slightest scientific foundation.”
Against antigay discrimination
Gays do not “suffer from homosexuality,” Schnabl explained, “but rather from the difficulties stemming from their condition in social life,” that is, anti-gay prejudice. She explicitly opposed, in this government-published book, any and all sanctions against gays.
“What adult persons do in private, in mutual agreement, does not violate the moral standards of society and there is, therefore, no need to take action against it. Homosexuals, like all other citizens, are entitled to consideration and recognition for their objective achievements and conduct,” Schnabl stated.
Citing these and other passages in Granma [Cuban Communist Party newspaper] in a 1984 response to Improper Conduct, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea noted that “this does not mean that the publication of a single book, regardless of how ‘official’ it is, will automatically mean that a social phenomenon deeply rooted in the centuries of our Catholic and Spanish past will automatically disappear. Yet such a book where, among other things, the latest scientific criteria on homosexuality appear, is unquestionably a valuable instrument of struggle that the Cuban state makes available to those willing to take up the cause of those who are discriminated against, marginalized and made to suffer prejudice and oppression of any kind.”
Gutiérrez’s remonstration of Almendros for willingly falsifying in his “documentary” the duration and character of the UMAP could readily be applied to Schnable. “Almendros knows full well that most infamous lies can be fabricated out of half-truths,” Gutiérrez wrote. “He knows, for example, that the UMAP, the work camps where a large number of homosexuals went to do their military service, were a mistake and led to a scandal that fortunately ended with their disappearance and a policy of rectification.” The Village Voice and the Militant reprinted the legendary Cuban director’s article shortly after its appearance in Cuba.
In 1986, led by Fidel Castro, the Cuban Communist Party undertook a sweeping process of criticism, debate, and discussion aimed at overhauling Cuba’s Soviet-oriented economic policies and mode of labor organization. Cuba’s revolutionary values had been so eroded by the bureaucratism, corruption, and inertia generated by such methods that revolution had begun to go “off course,” Castro explained. The party itself, he told its central committee, had started “to go to pot.”
This deep-going “rectification campaign of errors and negative tendencies” really became, as the Cuban leader stated, “a revolution in the revolution.” (Two pivotal, early speeches heralding the rectification process remain available in the magazine New International [410 West St., N.Y., N.Y. 10014].) The scope of this unprecedented project—especially as Cuban revolutionary political activists took hold of it—opened all subjects to debate, from the economic methods that sent the country off course to policies in culture, arts, and social relations.
A subtext was the realization that, notwithstanding the use by the United States of immigration as a weapon against economically embargoed Cuba, more recent departures like those at Mariel included thousands of citizens—some gay—who had been alienated or abused by wrongheaded practices carried out in the name of the revolution.
More than a decade ago, I interviewed a young Cuba worker, known by his factory mates as a homosexual, who had left Cuba at Mariel, “for the adventure,” he said. Roberto rapidly came to realize what he had left behind. He went through experiences that brought him eventually to the Antonio Maceo Brigade, a group of pro-revolution Cubans of newer generations in Miami and New Jersey. He returned to Cuba for a visit after the rectification process was in full swing, and visited the factory where he used to work to address an assembly of 700 coworkers. As he walked onto the stage, they rose in a standing ovation.
Trying to rid the albatross
A byproduct of the economic calamity that shook Cuba when the USSR and its allied regimes collapsed (and with them 85 percent of the island’s commerce) was the disappearance of the glue that adhered Soviet social and cultural influence to the body politic of the Cuban revolution—canons of Soviet “orthodoxy” and “socialist realism” that had always been alien to the rebel spirit of the revolution and its central leadership team. Now, historical questions and debates; political and literary personalities deemed off-limits; or “theories” once considered sacrosanct or restricted by “self-censorship” became accessible and subject to inquiry, research, and criticism. This living process is hardly finished.
In 1987, a new police directive forbid harassment of people based on appearance or clothing (which had been carried out under statutes against “ostentatious” behavior).
In 1988, in an interview on Galician television in Spain, Fidel Castro noted that “a certain rigidity” had governed attitudes towards homosexuality. While “God needed seven days to make the world,” he explained, “you must understand that to remake this world, to destroy a world like that which we had here and to make a new one, there wasn’t much light, and at first there was a lot of darkness, and a lot of confusion about a series of problems. Our society, our party, our government [now] have ideas that are clearer, wiser, and more intelligent about many of these problems. Given that we can make mistakes, we obsessively follow the idea that what is just, right, and best for the people, and what is most human for our people and our society. However, the task is not easy…I think that each time we get closer to the right criteria for making the world we want. Nonetheless, I think that we still have many faults, and that future generations will have to continue to perfect this new world.”
In 1992, at the congress of the Union of Young Communists, Vilma Espín, president of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) and a senior veteran leader of the Communist Party challenged a psychologist who in a presentation put forward prejudicial views on homosexuality. Espín, according to Sonja de Vries in Cuba Update, explained that such ideas, not the sexual orientation of gays, were what needed to be changed. “The opinion of such a respected and longtime revolutionary is a significant representation of the change ideas of the Cuban leadership,” de Vries stated.
In 1992, Fidel Castro responded to several questions on sexual issues posed by former Sandinista Nicaraguan government official Tomás Borge in A Grain of Corn. The volume, which covers a range of topics, was published in Havana. Like many books in Cuba, this work enjoyed brief and brisk sales, then became unavailable. Castro’s remarks are even less well known outside of Cuba. They are worth quoting at length.
“You speak about sexual discrimination,” the Cuban leader responded to a question by Borge. “I told you that we have eliminated sexual discrimination. More precisely, I could say that we have done everything that a government can do, that a State can do, to eradicate sexual discrimination against women.
“We could refer to a long struggle, that has been successful, that has had many great results, in the area of discrimination against women. There is still a lot of machismo in our people, I believe it’s at a level that is lower that anywhere in Latin America, but there is machismo. This has formed part of what is the idiosyncrasy of our people over centuries and it has many origins, going back to the Arab influence in Spain as well as the influences of the Spaniards, because we got our machismo from the Conquistadors, just as we received other bad habits.
“It was an historical inheritance. In some countries more than in others, but in none was there more struggle than in ours and I believe that in none have there been more tangible and practical successes. This is true, something we can see, that can still be seen, and above all, can be seen in the youth. But we cannot say that there has been a total and absolute elimination of sexual discrimination, nor can we drop our guard. We have to continue struggling in this sense, because it’s a historical ancestral legacy against which there has been much struggle; there have been advances and there have been results, but we must continue to struggle.
“I’m not going to deny that, at a certain point, this machista thing, influenced the approach that was taken toward homosexuality. I personally – you are asking me my personal opinion—do not suffer from this type of phobia against homosexuals. Truly, in my mind, that’s never been there and I have never been in favor nor have I promoted it, nor have I supported it, policies against homosexuals. This is due to, I would say, a certain period and it is very due to the legacy, that thing of machismo. I try to have a more human explanation, a more scientific explanation of the problem. On many occasions this has become a tragedy, because you have to see how the parents think, there are parents who have a homosexual child, and it becomes a tragedy to them, and you can’t help but feel sorry that such a thing happens and that it becomes a tragedy for the individual.
“I don’t see homosexuality as a phenomenon of degeneration, but rather I see it in another way. The approach has been of another sort: a more rational approach, considering the tendencies and natural things of the human being, who simply must be respected. This is the philosophy with which I view these problems. I think that there has to be consideration shown toward the family that suffers these situations. I would hope that the families would have another mentality, that they would have another approach when something of this sort happens. I am absolutely opposed to any form of repression, disdain, contempt or discrimination with respect to homosexuals. That’s what I think”
Borge asks, “Can a homosexual be a militant in the Communist Party?”
“I can tell you,” Castro responds, “that there have been many prejudices around this issue, that’s true, that’s the reality, I won’t deny it; but there have been prejudices of other kinds against which we have focused our struggle…
“There was, for example, one standard for judging the personal conduct of a man and another for a woman. We had this situation for years in the party and I led fights and argued a lot about this. If there was infidelity in a marriage on behalf of the man, there was no problem, no worry, on the other hand it was a subject of discussion in the [party units] when there was infidelity on the part of the woman. There was one way of judging sexual relations of men and another of women. I had to fight hard, against deeply rooted tendencies that were not the product of any sermon or doctrine, or education, but the machista concepts and prejudices that exist at the heart of our society.
“Of course, I didn’t answer your question about free love. I have absolutely no objection. I don’t know what is meant by free love. Interpreting it to mean the freedom to love, I have no objection.”
Castro’s remarks are a register of both progress made and continuing challenges. These are increasingly faced and shouldered by the newest generations of Cuban revolutionists, many of who have been affected and educated by struggles for women’s liberation, gay rights and against anti-gay violence throughout the world.
Films reflect advances
The critical spirit and impact of the process opened up by the rectification effort and the unraveling of Soviet influence after the events of 1989-90 underlie the 1993 production of Strawberry and Chocolate (by Tomás Gutierrez) and its mass popularity phenomenon. More than a million Cubans saw the film, probably the island's most widely seen movie ever. It won numerous top Cuban and international film awards.
The movie skewers dogmatic features of the Cuban Communist Party and the Union of Young Communists that had taken shape in the 1970s and early 1980s. It places the decision to leave the island not solely on individual weaknesses, but as a price paid by the revolution for deficiencies and errors that occurred under its banner. The rarely-mentioned UMAP injustice is raised. Anti-gay prejudice is subject to a withering dissection. Such attitudes and actions, the film clearly implies, are contrary to the humanism of the revolution itself. (The movie is based on the 1992 play, The Wolf, the Woods, and the New Man, derived from a short story by Senel Paz.)
Gutiérrez, fondly known as Titon, explained in the 1995 interview with Cineaste that he chose to set the film in the year 1979 because it represented “the end of a historical period, because the Mariel boatlift occurred in 1980 and things began to change…The period before 1979 was also the time of greatest repression against homosexuals.”
“In given periods” of the revolution, Titon explained, “homosexuals have been barred from certain types of employment. They have been barred from teaching, for example, since it represents contact with youngsters. Now there is greater flexibility in job opportunities for homosexuals. In the case of representing Cuba abroad, for example, the appointment of representatives used to be handled with kid gloves when homosexuals were involved. Many people were against appointing them because they were considered more vulnerable to scandal and blackmail…but things are very different nowadays for homosexuals. Many Cuban homosexuals are now open about their sexual orientation. Others are not open about it—just like anywhere else—but there is a new level of awareness concerning homosexuality.”
In Havana in 1994, a young revolutionary Cuban artist told me a story of a visit to his father, a farmer, “who was a very strong communist.” Aramis said he had grown his hair to shoulder length since his last visit, which until the early 1990s was widely frowned upon and discouraged as a symbol of adapting to the corrupt values of Western consumer society. “He said to me, ‘you’re a faggot with that hair, get it cut or get out of my house.’ I picked up my backpack and started to leave. I told him, ‘you’re supposed to be a communist, for freedom, for human beings. I’m your son, you should love me, whether or not I’m a homosexual. What kind of communist are you?’ And I started to leave. He didn’t say anything. I got to the door, and then he said, ‘wait. You’re right. You can stay, you don’t have to cut your hair. I’ve got to think about these things.’ So we hugged, and I stayed.”
One can imagine repeated scenes like that, reminiscent of filial “generation gap” skirmishes that took place in the 1960s in the United States—which also expressed political conflict and disagreement—occurring in thousands of Cuban families as the young generation confronted old taboos that coexisted uneasily with the revolutionary perspectives of their parents.
Gay Cuba, the 1994 US-Cuban documentary by Sonja de Vries, deals with the history and achievements of the Cuban revolution as the prism to explore the evolution of the issue of homosexuality in a frank and direct way. It elaborates the changing attitudes and growing acceptance of gay men and lesbians in Cuban society and culture. Some interviews particularly evoke progress: debates between soldiers, the openness of the young generation, the stance expressed by industrial workers, including a factory union local president who is gay.
The following year, the Cuban documentary Mariposas en el Andamio (Butterflies on the Scaffold), directed by Margaret Gilpin and Luis Felipe Bernaza, appeared. It narrates the story of working class Cuban transvestites who become integrated in the life of the Havana suburb of La Guinera, how they worked to build a coalition with female leaders of a local construction brigade, and their performance in the workers dining room.
Contrast with U.S.
In 1997, ten times as many residents of Los Angeles Country—with a population slightly smaller than that of Cuba—had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as the entire population of the revolutionary island. Health care for people with HIV—from outpatient to residential and hospice service—is free and voluntary. State-sponsored education utilizes the skills of people with HIV to speak in Cuban schools about safe sex and HIV prevention.
The climate of violence and political polarization created by ultra-rightist homosexual hatred in which gays and lesbians (like Matthew Shepard, tortured and beaten to death in 1998 by thugs in Wyoming) does not exist in Cuba. Anti-sodomy statues like those promulgated in Nicaragua in the early 1990s, used to depose and jail a top Malaysian political leader last year, and upheld by high courts and august judges in the United States, are absent from Cuba law.
Death squads that “cleanse” Brazilian and Colombian cities of queers and other supposed social filth, or related acts of antigay violence, are unknown in Cuba. Public locations where gays congregate are not subject to police harassment.
Cuban popular rap artists do not sing about killing women and faggots. Cuban gays and lesbians both adopt, and maintain custody of their biological children. The position of the country’s National Commission on Sex Education is that homosexuality is a normal form of human behavior, and has been so since the early 1990s.
Against such accomplishments, Washington and the purveyors of U.S. cultural enlightenment stand on shaky ground when censuring Cuba for alleged violation of gay rights.
Advances in Cuba confirm that greater space for partaking in life's daily benefits and challenges exist for gay men and lesbians there than in any other country in the Third World. Cuba is an example for its tens of millions of homosexual men and women who seek freedom. To be sure, there’s much unfinished business. As one young gay Cuban I interviewed in 1998 pointedly asked, “why is it that you can watch Stephen Segal action adventures on Cuban television, but Strawberry and Chocolate has never been shown?”
Struggle for change backed by the revolution
Further steps forward in Cuba will be determined by initiatives informed by defense of the revolution. Tomás Gutiérrez’s 1984 injunction that official rejection of homophobia is “an instrument of struggle that the Cuban state makes available to those willing to take up the cause of those who are discriminated against, marginalized and made to suffer prejudice and oppression of any kind" is truer now than ever before.
Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro have recently, increasingly, and sharply spoken about the need to address “marginalization” of Blacks and women—failings of Cuban society where legislation mandating equality has been insufficient to address real problems. This theme has been expressed in the Cuban media, and by a variety of political activists, and presents itself by challenging existing organizations and in the formation of new ones. The recently created Colores Cubanos, affiliated to UNEAC, for instance, presses for greater conscious reflection of the country’s multinational, multiracial, multicultural reality in the nation’s production of art, music, film, television, and literature.
In a nationally-televised interview at the end of 2000, Raúl Castro touched on this theme. Anticipating that “the future will have to been one of struggle,” he noted that there “is much more terrain still to be covered.” This includes “rights that must be conquered or re-conquered. These are among the principal objectives for beginning the battle of ideas.” The conquest and re-conquest of rights can only be achieved by struggle, the results of which will forge new generations of freer, more complete, and more confident Cuban women and men. And as Cuban revolutionists are well aware, forward motion in their country on every question is linked to advances world-wide in battles against oppression and exploitation. These, as current international conditions bear witness, appear nearer than further.
The view enunciated by Raúl Castro lends itself to efforts to further expand the expression and practice of human and social liberation, including for gays. A key element favorable to progress in this sphere has been the interaction of the international fight for homosexual freedom with the Cuban revolution, particularly in the more receptive atmosphere that began in the mid-1980s. At the same time, the progressive values forged by the international struggles the 1960s and 70s against war, racism, repression, and for women’s liberation—which politically gestated the gay liberation movement—were strengthened by Cuba’s example of defying the reigning bourgeois status quo.
Fittingly, all these changes enabled some to modify whatever official political conclusions had been handed down on Reinaldo Arenas. In truth, the revolution’s supportive atmosphere had raised a rural youth from pre-1959 misery, inspiring and nurturing his genuine talents and gifts. This remained true, irrespective of his evolution. I learned this inadvertently in a 1995 conversation with a younger leading Cuban poet who was on a U.S. speaking tour. We were talking about Cuban writers, and the name of Reinaldo Arenas came up. Having known him only by political reputation, I said something pejorative. The poet looked at me steadily and said, “you know, you can’t understand contemporary Cuban literature without reading Arenas.”
* * *
In the early 1960s Fidel Castro famously declared that the Cuban revolution “must be a school of unfettered thought.” Such liberty would be absolutely necessary for the survival of a free and sovereign people just 90 miles from the United States. It was a basic requirement for the new men and women learning in the laboratory of their revolution how to develop a new nation, defend it, and extend the solidarity that they had received to every struggle against injustice and exploitation, with which they unconditionally identified. Cuba’s capacity to resist for over four decades every conceivable form of pressure meted out by the United States without conceding a single principle of the revolution, verifies its graduation from that school with honors.
Winning the “battle of ideas” is the current formulation in Cuba of what Fidel declared more than three decades ago. It retains all of its original vitality and urgency. To enable millions of Cubans to more effectively participate in that battle, the government recently launched the Universidad para Todos [University for All] program. This will provide greatly expanded resources—from equipment to instructors— to Cubans in cities and rural areas in a wide array of studies, thus making education a truly lifetime endeavor. “Our country will transform itself into a giant university,” Fidel Castro told young computer students last September.
It’s in the spirit of engaging in the battle of ideas that this contribution is made, based on the conviction that the great, liberating experiment that began in Cuba in 1959 continues to broaden the borders of human freedom in 21st century. Whatever wrongs committed in the necessary trial and error of that greatest of all endeavors, the Cuban people have learned from them, thus strengthening themselves. They continue to evolve and advance. In so doing, they offer irrefutable proof that theirs is a living revolution, one that makes a decisive contribution to all those who fight for a just and humane world and rightly seek to emulate it.
Jon Hillson, a Los Angeles union and political activist, was involved in defense of the Cuban revolution since 1969 until his untimely fatal heart attack in 2004, organizing numerous delegations to the island and visiting there seven times. He has written widely on the Cuban revolution and solidarity with it, including a 1998 front-page feature article on Cuba’s fight against AIDS and its work in sexual education for La Opinión, the largest Spanish language daily in the United States. In the last decade more than two dozen of his poems have appeared in various journals across the country.
©Copyright 2001 by Jon Hillson and SeeingRed. Non-profit reprint rights freely granted if the url www.SeeingRed.com is attached.