Jorge Ferrer: “When every day seemed vital”

I read Jorge Ferrer from the other side of the Atlantic. We are seven hours apart. He in Spain, I in Mexico. I didn’t get the chance to interview him “formally”, so I won’t be able to describe his apartment or the café where we would have talked; the atmosphere of the place, his gestures, his anger or approval, the arching of his eyebrows in the face of certain uncomfortable questions… Now, as I go over his answers, I think about the possible scenario: we are sitting anywhere in Barcelona, Guadalajara or Havana after having introduced ourselves just a few minutes before. I listen to his conversation, as melodious and elegant as his writing, while I picture our potential complicity, which would have been undoubtedly the greatest highlight of our meeting.

Prior to getting in touch with Ferrer, I had already read his work, had already traveled aboard the trans-Siberian, immersed myself in The Black Book and, also, known about the pain and horrors experienced by Grossman and Ilya. I had already suffered for Zuleijá, finished examining the documents of the PAIDEIA group and had met with some of its protagonists. This process allowed me to shorten the distance and helped me undertake this spiritual exercise —as advised by Bourdieu— by forgetting myself, by experiencing a true conversion of the gaze. “The welcoming disposition,” wrote the French sociologist, “which leads one to make the respondent’s problems one’s own, the capacity to take that person and understand them just as they are in their distinctive necessity, is a sort of intellectual love: a gaze that consents to necessity.”[1] And that is exactly how I have felt with the rest of my interviewees and with Jorge, even though I could not tell him so at the end of our conversation in an unlikely bench, delocalized both in time and place. An effect of revelation arises with each work. I feel like I have been there, like I have lived it.


Jorge Ferrer (b. Havana, 1967) figures in the non-list of Cuban writers, according to official documents. His active participation in the PAIDEIA project, driven —as he himself has stated— by a spirit of democratization and freedom that he first experienced in the USSR, seemed to become a stigma through which the Cuban government branded several intellectuals on the island, when the collapse of the Berlin Wall exposed an inconvenient, subversive reality.

Ferrer’s signature, his name and prominence, central to PAIDEIA, appear in the letter to Carlos Aldana dated August 4, 1990. There, the group claimed the right to directly address the powers-that-be who had vetoed them, thus stripping them of their right to contribute to the society they belonged to. Ferrer’s name is also included in the “Thesis of May”, a collection of texts issued before the imminent celebration of the IV Congress of the Party which had called for a previous debate, excluding certain uncomfortable voices. The well-known formula was repeated: invisibility as a prevalent mechanism in a compromised public sphere, a scenario where the public and the social were made into parcels and extensions of the State.

There was no such place, no such sphere of construction —following Nora Rabotnikof’s description— in the Cuba of the nineties —as it does not exist now— where citizen-manufactured tactics could be recognized, where conflicts would get exposure or demands were allowed to be included; where accessibility was for everyone and carried an institutional response. In such a structure, Jorge Ferrer’s professional career, his translations of Svetlana Aleksiévich, George Soros or Alexander Herzen, his novel Minimal Bildung and even his awards are of no importance. This may seem a trivial matter and an unreasonable criticism, but it is not. The simple fact that a political leadership decides to constantly wipe out people and works as well as remove, put, raise and demote at whim those names that belong by right in the rich Cuban intellectual tradition, is a sordid game and a calamity.

How was your induction into the PAIDEIA project?

I returned to Havana from the USSR at the end of the summer of 1989, shortly after the launch of PAIDEIA on August 4 of that year at the well-known meeting of the Alejo Carpentier Cultural Promotion Center. My father’s job at the Cuban National Bank had led me to the USSR in 1981, at the age of fourteen, to shake off the dust of my Marianao neighborhood. There in Moscow I took my high school diploma and started reading seriously both in Russian and Spanish. Since the kickoff of Perestroika and Glásnost in 1985, I was plunged into the fever of democratization. Which was encouraged by the fact that that very same year I began studying journalism at the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGuIMO), a study center attached to the Soviet Foreign Ministry that immediately welcomed and adopted the winds of change brought by Mikhail Gorbachev to the gray landscape of economic and mental stagnation of late socialism.

Back in Moscow, Ernesto Hernández Busto and Víctor Fowler had approached me at different times and for different reasons, so that on my return to Havana I was naturally immersed in the PAIDEIA circle. The first image that comes to mind is that of artist Quisqueya Henríquez, a woman of extraordinary beauty in whose house on 1st (or perhaps 3rd) Avenue in Miramar I had the first meeting with some of PAIDEIA’s members. Nothing was more like what I aspired to live in the Cuba of that time, nor would it later in any of the Cubas I knew.

I suppose that, coming from a Moscow filled with a desire for freedom, I brought with me the certainty that it was possible to achieve such freedom in Cuba as well. Or, at least, I was acting as a talisman. But those calculations proved to be wrong to the misfortune of everyone and probably Cuba as well.

From your experience, what individual disagreements or direct confrontations with state power you had as a result of your connection with PAIDEIA?

We were a group of young people in their twenties who set out to challenge the cultural and ideological system of an authoritarian regime that was even older than us. At least most of us. Such insolence could not help but arouse a kind of incredulity and stupefaction among those in power. Much has already been written about the fact that it was us, children born after the revolution, who organized this attempt at subversion, which had already begun, incidentally, with the visual arts movement of the 80s.

In December 1989, after a few months focused on PAIDEIA, I returned to Moscow for my graduation. By then my classmate César Mora had been expelled from university and the situation for openly anti-Castro students was untenable. I felt watched and resolved to go back immediately to Havana. A delightful scene unfolded once there, which amused me for a long time. Since no one was aware of my return, I arrived at the airport in Rancho Boyeros at night with a couple of rubles in my pocket, not really knowing how I would get home. But I was in luck and ran into a friend of my parents in the arrivals terminal, a high-ranking officer of the Ministry of the Interior who was there on business and in full uniform. Generously, she drove me home, depositing me late in the evening in front of my place on 102nd Street and 51st. Everyone suddenly got scared thinking I had been arrested, as it had happened to César a few weeks earlier, but in my case it was all a staging. A mere rehearsal instead of the real production. Such was my comeback to Cuba, where I lived for the next four years until I left, thin and dispirited after being put through the wringer.

In Havana, thanks to the efforts of friends and connections, I managed to resume my journalism studies and ended up graduating in 1992. Power was pushing; I pushed as much as I could too. One of my pyrrhic victories against academic tedium was a course on poststructuralism that I taught in university. I was as afraid as I was crafty. The regime had a huge advantage, that’s for sure. It harmed my father while really gunning for me. It intimidated me. All in all, I suppose they were gracious with me beyond a harsh interrogation, some threats that never stopped, and a raid on the house I lived in on Línea and L streets during my last days in Havana, which ended with me being escorted to the Malecón police station. That’s where Marlene took me from. The attack took place one morning when I was returning from the French Embassy, where I was already applying for a visa to travel to Europe. You didn’t have to be a genius to get the warning: go away and don’t come back.  I remember very well the instant when I knew that I was leaving for good, as we were passing by the López Serrano building on our way back from the station. And so it was, until my mother’s old age forced me back and from then on, thanks to arrangements with the Cuban Ministry of Culture, I was granted an exceptional humanitarian visa that allowed me to come and visit her again until the end of her life.

Later, in my novel Minimal Bildung, I would include the López Serrano building as I saw it that day at a time when every day seemed decisive: a book seller was displaying his merchandise on the sidewalk and among it were the books by Antonio Gramsci from the Argentine publishing house Lautaro that we discussed so much in the PAIDEIA seminars, along with other readings that always accompanied me: from the Presocratics to Kolakowski, from Werner Jaeger to Walter Benjamin, from Adorno to Deleuze, from Hegel to Derrida. And Michel Foucault, especially Michel Foucault, who was my second Marx.

Maybe one day we’ll access the State Security archives. Then we’ll uncover all the tricks of the cat. And we, the mice, will know how mice-like we really were.

Was there a moment of concrete separation from PAIDEIA, or did it come about as part of the forced disintegration of the group?

PAIDEIA came to an end, as I recall, after a meeting with the provincial, maybe national, Young Communist League. As I remember it now after thirty years, securing that meeting was considered a great victory back then. It meant our opportunity to be heard, to be recognized as counterparts. Ah, vanity and its little siren call! The day the meeting took place it was someone’s birthday. We were devastated when it was over; the Wall had shown us its impregnable solidity. We went out to a sort of courtyard and somebody asked if we were going to eat the cake we had brought to celebrate that birthday. Then poet Omar Perez said with his wonderful ability for quips: “Well, we just ate the cake!” We all laughed and I always thought that was PAIDEIA’s funeral. Its joyful funeral. I had recently arrived from the USSR, let’s not forget it, where funerals require a table, a drink and a cake.

From then on, if memory serves, PAIDEIA’s circulating library still survived for a while out of habit, which I managed since the time Ernesto Hernández Busto left for Mexico, first from an apartment on Rayo Street, then at my house in Marianao, and finally, from the aforementioned apartment in Vedado, until I left Cuba and the library ceased to exist.

At the same time, a ship set sail for the Third Option project and I only boarded it to support its members in life. César Mora’s terrible gamble to give his life if the dictatorship wanted to take it, for instance. I also have beautiful memories of Rolando Prats’ return from his tour of Europe and North America. At the request of the French Embassy, I picked him up at the airport where the political police was waiting for him, and rented an apartment where we both stayed and lived together for a few weeks enjoying the brotherhood of conversation and fear; this is closest experience to living underground I have ever had. Afterward, I saw Prats mourning the death of the dictator and suffering the torments of other miseries, but what can you do about the biography of men, who are often smaller than their legitimate, though puerile, ambitions?

Can you talk about your relationship with La Azotea [The Rooftop] in Reina’s house, and whether you yourself witnessed any episode of surveillance, censorship or attempt to shut down those meetings?

Reina María Rodríguez is probably the Cuban poet of my life, in the sense that you say about a woman that she is the woman of your life. She is not the only one, of course. But reading Reina, understanding her and enjoying her company from the distance for decades has left an imprint on me. It actually goes beyond reading her work. Think, for example, that it was Reina who found Marlene an obstetrician, Dr. Pedro Sastrique, to help our daughter be born. The Rooftop was a haven of culture, love and peace to us all, little beasties who grazed on the pasturelands of dictatorship always protesting the quality of the grass. Whether her house was watched or not, Reina herself can tell you about it. I watched her with my eyes and my heart. Then and now. Among other reasons because both of us, through different routes, have developed a great passion for Eastern Europe and Russian poetry.

Could it be said that your exile was either induced or mandatory, as with other members of the project?

Mandatory?! No, not that. We could all have stayed and live in that authoritarian Cuba. Getting out was a choice. Induced? Well, of course! Pushed, even! But I could very well be a man who entertained himself from Marianao right now trying to imagine a country, a literature or a less crowded line to buy chicken. I could be a man living an unworthy life in that Cuba. Or a very dignified life. Other people live them, both the former and the later.

I left Cuba in June 1994 because I did not want to continue living in what had become a physical and moral cesspool. My personal or collective projects could not be realized there. I wanted to buy newspapers in the morning. And live without fearing a gross power in the midst of a deaf, unchangeable political culture. I was also getting fed up with that ridiculous role to which dissidents from the intellectual field are allotted in Cuba: that of being figurines to whom foreign visitors come offering candy, questions and large doses of confirmation bias.

And apart from newspapers, I wanted to buy croissants. From 1981 to 1990 I had lived in the USSR, traveling to Cuba only on vacation. Leaving again in ‘94 was less of a break than recovering my status as a foreigner, one that I practice at many places other than customs.

I left Cuba without PAIDEIA but with my novel Minimal Bildung, which Rolando Prats published later in Miami in a sort of happy spin-off from the days of PAIDEIA, its documents written, rewritten, revised, and polished to infinity in the Almendares Park, Graciela Mateo’s house in Brisas del Mar or our apartments in Havana back in the days of the special period, indeed so very special.

You said once that before you moved to Spain in 1994, you had translated some letters from Dostoyevsky for El Caimán Barbudo [The Bearded Caiman] that were never published. Do you know why they didn’t print them? Is there any other like episode that happened to you on the island with your work as a translator or as an author?

As far as I recall, if they were never published, it was because Omar Pérez, who was then editor-in-chief, was thrown out of the magazine. (By the way, one of PAIDEIA’s most defining and spectacular meetings took place in that big house on Paseo Street where El Caimán… used to be edited). But I can only remember my struggles with Dostoyevsky, whom, by the way, I had never translated until precisely these present days when I am dealing with a fragment of his Diary of a Writer. Of the 19th century Russian authors, I believe I have only translated Aleksandr Herzen and Nikolai Leskov. From the former I translated his extraordinary memoirs My Past and Toughts for publisher Mario Muchnik, which won me a very beautiful prize. From Leskov, a writer as fine and shaky as a vase on the edge of a table, I translated Una Familia Venida a Menos [A Decayed Family], also commissioned by Mario.

Incidentally, apart from journalism and other endeavors, my translations from Russian have kept me close to many Cuban readers throughout these years. A vampire saga by Serguei Lukyanenko that I translated in a row shortly after 2000 aroused great interest, as Victor Fowler told me at the time. And, especially, my translation of Svetlana Aleksievich’s El fin del Homo Sovieticus [The Last of the Soviets], that great fresco of Soviet world and post-Soviet collapse which has been widely read there. Now I am currently enjoying all the attention my book on COVID-19 confinement published by Hypermedia, Days of Coronavirus. An Itinerary, is getting there.

On the other hand, in a genre to which I only returned once, unsuccessfully, that of documentary filmmaking, I did experience a colorful moment of censorship in 1991, when a documentary I made with Jamila Castillo, a fellow student at the Faculty of Communication in the University of Havana, was heavily censored. The piece, a review of the state of journalism in Cuba following Julio Cortázar’s poem “Subir Hacia Atrás” [“Rising Backwards”], which was also the documentary’s title, amidst fierce controversy managed to win a prize created ad hoc in the 4th Young Filmmakers Festival. Afterwards, it disappeared from archives and exhibitions. Even today, so many years later, I do not own a copy of the documentary, which we edited at the San Antonio International Film School, and I fear that despite its award and ephemeral fame, it is already lost forever. As surprising as it may seem, I still meet people —like a colleague in Madrid a few months ago— who remember that film, particularly a phrase I say on camera, which is a hundred percent PAIDEIA: “The problem with this country is that its political vanguard does not coincide with its epistemological vanguard”.

However, any intervention of Cuban censorship on my work was sporadic and scarce. So I prefer to think I was not censored in Cuba. It was I who took pleasure in censoring Cuba, leaving her behind to be inhabited by women and men with more patience, cunning or endurance than mine.

I was moved upon reading this passage of yours in “A Skirmish along the Lines of the Cold War (now over)”: “I remember the fear, the shared pain, the certainty that we could end up in prison, the decision never to fraternize with the cloying henchmen: the motto ‘I only talk to you if I am arrested’, which I had to play out once in front of two astonished officials.” And it makes me think of how unbelievable it might seem to some people that a cultural and humanist project of this kind should provoke punitive reactions from the State, reactions which, moreover, had a real, violent and transforming impact on the lives of the intellectuals gathered around it.

By now, everyone knows what seemed hard to believe at the time. Another thing is that it matters little. Or nothing at all.

There is a curious situation in Cuba’s dealings with truth. And it has to do with its resistance to outside influence and its ability to hold on to the Kairos baby by the hair, that opportunity that is sometimes painted bald. It has to do with its stamina and with timing. When the Berliners tore down the Wall and a wave of democratization swept through the so-called popular democracies of Eastern Europe, Cuba’s authoritarian regime managed to hold out. These were the years when PAIDEIA and afterward Third Option tried to rock the boat. The times when Willy Chirino composed that song that became a hymn, before it became a paradigmatic example of false prophecy by the cubanologists. Ya Viene Llegando [It’s Coming Already], it was called, and perhaps it might still be remembered. Even before that, the Havana regime had seen another wave of democratization, the one that shook Latin America and brought democracy to practically the entire continent. But Cuba knew how to hunker down and wait for the waves to pass, closed in on itself, deaf and blind to the world. Now, amid the crisis of democracy, populisms and nationalisms, cancel culture and the challenge to the ideals of enlightenment from within universities and academies, who cares about yet another sub-democracy floating in the Caribbean sea. Especially if no one disputes its power beyond the battlefield of YouTube with its cohorts of thumbs up and hashtags!

Once you left Cuba it was foreseeable —because of the way the government power has traditionally operated— that you would not be acknowledged within the island as a Cuban author, nor be mentioned or get any exposure for your professional accomplishments. Are you aware of any concrete action to discredit you within the island, besides the silence and the erasure of memory?

One should not ponder on such a question, out of modesty and economy. But I have, and I’ve hit the jackpot.

I have listened to the echo of the only thing I would have done for Cuban culture, understood as the accumulation of unique moments. Its hit parade sung in the key of a qanun. That Cubensis Canon that has such a fixative, such an elusive fragrance. And what I would have done is fulfill a wish for José Lezama Lima. You might recall his lament for what we Cubans “lacked”. What we did and didn’t have, and also his mention of a sermon by Tristan de Jesus Medina. “We don’t even know a sermon by Tristan de Jesus Medina, bright and dark as a pheasant of the Indies,” he wrote.

I looked for it, found a copy in the National Library in Madrid and published it with Colibri editions, which our dear departed Victor Batista directed. It’s the sermon “María-Esperanza” [“Mary-Hope”], delivered on August 15, 1861 in the parish of Santa María, justly in Madrid, by this apostate from Bayamo, one of the most atypical figures of both Cuban and Spanish literature and life, distinguished by Menéndez Pelayo in A History of the Spanish Heterodox.

Well, that finding and its publication do seem to have merited “recognition”. It was mentioned in La Siempreviva, a Cuban-published magazine, and the book’s cover was even hastily shown in national TV program Escriba y Lea [Write and Read]. Mom was still alive and she told me the news exhilarated.

I see now that Tristan has also led me to appear in the official online encyclopedia of Cuban culture, the so-called Ecured. Not because there is an entry with my own name, no. Just a mere allusion that feels even more proper to me for being appropriate and fitting. Thus, at the bottom of the entry assigned to Tristán de Jesús Medina in that encyclopedia there is a bibliography of four items of which the last one says:

Only one of those eight words offers further information through a link. It is the word “apostate”. If you click on it, a little window opens, containing everything about my relationship with Cuba that the Cuban chrestomatic culture, gathered, indexed, and condensed, could ever justly say. To wit:

“Apostasy. It is more a ‘turning away’ or ‘turning against’ than a simple negligent distancing.”

Exactly! There is no negligence, states the encyclopedia. At least, there is none on my part.

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre et al. (1999) The Weight of the World, Stanford University Press, California, p. 614.



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