Jorge Luis Arcos: Art as Rebellion

“Servitude looms only over a multitude of solitudes,” said Camus. Freedom must break every whip, the persistence of the whip over the pain, the impossibility of “ancient beauty” and “future justice” to dance in the same space. Art as rebellion, as acceptance and repudiation of all that exists, finds strangeness inside and outside oneself and finds a square where the screams of so many stunned people make the healing of the word unlikely.

That Jorge Luis Arcos was not allowed to enter his country, that he wrote “Synchronisms”, that he saw that “the kaleidoscopic lights spilled on the lake water” are nothing but the sure signs of the poetic understanding of destiny that usually encircles with too much contempt men and the homeland of men; none of that is random. Cuba insists on an unfair game, like a soldier who shoots at his own ranks and is incapable of sensing the near fall of his empire.

That Jorge Luis Arcos is an émigré, “for lack of a better word or a higher level of piety,”[1] that he decided to leave the place where, in essence, the life of the spirit begins, that his stance against the irrational caused torment —or perhaps madness— to settle within him, are not insignificant issues. They are the small answers and examples that make up the great parallel stories of the country: silenced or erased from the institutional.

“Ideological content is important in all the arts,” wrote Mirta Aguirre in 1963, “but more so than in any of them, it is important in literature (…) That is why the ideological education of artists has to be taken care of, but the biggest concern has to be with the playwrights and writers (…) And we already know that the ideas that predominate are those of the dominant class; and we also know that when one class shakes off the yoke of another, it cannot aspire to shake off, with similar ease, the old ideas that until that moment had had a majority influence. Writers suffer from this and show it for a considerable time, because it cannot be avoided (…) To admit the latter as something that only personalities of exceptional political maturity and the most developed children of the working class can escape, would be very advantageous to the ideological progress of intellectuals and artists; and it would help everyone, and particularly the writers, to receive with an open mind the guidance capable of helping them to think and create rightly.”[2] To be deprived of the capacity and legitimacy as a citizen to oppose positions and deliberations such as those of Aguirre —which still are common currency— while avoiding being labeled counterrevolutionary is a major problem in Cuba. Whoever does so is first suspicious and then takes a path of resistance that either plunges him into a too dark interior or ends up pushing him out of the island.

That Jorge Luis Arcos saw books drowning in the water of martyrdom, that as a child he witnessed the derision of the private libraries of intellectuals leaving the archipelago, that as an adult he saw the room of forbidden titles in the National Library; these are the scenes that made him aware of the perversion. But to fight perversion in an already perverse scenario is a battle too difficult to face from the loneliness of a barren trench.

Robert Darnton has warned us that, historically, “state intervention in the literary sphere [went] far beyond the simple correction of texts and extended to the shaping of literature itself”.[3] The American historian proposes that state censorship of literature be understood as an essentially political and complex process that goes beyond a competition between creation and oppression, and can be considered an ingredient of the system, since, according to Darnton, no state is capable of operating through coercion only: it needs believers to make its doctrines happen. The reality of Cuba does not escape that description.

Then, there is this horizon capable of breaking men, of breaking friendship, of making personal the smallest dispute or intellectual power. Of breaking down the frontiers between the public and the private. So we also speak of a synchrony of life, of the impossibility of being in a time and space. Life itself is at stake, as Arcos himself has said. How long will we witness that spectacle in the arena where beasts and gladiators lose in equal proportion, and cyclically?


How did you insert yourself into the Cuban publishing scene and what was your visibility in the literary sphere?

I worked for about ten years as a researcher at the Institute of Literature and Linguistics. I wrote several books about Lezama, Fina García-Marruz, Orígenes, and I was already publishing frequently in several magazines. There I had many “ideological problems”, as they were called then. I am not going to tell you about all of them. When I wrote the book on Fina in the late eighties, before I won the National Essay Award from UNEAC, I was subjected to a sort of inquisition process at the Institute. They couldn’t stand that I criticized Mirta Aguirre, that vulgar but powerful censor, a supporter of socialist realism, and they couldn’t stand that I wrote about a Catholic writer… Every Party member had to meet with me to tell me their impressions. Not only did I not change a single word, but I also broadened my argument against Aguirre. It is a book, the one I wrote about Fina, which, if I had time, I would write again, with other perspectives. Because I am now a different person, of course. But that experience was initiatory. I keep handwritten letters from Fina about all that. It’s a complex story that one day I could tell in detail, like others that happened there. They even questioned my morality, they told me that people of dubious morality came to my house. Of course, because they were homosexuals, even though they knew they were prestigious colleagues and professionals. I told them on one occasion that the aforementioned morality of the people who came to my house, regardless of sexual orientation, was not in question, that they were the immoral ones. Those years I stayed there were not easy.

Then came the devastating Special Period. With the death of José Antonio Portuondo (who did not treat me badly, by the way, in the affaire of the book about Fina), they put an infamous director, a brute and a policewoman, as Dr. Beatriz Maggi once ask her to her face at the entrance to the Institute. “But what are you doing here, Yolanda (Ricardo), you don’t work for the state security?” (They were neighbors.) This coincided with the beginning of the Pablo Milanés Foundation, and I did not hesitate to leave the Academy and go as editor for the Proposiciones magazine project of that new institution. I presented my resignation, which Ricardo accepted by telephone in a second. That was the beginning of my direct relationship with an editorial project. At the Foundation, together with Víctor Fowler, I created the “José Lezama Lima” Chair of Ibero-American Literary Studies, which held the important Fiftieth Anniversary Congress of Orígenes in 1994. That’s another very interesting and complex story, but I’ll stick to your question.

When I left the Foundation one morning (I couldn’t bear the stupidity of the magazine’s director, Victor Águila), I went to UNEAC and met with Abel Prieto, who immediately offered me the position of editorial secretary of the magazine Unión. At that time, I met at his home with Pablo Armando Fernández, its editor in chief, because I already knew that the magazine was actually made by Efraín Rodríguez, who had resigned. I told him that if I were to work at the magazine it would be with him also working. He was frank, he told me that he was not interested in the magazine. He had other projects with the United States, which he told me about. As you know, Pablo was actually a courtier. So he resigned from the magazine, and I was appointed editor in chief. Something I really was not unexpecting. There began a story of ten deep and complex years, which I think yielded quite a good editorial balance, limitations aside. At UNEAC I was also on the editorial board of Ediciones Unión. And at that time I was also a member of the Editorial Board of the magazine Temas. Well, my visibility, apart from those jobs, was also as a writer. I published a lot then.

What events are part of the awareness that throughout the eighties produced a gradual disenchantment and skepticism in you?

My archetypal disenchantment occurred during the Mariel crisis of 1980. I was writing my degree thesis on Andrés Bello’s poetry at home, but one night I took my little brother to the stadium and saw an abominable repudiation rally. That was later narrated almost literally by Jorge Domingo in one of his stories. I was writing about the poetry Andrés Bello wrote during his exile and was dismayed by what was happening before my eyes. Ordinary fascism. That experience between life and literature was decisive for me. One day a childhood friend visited me at home and told me he was leaving the country; as I did not understand why, he said: “But haven’t you read the Granma, the headline, let the scum go, let the homosexuals go?”

That’s where I began to turn my back on the process. My perception of the Cuban reality was never the same. Later, at the end of the 1980s, I had the experiences I already mentioned at the Institute, and, in general, I was already absolutely convinced about the (quasi-fascist) totalitarianism of the regime. It was a gradual process, of course, but with no turning back. Also, during my studies (1975-1980), I witnessed the harassment of Catholics, of homosexuals, and finally the humiliation to which some students were subjected during the so-called process of advanced communist consciousness.

During your time at the Institute of Literature and Linguistics, the cultural magazine Proposiciones or the “José Lezama Lima” Chair of Ibero-American Literary Studies, did you experience any kind of conflict with the powers-that-be due to prohibitions on subjects or authors?

At Literature and Linguistics, I already mentioned the case of the book on Fina. Before, in my house, my then wife had a copy of the original notebooks of the future Cuban literature dictionary, so it was easy for me to check all the authors who were later censored, excluded from the dictionary. Mirta Aguirre was the one in charge of this censorship, when Portuondo was appointed ambassador to the Vatican. In those notebooks were the entries of all the authors who were later excluded. When Aguirre died, Portuondo returned to the Institute as director, and said in a public meeting with the researchers that in the future these absences would be corrected. But the damage was already done. In Proposiciones, the problem was its editor in chief, who was very stupid and arrogant. He was cagey, afraid, due to a text we asked Antonio José Ponte about Gastón Baquero, but it was published. I think only three issues were made. Ugly, because of the impossible style of its editor in chief, not because of the production team, which was very good (Alberto Garrandés, Idalia Morejón, Manuel Piña, Raquel Mendieta, Oscar Kessel, among others). As for the chair that organized the Fiftieth Anniversary Congress of Orígenes, the problems were different. There was a disagreement between Armando Hart and Pablo Milanés, because Hart felt that the Foundation was invading his territory. But the Foundation was authorized by the Maximum Leader (as Lorenzo García Vega called him); even so, the tension was terrible. We came up with idea for the congress in my house, in my room, one day we met, in the air conditioning, Victor Fowler, my wife Raquel Mendieta and me. We presented the project, and Pablo immediately approved it. I showed it to Cintio Vitier and Fina at their house, and they were very happy, of course. But then, when it became public, there came the problem. Hart wanted to take control of the project. One day I went with Enrique Saínz, a member of the chair, to a meeting at the Ministry of Culture. There were Hart, Abel Prieto, then president of UNEAC, and Fernández Retamar. Hart was clear in his intentions. I didn’t give in; I said that it was already publicly known that the chair was organizing the event. The arrangement then was that all those institutions represented there and others (which seemed fine to me, by the way) would co-sponsor the event. That is why it was held at Casa de las Américas, which already had efficient logistics for events of this nature.

In the first issue that I published as editor in chief of the magazine Unión, I included a dossier with lectures from the Congress, together with the text by Ponte, the text by Cintio, and I remember that Abel Prieto told me, with some reticence, something like blowing hot and cold at the same time… Well, the story of major censorship came after the congress, when the one in Madrid was organized. Abel Prieto was not allowing to attend any of the people who lived on the island and had been invited. That is, we were all physically censored. They didn’t process our passports. But the Foundation had processed mine. There was enormous tension. I remember that we often met at César López’s house, with Alcides, Pepe Prats, Saínz, etc. But with the start of the congress imminent, I met with Pablo Milanés and explained to him what was going on. He told me on the spot: “You are going under my responsibility”. That was amazing. I left the Foundation, it was in the afternoon, and I went to UNEAC. There I was received by Abel Prieto. I told him that I would be going to the Congress, that I already had my passport in order, and I told him about Pablo. Then I noticed that he was clearly nervous. He asked me, “And who is supporting Pablo?” I don’t know anything about that—I told him—I think it was his personal decision after a congress organized by the chair of his Foundation. Then he told me that Fernández Retamar had just left the office and that he had suggested, after talking to the Spanish side, that he let the Cuban guests attend. It was all dizzying. Incredibly, he immediately told me that all the writers could attend the congress. I remember that from his telephone he ordered to give the green light to the passports of the others. There was a tribute to Agustín Pi, and we walked there together and ran into Saínz, who was the first to hear the news… As Lorenzo García Vega would say to Saínz in another context, we had prisoner’s joys… After the congress in Madrid (of which, as the one in Casa de las Américas, the inside story is yet to be told in detail), I wrote a short text, “Sobre la isla entera”, with the chronicle of the event, and offered it to La Gaceta de Cuba; they published it, but it seems that, since I was praising Gastón Baquero’s ecumenical attitude, the people of La Gaceta, advised by Abel Prieto, added a footnote without my consent where it was stated succinctly that Baquero had supported Batista… Yes, those were the rudeness of Power. And the fears of Power.

However, I had previously witnessed two curious events. When I was a student at the School of Letters, we had a part-time job at some workplace (it was the utopia of working and studying to forge the New Man). I had to work for some time in the mornings at the book warehouse of the University on University Hill. Once they sent me and another colleague to a small room in the University’s stadium to get some books. What a surprise when we got there and found that in a room flooded with water was the library of Enrique Labrador Ruiz, who had left the country. Walking over books and paintings already drenched, there was a treasure. Of course, there I got hold of some wonderful books that I still have, and others I referred to the University. But the fact that a legendary library had been thrown into a room full of water was very symptomatic. The same fate accompanied me when, after graduation, I started working at the Instituto Superior de Arte. Raquel Mendieta, Raquel Carrió, Gloria María Martínez and I, all professors, were sent to the 15th floor of the National Library to choose the books we would decide on for the newly opened ISA (Instituto Superior de Arte) library. We did our work very well, but that floor was also the floor of the banned, censored books. There were countless copies of Heberto Padilla’s Fuera del juego and Antón Arrufat’s Siete contra Tebas. I don’t have to say that they were added to my personal library. Incredibly, there were books by Jorge Luis Borges, by Mario Vargas Llosa. But there were others, such as the wonderful Las puertas del paraíso, by Andreyesvky, or Las criaturas saturnianas, by Sender, which I still keep, surely set aside for religious reasons. There can be no doubt that censorship was a state policy. As a child, at the beginning of the Revolution, my grandmother took me to play in the Havana Woods in Almendares Park. I remember that one day I saw huge quantities of books lying on the ground, among the trees, and my grandmother told me that they were from the personal libraries of people who were leaving the country. I remember she told me that there were valuable medical books. Later I found out that Jorge Mañach’s library was literally thrown away on the street. Fortuitous events?

How did Jorge Luis Arcos become the director of Unión magazine?

Well, I’ve told that story before. I just want to add that I was the first to be surprised. I already had a good relationship with Idalia Morejón, who can attest to all this. I just maintained an attitude of professional ethics. It is true that at that time Abel Prieto liked me. We shared the same, although perhaps for different reasons, devotion to Orígenes, even though in one essay I expressed my disagreement with some of his theses, and he knew those essays of mine. But there was still, let’s say, intellectual respect. He also knew the anecdote, because I told him, that on one occasion when many writers were invited, as usual, to the October 12th party at the residence of the Spanish Ambassador, the then new director of the Institute of Literature and Linguistics, Yolanda Ricardo, told me that those of us who were workers at the Institute of Literature and Linguistics could not attend, she told me that she would go on behalf of us (Saínz, Jorge Domingo and me), and I told her that I was very sorry but that I was a writer and would go as such, that I might not be an academic (as I later made her see factually), but that I was a writer, and she said to me that UNEAC (ergo, Abel Prieto at the time) was a nest of people with ideological problems. Of course I went, and I drank and ate a lot, as this was happening, after all, in the middle of the Special Period, a not insignificant reason to go then. But that accentuated my confrontation with the director, and perhaps made Abel like me better. Nothing, tensions between them, the holders of Power. Other things, of course, escape me, because they are decided in Heaven. I think I only had the relative prestige of the essays I was writing. And with my strange destiny, which made me go through so many things.

How was the contrast between discovering the fear for your country, returning and beginning to see all that darkness, and working for almost ten years at Unión magazine where, I suppose, you would also discover shadows?

I see you’ve read the story, which I already told somewhere, about when in 1994, after the two congresses on Orígenes, in Havana and Madrid, I went to Spain on a scholarship for Hispanists, and one day, after touring, once again, the Galician forests and taverns, when I got out of my Galician friend Noly’s car, I stood in front of the Pontedeume estuary, and crying (“Here I am in front of the sea crying”, says a verse from Sonetos a Gelsomina, by Raúl Hernández Novás), I felt for the first time fear of returning to my country, where I certainly did return, but that was also part of an initiation… From then on, the die was cast. It was only a matter of time before I left my country (it took me another ten years for strictly personal reasons). Even the fact of leaving or staying was not decisive. “We have to learn to resist, neither to go nor to stay, to resist”, say some verses by Gelman that my friends and I repeated conspiratorially, ignoring what came afterward, that sounds so much like the lyrics of a tango, “although it is certain that later there will be sorrows and forgetfulness”. In the same vein, we listened to a song by Chico Buarque, that says that “without a drink, there is no one who can stand it”. Anyway… By the way, I told that same anecdote about Galicia in a conference at the School de Letters. Now I think that I was lucky, that my destiny is very strange, because in a certain way sometimes I provoked power, with a certain suicidal instinct. It was an atrocious ambivalence. Finally, when I left in 2004 through the Boyeros airport, I did it because, among other things, my mind was already so disturbed that I often committed rash public acts of recklessness. I was taken to an airport basement and an officer went through every piece of paper, every phone, it was a final humiliation. I think I almost appreciated it, after all.

Those ten years (I have already explained that they were like a personal interregnum, because already in 1994 I had decided to stay in Spain, but when Kaky, Raquel Mendieta, which was then my wife, changed the plan because she preferred the United States, well, that cost me a ten years postponement), those ten years, I repeat, I think that they were very fruitful in the end: I wrote a lot, and together with Enrique Saínz I lead Unión magazine (in which Idalia Morejón and Alex Fleites also participated for a time, and we inherited the artistic direction from Pedro de Oraá), which is now beginning to be valued by younger writers, that is, its intellectual balance, although I am not the one who should talk about that. I was always clear that the magazine was in no way my magazine. I was absolutely aware of the limits. But it is precisely with limits that many things are done, sometimes even thanks to them. “Give me the knowledge of a limit and the simplest melodic phrase can take us by the hand to the unfathomable”, wrote my friend Fina. And that’s what we set out to do. I remember that in the magazine Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, in the section “Al pie de la letra”, where publications were reviewed, they always gave very good ratings to Unión, and not so good to La Gaceta de Cuba, which was Prieto’s favorite. Once, half joking, half serious, Mirta Yáñez commented that Unión was like the island’s “Encuentrón”. Of course, those evaluations were totally alien to the meaning Enrique and I gave to our work. To publish quality texts, above all. Never subordinate literature to politics. Which, I concede, already implies a political stance. Which in the end also turned out, at least for me, to be insufficient. But as my friend Luis Lorente said, one does what one can.

I remember that once there was a panel at UNEAC, and Rolando Sánchez Mejías and Carlos A. Aguilera expressed some ideas, some criticism, and then Fernando Rojas stood up to say that the panel was to talk about literature, and not politics. It was unbelievable, the same people who always wanted to subordinate literature to politics, and according to a supposed Marxist discourse, now felt the danger. That was symptomatic for me. It was even comical. As if they were preaching what they used to denounce, for example, the so-called pure poetry. I say comical, because that reminded me of when Enrique Saínz was writing an essay on the wonderful pure Cuban poetry, and Sergio Chaple, that predictable commissar, made a mistake and said: …because the pure police, etc., and Enrique replied with a smile: “Chaple, pure poetry may not exist, Valéry has debated that, but what does not exist and will never exist is the pure police.”

During the exchange you had with Abel Prieto, then president of UNEAC, in which he forbade you from publishing in Unión the dossier on Diaspora(s) you had conceived with Idalia Morejón, did the argument revolve only around the fact that recognition of an independent group was not allowed, per se, or was there ever any discussion of the contents or ideological position of the members?

What Abel Prieto did not want was for Diaspora(s) to be recognized as a literary group, to give it that legitimacy. It was a puerile gesture, but they are puerile. In practice, we published many valuable texts by Diaspora(s) during the time we were in Unión, as anyone can see. I also remember another discussion with Prieto, because he didn’t want me to publish a text from Idalia in which she criticized Victor Rodríguez Núñez’s delirious and frankly opportunistic opinions about the poetic generation of the eighties. In that text he said that yes, young writers were dissidents, but of capitalism, of the exploitation of man by man, etc. That could not be believed. But in general, I prepared the magazine with Enrique with no interference. I also remember that the comrade who supervised us, at UNEAC, suggested one day I show him the texts that for some reason we did not publish, and I told him to discuss that with Abel Prieto, that I was for the contributors like a priest, keeping the secret of confession, because I could not know what they could do against the people, that this did fall within my purview. He didn’t bother me anymore.

After that episode, were there others of that kind during the time you were in charge of the magazine?

No, I don’t think I remember anything similar. Then came Carlos Martí, with whom I never discussed the texts I selected for the magazine, except as a simple reader. I commented on the magazine with Graziella Pogolotti, who is my friend and with whom I have always maintained an intellectual and personal relationship of respect and absolute trust. Look, if you know the limits, you also anticipate them, don’t you? Neither Enrique nor I were naive or innocent. In short, when the limits made themselves felt it was not because of the materials to be published in the magazine, but because of something worse, because of Ponte’s expulsion from UNEAC, which I opposed directly and publicly, and because I collaborated in the magazine Encuentro, something that I kept doing. In a meeting that Reina María Rodríguez, Arrufat and I had, at Abel Prieto’s request, to convince us to change our position against any expulsion, we not only maintained our stance but my collaboration in Encuentro became evident (I deliberately brought up the subject: As Borges would say: “If I’m going to enter the desert, I’m already in the desert, if thirst is going to embrace me, let it embrace me already”), which motivated Abel, addressing Carlos Martí, to say: “Look, Carlitos, Jorge Luis Arcos, director of the magazine Unión, and collaborator of Encuentro…” Well, that was also one of the limits I always knew it could be reached. It didn’t take me by surprise. It was just a matter of time. I simply decided to quit and leave the country. It was paradoxically Ponte, upon learning that I was leaving the country, who advised me not to resign by invoking his expulsion, precisely in order to do so. This gesture by Ponte, who is a great friend, was very symptomatic. The night before my departure, we were together in my house, Ponte, Alcides, Efraín Rodríguez and I. Before that, in the afternoon, I had already been with Enrique and Jorge Domingo. During that time before my departure there were other problems, doubts, suspicions, some provocations, in short, the foreseeable.

Did you ever hear of an editorial policy/agenda (written or otherwise) that prohibited, for example, the publication of exiled authors who had been critical of the Cuban Revolution?

I don’t think it existed, unless it was secret. But it was obvious, wasn’t it? That was happening in practice, of course.  For example, Enrique Saínz published in Unión an essay on the poetry of Heberto Padilla. We published texts by Lorenzo García Vega. We had a permanent section, “Texts and Pretexts”, which Idalia ran for a long time, only for texts that were published from or about Cuban literature outside of Cuba. There was no conflict, because as I would not have published any political text without literary merits by non-exile Cuban authors, I would not have published them by anyone living in exile either. In fact, what surpassed me was reality itself, not some texts or others.

You say that there came a time when you realized that you could not have any illusions about Unión magazine and that your naivety in wanting to publish only quality literary texts, ignoring the political, played into the hands of the official culture. When, how and why did this process take place?

I have already referred to that question. Only one reservation: Unión magazine, literature, was never and is never the most important thing for me, even if it is very important. It was life itself that was at stake. Everything was like a nightmare. “Life is no longer enough, you have to travel,” wrote my friend Raúl Hernández Novás. Once I remember I was heading to UNEAC after lunch at Alex Fleites’ house, and I ran into Enrique. He told me he had something very upsetting to tell me. That a directive had arrived (what language that was) from the Central Committee, that all Cuban publications had to publish the logo of the next party congress on the front or back cover. That destroyed the image of the magazine, which always published images of Cuban painters on both sides. To assuage my discomfort, he said: “Wait a minute, Jorge Luis, do you see that sidewalk where you are standing? and that shirt you are wearing?”, and so he continued… I did not understand what he was talking about. In the end he told me emphatically: “Everything is His”. He was right.

When you said that before leaving Cuba you were already in an alienated context, that at times you could not recognize yourself in your own reality and that you even feared for your mental or moral integrity, I suppose that perhaps this was due to specific confrontations or conflicts concerning your work, your freedom, your role within the island’s intelligentsia —beyond, one could say, the general conflicts faced by the Cuban citizen—. Was this so?

No, I didn’t have those big personal conflicts. I published everything I wanted. It was the reality itself that I could no longer tolerate. I was doing so well that perhaps someone else would have stayed, and by making countless concessions, I would have become more and more recognized, etc. I renounced that predictable and, for me at least, intolerable fate. I wanted to belong to the “dead class”, as Carlos A. Aguilera, still in Cuba, told me in a dedication. I crossed the threshold more and more. I was committing really reckless acts. As I know myself, I knew that was very dangerous. My friends warned me. I was like a time bomb. I didn’t do it because I was brave, I did it because I couldn’t stop myself. It was like a fatality, a dark desire for self-annihilation, I don’t know. A vertigo, an abyss that attracted me, as I expressed in my poetry. Perhaps I did realize that many of the poems I was already writing were going to be unpublishable in Cuba. The ideas in an essay can be controlled, but, at least in my case, what emerges in my poetry cannot.

But the expulsion of Ponte, which coincided with the Black Spring, was already too much for me. I wrote a long poem dedicated to Raúl Rivero, which was later published in Crítica, México, which, of course, I would not have been able to publish on the island. In short, everyone has their own time, and their psychic and contextual circumstances. I had to leave with my wife, her mother, her son, my two dogs, and many of my books, and that is not so easy. The concrete way I did it, the public and especially the secret way, I, for obvious reasons, still cannot tell. In part, my admired Maria Zambrano helped me a lot from the other side. I was affected by something that happened, although it was not decisive, when Abel Prieto, that rude recurrence, prevented several Cuban writers from attending the event organized by Yale University for the 100th anniversary of the Republic. He invited me to lunch at the Ministry of Culture as if to try to appease me. He told me that Balaguer was to blame. I told him that I was very sorry, but that I was going to write to Roberto González Echevarría, as I did, telling him the truth, and that I would tell everyone, as I did, what had happened. Carlitos Martí, with whom I always had an excellent relationship, called me to tell me that I had to be disciplined, I replied that I was not in the military and that I did not belong to the single party.

What led you to the final decision to become an exile in 2004? Did you suspect, even though you had not left, that it would be almost impossible to become a true immigrant after almost 50 years of living in Cuba? Did you suspect the inevitability of exile, the tragic diaspora?

I think I have already answered that question. I knew that, from a certain point of view, I was leaving defeated, and I didn’t like that. But I received the exile with joy, as if I were fulfilling my true vocation. That vocation is in all my poetry. Any reader will find it there. Excuse me for not quoting myself. I did not have any exile trauma. I was going to my country of promise, as Zenea would say, but in reverse. Everything was joy and fulfillment for me there. That is, regardless of the fact that I wrote several times about the very fact of exile, as in several essays I published. I wrote a lot in Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana and in República de las Letras, where I also worked.

When you traveled to Cuba to present the unpublished poetry of Hernández Novás at Casa de las Américas, you had immigration problems that were solved through the mediation of Fernández Retamar. In your other attempt to travel, what do you think was the reason for the ban on entering the island? What could have brought about the change? I think that, although you put together the volume of poetry by Hernández Novás, you may well not have been invited for that occasion, although I understand it would also have been a notable proof of censorship or exploitation.

Indeed, if it had not been for the timely intervention of Fernández Retamar, I would not have been able to present Raúl’s book or enter my country for the first time after 12 years of exile, and after having published several very harsh texts in Madrid. At the Buenos Aires Consulate they told me they couldn’t process my passport because the Consulate couldn’t process any documents. It was like science fiction. I save you the anecdotes, which I told Marcial Gala in Buenos Aires, that seem to be from the comic or absurd theater. But I did let Fernández Retamar know, as he had invited me, what was going on. Then, as if by magic, I was called to the Consulate, and I got the VIP treatment. That was disgusting, but why not go to my country? To present the book I owed my dead friend. To see my mother, my father, my friends. I was prepared for anything, I admit, I was afraid of my reaction if I was disturbed, but absolutely nothing happened. It was obvious that was already predetermined.

The second time, as I was able to reconstruct later, Roberto was already in his deathbed. He died while I and my wife were still in Osorno, Chile, stranded there in Santiago de Chile because of a trip that was frustrated by the solicitous Mexican employees of a private company, and later I learned that it was due to personal pressure from the Cuban ambassador in Chile himself. I understood that, to a certain extent. It was the predictable revenge that had been postponed. That trip was simply to see my mother, who had undergone two operations, and to show my wife around the island. But a few days before, Juan Manuel Tabío and Ibrahim Hernández found out about my trip and asked me to be present with Enrique Saínz at the presentation of the book they had made of Los años de Orígenes. That was the fact that, among other things, caused them to prevent me from entering. Later Tabio and Ibrahim told me the details of the unpleasant affair. While I was still in Chile, Néstor Díaz de Villegas published a moving text about the event. Then one morning I received a message from my mother informing me that Graziella Pogolotti had made inquiries, and I could travel. The presentation of my friend Lorenzo’s book, about whom I had recently written another book, was over. But, of course, my mother was asking me to visit her. I decided not to go, so as not to betray the previous image of Nestor’s text, and to show them up. It was difficult and painful, but I think it was for the best. They behaved like what they always do, as I told a journalist, like gangsters. Pathetic.

Besides the “confusion” in La Gaceta de Cuba, in 2015, about El libro de las conversiones imaginarias, where they concluded that that desolate, gloomy vision was due to the exile, despite the fact that most of the poems were written on the island, do you know of any other equivalent episode after your departure from Cuba? Did you experience that kind of confusions, contradictions or censorship of your work while you were on the island?

I see that you are a very good reader, and you are saving me having to answer. Well, on two occasions Rogelio Blanco and Andrés Soler were approached by unknown persons (sic) to warn them that if they continued to help me in Madrid they might have problems to be invited to Cuba. Also, as a result of the texts that I published during “the little emails war”, a text appeared in La Jiribilla in which they said that I was pushing people to take risks I was not taking myself, and they accompanied it with photos where I appeared together with Prieto, Fernández Retamar, Fina, etc. It was embarrassing. There was something I did find painful. While I was still living in Madrid, an anniversary of Roberto Fernández Retamar was being commemorated, and Cintio Vitier, my great friend and teacher, was in charge of the speech, but only talked about personal issues, because when he had to make the literary assessment of Retamar’s poetry he said that the best thing had already been written by Jorge Luis Arcos in an unforgettable text, and he quoted at length some of my judgments. But, in the end, he apologized for quoting me, implying that he was doing so despite my well-known positions. I saw it then as a wink to those present, all the officialdom, of course (spare me from writing the same name again). I remembered the verses of Evaristo Carriego: “the little seamstress who took that bad step, and worst of all, without need”. Except for that thing, of almost personal nature, nothing else affected me. However, that does not change my pleasant memory of years of friendship and my admiration for his work, differences aside. When I was in Cuba that one time, with Cintio already dead, I visited Fina and stayed with her for two long hours, but she was already in some other world where she has forgotten she was a poet, and she only sang songs by Edith Piaf, Bola de Nieve and Carlos Gardel. It was heartbreaking.

The only occasional censorship of a text of mine was by La Gaceta de Cuba, when replying to Ponte, who had published a text against Fina, and they removed a very harsh paragraph of mine. Of course, they told me that it had been, what a coincidence, an error. I went to the presentation of the magazine, but I didn’t dare go in. Ponte, who was late, asked me why I hadn’t come in. I explained to him. Then he invited me to have a beer. We both left without going in. Since that day we are close friends.

Once exiled it was foreseeable —because of the way the government power has traditionally acted— that you would no longer figure or be visible as a Cuban writer/essayist/academic. You do not appear in EcuRed, for example, which seems to me to be the most notable exercise in punishment (not exactly to you, perhaps, I am referring to the elementary violation of the intellectual history of the island) and non-recognition. Have you heard about, besides silence and erasure of memory, any concrete action to demerit you within the island?

I do not know. I had not verified that. Besides, I’m not interested. All that is perishable. I have never consulted EcuRed. Nor will I.

In your excellent text “Notas (para una conversación) sobre la diáspora cubana” (in which you say that it is a sort of proposal for a diasporic self-portrait) you seem to be looking, in any way, to find meaning in your own exile (which you suffer and/or enjoy), to accompany yourself —and even to dilute yourself, perhaps— in that emigrant mass which, as you correctly say, is constitutive of Cuba (before and after 1959).

Excuse me, but what I was thinking at the time, I made it explicit there, and I thank you for remembering it. I believe that it is in my poetry that the meaning of that experience can be best sought. The meaning of literature, as Valéry and Lorenzo (García Vega) thought, what is it if not self-knowledge? As Borges would say, quoting The Obscure, one is always “the same, and it is another, like the endless river”. Now, for example, I am happy.

Has exile finally become (or could it have been for you) a territory of knowledge?

Obviously, exile, which begins with birth, the loss of childhood, as Rilke felt, and successive losses and expulsions, and so many cognitive gains, is life itself. Initiations. Maria Zambrano even said that perhaps her true homeland was exile. Until life’s exile comes. After that, we will see. As far as I know, according to Bloom, only Hamlet, who someone said was the ambassador of death, has been there and returned. But as a character in James Matthew Barrie’s book says, death can be a mysterious adventure.

Thank you very much for the journey.

Coda

As I reviewed this interview many memories came to mind. Obviously, not all of them are evoked in this recollection. But I remembered one that I want to refer to. As a result of having graduated in Literature, when I was young and no one have heard of me, several friends, José Luis Ferrer, Jorge Domingo, Manolo Rodríguez, among others, often met at my house. We listened to jazz, Cuban sones, drank, played mahjong, talked about anything, a lot about literature, of course. One day I was summoned to the Vice-Rector’s Office of the Higher Institute of Art, where I had started working, by a State Security officer. He told me that he knew that I and some friends would meet at my house and talk about literature, apparently books he found uncomfortable. To my dismay he warned me using that little phrase they all learned by heart: within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing. Later, I learned that Manolo had also been called by the Military Committee and that they were asking what books we were reading. That a Revolution should be concerned about this is already a terrible symptom. I also asked myself why I should refrain from referring to some anecdotes in detail. It’s another symptom. Censorship and self-censorship, including blackmail, work systematically and profoundly. It’s part of the mental, anthropological damage. That’s why I always said that we Cubans have a fucked-up mind. One night in Madrid, while I was drinking with Iván de la Nuez, he remembered that very young he would visit my house from time to time in the eighties when we would organize a party. He told me something amazing: not because we were discussing politics, but just because of the way we were having fun, he felt that we were deeply against the revolution. He was right. Anyway. It’s better to close one door and open all the windows. Maybe I won’t be able to see my mother again. As Lorenzo would say, that’s the end of times. The devastation.


[1] Brodsky, J. «Esta condición llamada exilio o llevar bellotas». See https://cutt.ly/7gJNC1x.

[2] Aguirre, M. (1987). «Apuntes sobre la literatura y el arte». In Pensamiento y política cultural cubanos: Vol. II (pp. 108-121). Pueblo y Educación.

[3] Darnton, R. (2014). Censores trabajando. De cómo los Estados dieron forma a la literatura. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

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