My Expulsion from Cuba, Twenty-Five Years Later

Introductory Note

We will, once again, say goodbye to each other.

Gastón Baquero

At my friend’s request, I am writing this brief remembrance as an introduction to his testimony, where he decided to recount in detail the events that you will read below. I don’t know why, or maybe I do, it seems like a fragment of an intense novel by Efraín Rodríguez. I have little to add (although it would never be enough in another dimension) to his sparse but eloquent description of his long and fruitful cultural work in Cuba.

Carlos Barbáchano decided to write this text, he told me, because I had mentioned him in the interview published by Rialta. As we all know, memories can be imprecise. Remembrances are not. But, if it was not the same night of his return to Havana, then the following night, a group of us writer friends had gathered at César López’s house to meet again with Barbáchano. And that was when we learned, to our dismay, what had happened. The “swat of lead,” Lezama would say. I did not see him again until my exile in Madrid in 2004. Something similar happened to Ana Tomé, who continued in a splendid way the work of Barbáchano, already at the head of the Cultural Center of Spain, which was later closed and Ana was also ordered to leave the country, as if reaffirming a sad but predictable tradition. I do not have to attest to what is already known, that both Carlos and Ana carried out an invaluable cultural work, but also (and this is very important) an affective work, as invaluable as the former. Even Carlos’ only daughter was the fruit of his deep imbrication with our island. He himself presents some of the most important facts of his cultural activity on the island.

His sin was, perhaps, to be remarkably professional in his work. As it happened with the Pablo Milanés Foundation (Carlos was also a founding member of the José Lezama Lima Chair of Ibero-American Literary Studies of that foundation, as if he was another Cuban, which he already was and still is), every time an attempt was made from civilian channels, channels that represented an alternative to the unilateral official policy, to mount a campaign of profound cultural work, this, which unintentionally put in evidence the totalitarian normativity or the poverty of imagination, was rudely suppressed. As I tell in the aforementioned interview, even Roberto Fernández Retamar, when Carlos organized a presentation of his poetry book Aquí, winner of the Pérez Bonalde International Poetry Prize, at the José Lezama Lima hall of the Federico García Lorca theater, told me that the Secret Service had told him that Barbáchano was an enemy agent, but that he only knew of his remarkable cultural work.

Many memories bind me to Carlos. Just one example. When the Jornadas La Isla Entera took place in Madrid, there was a division between those of us who were committed to dialogue and the reunion of Cuban culture —the motto at that time was that the Cuban culture was one— and the official hard line, which from Cuba tried to prevent that meeting, and the other side, headed by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who from newspapers in the United States and also from Spain, was opposed to any possibility of dialogue. Someday we will have to recall the ecumenical and unusual attitude of Heberto Padilla during those meetings. On one occasion, during our stay in Madrid, a Cuban journalist based in Spain published fragments of a series of interviews, and, among them, she ironically highlighted a phrase I said to her over the phone when I refused to give her an interview, that politics in both Cuba and Spain (as Antonio Machado wrote, “one of those two Spains will freeze your heart”) was disgusting, and that I preferred to enjoy the autumn in Madrid, a quick and harsh answer to refuse to contribute to her attempts to sabotage the meeting. The next day, in a plenary session at Casa de América, Carlos made a generous defense of me. I had been disgusted, for example, by Abel Prieto’s attempt, which I have already mentioned, to try to prevent Cuban writers from attending the meeting, and, very specifically, by a homophobic article by Cabrera Infante against Gastón Baquero, who was the symbolic and physical soul of those days. Thanks to Carlos, for example, I obtained a scholarship for Hispanists in Madrid, which later resulted in the publication of two books about and by María Zambrano, La Cuba secreta, and Islas. Likewise, the excellent compilation published by Efraín Rodríguez of Baquero’s poetry, La patria sonora de los frutos, was due to the fact that Carlos offered him the same opportunity for researching. But these are just trivial things compared to all the enormous work carried out by him for almost twelve years. Even the magazine Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana itself had from the beginning the wise support of Carlos, who transmitted to his friend Jesús Díaz an important accumulated experience.

Well, I do not want to expand any further this brief presentation, where —at some point it will be necessary to consider him not only as an intelligent cultural promoter, but also as a remarkable essayist and translator— what moves me the most is the memory of the human and intellectual quality of my friend. I just want to conclude with the most beautiful word in the language, as Cintio Vitier used to say:

Thank you, Carlos.

Jorge Luis Arcos

San Carlos de Bariloche, August 25, 2021

My Expulsion from Cuba, Twenty-Five Years Later

I had arrived in Cuba in the early morning of January 1, 1989, the thirtieth anniversary of the rousing entry of the rebel army in Havana. The Rancho Boyeros avenue linking the airport to the city was lined with posters celebrating the date. I was going to stay on the island for almost half a dozen years, first as coordinator of the Spanish School and shortly after as cultural attaché of the embassy since I was involved with the Institute of Ibero-American Cooperation.

Those were years in which I implemented an intense cultural program on the island: years of the Cervantes award to Dulce María Loynaz, largely the culmination of that work; of the first meeting La Isla Entera, where intellectuals, living on the island or abroad, met in Madrid, after overcoming the Cuban government’s refusal to let poets still living there to travel to Spain to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Orígenes; of the joint cultural cycles grouped around the Aula de Cultura Iberoamericana (historical, literary, artistic, socio-cultural, economic) which, starting from the evening sessions held at the modest Spanish School, soon became a small space of freedom and ended up covering a large part of the island and strengthened our common cultural ties. Almost half a thousand joint activities were carried out during those intense years. Some of these activities were not to the taste of the Castro’s officialdom.

My mission had ended with the great Festival of Arts and Letters that took place during the last quarter of 1995 and which brought to Cuba more than a hundred Spanish artists and intellectuals, exhibitions, theater companies, film cycles, etc. We had also reached an agreement that allowed our government to create the Spanish Cultural Center in Cuba, an agreement that had taken years of negotiation and that would soon become a reality, unfortunately ephemeral because a few years after it was set in motion it would be closed by Castroism, allergic, once again, to any space of freedom. After a month’s leave of absence, I resumed my academic activities in Spain in February 1996. At that time, I did not bring back my furniture and belongings because there was a remote possibility of starting a new mission and that justified keeping until the summer the small apartment I rented in Vedado which had been visited by a good part of the Cuban artistic and cultural world during my time there. As a writer and regular contributor to Cuban cultural publications, I was considered one of them.

Barbáchano with Iván de la Nuez, Reynaldo González, Anabelle Rodríguez, Olaga Cabrera, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera and Julio Carranza.

I returned to this apartment one hot July afternoon with the idea of moving my belongings in a few days —something I had already arranged with Cubalse, the Cuban state-owned company, pardon the redundancy, in charge of such matters— and spending a good part of the summer enjoying a well-deserved vacation and the company of the friends I had left behind on the island. On Friday I had disembarked in Varadero as a tourist (when I returned to Spain I handed in my diplomatic passport to the Foreign Office so I entered without any protection) and I had shared a cab to Havana. I had spent the morning and a good part of Saturday afternoon sorting and packing books and various documents when there was a knock at the door. I was not expecting anyone and I had hardly called any of my friends because I wanted to free myself that first weekend of meetings, however pleasant these might be, to focus on organizing my personal documents so when the people responsible for the move came by on Monday, they would find a good part of the work already done. There is no one like oneself to sort and pack one’s books and papers. So I was surprised by the unexpected visit. When I opened the door I was met by an officer of the Ministry of the Interior, a captain, who with a serious gesture asked for my identity and immediately asked me for my passport and the corresponding visa. I excused myself for not inviting him in as the boxes and piles of books and folders reached the door and I begged him to give me a moment to look for what he was asking for. When he had the documents in his hand and had a look at them, he told me I had to leave the island in 6 days as the visa reduced my stay on the island to one week.

My surprise was huge. At the airport passport control I had been granted a visa for one month extendable to two more with the requirement to present it every 30 days at Immigration. Three months in total. When he asked me what hotel I was going to stay at, I explained to the agent that I was keeping an apartment in Havana after my long assignment on the island. So I begged the captain to let me have my passport for a moment, pointing out to him what the Varadero agent had written before stamping it: “1 m”; that is, one month.

“It does not say one month,” replied the officer; “it says one week.” The agent’s spelling could hardly be read as a w, but the captain clung to that singular reading, arguing that in view of the large number of tourists arriving on the island, the Varadero agents often used English instead of Spanish.

“What’s the matter, captain, do Cuban officials now prioritize the enemy’s language?” I said ironically.

Puzzled and flustered by my answer, he ordered me: “Please, come with me.”

“To go where, captain?”

“To Fifth Avenue, to Immigration.”

“I imagine you have come in some kind of vehicle,” I answered.

“A colleague is waiting for us downstairs in the patrol car.”

“You can see I’m in my bathing suit. Please give me a minute to get dressed and I’ll be right down.”

“All right. Hurry up. We’ll wait for you downstairs.”

I take advantage of this moment to call the ambassador’s residence. He is not there. I leave the message: a captain of the Ministry of Interior has shown up at my apartment and I am being taken to Immigration. I was thinking of going to the embassy on Monday —I added— to greet the ambassador, not having been able to do it before because my flight to Varadero arrived yesterday afternoon. I trust they will pass this information on to him.

I quickly get dressed and get out. Inside the vehicle are a uniformed driver and the officer. We arrive at Immigration around 7 pm. The sun is shining. We cross a courtyard and go up to the second floor. He asks me to wait a few minutes and I take a seat on one of the benches on the balcony. The minutes pass slowly. From time to time a foreigner comes out of one of the offices and takes a seat on one of the benches. After a quarter of an hour, the officer reappears and says that they will soon be seeing me. That soon becomes almost half an hour. The officer reappears, this time accompanied by a young man dressed casually. We go down to the first floor and then to a basement where there is hardly any light. A small rectangular table in the center, a chair on each side. One of the chairs is pointed out to me and the captain takes a seat opposite. He turns on a powerful table lamp that shines its light on me. The young man stands to my left, leaning against the wall. The captain begins the interrogation.

“You entered Cuba through Varadero yesterday Friday afternoon. At passport control they stamped yours for a week.”

“No, captain. I already explained to you that this stamp indicates one month, double renewable up to a maximum period of three months. That is what I was told.”

“You have one week, 6 days to be more precise, to gather your belongings and leave the country.”

“Let’s stop interpreting the spelling because we are not going to agree. You know perfectly well who I am and the work I have done in Cuba in recent years. Tell me, please, what is the real reason why I am prevented from staying in the country for more than a week.”

“There is no need for me to explain it to you. You can very well imagine it.”

“My imagination, captain, does not go that far. What is the real reason why you are limiting my stay to one week?”

The one who now answers is the young observer, undoubtedly a Secret Service officer, who up to that moment remained silent:

“Because you are an enemy of Cuba.”

My restraint explodes and I protest indignantly:

“Me, an enemy of Cuba? I have worked my ass off for almost 6 years in this country that I love as my own. My work has consisted in reaffirming the multiple cultural ties that unite us, in filling with books and audiovisual material the often empty libraries of the most distant provinces, in promoting scholarships and aid to researchers and artists and to depressed sectors of the island, in fostering the encounter between Cubans of good will living in the island or abroad, sometimes ideologically distanced but united by the love they profess for a common culture… Is that to be an enemy of Cuba?”

“You know what I mean,” he replies.

In the face of such an answer, there is little more to say. Behind the Kafkaesque formal pretext of the visa, there were years of work in pursuit of the democratization of the island through culture, dialogue, knowledge and tolerance; that is, everything a dictatorial regime denies on principle. There was the hatred of some high-ranking officials, such as the powerful Abel Prieto, then president of UNEAC and soon to be minister of culture, whom I had embarrassed by bringing together in Madrid writers who, separated by intolerance, had not seen each other and embraced each other for years. Among many other things, there was Dulce María’s trip to receive the Cervantes award in Alcalá, which they tried to prevent without success.

The captain spoke again.

“The days you are going to be in Cuba should be dedicated solely and exclusively to finalize your moving. Once your belongings are in a container, we will pick you up and take you to the airport. Under no pretext should you see your Cuban friends. If you respect these instructions, you will be able to return to the island at a later date.”

We leave the little room and as we go up to the ground floor, I comment to the Secret Service officer, who is walking along with us:

“You’re giving me more importance that I deserve.”

“That may be,” he replies.

Once upstairs, it is the captain who accompanies me to the departure yard.

“On Monday you are to report here at noon, in case we don’t stop by your apartment first. Good afternoon.”

“How did I get here?” I say.

“With us, in the patrol car.”

“Then, please, return me to my home in the same way.”

“Wait a moment,” he answers, surprised, “I’m going to check.”

As soon as he disappears, as if they were synchronized, the First Secretary’s SUV enters the courtyard, skidding; he leaves the vehicle in the middle of the courtyard:

“What happened, Carlos, what happened?”

As he drives me back home, I summarize what happened. He tells me that the government here is very nervous about the incidents that have occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. Several boats coming from Florida have tried to enter Cuban territorial waters with very different intentions than those who are risking their lives to reach the peninsula.

“Come by the embassy first thing Monday morning and let the ambassador know what has happened.”

I say that I will. On Sunday, while I finish packing my belongings, I confirm from the balcony that a policeman is guarding the door of my building. That guard will be there for the few days I will be in Havana. I will remain, then, under house arrest. With a not excessively severe regime, because at night the guard disappears until 8 o’clock the following morning. On Monday I left for the embassy very early in the morning. The ambassador asked me if in my luggage I had any copies of the magazine Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana, whose first issue had just come out. I did not have a single copy. I will return to the embassy two days later with a package containing my private correspondence because I do not want State Security to snoop through it. The ambassador has started his vacation and has left the island. I ask the person currently in charge of the mission to send it by pouch to Madrid and I will pick it up. He refuses.

Barbáchano with Jorge Luis Arcos, Pepe Prats, Rafael Alcides, Anabelle Rodríguez, Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera and Pilar Saro.

On the sixth day after my arrival, a Cubalse truck was loaded with my furniture and belongings. I have a small mattress to spend the night, as I am informed that the next day they will come to pick me up to take a flight back to Spain. I inform the embassy of my departure. I am told the consulate will also send a car to accompany me to the airport. That night, when the guard leaves, a good friend of mine comes to see me and we drink a bottle of rum and smoke a couple of cigars that I kept.

When I went down the next morning and tried to get into the consulate car, major Murga, who was in charge of the Ministry of Interior vehicle on this occasion, asked me to get into his car. Quite an honor since the major is the head of Immigration in Havana. I take a seat in the back, a policeman next to me. Murga in front and the driver. We leave for Varadero. The consulate car, driven by the vice consul, follows the patrol car. We drive along the Malecón. I know it is the last time I will pass by it.

Already in Varadero, they let me at least say goodbye to the vice consul and, having returned my passport, they take me on board, escorted by two policemen, a few minutes before the passengers board. The tourists watch this strange operation from the window of the boarding hall. When they enter and take their seats, they look at me as if I were a dangerous criminal. A middle-aged Cuban man takes a seat next to me and, as soon as we put on our seat belts as we are about to take off, he takes an interest in me.

“What happened to you, mister? What happened?”

Faced with these questions, I get up and go to sit in one of the two front rows that are free. A stewardess tries to stop me.

“Sir, return to your seat. We are taking off.”

“I refuse,” I tell her emphatically, “to return to Spain in the company of a member of the State Security.”

Faced with the forcefulness of my answer, she relents.

We land in Barcelona, not in Madrid from where I started the flight. I take the first shuttle once I have called my family to tell them that I am back in Spain, much earlier than planned, which I will explain later. I am broken. I must pull myself together.

Madrid, mid-July 2021

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Carlos Barbáchano Gracia. Spanish writer and professor. He served for years as cultural attaché of the Spanish embassy in Havana. The publishing house Betania published, in 2016, Gastón Baquero: El hombre que ansiaba las estrellas, a biography by him about the important Cuban poet.


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