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Havana’s homophobes

Homosexuals were among the first to be disillusioned by the Cuban revolution

To say that I enjoyed Mapa dibujado por una espía (Or, Map drawn by a spy), the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante's recently published memoir about Cuba in the early 1960s, devouring it in one sitting, is an understatement. It took me back in time to my visits to the island in those days, and to people I met there, who still dreamed they were living in a dawn of freedom and equality. During my second stay in Havana, in the middle of the missile crisis, Cabrera Infante was in Brussels as cultural attaché. He received a message that his mother was dying, but arrived only in time for the funeral. He was about to catch the plane back to his posting when he was stopped by a call from the then-foreign minister, Raúl Roa, who "wished to talk to him."

The book deals with the four-month period between that frustrated exit and his later, costly authorization to leave, in order to pick up an award in Spain for his celebrated book Tres Tristes Tigres — he opted to stay in exile. In the regime's quick drift toward totalitarianism, Cuban writers were divided between those who ventured to criticize it openly and those who knuckled under to the doctrinal imperatives of "real socialism" — in which, as one of the May '68 generation said, everything was real except the socialism.

Given the impossibility of commenting here on all the aspects of what is now called the Ominous Decade, I would like to concentrate on the regime's obsessive attitude to homosexuals — termed "sexual criminals" — in which tens of thousands were sent to the UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production), a network of rural forced-labor camps, which began not long after Cabrera Infante left the island. The campaign was run by a special police section known as Lacras Sociales (social plagues or vices).

One of the two students on trial was said to be "funny," and at a rally both had failed to raise their arms in the revolutionary salute

Obviously the literary and artistic world was a preferred hunting ground for these protectors of the moral purity imposed by the Revolution. The theater, the various cultural groups and intellectual circles that found no inspiration in the narrow doctrines of official culture, soon began to receive visits from that police department.

One example was the director of the magazine Casa de las Américas, Antón Arrufat, who lost his job for publishing a poem with homoerotic allusions, and for inviting the beat icon Allen Ginsberg to the island. In another case, that of the writer Virgilio Piñera — who had been caught in an anti-homosexual dragnet as early as 1961, and freed thanks to the intervention of Carlos Franqui — he lived in a state of terror, and with the peculiar courage born of fear, had discussed with friends the idea of holding a demonstration before the presidential palace to denounce the harassment they suffered at the hands of Lacras Sociales and its gangs of thugs. This demonstration, which would have foreshadowed today's Gay Pride days in authoritarian regimes, and would have been no less than suicidal in the circumstances, did not get beyond the discussion stage, needless to say. A friend of mine, the writer Tomás Gutiérrez, happened to attend a kangaroo trial of two unfortunate students, held before a screaming crowd. He could not tell if it had to do with homosexuality, but one of them was said to be "funny," and at a rally both had failed to raise their arms in the revolutionary salute.

The transformation of sexual activity into political "deviationism" and of both of these into criminal activity, constitutes one of the darkest pages of a revolution which Cabrera Infante, like the immense majority of Cuban intellectuals, at first welcomed enthusiastically — until experiences, such as those described in this highly readable book about his last few months on the island, turned him into the great, if embittered, exiled writer we have since come to know.

Juan Goytisolo is a writer.

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