“The myth of Cuba has been cut to shreds for the most part” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Mario Varga Llosa

The writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, talks about Cuba in the first part of an interview with 14ymedio

Mario Vargas Llosa at the Vii Atlanta Forum (Casa de Americas)

Mario Vargas Llosa at the Vii Atlanta Forum (Casa de Americas)

Yoani Sánchez, Madrid, 14 July 2014 — Mario Vargas Llosa, writer, politician, excellent analyst and even better conversationalist, received me at his home in Madrid for this interview. The minutes flew by with his proverbial grace for dialogue as he offered me his reflections about democracy, freedom, literature, Latin America and Cuba. Today I share these with the readers of 14ymedio who in some way were there, without being in that room lit by the light of summer and the lucidity of the writer.

Question: I know that Cuba has been an important part of your passions, to say nothing of your great obsessions…

Answer: Absolutely. The Cuban Revolution was for me, as it was for many young people, the appearance of a possibility many of us had dreamed about but that had seemed unattainable. A socialist revolution, which was both socialist and free, socialist and democratic.

Today that may seem like an act of blindness, but it wasn’t at that time. At that time, that’s what the Cuban Revolution seemed to us, accomplished not for, but outside, the Communist Party, a Revolution that was backed up by every heroic exploit. In the first days of the Cuban Revolution, we saw in it what we wanted to see.

A Revolution that would make great social reforms, that would end injustice and at the same time would allow freedom, diversity, creativity, that wouldn’t adopt the Soviet line of strict control of all creative and artistic activities.

We believed it was going to allow criticism and this is what we wanted to see in the Cuban Revolution and for a good number of years that is what I saw in it, despite going to Cuba, despite being linked very directly to the Casa de las Americas, in which I came to sit on the committee. That was what we saw because the Cuban Revolution had the ability to feed that illusion.

Question: At what point did you start having doubts?

Answer: Of the five times I went to Cuba in the sixties, the fourth time coincided with the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) and it was a shock to know that they had opened what were almost concentration camps where they took dissidents, thieves, homosexuals, religious people. I was very impressed especially by the case of a group I expect you know, El Puente (The Bridge). I knew many of the girls and the boys who made up the group, among them were lesbians and gays, but all were revolutionaries, absolutely identified with the Revolution. A good number of them went to the concentration camps, where there were even suicides.

That affected me a great deal, because it seemed impossible that something like this was happening in Cuba. So I wrote a private letter to Fidel Castro, where I said, “Comandante, I really don’t understand, this doesn’t fit with my vision of Cuba.” Then they invited me to visit Cuba and have a meeting with Fidel Castro. We were about ten or twelve and somehow we demonstrated our surprise about what was happening.

It was the only time I’ve talked with Fidel Castro, it was all night, from eight at night to eight in the morning. It was very interesting and although he impressed me, I wasn’t convinced by his explanation. He told me what had happened to many very humble peasant families, whose sons were trainees, and they complained that their sons had been victims of “the sickos,” that’s what Fidel said. The gays and lesbians for him were “the sickos.” He told me something had to be done, that perhaps there were excesses, but they were going to correct it.

I remember Che Guevara had already left by then and no one knew where he was. Then Fidel Castro—during that conversation—made allusions to where Che might be and show up. He was also very histrionic, standing on the table, telling how they’d set up ambushes, he was a very overwhelming personality, but I realized then that he did not allow interlocutors, only listeners.

It was almost impossible to pose any questions, however brief. It was the first time and since then I was left with many doubts, much anguish that I didn’t dare to make public and I continued returning to Cuba until Fidel’s support for the interventions of the Warsaw Pact countries in Czechoslovakia.

Question: How did you experience the entry of Soviet tanks into Prague in 1968?

Answer: That made a tremendous impression on me, and it was the first time I made public a letter criticizing Cuba. I wrote an article titled Socialism and the Tanks, saying it wasn’t possible that if Fidel had always defended the autonomy, the sovereignty of small countries, now that a small country wanted its own version of socialism, for the Soviet tanks to invade and for Cuba to support this. How is it possible?

Despite this they continued to invite me, but when I returned to Cuba there was already a situation of panic among the intellectuals. My best friends wouldn’t talk to me or they lied to me. There was terror. It was a few weeks before the imprisonment of Heberto Padilla and the poet was totally beside himself, talking like a mad man, feeling the spaces close in on him and very soon he would no longer be able even to function.

The main problem with Cuba is not that it still awakens revolutionary fantasies and desires, rather the problem is the forgetting

I was with Jorge Edwards, just during the months that he was described as persona non grata. I remember that thanks to Jorge, who was diplomatic, we could bring Jose Lezama Lima to eat in one of those dining rooms where only diplomats could go. Poor Lezama, he ate with happiness, he loved to eat.

We talked about everything but politics, of course. But on leaving, on saying goodbye, I remember he squeezed my hand and said, “You understand the country in which I am living,” I responded yes, but he came back and squeezed my hand again and repeated, “But you understand the country in which I am living,” and I answered, “Yes, I understand.” That was the last time I saw him.

Soon came the capture of Padilla, the letter that several of us wrote and that meant the rupture with a number of important intellectuals who weren’t Communists but we had made the cause of the Cuban Revolution our own. For me that was very important, because I regained a freedom that had been lost during those years, because of this blackmail that was so effective, of “not giving arms to the enemy,” “you can’t attack the Cuban Revolution without yourself becoming an ally of colonialism, imperialism, fascism.”

Well, since then I was much more free and I was left forever, up to today, with the idea of having contributed in some way to this myth and to helping a system—already 55 years old—that had converted Cuba into a concentration camp and that has frustrated at least three generations of Cubans.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been so insistent in my criticisms of Cuba, it’s a way of exercising self-criticism. Because I believe that we contributed a lot, and the Cuban regime was highly skilled in this, getting the support of intellectuals, journalists, academics, that contributed so much to this myth, that still survives, although it seems like lies and happily the support is from ever smaller circles.

The main problem with Cuba is not that it still awakens revolutionary fantasies and desires, rather the problem is the forgetting, the disinterest. Many people are tired of the Cuba issue and then there is a great detachment. Many times when the topic of Cuba is on the agenda, there is such skepticism, as if it weren’t a social and human phenomenon. What can you do against an earthquake, a tsunami? Nothing, because Cuba is like an earthquake or a tsunami for many people.