‘To Write the Biography of Lezama is to Write a History of Cuban Culture’

“Lezama himself said: ’I don’t have a biography.’ He defended the autonomy of the literary work.” (Facebook/Casa Museo José Lezama Lima)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 2 January 2022 — In a calm voice, Ernesto Hernández Busto (Havana, 1968) says that, at the funeral of José Lezama Lima, an alleged spy filmed everything with a camera. The video, which no one has seen, must have been hidden in the secret archives of ICAIC [Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry] or in a drawer of Villa Marista since that summer of 1976.

Lying on a tomb, with the apparatus on one shoulder, the unknown person recorded the faces of the mourners: Cintio Vitier, Ángel Gaztelu, Fina García Marruz, Raúl Roa, Ambrosio Fornet, Raúl Hernández Novás, Heberto Padilla and countless writers, officials, enemies and troublemakers.

From that moment on, says Hernández Busto, each of those present defends a different story about Lezama. Multiple anecdotes, opinions formulated at coffee time, plagiarized, misunderstood, distorted, forgotten and redone by his disciples. It is a complex region, in which the biographer always advances at his own risk.

Exiled in Barcelona, since the late nineties after several years in Mexico, Hernández Busto has been accumulating material for decades to write the first biography, in the strict sense, of Lezama. The book has become a kind of legend, and the author has only offered fragments to tempt the reader. Judging by these chapters — published in magazines such as Rialta, El Estornudo and Hypermedia — the Cuban project is cathedral, absorbing and does not even exhaust the Lezamian universe.

Lucid, Hernández Busto understands the magnitude of his commitment, in conversation with 14ymedio: “Whoever writes the biography of Lezama has to write, in reality, a history of Cuban culture, especially the republican one of the twentieth century. And perhaps also the history of a city: Havana.” continue reading

The problem is no different from that of those who established the canon of the sacred scriptures, speculates Hernández Busto. You have to face testimonies, contrast versions and sayings, consult multiple manuscripts, often apocryphal, as the evangelist Lucas does in El Reino [The Kingdom], the novel by Emmanuel Carrère.

“It is an unstable territory, because you have to differentiate gossip from history, always mixed with biographical anecdotes. A good example are the circumstances of his death and burial, told by various sources. That lack of definition turns any story into quicksand.” The writer also looks for the details, objects and evidence that give solidity to the text (such as knowing that Lezama’s funeral limousine was a 1959 Cadillac, a symbolic and ominous number).

“Moving between myth and exaltation is very uncomfortable, a constant doubt,” says Hernández Busto, who enjoys the challenge of collecting testimonies and detecting, after much research, who takes the right step in the labyrinth of versions. “The challenge is to make an English biography, more focused on the vital circumstances than on the works themselves; hence the provisional title: José Lezama Lima: a biography.”

The origin of this volume was a series of interviews he conducted, years ago and with a small recorder, with friends of Lezama, such as Father Gaztelu and José Triana. It was Triana’s wife, Chantal Dumaine, who provided him with several photographs of the burial where, in fact, the stranger appeared on the camera. “In a world of versions and assumptions, the discovery of a photo like this allows many things to be clarified,” he says.

Over time, the work grew in volume and difficulty. “A fundamental problem has been what to expose in the body of the text and what to place in the footnotes, which sometimes become small essays,” says Hernández Busto. The advances he has published attest to that temptation: with the secondary characters — the father, the mother, the sisters, the friends — another book could be composed.

To this must be added that it is intended to trace the biography of someone who distrusted the biographical exercise. “Lezama himself said: ’I don’t have a biography.’ He defended the autonomy of the literary work and repudiated Sainte-Beuve [whose critical method privileges the life of the author]. However, there are few more autobiographical books than Paradiso. That novel is a bit like the biography of a city, Havana, and a country, Cuba. Of course, in Paradiso, the biographical is recreated, used for a larger project, sublimated if you want. But all the scaffolding of the novel is deeply biographical,” he argues.

“The scarcity of biographies is a characteristic of the Cuban canon,” laments Hernández Busto, which is why he sometimes looks for neutral readers, outside the “Cuban world,” to evaluate the text. “Every time I finish writing a chapter,” he says, “I consult with friends, with people who met Lezama or lived during that time, but also with non-Cuban friends, who may have the perspective of a common reader. It is difficult to find the tone of the story while still being exhaustive.”

“If Lezama’s life is so interesting, it is because it includes two big unanswered questions,” Hernández Busto calculates: “Lezama and the Revolution, Lezama and homosexuality. Sex and politics. They are two great taboos, not only for this writer but for a culture and an era. Perhaps, after all, they are impossible to solve. But it’s worth trying.”

Translated by Regina Anavy


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

An Open Letter on the Situation in Venezuela

Protesters in Venezuela support of Juan Guaidó on January 23. (jguaido)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio,  Ernesto Hernández Busto, 15 March 2019 —  Poor Venezuela! After having undertaken what it announced as a radical process of social transformation, a process intended to mark a turning point in Latin American ideology and guarantee a project of social equality baptized as “21st century socialism,” today the country has ended up becoming a despotic compound, where not only are the most basic political rights violated, but one in which a person can barely survive with a minimum of dignity. From the promised emancipation to compulsory destitution; from the dream of the continental left to the prototype of failure, despair and exodus: such is the sad journey of the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution.”

Given the serious political and humanitarian situation that Venezuela is going through today, we the undersigned, Cuban intellectuals who reside inside and outside the island, demand that the Cuban Government ackknowlege the evidence of the social and humanitarian disaster, refrain from intervening by any means in the political conflict of that nation, and withdraw its numerous “cooperators,” both civilian and military, who are working in that country. After six decades of a failed revolution, after the collapse of that “Cubazuela” celebrated for years by the Castrochavism, it is time for Cuba to stop exporting or stirring up conflicts in other countries under the pretext of ideological solidarity, and to ensure they can subsist with their own resources, without exploitation or interference of any kind.

Signers of this open letter

Ernesto Hernández Busto, writer; Ladislao Aguado, writer and editor; Carlos A. Aguilera, writer; Janet Batet, curator and art critic; Yoandy Cabrera, academic; María A. Cabrera Arús, academic; Pablo de Cuba Soria, writer and editor; Enrique del Risco, writer and academic; Armando Chaguaceda, political scientist; Paquito D’Rivera, musician, composer and writer; Néstor Díaz de Villegas, writer; Manuel Díaz Martínez, writer; Jorge I. Domínguez-López, writer and journalist; Vicente Echerri, writer; Abilio Estévez, writer; Gerardo Fernández Fe, writer; Alejandro González Acosta, writer and academic; Ginés Gorriz, producer; Kelly M. Grandal, writer; Natacha Herrera, journalist; José Kozer, poet; Boris Larramendi, musician; Felipe Lázaro, writer and editor; Rafael López-Ramos, visual artist; Jacobo Machover, writer and academic; Roberto Madrigal, writer; María Matienzo Puerto, writer and journalist; L. Santiago Méndez Alpízar, writer; Michael H. Miranda, writer and academic; Carlos Alberto Montaner, writer and journalist; Adrián Monzón, artist and producer; Lilliam Moro, writer; Luis Manuel Otero, artist and activist; Amaury Pacheco del Monte, writer and artivist; Geandy Pavón, photographer and visual artist; Gustavo Pérez-Firmat, writer and academic; José Prats Sariol, writer; Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, writer; Alexis Romay, writer; Rolando Sánchez Mejías, writer; Manuel Sosa, writer; Armando Valdés-Zamora, writer and academic; Amir Valle, writer; and Camilo Venegas Yero, writer and journalist.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

UMAP: Selective Memory


screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-10-08-10-amErnesto Hernández Busto, Penultimos Días, 13 September 2016 — It seems that in Cuba one can now talk about UMAP, the notorious Military Units to Aid Production (in Spanish: Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Producción), internment and forced labor camps where the Cuban government imprisoned homosexuals, the religious, intellectuals, dissidents and any other “suspicious elements” between November 1965 and July 1968. Gradually, people have begun to speak about the camps, to admit things and individual cases, to collect testimonies, and to make visible this sad episode.

The psychologist Carolina de la Torre, a professor at the University of Havana, is about to publish the fictionalized story of her brother, Benjamin de la Torre, who committed suicide in 1967, just after leaving one of these camps. In a recent interview she recounted the difficulties in “finding out and writing about this episode in my own country.” In effect, for too long any investigation into this thorny episode in Cuba’s history has been avoided, while the importance of information and witness accounts that came to light off the island was called into question. continue reading

The topic has always been “suspicious,” and this situation only began to change after official recognition from the victimizer: in an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, on 31 August 2010, after some hesitation and rhetorical circumlocutions, Fidel Castro declared publicly: “I am the one responsible for the persecution of homosexuals we had in Cuba… We did not know how to judge… Systematic sabotage, armed attacks, were happening all the time; we had so many and such terrible problems, problems of life and death, you know, so we didn’t pay enough attention.”

In fact, there was an excess of attention. For the young Cuban historian Abel Sierra Madero, UMAP cannot be understood as an isolated institution, but as a part of a project “oriented to social and political control. That is, as a technology that involved judicial, military, educational, medical and psychiatric mechanisms.” In recent research published in the magazine Letras Libres, and later, in an expanded version for Cuban Studies, Sierra Madero, using a relentless collection of testimonies, lucidly analyzes the Castro regime’s ideology that supported these supposed “academies to produce macho men.”

It was not just a question of a homophobic or exclusionary discourse that proposed, for example, to expel from higher schooling “counterrevolutionary and homosexual elements,” and to prevent their entry into the university. The process of “purification” was more complex and took place at all levels.

Once the purges of the universities were finalized, young people who stood out for a wide range of reasons – which included everything from long hair to being Jehovah’s Witnesses, listening to “the enemy’s music” or not being “incorporated” (not having fixed work or belonging to mass organizations) – remained “exposed and at the mercy of the State.”

The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were charged with conducting a census to identify the “disaffected”, informing on them was encouraged through a National Information Center, and all this data ended up being shared with the Ministry of the Interior and Revolutionary Armed Forces, which were charged with forced recruitment.

Quite simply, there was no escape. Rather than a “lack of attention,” it was the most attentive Orwellian machinery that was set in motion to concern itself with those who did not fit into the mold of the “New Man.”

Sierra Madero’s research focuses on this concept, associated with “a broader ideological camp of social homogenization in which fashion, urban practices of sociability, religious creeds and an attitude toward work were key elements in harmonizing with a normative official vision.”

The testimonies collected – including those of the various psychologists who consulted in the camps – trace a hellish scenario: from forced hormone therapy treatments to an enormous plan of “Revolutionary hygiene” that turned the internees into an almost slave labor force, or subjected to them to behavioral and reflexological experiments, in which they came to use electroshock treatments. Other witnesses speak of tortures using electrodes and treatments that involved insulin-induced comas.

Recently, the government magazine Temas (Themes) dedicated an article by its director, Rafael Hernández, to “the time of the UMAPs.” In it, he affirms that there were more than 25,000 internees “among the more than 70 camps, scattered across the plains of Camagüey.” The number is very conservative but there is no way to contest it.

In a last year’s interview in El País, famous Cuban singer Pablo Milanés talked about his own experience in UMAP and mentioned “40 thousand” internees. Two former Cuban intelligence agents quoted by the scholar Joseph Tahbaz (Dartmouth College) in the most comprehensive study about this subject, Demystifying las UMAP: The Politics of Sugar, Gender, and Religion in 1960s Cuba, have estimated approximately 35,000 UMAP internees.

Last November, the journalist José Jasán Nieves reported about a meeting between several former inmates of the camps, now associates of the Christian Reflection and Dialog Center, and their guards, who at the time were young Revolutionaries convinced they were carrying out an important “task of the Revolution.” One of the guards, a former sergeant, has been a pastor in the Brothers of Christ Church for more than 25 years. And he cries out, of course, for forgiveness.

It appears, however, that on this issue there are different ideas about memory and forgiveness. Last December, after seeing a documentary on Mariela Castro and “The Revolution of Homosexuals in Cuba,” the LGBT activist Jimmy Roque published in the on-line newspaper Havana Times, an article asking Raúl Castro to apologize and accept his responsibility for the internment of homosexuals in the UMAPs. “Now is the time to ask forgiveness for this act of penalization, exclusion and punishment to which thousands of homosexuals and Cubans with ‘improper conduct’ were subjected,” the activist wrote, quoting the title of Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal’s famous documentary about this subject –from 1983.

In his article, Roque also referred to a supposed investigation into the matter that CENESEX, directed by Raul’s daughter Mariela Castro, had been pushing since 2011: “Where is this investigation? How many people have been interviewed? Who is performing it? When and where will the partial results be presented (along with those from now until the end of the study)?”

Two months later, in February, another Cuban activist, Yasmín Portales Machado, dared to quote a fragment of Roque’s article in his blog Proyecto Arcoiris (“Rainbow Project”) which deals with sexual diversity and is hosted on the Cuban government’s platform Reflejos. The text was censored and the blog closed after a succinct explanation about how it had violated “the norms of participation on the site” with a text “defamatory to the Revolution.”

In closed forums, or in publications with no real or large impact within Cuba, people then began to talk about the issue, but always quietly. They recognize that something was wrong. But there is still censorship and zones of silence. There is no mention, yet, about the origin of UMAP – and of many other similar “experiments” that seem inseparable from the construction of “a new society”: the devastating power that has been exercised by the Cuban State against all forms of dissent. The way in which one life is suddenly reduced to nothing, no longer matters, is no longer accounted for, and all violence then becomes legitimate, “natural,” exempt from responsibility. Because if we go there, how can we ignore the current repression against the dissidents, and the monopoly of the political voice and the systematic violation of human rights on the island?

Behind the “UMAP phenomenon” there was not, as one analyst recently recovered from several decades of amnesia said, a “perfect storm” of circumstances specific to the ‘60s, but the idea that any behavior that did not fit into the mold of ideological unanimity was not only reprehensible but punishable: it deserved to be suppressed, isolated, subjected to the worst humiliations we could imagine. The same way of thinking erupted again in 1980, with the events of the Mariel Boatlift, and survives today as the ideological basis of the repressive forces.

I hope we don’t have to wait another 50 years for the day when some digital publication, not greatly read in Cuba, comes to think that this beating of dissidents that goes on today wasn’t a good thing either.

For more from Penultimos Días click here.

Ernesto Hernández Busto