Censorship: Are You There? (1) / Carlos Espinosa / Polemica, The 2007 Intellectual Debate

During the time in which I lived in Madrid, a friend of mine from the Island came to visit. Unable to resist his curiosity, he immediately began to pry into my bookshelves (a habit I have to confess, I do not like). When he came across a shelf lined with cassettes, he smirked and in a teasing way, expressed how surprised he was to see that I owned tapes by artists such as Raphael, Los Brincos, Fórmula V, Massiel, Cristina y los Stops, Charles Aznavour, and Los Bravos… I simply explained to him that this music formed an essential part of my sentimental education during my years as a middle school, and later high school student.

Back then, the only way to be able to hear those songs in Cuba, or at least in the country village where I lived, was the radio. Tape recorders and stereos were things one wouldn’t even dare to dream of; not to mention the additional problem of figuring out a way to find cassettes and tapes. I remember that one of my friends with whom I would go out had a sister in Havana who was married to a Greek sailor. Thanks to that, we would have access to a cassette player he would bring to the parties we organized sometimes. It was such a heavy and cumbersome machine that it was like carrying a suitcase. It was like an antique that, nowadays, one would only see in thrift stores, those second-hand stores that are so common in the United States.

Many years later, when I first had the opportunity to buy the cassettes (compact discs still took time to appear) with those old songs, I wanted to make a belated gift to the boy I once was, a gift that he was never able to have. Listening to them again, off the island, must have been for me a way to surrender myself to the intoxication of nostalgia (“This bread tastes like a memory,” says a verse by Humberto Saba). But it also provided me with some findings that I did not expect. I pride myself on having an excellent memory, and was able to sing along as the song played on the stereo. In some cases, however, there were verses that I had not heard before. In “Ding, dong, the things of love,” one of the many songs that the Argentine Leonardo Favio popularized in Latin America, was this: “She is fragile, tender and sweet, / I look to find it. / I think and I smile, / for me that God exists.” I noticed something similar in the song, “When you return” (Cuando Vuelvas) by the Spaniards Mitos. In the version that we got to know through the radio stations in the Island, the following did not appear: “At night I pray / I pray to the Lord for your love. / But I feel afraid / afraid that I will lose you.”

Both are examples of censorship; that cousin of the medieval inquisition that is related to power, repression, and manipulation. In both cases, the scissors of the censors were directed against religious ideas, one of Castro’s black beasts during the decade of the sixties and part of the seventies. In Cuba, it was this fact that prompted the popularization of all of Juan y Junior’s songs except for one: En San Juan (In San Juan). The lyrics can’t be more candid and ingenious, for one must not forget that it was also written under an inflexible monitoring of another dictatorial regime. But in the anticlerical crusade unleashed in the new Cuba, things like this were unacceptable: The porch in the church of San Juan / and the saint made of wood in front of you / became my friends and were my witnesses / the day that our love was born. / The saint gave a good-natured smile / and I looked at you a little embarrassed / saying a few / simple and loving things. / One day we wanted to get married / in San Juan.”

From these operations of amputation of inconvenient content El Corazon Contento (Happy Heart), by the Argentinian Palito Ortega, was able to escape. Since we had heard a different version of this song by Spaniard Marisol, we were able to listen to and hum the following: “and I pray to God that I never lose you.” It would have been a bit complicated to explain to Comrade Antonio Gades, the then husband of the singer, why Cubans were censored from such an ideologically innocuous phrase, while in Franco’s Spain, however, Joan Manuel Serrat could address issues of social commentary in his songs and record an entire album with the poems of Miguel Hernández, who died in jail, and why Fernando Fernan Gomez and Massiel were allowed to present a show with songs of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.

Those are only a few examples that illustrate the censorship that was applied in music. To these, I would like to add one more: in the Island’s radio stations, Luis Aguile’s song, Cuando Sali de Cuba (When I Left Cuba) was banned, for the reason that, although it is not explicitly stated, one can infer that the person speaking must have left his/her country for very serious reasons: “When I left Cuba / I left my life, I left my love. / When I left Cuba / I left my heart buried.” But so far, I have referred to censorship of specific lyrics and songs. On other occasions, the attack of the guardian dogs had as a target singers and bands. For example, at one point, they ceased to schedule the recordings of Raphael, Julio Iglesias, Santana, and Jose Feliciano, among others. About the reasons why the latter was banned, I remember hearing this explanation: the singer had publicly declared that he would rather be blind in Puerto Rico than to be able to see, if the price for it was having to live in Cuba. I am convinced that the anecdote is apocryphal, but I do not deny that it is very credible. More so in the case of Feliciano than the other artists, what we talked about was no more than pure speculation, gossip. As Roberto Madrigal writes in his novel Frozen Zone, the list of the censored is only known through common knowledge, never in written form, “because good censorship is like that, it does not explain its purposes so that uncertainty is added to terror.”

But before proceeding, I think it is appropriate to talk in general about this crime, which, usually, is justified by invoking the notion of the collective good. The term ‘censorship’ comes from the Latin word, ‘censure,’ which means estimate, assess, evaluate. How did this word acquire such a different meaning? This can be explained if one remembers that in ancient Rome, the censor and the responsibility of the person in charge of the census of people were closely related. The censors were officers appointed to chair the census, i.e. the registration of citizens, in order to determine the duties which they were entitled to in the community. The task of what we now call the ‘surveyor’ was to take control of the inhabitants; of the censor, classify and control products withdrawn from the minds of people (books, ideas). Both census and censorship, were (are) forms of surveillance. And in the case of the second, it represents a mechanism used to impose prohibitions or restrictions on persons or ideas that can upset the established order.

Absolute impunity to censor

On more than one occasion, under despotic regimes, art and literature have been made to grow. But as has often been noted by George Orwell, the despotism of the past was not as rigorous as the totalitarianism that several countries suffered from in the twentieth century. This is because in the former, the repressive system had always been inefficient, and the classes that ran the control and regulation devices were usually corrupt, apathetic and even kind of liberal. Nothing like the high level of perversion and effectiveness with which the censorship institutions of the totalitarian regimes operated, in particular, the Communists. One simple fact can give one an idea about the proportions that this machinery was able to reach: in the former Soviet Union, 70 thousand bureaucrats oversaw the activities of 7,000 writers. That is, each author was assigned ten editors.

In these countries, censorship also enjoyed complete impunity. As the restrictive and prescriptive controls were in the hands of the state, the intervention of the censors did not need to be justified or declared since it was part of the routine and operational practice. The state also owned publishing houses, art galleries, museums, newspapers and magazines, television channels, radio stations, theaters, printing presses, and movie studios. This ensured, for example, that if the manuscript of a book was disapproved, its publication was impossible. In this regard, it should be noted that only the act of writing or creating a work that, for some reason (no matter whether the motive was political or artistic, as the aesthetic and ideology were not separated), did not please the Commissioners, it was considered an offense for which one could be convicted or sentenced.

In 1974, the Cuban writer and dramatist René Ariza (Havana, 1940-California, 1994) was sentenced to eight years in prison, of which he served five. Stories, plays and his unpublished poems were discovered by police in the luggage of a Spanish boy, and that was enough to bring him to court for “writing enemy propaganda.” And I highlight this detail: only for writing it. That is, in his case, like that of other authors who were sentenced to prison or expelled from the university (Carlos Victoria, Rafael E. Saumell, Manuel Ballagas, Leandro Eduardo Campa, Esteban Luis Cardenas, Daniel Fernandez, are some names that come to mind), the penalty was based not on the offense, but on the intention. The punishment was applied, therefore, a priori, before the works could cause the damage alleged against them.

I keep a copy of the Chancellor’s Resolution 89/73, which is stamped in the end with the signature of Hermes Herrera Hernández, then rector of the University of Havana. It relates to disciplinary proceedings of Iglesias Daniel Kennedy, a student at the School of Modern Languages at the Humanities department. As stated in the document, the Commission of Inquiry established to examine the case (made up of two teachers and one student representing the Union of Young Communists) requested a copy of the novel, Esta Tarde Se Pone el Sol (“The Sun Sets This Afternoon”), that Iglesias had presented to the Casa de las Americas Prize that year (1973).

The opinion was that the work “is by itself proof of its author’s ideological weakness and his involvement in antisocial activities developed, in turn, by dissolute elements in collusion with foreign agents, given that in this novel there are autobiographical aspects that reflect his participation in such actions. it can be concluded that said novel is in direct contradiction with communist morality and the principles established by the Congress on Education and Culture. An aggravating situation, Iglesias Kennedy “has maintained a socially unacceptable behavior and will not be able to graduate with a major in the department in which he studies, and although he has obtained satisfactory grades, his relationships with other students in the field of social and political work have not been equally successful.” All this leads the rector to declare Iglesias Kennedy “guilty as he is accused” and to penalize him “with an indefinite suspension as student.”

There are times when it is very difficult to understand the reasons behind the Censors’ decision to ban a work. In 1956, the British Board of Film Censors banned a film by Jean Cocteau. Their argument was: “The film is apparently meaningless, but if it had any meaning, it would be reprehensible.” In this category of the absurd is perfectly accommodated a case that is enshrined in the annals of Human Rights. In 1983, the People’s Court of October 10 and the Court of Crimes Against State Security of the People’s Court of Havana convicted Mario Gaston y Hernandez to three years in prison. His “crime” was to translate a book on the prophecies of Nostradamus, which was considered an attempt to try to spread enemy propaganda. Expert opinion was sought from members of the UNEAC (Cuban Artists and Writers Union), who ruled that the text in question was “diversionary, anticommunist and anti-Soviet.” A German representative of the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations described this as an unusual sentence, and said that Nostradamus had lived in the sixteenth century. But we know that the sentinels of society are not worth sensible or logical explanations. To paraphrase Pascal, censorship has reasons that reason itself does not understand.

The writers and artists who have had the misfortune of living and creating under such dictatorial regimes, could well have adopted as their motto these words that Beaumarchais expressed through one of the characters from The Marriage of Figaro: “As long as I don’t mention any of the following in my writings: authority, religion, politics, morality, local people, corporations, opera, any type of entertainment, or anyone that holds a job, I am free to write about what I wish, under the supervision of two or three censors.”

Author’s Note: The idea of this work, the first in a series that will continue in the coming weeks, began in late September, and took shape in the months after. Many of my friends can testify that during this time I have sent them e-mails or have called them to ask for information, suggestions, and data. The output of this first article coincides with the angry and fair reactions on the Island that were caused by a claim made by a commissioner in a television program. That both things happen at the same time, is, as they say in the movies–pure coincidence. It is not, therefore, opportunism on my part, or even a journalistic sense of timing. Moreover, for many of the signatories of the protests that such an execrable character receives, his mediated homage translates into an attempt to resurrect an ancient history, as their comrade Fernández Retamar would say (comrade of them, I mean, not mine, God forbid!). For me, on the contrary, it constitutes a problem that, similar to the dinosaur of Monterroso, was and continues to be there. So the title of these writings should be taken for what it is, a rhetorical question.

Carlos Espinosa

United States

Translated by: Dolores M. Goizueta

January 2007