Jorge Edwards in Cuba: A Spy in the Land of Slogans

From left to right, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Edwards, Mario Vargas Llosa, the literary agent Carmen Balcells and José Donoso. (Those ‘Boom’ Years)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 9 April 2023 – The apathy of Cuban intellectuals after the death of Jorge Edwards contributed to the fact that the regime’s censorship managed to render him invisible.

The machinery of the Cuban press lives by a certain law of fiction, and that fiction selects, redacts, patches over and twists the reality of any news story. When the Chilean novelist Jorge Edwards arrived in Havana as a diplomat in December 1970, he discovered that the predictable workings of journalists, photographers and spies were already up and running. The regime’s newspapers received him with a scattergun of allusions towards an ‘Edwards clan’ – protagonists of the ‘reactionist conspiracy’ against Salvador Allende.

These were the veiled instructions for Cubans (smart people, when they want to be) in how to deal with this visitor — a literate man, disguised as a negotiator, representative of a socialist government, but one which Castro viewed with suspicion: Allende had committed the tactical error of achieving power through the ballot box, not, as Castro had done, through war. 

A few weeks ago, upon Edwards’ death (in Madrid), the business of rewriting history began all over again: despite being one of the foremost writers in the language (winner of the Cervantes Prize), not one official Cuban newspaper published an obituary, the columnists and critics all fell silent, and the bureaucrats of Casa de las Americas — he was even one of the judges for their award in 1968 — were finally able to delete him from their list of undesirables. 

Nevertheless, the most troubling aspect of his death was that even Cuban exiles — apart from the odd exception — neglected to pay their respects towards Edwards’ memory. There was a certain indifference, a certain mental laziness which obliged them to leave on the bookshelf his Persona non grataan assessment of Castro’s perversions just as thorough as Before Night Falls or Map Drawn by a Spy.

It was also odd that neither was he properly mentioned in the work of Chilean writer Pavel Giroud — that is, in any depth, and aloud, rather than in private reflection — during the tensions which produced El caso Padilla (The Padilla Affair). His presence in the film came to shed light on the era — it provided an external viewpoint on Castro’s reign and his authoritarian anachronism in a world which demanded more democracy. Edwards, who had travelled to Havana as Allende’s envoy, left the country proclaiming it to have converted itself into a ship of fools. 

Persona non grata makes certain progress, via digressions, as a volume built entirely from personal memories. The narration dithers, and forms a hypothesis, falls down through paranoia; it thrills, and it mulls things over. Edwards believes that, in 1970, Castro had drilled down into all the excess opened up by the Revolution and had managed to submerge the country into a destiny of collective obfuscation. His crazy delusions were already evident in his physical appearance — bags under the eyes, unkempt beard, a compulsion for clouds of tobacco smoke — and he aspired to the achievement of perfect surveillance/security, which the Chilean interprets as being one of his “Jesuit disorders” — a hangover from his Belén* schooldays.

As Castro diverted the course of history in Cuba in 1959 — says Edwards — he thought he could twist the country’s destiny time and time again, and also its laws of nature. The image of the Leader as mad scientist à la Victor Frankenstein, who dreams of practising genetic recombination in cows whilst he harpoons sharks in his private paradise at Cayo Piedra — is one of the most grotesque in the book.

A re-reading conjures up new questions about another spectre, Manuel Piñeiro, the ubiquitous Barbarroja [redbeard] whose microphones and spies — chauffeurs and beautiful secretaries from Havana — didn’t miss a single move made by Edwards. Piñeiro’s authority over the secret police, his influence over where even Castro could or couldn’t go, turned him into the leader’s confessor, and, without him realising it — the author notes — his puppet-master. Perhaps this suppressive control, which lasted right into Fidel’s decline, might be the key to explaining Barbarroja’s unusual death — he crashed his car into a tree in 1998.

In the midst of all of the tale’s tremors we find Padilla and his wife, Pablo Armando Fernández, Norberto Fuentes and César López, the first Miguel Barnet and the ghost of Cabrera Infante. The spring in the trap which power held in reserve for them was triggered when the Chilean abandoned the Island for Paris, where his teacher, Neruda, awaited him.

“Fidel Castro’s repression didn’t have the Steppe-like coldness (with simultaneous convent-like coldness) of Josef Stalin’s”, Edwards summed up in a commemorative prologue in Persona non grataNevertheless, he knew how to quickly identify the enemy — “the ladybirds, along with the poets, the long-haired, the mystics and the mystic-types, and all variety of social scourges” — who deserved, in his olive-green hell, “a slow death, though, in some cases, a less slow one”. Edwards, traveller to an irreconcilable Havana, understood first and foremost what others derived from Cuba and he anticipated what someone called — with an anesthetic malice – a Grey Five Years.

*Translator’s note:

Belén Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in 1854 in Havana. Fidel Castro attended this school, an institution renowned for its strict Jesuit discipline.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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