Luis Pavon Tamayo: Symphony in Grey Minor / Norge Espinosa

Nicolás Guillén, Alfredo Guevara and Luis Pavón Tamayo at the funeral of Bola de Nieve.

It took five minutes of broadcast television for his brief resurrection to send a shudder to Havana. In January 2007, the first broadcast of Impronta (Imprint), a space that sought to the highlight relevant names of Cuban culture, generated amazement and protests. Those who saw this very short program couldn’t get over their shock or indignation, because as the initial figure the producers chose was Luis Pavón Tamayo himself, not so remembered for his flimsy poetry, but for his role of censor and extremist during the time he presided over the National Council of Culture, between 1971 and 1976.

Those dates are enough of an encrypted signal for many, etched in the memories of more than a few, and in the official amnesia, of the infamous Five Grey Years. Five years, ten years, a dead time, in which from these offices, Luis Pavón and others of no less fatal memory, like Armando Quesada, who were determined to make a painful reality from the arguments of the proceedings of the First Congress of Education and Culture, relying on them to expunge from the artistic world those who, in several cases were undisputed leaders in letters, drama, dance and many other expressions.

Mediocrity that was imposed under those orders still operates as trauma, and no doubt along with those who now rejoice at the news of the grim profile to Luis Pavón, there are some who still see him return like a ghost to follow them robbing the peace from their dreams. Because in his last days Luis Pavón was already a ghost, and not even that attempt on Cuban television could transform him, as perhaps was intended, in the palpable body within the culture to which he himself railed so much and that he’d already begun to forget.

That old man we saw in those quick minutes on Impronta was about to die. His unusual reappearance in that program unleashed the little email war, which, in the way it usually happens in Cuba, started as a surprise and ended as a hangover. Several Cuban intellectuals, direct victims or not of his leadership, sent emails to denounce the ghost, to demand the exhumation of the buried corpse, and why not, to demand apologies that never came. These messages attest to the trauma: those more restful, or concentrated on disclosing rarely aired data, along with those that linked spasms and pathos, and a badly silenced thirst for delayed revenge.

Cuban television then fell apart in internal gibberish that lasted some weeks, without knowing how to fix the mess, while the emails went pack and forth piling up in that wave in which, like we hadn’t seen much, their voices and demands united Cuban artists living on and off the island, without getting official responses.

UNEAC, which had little to do with the failed revival, published a note that clarified less, and figured it would be better silent about it, under pretexts as petty an not wanting to torment people with possibly irrelevant clarifications, while the “naivete” committed was blamed on the youth of some of the members of the Impronta team.

Doubtful naiveté, considering that Armando Quesada was walking through the halls of ICRT until shortly before the program aired, and was trying to conceal the silent battle that was going on at the institute itself blaming not the veterans who saw the furry ear of parameterization* up close, but those who never explained to them the hidden truth behind that bitter concept.

The results of all this were motley, but without doubt the most enduring was the lecture series organized by Desiderio Navarro from the Centro Teórico Cultural Criterios, in order to reorganize part of the undigested memory of that time of terror and Pavón, and that ran through spaces as diverse as the Casa de las Américas, the Instituto Superior de Arte and the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry).

A book with several of these conferences was published and quickly sold out. The expected edition that would add to these texts the remaining pieces about rock, Cuban cinema, and theater (a theme I assumed given the reticence of several specialists who doubted the challenge), was never consummated. By the time I delivered my lecture, “The masks of grayness, theater, silence and cultural politics in the Cuba of the ‘70s,” it was already January 2009. In those two years the fervor, the demand, the flare ups of the first moment, had been melted into the great Cuban forgetting, that keeps us coming back over and over to the same ghosts, because in reality, we never completely exorcise them. Or they don’t let us carry the exorcism to its ultimate conclusion.

Neither weight nor name nor work

Luis Pavón was born in 1930 in Holguin, and just died in Havana, perhaps in his house in Playa, or in some hospital. He was a member of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) and became known as a poet, shall we say “modest,” from the time of the triumph of the Revolution with notebooks as Discovery, and Time and its flags flying, titles charged with the scent of slogans.

He was a lawyer, and when the CNC was closed to make way for the Ministry of Culture, he became rector of the School of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Urban legend transforms jim into Leopoldo Avila, the specter who attacked with martial prose, from the pages of the armed forces’ magazine “Olive Green,” Virgilio Piñera, René Ariza, Anton Arrufat and other “deviants”, persisting in the theater of the absurd, in works too ambiguous in personalities too inappropriate.

The rants also reached out for Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Heberto Padilla and playwright José Milian, branding as pornography his work “The Taking of Havana by the English,” released in 1970 by Teatro Estudio, very shortly before the First Congress of Education (and later of Culture, at the suggestion of Fidel Castro during one of his speeches), granted him almost total power which he used to erase names such as these.

Whether he was really Leopoldo Avila is something that Pavon is carried to the grave, at a time when we have also reported the death of Alfredo Guevara and Jaime Crombet. Everyone has taken their secrets, like faces in a large album that is never opened. It will be some time before some of these truths are aired, and national memory becomes a bit more rich.

He had an old age, but greyish and far from the glare of attention that he himself managed, neither cleaning up or softening his past. In Impronta he wanted to represent himself, manipulating a phrase from Che, which it wasn’t really, rather a dedication that the Argentine had stamped on a copy of his book about his journeys as a guerrilla.

If the idea of the program was to launder his image, resurrect himself from the effigy of an innocuous and quiet gentleman, the reaction sparked by such an endeavor prevented the maneuver being repeated by others with  their own history. Buried alive,  this mock tribute only served to throw a few more shovels of dirt over his head.

His poetry is now unreadable and unmentionable, though perhaps it sounds more dignified translated into Slavic, if we remember that among his decorations, Pavón held the Order of Saints Cyril and Methodius, awarded to him by Bulgaria. His articles in the press, an invitation to the worst oblivion, stand as examples of the worst intolerance that prevailed in our press for a long time, leaving sequels that are seen even today, from time to time.

In an anthology prepared by Luis Suardíaz, David Chericián and Eduardo Lopez Morales, his face is found sandwiched between the verses of Roberto Fernandez Retamar and José Martínez Matos, in the same volume where some of his victims emerged once again as part of a generation that never actually was one.

I remember another picture of him, where he appears next to Alfredo Guevara at the funeral of Bola de Nieve, who had died suddenly in Mexico. It was 1971 and Pavón was beginning to enjoy his power at the CNC. Functionary and undertaker, he must have felt profound relief before the body of the scandalous Piano man. One down, he would have said, at the front of that literally funeral procession.

I spoke with Luis Pavón Tamayo, as I recall, only once. By phone. I had already given my lecture, and the materials that supported it, I realized I had to go deeper into the subject. There’s a book, I thought, in all this, I am still mulling over these testimonies of those who experienced first hand the grayness of that time.

I wanted, however, to hear as many voices as possible before entering into such an undertaking. And as I spoke to and interviewed Ramiro Guerra, Ingrid González, Antón Arrufat, Armando Suárez del Villar, José Milián, Iván Tenorio and many others, I wondered what Luis Pavón could tell me about that time.

I got his number, I called him. They had already warned him. He repeated through the wire the pantomime that the TV program wanted us to believe. He appealed to his old age, his infirmity, to delicately refuse me an interview. He was not, like Julie Davalos has done, reveal to me to the other sides of the matter.

Perhaps, while we spoke, he would have shrunk into his chair, to more credibly plat the part of the elderly martyr. A panicked old man, like those imagined by Virgilio Piñera in a work that presaged the silence and terror of his final days.

Thus, there was no interview. I don’t think I would have gotten much out of it. But to be fair, I felt I had to at least try. Archives disappear, ashes blow away, diaries and pages — dictated by others from the dark side of the mirrors that saw what we would, perhaps, like to know — are erased, and so a certain side of History is dismantled.

Some of the personalities of this other work die, and with them some nuance, chiaroscuro, an index of truth, is thus corrupted,  it escapes us in the effort to rebuild the keys to a mistake. What I would have revealed given news that pushes me these lines, for example, by Suarez del Villar himself, disappeared almost a year ago. To imagine that answer, I will persist in the chapters of my book.

Luis Pavón died, and Havana said goodbye to him under a drizzle. At this point, I find no news of his death in the national press news. I will be interested to see if they remember him and how. In what way they say goodbye to a person who no longer has weight, nor work, nor name.

Some of his old colleagues: those other gray and barely surviving commissars, measuring the time they have left in this world from the disappearance of one who was such an energetic soldier in fulfilling his fatal mission, to whom they might dedicate a moment of silence. Probably less than a minute: the time in a downpour between one lightning flash and the next.

Norge Espinosa Mendoza | La Habana | 28 May 2013

Translator’s note:

*Parameterization/ parametración: From the word “parameters.” Parameterization is a process of establishing parameters and declaring anyone who falls outside them (the parametrados) to be what is commonly translated as “misfits” or “marginalized.” This is a process much harsher than implied by these terms in English. The process is akin to the McCarthy witch hunts and black lists and is used, for example, to purge the ranks of teachers, or even to imprison people.