By Reinaldo Cosano. Havana, Cuba
Posted in the blog of Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada
The veil covering violent homophobic repression is slowly being drawn back, but the gulity aren’t asking for public pardon.
It is hard to specify just how the virus of homophobic repression was incubated, sharp-eyed with the machismo of the days of guerrilla groups in the Sierra Maestra, whose magnitude never had precedent in Cuba, converted into official policy aggravated by principal governing figures, that spiritually mutilated or ended many lives.
Raúl Martínez González (Ciego de Ávila, 1927 – Havana, 1995), internationally renowned famous Cuban painter, designer, sign painter and photographer, homosexual, puts forth in his Memoirs:
“It was 1965. The attacks and reprisals against homosexuals began. The UMAP was created, supposedly a rehabilitation center. Its creation was justified according to already old ideologies, but totally believing in the “New Man.” This was before the Congress of Culture in 1971 that ratified the official [repressive] policy given the fact of the existence of homosexuals in the country […] I believed naively that this new rehabilitation camp wouldn’t affect me, because of my personal characteristics, the values that I had as a painter and professor at ENA [National School of Art] and the Department of Architecture of the University of Havana.
“I quickly discovered that the methods employed to recruit candidates and take them as far as Camagüey, where the camps were located, were totally reprehensible, an abuse into which the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution fell, charged with providing names and pointing out all those who they thought had – in their way – an improper sexual conduct, or who simply lived a life apart from the rest of the neighbors.
“Many must have cooperated out of belief that the Revolution acted with good intentions. Others, with bad intentions, took the opportunity to “toss out [denounce] everyone who was bothersome and caused problems.” (1)
Massive repression against real or imagined dissidents of the Revolution, whose punishments grew worse from 1965 when the raids intensified against intellectual artists, the religious, the disaffected, homosexuals, the underclass and “big babies” — an expression of hate towards generally Catholic youths, children of people of confiscated wealth — interned in work camps cutting sugarcane by hand in Camagüey province, which recalls the Nazi pogroms against Jews, prisoners of war, the politically disaffected, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, condemned to concentration camps with the maxim at the entrance “Work sets you free,” concealing veneer of genocide.
Coincidentally the Military Production Aid Units (UMAP) emerge in Cuba appealing to work as a means of sexual and political reeducation. Official strategy of obligatory imprisonment, forced work, isolation of dozens of thousands of Cubans in subhuman conditions. An epoch of terror for men between 16 and 50 years of age, the age of military conscription. Bodily self-harm and suicide among the recruits were frequent escape routes from the UMAP.
Alicia Alonso, Prima Ballerina Assoluta, director of the National Ballet of Cuba, protegée of leader Fidel Castro, asked her protector on more than a few occasions to rescue homosexual members of the Ballet from the fate of the UMAP when they were caught in police raids.
The witch hunt showed no mercy to the Intelligentsia — not just homosexuals — for dissenting from the Castro orthodoxy: intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists. Of course, also plain citizens. Repression that calls to mind the concentration camps and murders of the Maoist Khmer Rouge.
The then-seminarian Catholics Jaime Ortega Alamino, current Cardinal of Cuba, and Troadio Hernández, later priest, for example, were forced guests of the UMAP — the same as other parishioners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelical Band of Gideon and other Christian denominations — on the inhospitable solitary plains of Camagüey, isolated from the rest of the planet. One means of punishing and dismembering religion on the premises of the declared Marxist atheism of the Revolution.
The poet José Mario Rodríguez, accused of being “dissolute and liberaloid” (sic), and other writers of the pro-government El Puente Publisher went to stay at the UMAP. While many writers and artists were besieged, imprisoned, although not precisely in the UMAP camps. Among them, the poet Herberto Padilla, Lorenzo Fuentes, Reinaldo Arenas, Manuel Ballagas, Roberto Luque Escalona, Fernando Velázquez, Víctor Sierpa, Nancy Estrada, Lina de Feria, María Elena Cruz Varela, Manuel Díaz Martínez, Raúl Rivero, Bernardo Marqués, Manuel Granados and Reinaldo Bragado.
Nevertheless, the repressive waterwheel against the intelligentsia doesn’t stop. It has never stopped in half a century of “revolution”.
In recent days, the multiple award-winning writer Ángel Santiesteban (2) was sentenced to five years in prison for the supposed crime of housebreaking and offense causing injury, a common crime whipped up as a screen to punish a writer or journalist whose criticisms, even within the revolutionary framework, annoy the regime.
Meme Solís, composer, singer and director of his musical ensemble, was condemned by homophobic rulers to ostracism on the island for being homosexual in his moment of greatest artistic glory, his personal and recorded appearances completely cut from radio, TV, and cabarets because his sexual deviation displeased the ruling class. He had to wait out eighteen years of censure and human suffering beyond his control until they would grant him the kindness of a permit to leave the country.
Now the Havana regime, intending to take him out of the closet, to make amends, to pardon his defect, invited him lately to visit his country to take part in a luxury gala titled after of one of his greatest hit musicals, Another Dawn, years after his exile and and another fifteen years of imprisonment in the closet, his music banned, making him nearly unknown to the latest generations of Cubans. An invitation expressing no public nor private apology for condemnation to ostracism, being shut in the closet, frustrated.
But that most outstanding musician did not fall into the trap of the insulting ransom and declared, in the Nuevo Herald of Miami, that “it is one thing for my music to be played there and another for me to go. I do not wish to offend anyone but I don’t think that this is the time to go. The reasons are obvious. I have been through too much there to want to return.”
The painter Raúl Martínez goes on to say: “Many friends — homosexuals or not — were sent to the camps. As were well-known figures of the Nueva Trova, budding writers, dramatists. A wave of fear was loosed among us to learn that the police, especially in the [busy ice cream shop] Coppelia, were making raids or taking prisoner anyone who stood out for their clothing or [feminine] gestures. I was afraid to be mistaken. I remember the fear with which I drank coffee at the bus stop, looking from side to side, ready to flee if anything happened. When I had to stand right there, after leaving the Radiocentro [theater] or the Habana Libre [hotel], I prayed that the bus would come as soon as possible.” (1)
Once Mariela Castro Espín, director of the National Center of Sexual Orientation (CENESEX), daughter of the current ruler, was questioned about the responsibility of her uncle Fidel Castro for the existence of the UMAP. She astutely stated (or at least so they have her believe) that Fidel Castro — always well informed — had no responsibility at all because at that time he was too occupied with other matters of government.
Raúl Martínez, just like so many other distinguished homosexual people of letters and the arts: the poet and storyteller Lezama Lima (Havana, 1910-1976); Virgilio Piñera (Cárdenas, 1912 – Havana, 1979), storyteller, poet and dramatist; Antón Arrufat (Santiago de Cuba, 1935), writer, dramatist, they were as oysters shut in their shells, persecuted, rounded up, marginalized only for not singing praises to the regime, for not bowing their heads, for staying in Cuba, for not accepting emigration, condemned to live poorly, hidden in the closet from which now, dead or alive, one by one, in turns, the dictatorship goes craftily taking them out, promptly rehabilitated with rounded dates of birth or death.
A suspect fence-mending for political convenience in an attempt to change the repressive image of the regime, to tidy it up with a few strokes of the pen. Paradoxically “resuscitated” by the same regime which punished them, but without offering a public or private apology to them, their families and friends for so many crimes against honorable people. Hereditary crimes against the Nation.
(1) Martínez González, Raúl. Confesiones (de) Raúl Martínez, Yo Publio. P.394. Instituto Cubano del Libro, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Artecubano Ediciones, Palacio del Segundo Cabo, O’ Reilly, 4, esquina a Empedrado, La Habana Vieja, Cuba.
(2) Ángel Santiesteban. Autor of the blog The Children Nobody Wanted. Prizes: Sueño de un día de verano (Dream of a summer’s day), UNEAC Prize, 1995; Los hijos que nadie quiso (The children nobody wanted), Alejo Carpentier Prize, 2001; Dichosos los que lloran (Happy are those who mourn), Casa de las Américas Prize, 2006.
Translated by Russell Conner
8 July 2013