What normally happens when a common citizen is at fault for an act of social significance? He is made to pay for his mistake, and in many ways, with a wide range of penalties; depending on the magnitude of his act, it can range from a simple reproach, to deprivation of liberty.
But in certain countries and under certain systems, the events taken as the “errors” or “mistakes” of one individual have a much broader range than under those of others.
In the Kampuchea of Pol Pot, to be an intellectual was an “error” punishable by death, or at least by agricultural work. In Nazi Germany, having too large a nose was an error paid for by having one’s bones made into buttons.
In Cuba, until very recently, to be a homosexual was an unacceptable error that was expiated by expulsion from your job, work as a prisoner in the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) camps, or being held in a cold nocturnal jail cell under the pretext of vulgar or outrageous practices.
But under these semi-divine systems, with justice at all cost and any cost, who punishes the error of the infallible ones when they miraculously recant? Who makes them answer, ever, for their human mistakes?
A few days ago, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, gave an interesting interview to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Faced with the journalist’s questions about Cuban practices with respect to homosexuals and the discrimination they suffered, particularly starting in 1965, el Comandante admitted:
“Yes, there were times of great injustice, whomever might have done it. If we did it, we, we… I am trying to outline my responsibility in all this because, after all, personally, I don’t have these kind of prejudices. If someone is responsible, it is me. It’s true that at that time I wasn’t involved in this… I found myself immersed, principally in the October Crisis, in the war, in political questions… We didn’t know its value. But in the end, someone has to take responsibility, it is mine. I am not going to put the blame on others.”
The topic is too difficult to summarize in a few comforting phrases. There is too much evidence to doubt this recognition of guilt (for example, The October Crisis dates to 1962, when the harshest period of the anti-gay repression had not yet begun).
Among other things, Fidel seems to admit only that he didn’t act against homophobia which arose spontaneously in the society, not that this homophobia was encouraged and guided by all the leaders of the Revolution, including himself.
Here are his words to Lee Lockwood in 1965, published in the book, Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel:
We have never believed that a homosexual could personify the conditions and conduct requirements that would allow us to consider him a true revolutionary. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what it means to be a militant communist. I think we should carefully consider this problem. But I’ll be honest and say that homosexuals should not be allowed in positions where they can influence young people.”
This was his famous speech in Havana, 1963:
“Many of these vague girlie-boys, sons of the bourgeoisie, who walk around in too-tight trousers (…) have taken their licentiousness to the extreme of wanting to go to places of public assembly to freely organize their drag shows. Do not confuse the peacefulness of the Revolution with the weakness of the Revolution. Because our society cannot accommodate such degeneracies. Youngsters aspiring to that? No! What would our strong, enthusiastic, energetic youth think of all these evils?”
I think it redundant, however, to focus my analysis on the contradictions in Fidel’s speeches from forty years ago with those of today. On this topic — or topics — there are plenty of examples of sheer gibberish: Whatever you said I said what I said isn’t what I said.
More interesting is the attitude of the powerful who, with the passage of time, revisit history and reinterpret their actions based on the needs of the moment.
They Can’t Whitewash the Past
In 2007 an incident took place in Cuba that shook the roots of our society, particularly in the artistic and intellectual worlds.
Two of the most well-known hangmen of the so called Five Grey Years (when the witch hunt against those who didn’t fit with the concept of the “New Man” reached its height), reappeared on National Television.
Luis Pavón Tamayo and José Serguera, former powers of the Cuban Cultural Nomenklatura, censors with sharp teeth and no turning back, were interviewed in two separate programs and treated as dignified officials who had left their happy mark on the national culture.
The event provoked indignation in a number of important intellectuals who, although now bearers of national prizes in literature, fine arts or architecture, seemed not to have forgotten the silent, joyless years of sad parameterization.
The protest was known as “The Little Email War,” but the digital platform was not the only place in which these intellectuals could express their indignation. (Let’s see, for the readers of this blog: Can you guess what the Cuban press has been focusing on these past few days?)
Ultimately the incident sparked a series of talks on that bitter period, and the publication of a book of these talks. Nothing, absolutely nothing changes in the culture nor in the lives of Cubans in the wake of this incident. But, could we say that the intellectuals, with their protest, sent a concrete message to the leaders of the nation?
The message would be this: “Do not touch the wound that has not healed despite the prizes of apology. The wound of memory never heals. We are calm today, but don’t try to whitewash the past.”
Reconciliation With The “Soft Side”
I can not ignore, of course, that the mere fact that Fidel has assumed his share of responsibility in the sexual segregation suffered by gays in Cuba is a positive and unique.
But after talking with some young homosexuals, and asking heterosexual men in their fifties who also wore long hair and tight pants at that time what they think, I want to point out that the reconciliation of this large sector of the population with the historic leaders of the Revolution is more complex than a simple Mea Culpa with shades of justification.
Why? Well because in the field of human experience, as Ludwig von Mises said, you can’t do laboratory experiments. That is fine in the individual sphere, for personal decisions.
But when millions of people, a whole country, depend on the viewpoints and decisions of someone, when the real control of one’s life is not left up to the individual, but to the State, to the Government, and sometimes to a single leader, who decides how each person should behave, and what their share of happiness will be within the society, there is no margin for error.
How does a homosexual who lost their job, who was unable to live a full life in a hostile society, take in, now, that the one who took over the reins of their country admits, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to say so, that at that time he was focused on other things.
How can the one-time prisoners of UMAP, the mistreated, those despised as sick or evil, understand that the person whom an entire people cheered as their savior, now redeems his history with a pair of last-minute arguments.
I know: there are rarely sanctions for the mistakes and lies of the powerful. Sometimes not even in democracies. No one tried George W. Bush for the nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Nobody imprisoned those responsible for British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon with its insufficient precautionary measures for disaster, which caused ecological chaos of horrific proportions.
But in the case of this island of the former New Men, where the macho revolutionary had to fight fiercely against the weak and degenerate, instead of a justifying Mea Culpa, I think it would be better to keep a respectful silence regarding the past, and to begin to build, but for real this time, a country where gays, blacks, intellectuals, workers, freethinkers and socialists can coexist without the need, for another fifty years, to hear confessions of repentance.
September 5, 2010