Cuba’s goals and struggles have spawned dozens of literary geniuses whose works are mostly clenched fists that cry out against social injustice. The most talented Cuban writers all produced their best works in exile. Cirilo Villaverde (1812–1894) fought with the Rebel Army and was imprisoned as a nationalist, and his spellbinding novel Cecilia Valdés, written in exile in the 1880s, helped establish Villaverde as Cuba’s foremost 19th-century novelist. From exile, too, José Martí, the 19th-century nationalist leader whose works helped define the school of modern Latin American poetry, produced a long list of brilliant works, including the seminal Versos Sencillos.
There evolved in the 1930s and ’40s a poesía negra (black poetry) that drew heavily on the myths and memories of slavery, very socialist in content, as portrayed by the works of mulatto poet Nicolás Guillén (1902–1989). Guillén also spent time in exile during the closing years of the Batista regime, having become a Communist while serving as a journalist covering the Spanish Civil War. Following the Revolution, he helped found the Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists or UNEAC, Calle 17 #351, esq. H, Vedado, Havana, tel. 07/832-4551).
Similarly, Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980), acclaimed as Cuba’s greatest latter-day writer, was imprisoned by the dictator Machado but escaped and fled Cuba for Paris on a false passport. He returned to Cuba in 1937 but in 1946, during the violent excesses of the Batista era, fled Cuba for Venezuela, where he wrote his best novels. When the Castro revolution triumphed, Carpentier returned and was named head of the state publishing house. He is known for his erudite and verbally explosive works, which were seminal in defining the surreal Latin American magic-realist style. Following the Revolution, Carpentier became a bureaucrat and sycophant and in 1966 was appointed ambassador to Paris, where he died in 1980.
Freeze and Thaw
In the first two years of the Revolution, literary magazines such as Lunes de Revolución attained an extraordinary dynamism. In 1961, however, Castro dictated that only pro-revolutionary works would be allowed. Ever since, the state has determined who gets published, as well as who speaks on radio or television. The ice age lasted for a decade and came to a climax in 1970–1976, a period euphemistically called “the gray five years” (quinquenia gris). The worst years ended when the Ministry of Culture was founded in 1976, ushering in a period of greater leniency. Most of the boldest and best writers, many of whom had been devoted revolutionaries, left. Among them were Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Carlos Franqui, Huberto Padilla, Reinaldo Arenas, and Virgilio Piñera.
Although much of the cream of the crop left Cuba, the country still maintained a productive literary output. Notable examples are Lezama Lima (1912–1976), author of Paraíso, which was later made into a successful film; Nicolás Guillén; and Dulce María Loynaz (1902–1997).
The 1990s saw a thaw. The Cuban government began to salvage those artists and writers who, having produced significant works, were never allowed to publish. Many writers previously reduced to nonpersons now see their works published.
Cuba’s political climate, however, runs hot and cold. In 1996, writers began to feel a sharp tug on the leash. There are no independent publishing houses. Hence, many splendid writers find it difficult to get their books published. Some authors have resorted to sending manuscripts with foreigners, such as Pablo Juan Gutiérrez, whose blistering Dirty Havana Trilogy is an indictment on the hardships of life in contemporary Cuba. Others become “official writers,” producing pabulum that panders to the Castro government’s self-congratulatory ego.
Reading matter remains severely proscribed by the government, which decides what may or may not be read. Bookstores are few and meagerly stocked, so that tattered antique editions do the rounds until they crumble to dust. Nonetheless, Cubans are avid readers, and not just of home-country writers. The works of many renowned international authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez, and Isabel Allende are widely read.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition