Cuba is “Different” From Venezuela and the Ukraine

February 20, 2014 | Print Print |

Interview with Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura

Daniel Garcia Marco (dpa)

Leonardo Padura. File photo by David Garten.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura does not believe his country could witness the kind of protests now taking place in the Ukraine and Venezuela, a close ally of the Cuban government.

Padura, one of the most internationally renowned Cuban intellectuals today, visiting Miami since last Sunday, believes that such factors as the social changes once legitimated in Cuba, the absence of high levels of violence and the inexistence of a political project by an organized opposition, prevent what is happening in Caracas and Kiev from taking place in Havana.

“The conditions haven’t come about. The conditions haven’t been allowed to come about,” Padura said during an interview with DPA in Miami, where he made several public appearances and compared Cuba to Venezuela and the Ukraine, countries currently shaken by vigorous anti-government protests.

“I believe this has prevented protests of this type, even when there are people who are more or less unhappy,” 58-year-old Padura stated. The author is critical of Raul Castro’s government but refuses to do politics through his novels.

Author of the best-selling The Man Who Loved Dogs and the more recent Heretics, Padura sees changes in Miami’s Cuban community and calls on the United States to take the next step and lift the embargo, a demand that is gaining strength in both Florida and Washington.

dpa: You were afraid to come to Miami before.

Padura: There was a time when there were people in Miami who were fairly aggressive with Cuban artists who came here. It would have been very unpleasant for me to have had someone accuse me of something that isn’t my fault. That said, the cultural and social perspective of Miami’s Cuban community has evolved a lot.

dpa: There are less and less hardliners in the émigré community and even anti-embargo currents in Miami. How does all this look to you from a distance?

Padura: The embargo is a political rather than economic mistake, even though, economically speaking, it affects the average Cuban most of all. It has been used by both sides as a pretext to keep tensions high. The day in which relations between Cuba and the United States become normal, it will be like waking up from a nightmare for Cubans living on the island and in Miami. The dragon that was devouring me was part of that nightmare.

dpa: Is the end of the “nightmare” in sight?

Padura: The times are better. There are reasons to think this is the best moment to overcome our differences. I see changes in the Cuban community here, there are changes taking place in Washington, in Havana, in the way people who live in Cuba think. If you add everything up, I think the result is rather promising.

dpa: What’s the next step and who is going to take it?

Padura: The United States should take the first step by assuming an attitude that is a bit more logical. If there are American companies selling products to Cuba, if there are so many businesspeople interested in investing in Cuba, if there are even Cuban-American businesspeople who have expressed an interest in establishing financial relations with Cuba, the step should be taken at this end, which is where the embargo is being maintained.

dpa: When will there be a political reform in Cuba?

Padura: It’s coming and, in fact, it’s already happening. This past month, during the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), there were reports of dissidents who were detained for two or four hours. Before, they would have been detained for two or four years, the difference is notable. There’s more permissiveness in Cuba.

dpa: Are you, as a writer, an example of that permissiveness?

Padura: The fact I was awarded the National Literature Award is. A few years ago, no one would have thought it possible, because I am far from being a pro-government writer.

dpa: Is the liberalization process a mere cosmetic change, or do people believe in it?

Padura: I think things have changed. A process of change started in Cuba in the 90s. When I published my first novels about Mario Conde, I wasn’t the well-known writer I am today, and, still, the novels were published and got awards. They had fairly strong criticisms and nothing happened. Some writers are silenced more than others, are given less promotion than they deserve. I think this is a rather clumsy attitude on behalf of Cuba’s cultural policies.

dpa: Why do you pay tribute to heretics in your last novel?

Padura: Heresy is one of the forces that have moved humanity forward. If all of us had been orthodox, we’d be pretty screwed. Without breaking rules thought to be immutable, society would not have developed.

dpa: Are you a heretic?

Padura: I am a heterodox person, an anti-orthodox person, rather than a heretic. I haven’t been arrested enough to be a heretic. I try to think differently, I don’t like being forced to think as others want me to.

dpa: Why haven’t the kinds of things we’ve been seeing in Caracas and Kiev these days ever happened in Havana?

Padura: The conditions haven’t come about. The conditions haven’t been allowed to come about. There isn’t a political project in Cuba that could oppose the government, the dissident movement itself is divided and has been deeply penetrated by Cuban intelligence. Levels of violence in Cuban society have never been too high.

The fact things have never gone past a given point has, I think prevented protests of this kind, even though there are people who are more or less unhappy. I believe the Cuban project resulted in a true revolution. In the 60s, a different society was created, and it enjoyed the support of the majority at the time. Perhaps it doesn’t enjoy the same levels of support and acceptance today, but it created its own legitimacy. That makes it different from Venezuela and the Ukraine.


What's your opinion?

  • Griffin

    Well, Leonardo Padura is a great writer and such understands how to use words very judiciously.

    “There isn’t a political project in Cuba that could oppose the government, the dissident movement itself is divided and has been deeply penetrated by Cuban intelligence.”

    But is he being honest or accurate to say that the political repression is less and that therefore political change is coming?

    During the CELAC conference, over 1000 dissidents were arrested, many were harassed and beaten, their homes set upon by repudiation mobs. Does Padura really believe that is indicative of an improving political scene in Cuba?

    The Castro regime arrested over 23 dissidents from the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) on Monday, February 17th, as they tried to gather for a regional meeting of the organization in the province of Villa Clara.

    Among those arrested was Sakharov Prize winner, Guillermo Farinas, who was savagely beaten and held in a freezing cell. Farinas suffered two broken ribs from the beating.

    http://www.diariodecuba.com/derechos-humanos/1392715438_7195.html

    Padura claims his Mario Conde novels contained “fairly strong criticisms”. Really? I’ve read all of those novels, and enjoyed them, but they are rather mild and circumspect in the critiques they offer. The subjects of his criticism are corrupt minor officials who betray the revolution (always a safe target) & complaints about food shortages (and yet Conde & his friends manage, heroically and in stoic Cuban style, to scrounge up enough for a good meal every now and then). Once there was even a cautiously critical comment against the past government persecution of homosexuals during the grey decade, errors which the Cuban leadership had apologized for by the time Padura wrote. All pretty tame stuff, really.

    To point to what is happening in Venezuela, and then to claim that it can’t happen in Cuba because conditions are better there, is a grotesque irony. The people in Venezuela are protesting against the Maduro government which they claim is too closely affiliated with Cuba, and that the pro-government vigilante groups, the “colectivos” were trained by Cuban agents.

    I don’t think that Havana’s association with the violence currently unleashed by the government of Venezuela makes Cuba a better or more legitimate socialist state. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps there are no large protests in Cuba because the police state is far more entrenched and the people have little hope of changing their predicament?

    • Moses Patterson

      According to many Cubans, including my wife, emigration to the US has traditionally served as a ‘pressure-release valve’ for those Cubans so fed up with the regime that, absent favorable immigration policies for Cubans, would have erupted in the kinds of protests that we are witnessing in the Ukraine and Venezuela. Likewise, as you said, the police state in Cuba has a 55-year head start on any newborn protest project. To the Castros credit, they have skillfully allayed blame on external agents, not the least of which is the US embargo, for all that is wrong in Cuba. The trifecta of emigration, US embargo and an fearsome police state has kept the Cuban pot of suffering from boiling over…so far.

  • emagicmtman

    Seems like Griffin is holding Padura to some sort of ideological litmus test, much like the Cuban cultural commissars did to their own writers during the “grey decades,”‘ except in this case Cuban writers must meet the approval of Griffin and his friends (i.e. Cuban writers must demostrate their dissident bona fides). In reality, great writing, like Padura’s, has little to do with ideology or towing the Party line (whether it be P.C.C.’s or that of Griffin’s Miami troglodytes). Instead, it has to do with how they tell their stories and what they have to say. Although opposite my political viewpoint, for example, one of my favorite writers from the 1930′s and 1940′s is Luis Ferdinand Celine, who started out a leftie, but by W.W.II had become an extreme rightie (so much so, he collaborated with the Vichy regime). Griffin seems to be so poisoned and resentful that he fails to see good writing. For the kind of stories where the ideological messages prevail, I recommend he read Ilf and Petrov’s “A Soviet Robinson Carusoe,” though it is a satire. Then again, except for Aristophanies and a few other subsequent conservatives, righties don’t particularly specialize in satire and irony. As Gore Vidal once said, “America: the home of the free–and the land of the literal!” (although I am well aware that Griffin claims to be Canandian).

    • Griffin

      Gosh! Why you attack me so viciously?

      As it happens, I’m a big fan of Padura’s writing and have read most everything he has published (in English). I’m half way through “The Man Who Loved Dogs” right now and I consider it his best work yet. I particularly appreciate the mock-heroic tone when relating the life of the exiled Leon Trotsky. It is satirical, isn’t it? I am very much looking forward to reading “Heretics” when it is published in English.

      It’s odd you should accuse me of being a cultural commissar, when that is the position you so ably occupy. I merely offer my opinion on a particular writer. That’s called freedom of speech. As a committed Leftist, you probably don’t understand the concept of free speech very well. To clarify then: freedom OF speech is when people are free to say whatever they want. Freedom FROM speech, is when people of a given political ideology insist on NOT hearing anything they don’t agree with. The former is the essential trait of a free society, while the latter denotes totalitarianism. I think we both know where the Castros sit on that spectrum. How about you?

      I certainly never suggested Padura was a bad writer, or that he should be banned, jailed, or exiled. As it happens, the cultural commissars of the Castro regime have banned, jailed and exiled writers who failed to meet their political parameters. And they continue to do so today. For that reason I find it ironic that you accuse me of opposing intellectual freedom, when it is you who defend those who stifle artistic expression, and I who speak for the artist’s right to express him as he will.

      Now, perhaps you are right and I fail to recognize good writing, and therefore have no right to express my opinion. Or maybe it’s because, in your opinion, I appreciate the wrong sort of writers. I have read as much Cuban fiction and prose as I can find, regardless of political orientation: everything from Villaverde, Marti, Carpentier, Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Heberto Padilla, Zoe Valdes, Jose Lezamo Lima, Virgilio Piñera, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Carlos Eire, Achy Obejas, Ángel Santiesteba and so on. Indeed, the Cuba literary tradition is so dazzling, so rich and brilliant and daring! Perhaps it is because I have read these other Cuban authors, that I don’t quite see the exceptional genius in a cautious, careful writer like Padura. Talented, yes. Genius, no. Or maybe he’s been hiding his candle under a bushel all this time? Still, I would never condemn him for his meekness. I merely point it out, in my opinion, exercising my right to freedom of speech. Are you ok with all that?

      To be sure, Leonardo Padura is rather cautious in his criticism of the Cuban political scene. He knows best how to survive in that climate. Another Cuban writer of crime fiction, Jose Latour, was not quite so cautious as Padura. After submitting a novel to his Cuban publisher, word was passed down to him that not only would his book not be published, but that he might find it useful to work cutting sugar cane for a while. Latour eventually fled Cuba and settled in Toronto, where I had the fine pleasure of hearing him speak at a local public library. If you are into Cuban fiction, I highly recommend his books. Some are available for download from his website, others through Amazon, etc.

      http://www.joselatourauthor.com

      • emagicmtman

        Sorry if it came across as a vicious attack; I was merely criticizing why you would attack Padura for being timid. To me, such ciriticism seem irrelevant. Would his writing be any better if he made an out-and-out attack on the Revolution? Hardly. It would only make life more difficult, and distract from his primary goal as a writer. Moreover, he is far more effective telling his stories and making his observations while living in Cuba, rather than as an exile in Miami or New York or Toronto. Once a writer, or musician, or artist goes into exile, his or her art no longer reflects the life or spirit of her homeland; rather, it becomes a hybrid, intermixed with that of the adopted community (not that this is either good n
        or bad–just a different dimension).

        • Griffin

          You made several personal attacks at me for the sin of expressing my opinion. I did not “attack” Padura for being timid. I merely contradicted his claim to have made some strong critiques if the system. Certainly he would know better than I how to walk the very careful line a writer in Cuba must do.

          Another writer who carefully walks that line is Pedro Juan Guttierez. Writing in the “dirty realist” style he describes the intolerable conditions of life in Havana and the things people are forced to do to survive. Like Padura, Guttierez avoids naming names. I guess that’s the limit one must not cross.

          Latour, as an exile, writes about the lives of exiles in Miami & Toronto. He steers clear of the political diatribes and focuses on the human side of life as an exile, within the context of crime fiction.

          • dani

            And you are doing it again – condemning Padura for not following your line. It’s not up to you to tell him what he should or shouldn’t say. He doesn’t have to name names if he doesn’t want to. An artist can easily risk destroying his own work if he starts writing propaganda rather than describing situations and portraying characters. You have a problem as he hasn’t been arrested and has won a National Literature Award and this situation doesn’t fit in neatly with a simplistic view of a dictatorship stamping on all dissent.

          • Griffin

            Again, as a Leftist, you seem to have no idea how free speech works. It goes like this:

            I say whatever I think.

            You say whatever you think.

            Padura says what he thinks. (except in Cuba, he has to be careful).

            The real risk for a writer in Cuba is if he or she offends the political rulers, the writer will find himself or herself arrested, banned or exiled. There have been many, many Cuban writers who were abused, arrested, jailed, repressed, banned and exiled by the Castro regime.

            Consider the case of Raúl Rivero Castañeda: for a while he was a hero of the Cuban government, lavished with awards and official praise and perks. Then he stepped outside the line for daring to call for the release of political prisoners and holding democratic elections. From that moment on he was banned, denounced, harassed and driven into exile.

            And where did I condemn Padura? When did I tell him what he has to write? Far from it. I praised his books and his talent as a writer.

            Are you suggesting Padura is a dissident writer? Not even Padura calls himself a dissident. Padura claimed his books make strong criticism of the regime. Really? Can you please provide one example from any of his books where he does this? I have not found any.

            So fine, Padura will continue to write his cautious books, hinting at abuses and excesses, while steering clear of actual dissent. But don’t tell me he is an example of a brave outspoken writer speaking truth to power or that the Castro regime’s tolerance of him is proof of their liberal attitudes toward intellectual freedom.

          • dani

            What I find annoying is that you assume Padura would say everything you want him to (including naming names), but doesn’t because he is being cautious. He doesn’t criticise the embargo either. Is that because he is being cautious in case of a future US administration?

            But as it happens I don’t agree that he hasn’t made strong criticisms of the regime. For example Havana Blue the blurb states “Rafael Morín Rodríguez, a high-level official in the ministry for industry” who is strongly criticised. In Havana Red the father of the transvestite is a high level official who is criticised as well. The series is all very negative about most things in cuban society but then the genre is noir.

            I don’t really care whether you want to put him in the category of dissident or not. I don’t see things as simplistic as that. There are plenty of examples of artists and works of art that are critical eg Strawberry and Chocolate and there are artists who have become more critical over the years. The scope of intellectual freedom isn’t as bleak as you like to portray.

  • Moses Patterson

    US immigration fees and processing times are universal. Current immigration reform legislation in the US hopes to resolve most of these problems. Cubans do not leave Cuba, by plane or raft, because of the Wet foot/Dry foot policy. They leave Cuba because of the quality of their life in Cuba. Ask a Cuban. Not a police state? When was the last time a Cuban brought a lawsuit against the police and won in Cuba? I spoke “laid” and my voice software ‘corrected’ it to “allayed”. But thanks for the heads up.

  • Informed Consnet

    Actually this vote was not monitored and there were many irregularities. And just in case you didn’t know how incompetent Maduro was he came out and announced on national TV that he had identified those who voted against him. His Cuban handlers must have been having a hissy fit!

    • dani

      This election as previous ones was monitored by international observers including Jimmy Carter, who stated that the voting was ‘free and fair’ and that Venezuela has “the most excellent voting system”.

      • informed Consent

        …and yet Maduro came out on national TV to say he had identified those “companeros” who voted against him and made vague threats against them. Supposedly this was not possible with their electronic voting system. Yes, a truly “free and fair” election. His Cuban handlers were probably slapping their foreheads and saying what an idiot to go on TV and say that!

  • dani

    Right, you really have pissed me off now. I have read all the Conde novels. I quoted the blurb as an independent third party, because if I had stated the same thing myself, all you would have said “that’s only your opinion, he’s not really a high ranking official bla, bla, bla, etc “. I didn’t want to give too much of the plot away for other potential readers, but many of the books have very negative portrayals of high ranking officials (including Havana Red).
    He is writing fiction not a political speech. You seem to think it necessary for him to pepper the text with the words “dictator” in order to be strongly critical.
    I agree that there have been many examples of injustices, but it’s not the whole picture. Things have varied over the years and there have been plenty of examples of strong criticisms as well as mild criticisms. You ignore the example I gave. Of course this doesn’t fit in with your world view.

  • Think Free

    Padura’s assessment rings true. The state of the opposition is different in Cuba. That stands to reason as Cuba is in a different place with it’s economy and personal freedoms. The average Cuban is not looking for whole sale regime change. He is looking for more economic freedom to elevate his life. This is the will of the common man looking for a little better life. A very human desire.