The truth about the Padilla case

On December 31, 1958, Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
26 May 2023 Friday 22:23
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The truth about the Padilla case

On December 31, 1958, Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The Cuban revolution triumphed to the satisfaction of a good part of the large group of intellectuals in the country. Novelists, poets and artists celebrated the departure of the dictator and the arrival of the new political air, convinced that with the new regime "there was room for criticism and freedom".

But that belief vanished in the wake of the Padilla case. The poet Heberto Padilla received Castro enthusiastically. In 1959 he worked for the newspaper Revolución and soon settled in the Soviet Union, where he was a correspondent for the Cuban media. He returned to the island in 1966 already disenchanted with the USSR and perhaps also with Castroism. But he remained convinced that the revolution had not ended freedom of expression. And he published a collection of poems, Fuera del juego (1968), which his colleagues liked and won the Julián del Casal Award from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.

But the Castro government did not share that enthusiasm. On March 20, 1971, after having read his work Provocaciones de él in public, Padilla was arrested along with his wife, the also poet Belkis Cuza Malé. They were accused of subversive activities. Padilla and Cuza were held in the Villa Marista prison for 38 days. It was never known for sure what happened during that imprisonment, but when he left the prison, Padilla was another man, a repentant man.

So repentant that he brought together the cream of the Cuban intelligentsia to sing the mea culpa out loud with lights and stenographers. On Padilla's self-criticism before the Union of Cuban Writers, rivers of ink have flowed. It was a long speech (in the best Castro style), which lasted for hours, in which the writer renounced his critical works and enthusiastically embraced the regime once again. He also gave rise to the disenchantment of many Latino writers with Castroism.

But what Padilla said that day before the greatest of Cuban letters was only known from what some of those present had recounted and from a transcript of his speech. Until now. A few months ago the Cuban filmmaker Pavel Giroud received a cassette in Beta format with the recording of Padilla's complete Self-Criticism. "I don't know who sent it to me or where it came from, but there were more copies, although no one dared to use it," Giroud explains in an interview with La Vanguardia during his recent visit to Barcelona to participate in the BCN Film Fest.

“I thought a lot about what to do with that material. I could have posted it on the internet, but only the usual would have downloaded it, so I decided to make a film so that the matter would have a greater impact and time has proved me right", adds the filmmaker who has turned this material received so mysterious in the documentary The Padilla case, which will be released next Friday in Spanish theaters.

Giroud believes that this film, which "is touring the entire world", has helped "many lose their blindfolds". And it is that the film shows how little the airs of freedom lasted in Castro's Cuba. “Guillermo Cabrera Infante said that censorship came in 1961 and he was right. Fidel met with the island's intellectuals that year at the National Library and there he dictated the rules of the game: against the revolution, nothing”.

“Castro transmitted that the artists could do what they wanted, but that the contents had a limit. Several intellectuals showed his concern. With good reason, because some newspapers soon began to close, then things got worse and the guinea pig was Padilla, since his case was used as an example of public punishment.

What happened to Heberto during those 38 days in the sinister Villa Marista prison? "Padilla recounted that they beat him there, but he probably suffered psychological torture with which they destabilized him, instilled fear in him and forced him to send a message to his union that he had to jump through hoops," says Giroud.

But not everyone present at Padilla's long self-criticism shared the message at first. Norberto Fuentes, another of the writers designated by the regime, did not want to incriminate himself and rebutted Padilla with a long and controversial speech in which he defended that he was not even remotely a counterrevolutionary. Giroud explains that Fuentes “went out to talk in search of affection and attention, he had been very close to Fidel and one of the regime's writers, but he ended up in prison and left Cuba thanks to Gabriel García Márquez. He now lives in Miami ”.

However, García Márquez was one of the few writers of his generation who maintained sympathy for Castroism. The Padilla case marked the disenchantment of “most of the novelists with the regime, even left-wing authors like Octavio Paz or Juan Goytisolo, broke forever, the same as Mario Vargas Llosa, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Carlos Fuentes, Alberto Moravia, Juan Rulfo, Jean-Paul Sartre or Susan Sontag, who signed a letter requesting the release of Padilla during his internment”, a letter written, by the way, at the Barcelona home of Vargas Llosa.

What happened to Padilla after his self-criticism? “They sent him to a farm to keep him away from the foreign press. There he could write and he was also a translator, but he had a hard time. He tried to settle in Spain, but Castro only allowed him to go to the United States after reaching an agreement with Senator Edward Kennedy. However, his North American stage did not fare well because left-wing writers saw him as a traitor and dissidents did not perceive him as one of their own. He passed away in the year 2000.”

And lastly, how dared Giroud make a film so critical of the Cuban regime? “In Cuba I was privileged, because I could live from my work, which is not easy at all. There was a moment of greater apparent freedom and I shot The Companion, a film that is not kind to the regime. Now, the repression has intensified and I dare not go to Cuba, because I don't want to be a martyr," concludes the director of El caso Padilla.