Treacherous Memories of Allen Ginsberg’s Days in Havana
If José Mario naively believed that by accepting the old queen’s reprimands and distancing himself from the Allen Ginsberg controversy he would be saving Ediciones El Puente as well as his own personal and literary hide, he was in for a big surprise.
The day after our succulent meal at La Roca, and of accepting the regime’s demands, he learned that not only my book but all El Puente manuscripts had disappeared from the printers. When he went to the printers what he found was an inscrutable manager and an empty drawer where our books should have been. Poor guy, he didn’t have a clue of what was going on.
There was more, lots of sinister details, but of course, I never made him aware of it. By then, I had learned not to trust José Mario. How could I, if he was acting like a total pendejo, or in all fairness, just like everyone else?
A buddy who worked in the second floor of the Writers’ Union had told me that El Moro Fayita had gone to Onelio Jorge Cardoso –a mediocre, resentful writer of country-themed fiction– to take a copy of my book to “the highest level”, that is to say Fidel Castro himself, as a sample of the “immoral and counterrevolutionary trash” El Puente intended to publish.
Cardoso was a whoring and boozing partner of comandante René Rodríguez, at the time the director of the Movie Section of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and a big pal of the hateful dictator. Comandante Rodríguez was, besides that, a psychopathic murderer, whose pictures had been published at the beginning of the revolution, showing him covered in human blood and brain matter after giving executed prisoners the infamous coup de grace.
El Moro Jamís had made all these moves behind Nicolás Guillén’s back, thus undermining his control of the UNEAC and creating for him unexpected political conflicts. At the same time, he expected to completely banish the very scent of young literature. It also appeared that betrayals and backstabbing were commonplace in that useless institution designed supposedly to represent Cuban intellectuals. It was totally disgusting.
Meanwhile, I had not severed contacts with Ginsberg, even if since the threats made by Rodríguez Feo, I tried to meet with him in places that weren’t too visible or that were far away from official sites. Why make our enemies’ work any easier?
Just between us here, Ginsberg wasn’t any different from the rest of the left-leaning American intellectuals. He was still enjoying an intense romance with the Castro regime. And the poor guy was so hesitant every time I talked of making public all the outrages committed against us, for fear that “imperialism” and its media would take advantage of these flaws for their propaganda.
Can you imagine that he wrote in one of his diaries of the time that he masturbated in his room at the hotel Riviera fantasizing of a young Che Guevara and a brave Fidel Castro? God, how can one be such a jerk. He also refused to give an interview to a foreign correspondent who offered to inform the world of all the vigilance and detentions going on around his visit to Cuba.
Even so, the author of Howl could not free himself of his libertarian instincts. He carried them in his blood, it seems. That’s how I came to witness one morning in the UNEAC how Ginsberg asked Guillén and the writers José Antonio Portuondo and Félix Pita Rodríguez that they demand the legalization of pot by Castro, as a method of revolutionary struggle.
Also, at a cocktail event in Casa de las Américas, after chatting for a while with Haydée Santamaría and criticizing the ruthless persecution of homosexuals, he gave her a very noisy slap in the butt, leaving us all, and especially her, completely dumbfounded. Surely, it had been a while since Santamaría had been spanked, much less in public.
In the city of Matanzas, east of Havana, where the Casa contest judges were taken to participate in a santería ceremony, Ginsberg happily jumped like a faun to the rhythm of the batá drums, as he showed off the ritual necklaces that according to him would protect him from those who were secretly following him and, above all, from the fearsome Ministry of Interior’s Social Undermining Department. The ceremony ended up being raided by the police, and with Ginsberg grimacing at the cops and screaming against the use of the death penalty in Cuba.
Worse still, during a visit to a military unit he complained that homosexuals were not allowed in the Cuban army. What the hell, he reasoned, how could they do that if the chief of the Armed Forces, Raúl Castro himself, was a fag?
It was clearly too much. From that point on, even a waiter who served Ginsberg a glass of water in a restaurant ended up being questioned.
The poet and I were strolling one evening along the Malecón, a bit ahead of Calle 23 and moving towards Old Havana, when I stopped and pointed in the direction of Morro Castle.
“Do you know what that is?” I asked.
“An old fortress,” he said.
“And a jail too,” I replied.
He was very much puzzled.
“Hundreds of political prisoners are kept in there,” I went on. “Some are executed by firing squads. It happens every day.”
Ginsberg seemed increasingly surprised that the colorful Morro Castle would hide something like that. He told me he thought all counterrevolutionaries had already left for Miami.
“And you know what?” I added. “Sometimes they extract their blood before they take them to be shot.”
We kept walking in silence. The poet seemed to be overwhelmed with this information.
After a while, when we found ourselves near Paseo Martí, we parted ways. “It’s very sad,” he said as we shook hands, “to be trapped in history in such a small place.” Ginsberg then took a cab and I was on my way on foot.
It had become dark and as soon as I found myself alone, I looked behind my back, as was my habit then. Right away, I became aware that someone, a man dressed in a dark suit, was following me closely.
He wasn’t a mere passerby. The rest of the people walking up the Prado (as Paseo Martí is known) at that hour of night didn’t even look at me. They strolled quietly and aimlessly, but not that gentleman. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. And it was clear he was going wherever I went.
I started to get off Prado, moving towards Virtudes street, where the remnants of an old area of brothels remained, and he followed suit right away. I turned right up Virtudes, and after a while, when I turned around to look, he was right behind me, walking briskly in my pursuit. He wouldn’t let go.
I walked faster, and he did the same. Gradually, without realizing it, I actually began to run. From the windows of the houses around us, behind the typical forged iron bars, people watched in amazement. They probably thought I was one of those thieves or peeping toms who were seen often running away from the cops. The only thing I needed was for someone to start screaming after me.
At first, I ran rather moderately, then really fast. The guy who was after me wouldn’t stop. He ran more than I did. From a distance, I could see him taking something out of his jacket, as he kept running. Could it be a weapon? I ran faster. I couldn’t breathe. Soon, I was gasping for air…
“Stop there, damn it!” I heard him scream as he got closer and closer to me.