Treacherous Memories of Allen Ginberg’s Days in Havana
Told like this, my life at that time probably sounds very much like a novel. After all these years, the multitude of extraordinary occurrences and rocambolesque spins in my existence would seem more the fruits of the imagination than the actual fate of a pretentious and rebellious young man.
No wonder a shrink I went to see in those days, in search of a little introspection and serenity, declared me comically demented until someone in my family confirmed several of my lurid assertions were true. After learning that, and as a precaution typical of that age, she asked me not to show up at her office ever again.
The fact is, not many seventeen-year-olds get involved in such existential and literary adventures, much less face that kind of adversities.
Of course, there was little I could do then to avoid the permanent watch under which I stood since the American poet Allen Ginsberg was kicked out of the country, and especially after my book of short fiction Con temor was denounced before the highest political and repressive instances in Cuba by a pair of weasels named Fayad Jamís and Onelio Jorge Cardoso.
So that afternoon, not even bothering to conceal where I was going, I went across the street from home, jumped on a number 74 bus and headed for the Writers’ Union, watching in amusement how the segurosos tailing me became a silent caravan for the sputtering public vehicle.
Later, when I arrived on foot at the UNEAC, a meeting of watchmen took place, with mine joining the ones that followed José Mario from his house in the nearby town of Marianao. The two dark, mysterious cars remained parked then, fender to fender, across the Union’s building, waiting for us to come out. Someone would probably be “taking care” of us while we were inside, with the highest discretion.
By then, the so-called National Poet Nicolás Guillén had already found time to meet with José. He hadn’t explained much, however, about the fate of El Puente’s books, and in fact, he clearly lied when he told José the books had probably been “misplaced” at the printers.
Similarly, José Mario told me Guillén had made him very funny questions that indicated he was probably acting on behalf of the secret police, like whether he kept other copies of the manuscripts or if any of the books had been submitted to a foreign publishing house.
When José Mario let him know that for weeks both he and I had been tailed by people in suspicious cars bearing official license plates, Guillén refused to believe him. He even laughed when José took him outside and pointed at the cars, parked and very visible right on H Street, next to the Writers’ Union building.
Faced with the evidence but pretending to be amused, Guillén told him, “We’ll see what we can do.” And in fact next day the surveillance stopped, though only temporarily. Who knows if we were being observed in some other fashion.
God, what a despicable regime, and how disgusting its people were...
Our “case”, meanwhile, kept making its way through the insides of the Cuban cultural establishment, and would soon burst open in the university campus, thanks to the good offices of the Stinky Commissar, who having joined forces with the murderous comandante René Rodríguez, never ceased to conspire against us. My friend at the university, who had ties to the student organizations there, kept me abreast of all the maneuvering.
Around that time, and through a different source, we learned of another very funny story.
It seems The Crane, terrified of finding himself involved in the looming scandal and seeing his precious “career” go down the drain, had gone to the Union of Communist Youth at the University of Havana to make his position about us known, and to again denounce Ediciones El Puente.
When he wasn’t paid the attention he thought he deserved there, he began to cry and scream hysterically, as he tore in pieces a book of poems he had published in El Puente a couple of years before. His meltdown was such that he had to be carried away in a stretcher to the emergency room of nearby Calixto García Hospital.
“I’m a revolutionary! Fidel, I believe in you! Let go of me, you pigs!” He squealed while the staff nurses struggled to subdue the slippery nut in an effort to stick a tranquilizer injection in his butt.
Also, those days I got a very unusual visit at the Writers’ Union. It was an elderly lady, all dressed in black, her grey hair tied in a bun. I had never seen her in my life, but she seemed to know about me.
She had been waiting for hours in one of the porches of the building. When she introduced herself I realized she was one of my mother’s old friends and the sister of a student leader who was assassinated back in the 40s.
She held tight to her chest an old manila envelope and I imagined she was just one of many bored aging ladies who aspired to publish their poetry. But I was wrong. She only wanted to hand me some “materials”, so I could make them public whenever I deemed it possible.
“They are absolutely important –and very sensitive,” she told me.
I was about to open the envelope when she asked me not to do that until she was gone, so I thanked her and she left. But I had no time to open the envelope right away, because at that very moment I saw José Mario coming through the gate. He approached me then, almost running.
“Something’s cooking for tonight. Get ready, Manolito,” he said. I had never seen him so concerned.
Nothing happened that time, however. Embittered by the bad omens, we waited nursing bottles of beer at the UNEAC cafeteria, chatting with whoever came along, but none brought any news. Once in a while, a drunken pianist by the name of Juventino approached us with his nonsense. In the end, it was an empty day.
But in Cuba misfortunes arrive with no warning. Different from hurricanes, they take you by surprise, like the poet Guillermo Rodríguez Rivera talking to us several nights later. A suspicious event, I dare say, considering his later role in the magazine that came to be known as El Caimán Barbudo.
Was he actually preparing the ground for what was going to happen?
Let’s not speculate about the obvious. None of what Rodríguez Rivera told José Mario then came as a surprise to me, for reasons I will soon explain. Suffice to say that the obese Rodríguez Rivera, with his perennial gorilla face, lent himself to a scheme orchestrated by the secret police, with the intent of divulging its own version of El Puente’s demise.
That version, which at some point José Mario himself called a “rumor”, was conceived to deny importance to the closing of El Puente, and above all, to conceal the triggering motive behind it. Perhaps I should have decried this falsehood a long time ago, but the fact is I didn’t. I didn’t think it was serious at all. Now I feel I must correct that mistake.
What few people know, basically because I never said it before, not even to José, was that I was present that evening when Fidel Castro blasted El Puente, not at the School of Philosophy, as Rodríguez Rivera would want us to believe, but at Plaza Cadenas, where the university friend who kept me abreast of the workings of the Stinky Commissar and The Crane’s betrayals agreed to meet me.
I was a concealed witness of all that disgrace, and as such I was actually able to watch its main protagonists in action. They did not see me, but I had them in my sight. Rodríguez Rivera was among them, by the way.
Now I will tell you exactly what happened.
It was a well-staged show. As expected, Castro ranted mostly by himself, but he had some help in the midst of the small congregation of students, curious bystanders and professors. Hiding in plain sight, I saw them as they quietly provided the dictator with his cues. It was all too obvious.
The Stinky Commissar and Jesús Díaz (soon to win the Casa de las Américas Award) stood there, shoulder to shoulder, and on the other side of the circle you’d find Rodríguez Rivera. Fayad Jamís and Onelio Jorge Cardoso had already done their part in handing over the manuscript and galley proofs of my book to comandante René Rodríguez. Castro now kept both under one armpit as he started to pontificate about education, agriculture and his college memories.
I thought he’d never finish, but all of a sudden, following a hardly visible gesture –almost a tic– from the psychopathic murderer René Rodríguez, the Stinky Commissar and Díaz addressed the dictator.
“Fidel, what’s going on with culture?” The Commissar asked.
“What’s going on with the Writers’ Union, Fidel? What’s going on with Guillén?” Asked Díaz, the future founder of El Caimán Barbudo.
“Nicolás is on strike,” Castro said then, eliciting a mocking laughter among the group. “And culture is very well, thank you.”
“The young people aren’t on strike, Fidel”, the fat Rodríguez Rivera shouted then.
And with this, the little mise-en-scène was complete; the ground broken by the provocateurs infiltrated in the college audience. Some sycophants then began to applaud. Bloodthirsty comandante Rodríguez smiled with satisfaction.
“Youth, always at the forefront,” Castro snapped. “But not all are the same, ok?”
“El Puente, Fidel, El Puente!” The Stinky Commissar shouted.
The dictator suddenly raised my book’s manuscripts and proofs over his head, as if showing the carcass of a dead animal.
“This was written by one of them, one of the youngest,” he said. “There’s even a story against military service! It undermines the defense of our fatherland!”
“Counterrevolutionary! Worm!”, screamed the Commissar.
“Not only that,” the Comandante went on. “This is also intolerably morbid. It tells of a woman who stabs her own genitals! What’s this? Are we living in France?”
Shouts then: NO NO NO NO....
“What are we going to do with El Puente [The Bridge]?” The Commissar shouted.
“I will blow it up myself!” Castro retorted.
And then and there, to everyone’s astonishment, he began to tear up my book and its proofs in pieces. The scraps of paper flew in the air, like big snowflakes, as Castro continued to tear Con temor up, and the small crowd broke out in shouts and applause. By then, the dictator’s mouth was covered with spittle.
I’m screwed, I said to myself, for this was like an epitaph on me. It was for El Puente too, but by I couldn’t care less about it now. So I parted with my friend and quietly slipped away from the crowd.
I wandered for a long time that night, pondering what I should do. I stared at the sea and also contemplated suicide. But in the end I chose what I thought was best –I moved to protect my writings and even those that weren’t mine. Keep in mind the novel Reinaldo Arenas had entrusted to me was still in my possession.
Earlier, my home had been the subject of a sneaky search. Some of my mother’s stuff was found misplaced, and my grandmother, a very orderly person, right away realized someone had gone through her wardrobe. My desk also showed the signs of being violated. Papers, files and envelopes were missing. Fortunately, I had hidden my good stuff very well –so well I won’t even tell you now.
So I ran off to save the documents the secret police was so desperately looking for –a copy of my book Con temor, another of Celestino antes del alba, and the mysterious envelope my mom’s friend had handed to me at the Writers’ Union as well. What could it possibly contain?
I froze as soon as I opened it. Inside the manila envelope, I found a simple notebook, full of clumsily written text –some sort of a sentimental journal– and a photo picture so compromising it would have cost me my life to show it around.
I hid all that inside my shirt and asked our ground-floor neighbors to allow me passage across their backyard and leave through the rear gate. Luckily, those big old Víbora homes normally have a hall on one side and a huge backyard, the best escape route one can expect. I ran through the hall, then across the yard and came out on the next block, in another street. The jerks that stood guard in front of our house didn’t have a clue.
Then, I dropped first by the Biblioteca Nacional, where I returned Reinaldo Arenas his excellent novel, unable to explain why we wouldn’t be publishing it. I took off from there and didn’t stop running until I was far away, down Ayestarán Street. At that point, I started walking slowly until I reached Carlos Tercero, from where I went on to what finally became Reina street.
I was still asking myself how to proceed. If I was stopped and frisked, I could very well lose my book. But if they found the content of the manila envelope on me, I was as good as dead. That photo picture involved one the regime’s highest personalities.
Feeling quite desperate, I walked through the threshold of the Sagrado Corazón church. It had been years since I came inside a house of God. And even if that church, with its faux Gothic structure and its stained glass windows depicting the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, always seemed somber to me, I found it was the most appropriate place to recover my strength and meditate what to do with what I was carrying.
So I went in. Then, not exactly on purpose, I got on my knees in one of the first pews, close to the main altar. I lowered my head, closed my eyes. Would I need to pray? Gradually, not knowing precisely how, I heard myself reciting silently a prayer I had not forgotten: Our father… My fears began to vanish but not my confusion. The papers I had hidden inside my shirt felt heavier now.
“God, what the fuck am I going to do?” I asked.
Then, suddenly, I heard a familiar voice. Not celestial, not from beyond the grave; only the voice of someone I was very well acquainted with.
“Keep quiet and don’t turn around, Manolito,” it said.
It was none other than Michel, the foreign correspondent who had rescued me and carried me away in his car days before. I recognized him by his tone and accent, but heeding his instructions I did not move.
Then he said, “Give me what you have on you right now.”
I hesitated for a second, but the truth is I had very few options. Particularly that handwritten journal and the sensitive photo picture deserved to be saved. The book was perhaps worthy, but in the end, I could write another one.
“Now!” He insisted.
Cautiously, I brought the papers out of my shirt, and without turning around, reaching out behind me, I discreetly passed them on to him. “I will get this to Ginsberg this week,” Michel whispered then. “Good luck and don’t sweat about this anymore.”
Minutes later, I came out of the church feeling more relaxed, relieved of the huge burden of all those documents, and for some reason quite certain that nothing worse would happen to me.
And that was it. El Puente went down in pieces. Who blew it up? Fidel Castro himself. But it was I who provided the dynamite, that is, my book.
José Mario ended up in a labor camp and later on went into exile. Everyone abandoned him, starting with The Crane, who even now living abroad is still very chummy with the Commissar. The rest more or less sold out, or found less compromising paths for themselves. Some managed, thank God, to leave the country while there was still time. Nancy Morejón went on to write laudatory essays about Nicolás Guillén; Gerardo Fulleda joined the workers’ brigades during the sugar harvest in 1970. And I found a job at a radio station, part of the Cuban Institute for Radio and TV Broadcast, after an old friend in the Communist Party pulled some strings for me. I found a comfortable niche for myself –but only apparently.
Just a few weeks after I started working there as a script writer and a film critic, a number of suspicious fires broke out in the restrooms of the studios at CMQ, now pompously renamed “Liberation Radio”, but no one would have thought of pinning them on me. I continued to work there until my arrest in 1973. I was convicted only of “counterrevolutionary writings”.
After my arrival in the United States in 1980, I contacted Ginsberg and he finally sent me the package of papers he had been keeping for me for so many years. In reading my first book of short stories after all that time, I was amazed by how incipiently profound and well-written it was, despite being the work of a juvenile. Perhaps I will publish it soon, with a foreword revealing all the adventures surrounding it.
As for the sentimental journals and the compromising photo picture, the segurosos should know that their publication would have devastating effects on the Cuban government, especially its present leader, General Raúl Castro.
Needless to say, if anything should happen to my loved ones or me, there are precise instructions to send multiple copies of these materials to all important newspapers and publications in the civilized world. They will be inevitably divulged and everyone will finally know exactly why Mariela Castro is so protective of queers.
So don’t even think about it, you motherfuckers.