Uncategorised Sexual Revolution In his explicit memoir, Reinaldo Arenas recorded the perils of being a homosexual man in Castro’s Cuba By James Ferguson | Issue 63 (September/October 2003) 0 Comments Illustration by Christopher Cozier It was Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, who once famously boasted that he had slept with a thousand women. (Later, someone rather unkindly pointed out that he had paid most of them.) But these exploits pale into insignificance in comparison with the amorous exertions of the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who claims at one point in his memoir Before Night Falls to have enjoyed intimate relations with no fewer than 5,000 men. An exhausting prospect, and a subject that Arenas develops with considerable candour throughout the book (I shall leave the details to the imagination). But, however unsparingly told, this memoir is not just a monumental act of oneupmanship. Arenas’s very active brand of homosexuality is the theme around which a personal and political odyssey is constructed, the reason for the writer’s experience of discrimination and ostracism. Reinaldo Arenas was born in Holguín, Cuba, in 1943, his childhood and adolescence experienced under the corrupt and repressive rule of the various strongmen who dominated the island. The most infamous of these was Fulgencio Batista, a nasty mix of playboy and torturer, whose unsavoury regime paved the way for Fidel Castro’s guerrilla campaign and, eventually, the Revolution. Arenas was conscious, he says, of Batista’s iniquities, but also felt free during his early rural years in a way that he never would again. Much of this freedom, it must be said, was of a sexual nature, and we soon discover that the young Reinaldo is drawn more to his own gender than to the opposite. In the last days of the Revolution, he recalls, he tried to join the rebels, but was told to go away — unless he could somehow get hold of a gun, preferably by killing one of Batista’s cops. Even so, the early days of Castro’s government seemed promising: Arenas received a scholarship, was selected for political training, and took part in the wholesome singing of revolutionary songs and hiking expeditions that the new regime encouraged. But, inevitably, there was something, or someone, in the closet trying to come out, and Arenas’s sexual orientation began to assert itself, especially after he moved to Havana and associated himself with an artistic and mostly non-revolutionary group. Cruising was the norm, and Arenas began to develop a reputation for promiscuity and risk-taking. He also makes it clear that the search for intellectual and artistic integrity was inextricably interconnected with the quest for personal, and thus sexual, freedom. MORE LIKE THIS: London CallingThis emphasis on personal gratification as opposed to the collective ethos puts Arenas on a collision course with the Revolution, which in the late 1960s was taking its most militant and, to many, most intolerant form. Castro himself was quoted as saying that a homosexual could never make a good revolutionary, and gay men were routinely rounded up and sent to forced labour camps. This happened to Arenas, who found himself in a the sweltering inferno of a sugar plantation, pressed to take part in the infamous bid to cut ten million tons of cane in a single harvest. Someone like Reinaldo Arenas might reasonably be considered unconventional in a liberal democracy, but in a one-party state dominated by ideological puritanism he was quite simply a counter-revolutionary. As he fell from grace with the regime, he embraced the counter-culture more tightly, associating with a coterie of artists and non-conformists who rejected the Revolution as wholeheartedly as it rejected them. In his account of Havana in the 1970s, he emphasises the shortages, the hardships, the monotony of a life in which travel was forbidden, and escape a constant dream. He also reveals how many writers succumbed to despair or suicide, or became informants and secret policemen of a literary type. Some of the most fascinating anecdotal material concerns Cuba’s great writers — José Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera, Nicolás Guillén — and their varying reactions to the “official” ideology of the Revolution. As Arenas’s fame as a writer grew outside Cuba (due to manuscripts smuggled out and published in France and Latin America), so did the disapproval of the Cuban state weigh more heavily. Eventually, a typical tryst ended in disaster, as Arenas was arrested and charged with corrupting a minor. If the state had failed to convict him of political crimes, it was, it seems, content to discredit and shame him with the stigma of a sexual criminal. There follows the most harrowing section of the book. Telling of interrogation and unspeakable living conditions in the infamous Castillo del Morro, Arenas explains with lucid detachment how he survived two years of prison. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this period is that the authorities tried to persuade him to change his outlook, to abandon what they viewed as a decadent lifestyle, and to write a book or books celebrating the Revolution. Yet, far from breaking Arenas’s spirit, the experience of imprisonment merely increased his resolve to escape from Cuba. MORE LIKE THIS: Keeping the faith: Ramleela in TrinidadThe opportunity finally presented itself in April 1980, after Arenas had been released from jail but was still, he claims, under constant state supervision. It was then that, under pressure from thousands of Cubans seeking asylum in Havana’s Peruvian embassy, and threatened by wide-scale social upheaval, Castro opened the floodgates and allowed shiploads of escapees, mostly criminals and other “undesirables”, to sail to Florida from the port of Mariel. Among this flotilla was Reinaldo Arenas, who had managed to shrug off the secret police, change the name on his document to “Arinas”, and board a vessel. Within ten years Arenas was dead from AIDS, but as this powerful and unforgiving memoir makes clear, he did not find, nor expect to find, a promised land in the United States. Miami he hated; New York was better. The capitalist system, he said, “was also sordid and money-hungry”. After arriving in America, he wrote: The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream. This is a controversial, at times difficult book. And Arenas’s story became even more controversial in 2000, when a film version, starring Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, drew strong protest from supporters of the Cuban Revolution, for what they saw as a distortion of Castro’s policies towards gays and dissidents. Sympathisers and critics of the Revolution will inevitably argue over the accuracy of the events it portrays, but few can deny this is an important statement about individual freedom and the right to be different. Arenas’s memoir will obviously confirm every conservative’s worst fears about Cuba, yet annoy admirers of Castro as right-wing propaganda. But beyond the political battlelines, Before Night Falls has an enduring resonance as a historic document, and as an insight into a particular sort of personal courage. Few readers will end this book by liking Arenas, but equally few will fail to admire his resilience.