Wendy Guerra, I Was Never the First Lady (trans. Achy Obejas). New York: HarperVia, 2021. 272 pages. Leonardo Padura, Personas decentes. Barcelona: Tusquets, 2022. 448 pages.
The Cuban barista in my local Ottawa coffee shop tells me that she has been in Canada for eight months. “Can you go back?” I ask. “Fui. I went. In January, when it was too cold here,” she replies. The freedom to come and go from Cuba is a touchy subject. Some Cubans with means may leave the island. But they may not be let back. No one knows the rules exactly. They do know that expressing opinions opposed to the government can lead to banishment.
This uncertainty is a worry for characters in the novels of two Cuban writers who for many years have been stretching the limits of Cuba’s political tolerance. Wendy Guerra, best known for her novel Everyone’s Leaving, is now based in Miami, where she broadcasts on culture on CNN’s Latin American network. Leonardo Padura, author of a series of sophisticated detective novels as well as the acclaimed The Man Who Loved Dogs, is still rooted in Cuba. He’s frequently abroad, however, his freedom to come and go shielded by his stellar international reputation.
Padura knows that his comfortable position is not that of most Cubans. The protagonist of his most recent novel, Personas decentes (Decent People), the ex-policeman and now second-hand book dealer Mario Conde, frets that his lover, at last getting permission to visit a relative in Europe, may not be allowed to return. In her 2017 book I Was Never the First Lady (published in English translation in 2021), Nadia Guerra, the semiautographical heroine, frets that her fixed-term visa to Miami will soon expire and the door back to Havana will be slammed shut.
The preoccupation over travel and exile is but one element of the wider psychological oppression suffered under Cuba’s governing regime, which both Guerra and Padura illuminate.
I Was Never the First Lady is a semifictional family portrait that tells of Nadia’s mother Albis Torres’s participation in, and later disillusionment with, Castro’s revolution, and Nadia’s journey to understand her life story. Albis quits her job as a broadcaster, has many lovers, travels inexplicably to Moscow where she succumbs to a form of dementia. After she is brought home to Cuba, it is Nadia who takes responsibility for her care.
Mother and daughter are bonded in their desire to live lives of radical freedom. Woven into the tale is a partial account of the life of Celia Sánchez, Fidel Castro’s guerrilla comrade and purported lover during and after the 1953–59 revolutionary war. Celia’s watchful supervision of Albis apparently thwarts Che Guevara’s seduction of her. Celia is stoically attached to revolutionary ideals; early death (1980) rescues her from later life disillusionment.
Guerra’s opposition to the Cuban revolutionary project is proclaimed in her novel’s opening passage where she rejects notions of individual submission to the collective good. Above all, Guerra is committed to artistic freedom and rejects pledges of loyalty to official ideals: “I inhabit an intimate zone, where I am human and not divine … I cannot keep trying to be like Che … I do not want to be a martyr among martyrs … My true heroes are my relatives: victims, survivors, silenced, enduring, sad … They have been closely manipulated extras” in Cuba’s fateful struggle with History as defined by the country’s Marxist materialists.
Guerra’s fiction lands on a particularly contemporary note in the author’s reproduction of her Miami interview for the French newspaper Libération with Castro’s only daughter, Alina Fernandez, who left Cuba in 1993. The interview took place before Castro’s death in 2016. Guerra – the fictional and real woman are woven together here – asks Alina Fernandez if she will ever return to Cuba. She responds, “To return to say goodbye doesn’t strike me as a reason to return.”
In the final chapter, Nadia visits the home once occupied by Fidel and Celia on the day Castro dies. The once exclusive neighbourhood seems eerily silent: “The people stay inside their homes. For whom is this death truly important? Could the silence be a way of escape or a homage? Could it be a respectful silence, or could it be fear that stops people coming into the streets?”
Padura has explored Cuba’s social and political conditions throughout his extensive literary career and continues to do so in Personas decentes. The subject is the murder of a retired government official whose job in the early days of Castro’s revolution was to persecute artists whose work defied the correct line. What makes this man, Reynaldo Quevedo, especially odious is that he profits from the clandestine sale abroad of works of art which he confiscates.
The investigation of the crime unfolds against the backdrop of a fragile economy containing pockets of conspicuous wealth. In a nightclub, taking advantage of slightly loosened restrictions on private business, ex-detective Mario Conde observes that “the majority of (Cubans’) monthly salaries don’t reach even the fifty convertible pesos that the bar’s night owls dole out in a single night of diversion … and which they will wastefully expend night after night.”
It is the spring of 2016, in the weeks leading up to the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama and a concert by the Rolling Stones. Some of Conde’s friends expect these events to bring a thaw in Cuba’s relations with the United States and a wave of political and economic reform. Conde, however, is convinced otherwise. He has “a solid certainty, more than a premonition, that (the pivot to reform and openness) would be quickly obliterated … Like any epiphany, it would have a limited lifespan … (Do I suffer from) fatalism, pessimism, distrust? A little of each ingredient, and a lot of bad historical experience.”
Padura brings Conde to this conclusion – which, we now know, was true. While Padura’s protagonist does not know in 2016 that the Trump administration will abandon the U.S. opening to Cuba, Padura the writer does know it. He also knows that Cuba’s torment of penury and oppression will continue. President Biden shows little interest in picking up his Democratic predecessor’s initiative.
In all his works, Padura likes to explore Cuba’s pre-Castroist history. These pre-Castro scenes invariably cast a certain appealing glow, as though there is much in prerevolutionary history that is esthetically pleasing. In Cuba’s propaganda, the exploitive roots of that “prehistory” ignited Castro’s uprising. But Padura’s version is more nuanced and focuses on a varied human landscape peopled neither by pure villains nor pure heroes.
Personas decentes is no exception. An elaborately developed parallel narrative to the contemporary murder plot deals with the officially condoned prostitution industry in Havana at the turn of the 20th century. This story involves real-life historical figures, notably Alberto Yarini and Louis Lotot, the kingpin pimps of two rival prostitution networks. Lotot, a French gangster, and Yarini, a Cuban aristocrat with high political ambitions, die in the streets in an open gunfight. Yarini, who had a strong political following, is celebrated as a martyr.
The elaboration of this history, the exploration of the internal dynamics and moral decisions made by gangsters and prostitutes, sits awkwardly with the Castroist myth of the abolition of prostitution, proclaimed loudly during the regime’s early days. Padura compares the pre-1959 tolerance of casinos linked to organized prostitution and Cuba’s current tourist industry. There are no officially sanctioned brothels, but foreign men and women can go to Cuba in search of companionship and sex, as they did in the time of pre-Castro dictator Fulgencio Batista. They find Cuban lovers, become sexually infatuated, start to bring their lovers to restaurants and bars. In turn the lovers may reciprocate by even bringing the visitors to meet their parents. Marriage may ensue, as well as an open door to a life in a developed country. Rather than the Cuban paramours being “socially marginalized, often they are seen as victors. The serpent of a national shame has twisted around to bite its own tail.”
Padura’s ruminations through his protagonist Conde and Guerra’s open defiance give no quarter to Cuban official doctrine. With the publication of each new work, neither author deviates from a critical portrait of Cuban social conditions and the country’s power structure. Cuban officialdom nonetheless treats the two writers differently. While Guerra broadcasts from Miami, Padura gives workshops on literature in Havana. John Kirk, a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University, recalls being introduced to Padura in an office in Cuba’s culture ministry. Perhaps Padura’s subtleties make him more palatable to the authorities. He weaves his commentaries on Cuban socioeconomic conditions into elaborate plot-driven narratives. In contrast, Guerra confesses to pursuing a life that challenges conservative social norms and often deliberately challenges official Cuban ideology.
Each author’s approach to sex is worth mentioning. Padura allows his detective Conde the liberty of the “male gaze”: Conde is vivid when he describes his sexual encounters, mostly with his longtime lover, Tamara. Guerra is also explicit when it comes to sex: though protagonist Nadia has a lover with whom she is closest, she pursues sex with others. I suspect that Padura’s outlook aligns more closely with Cuban machismo, while Guerra’s sexual freedom is perceived as threatening. Guerra is forthright: “My literary piece (is) a historical intervention in the world of Celia, my mother, and all the women from whom we robbed the ability to be the heroines of their own story, in the name of the Machismo Leninismo instituted in Cuba.”
I asked Professor Kirk why he believed Padura is more acceptable to the Cuban regime. It is important, he noted, “not to push the envelope too far,” that there be “no damaging portrayal of Fidel Castro.” Guerra violates this rule. Although she underlines Fidel’s strategic brilliance in the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra, she is very critical of his treatment of his daughter Alina. Fidel took her from a stepfather who was better equipped to provide her with a stable home life, and his subsequent interactions with Alina were sporadic and brief. Alina’s uncle Raúl Castro was a kinder, more empathetic figure in her life.
The Cuban regime’s greater tolerance of Padura may mean less than it seems. Neither Guerra’s nor Padura’s books are widely available in Cuba. They are published in Spain, and copies for the Latin American market are printed in Mexico. Bookstores in Cuba are becoming scarcer. In a visit to Havana in March 2022, I wanted to visit a bookstore in the heart of the city believed to be one of the best stocked. Arriving at the front door, I saw that the place was closed, empty, even its shelves removed. In the bookstores that can still be found, shelves are bare and offer largely books on Fidel and Che.
Then there is the question of affordability. CubaNet, an online news service, quotes a reader named Ernestina interviewed outside a closed bookstore on a downtown Havana street: “With so much hunger, do you believe it is normal to worry so much about finding a good book? That’s what my neighbour was wondering. She says that to read is a luxury that I give myself because I don’t have children.” Pancho, on the same sidewalk, says, “Not to have a place to find books make us more miserable than we already are.”
If Padura had a wider readership to discuss his descriptions of Cuba’s socioeconomic conditions and his antipathy for the Cuban variety of Marxism-Leninism, would the regime be as accommodating? Intolerance of free speech continues. As reported on April 21, 2023, in another online journal, Diario de Cuba, a young man, Jorge Luis Boada Valdés, was sentenced to a year in jail for three pieces of graffiti proclaiming Cuba’s president “Díaz Canel, singao,” an epithet meaning “fucker.” On the basis of recent experience, such language is clearly protected speech in Canada.
The main power of a repressive regime is its ability to impose fear. Fear is a theme that propels the narratives of both Personas decentes and I Was Never the First Lady. Artists during Castro’s early rule abandoned their work for fear of imprisonment, or worse. Nadia Guerra turns her back on her art in fear that, in pursuing it, she never will be allowed to leave the island or will be left permanently in exile if she does. There is little reason to hope that Cuban repression will lift soon, notwithstanding Padura’s and Guerra’s truth-telling, which is hardly ever seen or heard donde crece la palma, where the palm tree grows.