National Agenda : Artists and Homosexuals: ‘Non-Persons’ in Castro’s Cuba : Free-thinkers, creators and gays are labeled ‘deviant’ and often face ostracism, jail and exile.
Life is never easy in Cuba. Nearly everyone is short of money, food and decent housing. But for Jorge and Ponce there is a special emptiness resulting from a discrimination that affects not only their livelihoods but their place in society.
Jorge and Ponce are artists and homosexuals, two groups disdained by Cuban society under the more than 35 years of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.
“I am a creator,” Ponce said, “and by definition I see the world in a different way. In Cuba, it seems there is only one way to see the world--Fidel’s way.”
“It’s more than that,” Jorge interjected. “We are homosexuals as well as artists. We live in a society and under a ruler that sees us, both as artists and homosexuals, as deviants and not acceptable in this society.”
For these two men, as well as other artists, designers, dancers and writers interviewed over several recent visits to Cuba, rejection means official punishment ranging from ostracism to jail to exile.
The fear is such that all of the artists and writers interviewed for this article asked not to be closely identified and that only their first names be used.
“Early on in the revolution, I was put in jail,” said Nelson, a designer, who had openly professed his homosexuality when Castro came to power in 1959. “I had been a Communist and supported him.”
In the years since his release in 1966, Nelson has not been able to get a job, a ration card or an apartment. These aspects of Cuban life are controlled by the state, which has declared him “a parasite” and “a non-person.”
Many of those arrested were turned in by members of neighborhood watch groups called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.
CDR members were and remain instructed to report anyone suspected of “perversity,” “deviance” or “immoral behavior.”
According to an editor named Frensi, “the CDRs watch all the time. If you wear flamboyant clothes, have long hair or appear too affectionate with another man, you are targeted.”
The repression is not limited to little-known artists. Alicia Alonso, a world-famous ballet dancer, has left Cuba to live in Europe because of the lack of artistic freedom in her homeland, including official pressure on the male dancers in her company for alleged homosexuality, according to Alonso’s friends.
Persecution is not limited to homosexuals, Cuban artists say, contending that any independent-minded artist or intellectual is a target.
Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Heberto Padilla, Wilfredo Lam, Carlos Franqui and many others were either forced into exile or into silence, even though most supported the Castro revolution in its early days.
This is not a unique situation. The record of the Castro regime is full of discrimination and repression against those who stood outside the bounds of the macho society from which Castro sprang.
In the beginning of Castro’s rule, Cuba’s creative community met no official repression. Cuban newspapers and literary magazines showcased some of Latin America’s most original poetry and prose. Its dancers received international acclaim and its painters world fame.
But in 1965, Castro ordered a crackdown on homosexuals. Anton Affufat, probably Cuba’s most noted dramatist, was fired as editor of Casa de las Americas, the government’s literary publishing house, when he published a poem by Jose Triana with a homosexual theme.
When he wrote “Seven Against Thebes,” a play of classical allusions seen officially as an attack on Castro’s new social order, Affufat buried himself even further and was made, for all intents and purposes, a non-person.
Also punished with internal exile was Jose Lezama Lima, a homosexual who in the mid-1960s wrote of male love in a famous novel, “Paradiso.”
Others victimized for their sexuality included Virgilio Pinera, several male members of the National Ballet, directed by Alonso, and dozens of young writers who believed that the Castro revolution would mean artistic and personal freedom.
Castro ordered homosexuals sent to hard-labor camps called Military Units for the Increase of Production.
According to Robert E. Quirk, a professor whose 1993 book “Fidel Castro” is considered one of the best accounts of modern Cuba, the labor camp experience was a nightmare.
“Young men, even boys of 14 or 15, were taken to the hastily constructed camps, with no judicial hearing or trial and no legal procedure of any kind,” Quirk wrote. “The prisoners were placed under the charge of brutal, sadistic guards, who took pleasure in beating and, in some instances, killing them, all in the name of enforcing revolutionary standards of decency and discipline.”
Castro spent millions of dollars on a program established by Czech researchers to cure homosexuals, using emetics, hypnosis, hormones, psychoanalysis, electroshock and aversion therapy.
Eventually, under international pressure, Castro closed the work centers for homosexuals, but not before thousands of men had been sent to these concentration camps. According to knowledgeable authorities on Cuba, men and boys suspected of homosexuality are still sent to prison.
“It is not as overt or even official policy to send us to jail,” said Charlie, the homosexual brother of a famous painter, “but that’s not because of a change in attitude. It’s because they’ve accomplished what they wanted. They have driven us into exile or they have driven us underground. They’ve won, because we can’t or won’t live our lives either as artists or gays.”
Many suspected and open homosexuals continue to be prevented from working, barred from membership in arts and writers unions, prevented from attending universities, kept from obtaining housing and prohibited from belonging to the Communist Party, a status still necessary for advancement in Cuba.
In the opinion of Cuban experts, the roots of the homophobia reach in many directions, from the traditional macho culture of Spanish colonial society to the view that any nonconforming behavior is a threat to rulers. In any event, Castro wrote and spoke against homosexuals throughout his career, saying no homosexual could be a true revolutionary and pledging to rid Cuban society of “deviants.”
Government newspapers said homosexuality was “a legacy of capitalism” and used the favorite Communist euphemism “antisocial elements” to describe homosexuals.
If there has been any exception to the repression of artists and intellectuals, it has been in the movies.
Cuba has continued to receive international recognition for its films because, some critics believe, movies have gained the Castro regime desperately needed foreign currency and have earned propaganda points for their quality.
The most recently acclaimed Cuban movie is “Strawberry and Chocolate,” which is currently in release in Los Angeles theaters. It tells the story of a militant Castroite confronted by an intellectual homosexual artist in Coppelia, Havana’s famous ice cream parlor. The title is an ironic play on Coppelia’s claim of 54 flavors, of which only two--strawberry and chocolate--are ever available.
The homosexual character is portrayed with sympathy, although the film as a whole still labels him an outsider.
When asked if they believed the release of the movie internationally--it still has had only limited release in Cuba--was a positive sign, Jorge and Ponce were hopeful, but suspicious.
“It’s fine, it’s better than most of the pro-Castro stuff usually filmed here,” Ponce said. “But (Tomas) Gutierrez Alea (the film’s director) remains a (Communist) party official and a pet of Castro’s. When he speaks openly for full artistic freedom, then I’ll believe there’s a change.”
“All I know,” Jorge said, “is that I can’t work or sell my work or even find a place to live. Movies shown in Los Angeles and New York are fine, but when will I be able to create here in Havana without fear?”