"Writing those books kept me alive, especially the autobiography. I didn't want to die until I had put the final touches. It's my revenge."
– Reinaldo Arenas
(TW: Rape mention, Suicide)
To paraphrase the great Terry Pratchett, it is a curse to live in interesting times. Thus, as the world is once again witnessing a great change, we at Queer History are unable to remove ourselves from current events. It is impossible to ignore the connection between what is occurring now in Cuba and what once occurred. This week, this relationship between past and present is found in two deaths: that of Fidel Castro on November 25th, 2016, and that of Reinaldo Arenas on December 7th, 1990.
Fidel Castro, as is well known, was the dictator of Cuba from 1926 until his death in 2016. Reinaldo Arenas is perhaps lesser known but was the Cuban author who killed himself twenty-six years ago.
Arenas was a member of the revolution. Born into poverty, he joined the movement at the age of sixteen with hopes of overthrowing Cuba’s previous ruler, Fulgencio Batista. He believed that he was aiding in the transformation of his country into a place of freedom and peace for all. While the revolution began to gain support and power, however, Arenas slowly became disillusioned. Reinaldo was a gay man, so the freedom the revolution promised was never meant for him. He soon realized that he was just as much what the revolution wanted to quell from Cuba as Batista was, and he removed himself from the ideas he supported so fervently before. He worked, instead, on his writing, winning awards and publishing a book called Singing from the Well, the only book of his to be published in Cuba. Even this book, though, was quickly curbed from publication. Only two thousand copies were distributed before it was decided that the writing lacked realism, and it was banned.
This deterrent, however, did not stop his writing but instead strengthened his resolve. He worked as journalist and editor for a literary magazine, while also writing novels. All of his subsequent novels would be banned in his home country, but they often receive international acclaim when he was able to smuggle them out. He was also open about his sexuality in a time when sexuality was under the microscope of Castro’s dictatorship.
Castro, himself, was a violent homophobe, and pushed forward his bigoted ideas into the very fabric of his government. He had an idea in his mind of what his country was, and when that idea was challenged, he reacted with anger and oppression. We can see this reaction clearly in how Reinaldo Arenas, who challenged many of Castro’s attempts at self deception, was treated. Castro believed that the rural areas were paradises for his hateful belief system, once saying “In the country, there are no homosexuals”. The obvious answer to that is that Reinaldo, himself, lived in a rural area, and was clearly not heterosexual.
So as queer people were being sent to labour camps modelled after the concentration camps of the Nazi regime, Reinaldo was forced to marry a woman to give the illusion of heterosexuality and gain housing (as the Cuban government at best didn’t know about people who were attracted to more than one gender). Despite the marriage, he was denied a home. Years after this, he was robbed, and upon reporting this to the police, he was arrested. While his charges consisted of homosexuality and the illegal exportation of one of his novels, neither are listed in government records as the reasons behind his arrest. While he was arrested for being gay and for sending one of his novels across the border to be published without the government’s permission, that is not what was reported.
Reinaldo’s escape attempt followed shortly after his arrest, though he was caught rather quickly. In an attempt to disgrace Reinaldo, the police claimed that he was being sent to jail for raping and murdering an old woman, a claim that was entirely untrue. The only benefit of this outright lie is that it spared Reinaldo from being jailed with other queer people and receiving the same brutal treatment they did. Instead, he was put with rapists and murderers, which led to him receiving better treatment from the guards and fellow inmates. As many other inmates lacked the ability to write, he wrote love letters to their partners for them, using the back of the pages he was given to write his own work. It was only after being tortured for years in prison that Reinaldo finally signed a “confession” which stated he detested homosexuality, recanted all of his writings, and said the only hope of redemption was to embrace the revolution and constantly work on its behalf. He was also forced to sign a confession saying that he raped a minor - another claim that was completely fabricated in an attempt to justify his torture to the global community.
It was only in 1979 that Reinaldo was finally able to escape Cuba. He slipped in amongst the other queer people who were exiled by changing his name, escaping the fate of the writers who remained in Cuba, all of whom were supposed to remain and “make themselves useful” to their country. Instead of enduring this fate, Reinaldo walked into the police station and declared his sexuality, lied about his name, and secured his freedom. He then moved Florida, where he worked as a visiting professor and taught a course in Cuban poetry. In 1980, he moved to New York City, having received an invitation to speak at Columbia University. He continued writing there, living in Hell’s Kitchen without a telephone, and contributing to a magazine for other Cuban refugees.
In the winter of 1987, however, Reinaldo was diagnosed with AIDs. Unable to afford treatment, he killed himself three years later. He left two suicide notes: one for the police, describing the particulars of his death, and the other as an open letter to other people who were forced to leave Cuba.
The second suicide note is available for any who wish to read it, but we instead wish to quote something else. In a conversation with a friend, Reinaldo said:
“I want to die. I don't want my health to improve...and then deteriorate again. I've been through too many hospitalizations already. After I was diagnosed with PCP [AIDS pneumonia], I asked Saint Virgilio Piñera, to give me three years to live so that I could complete my body of work. Saint Virgilio granted me my request. I'm happy. I do wish, though, that I had lived to see Fidel kicked out of Cuba, but I guess it won't happen during my lifetime. Soon, I hope, his tyranny will end. I feel certain of that.”
Twenty-six years later, Reinaldo’s prophecy is complete. Castro, the man who terrorized a nation, is finally gone, and though his brother replaces him, it is worth taking a moment to be thankful of this. The man was not a symbol or ideology, he was a human being, and he made the world a worse place by hurting the people he was supposed to lead. His political accomplishments are worth nothing if they come on the back of the suffering of others, and saying otherwise is disrespectful to those he harmed. It is disrespectful to the memory of Reinaldo Arenas. Reinaldo Arenas was tortured, harassed, falsely accused of horrific crimes, and through it all, he kept writing. He never gave up that power to Castro. He kept working. While looking at all, he was forced to endure; it is hard to know how, even in his last days when it became painful for him to speak, did he keep going, dictating his autobiography to a tape recorder. The answer, it seems, comes from the man himself.
“The writer has a fundamental responsibility to write well or to write the best he can because if he doesn’t, he’s not a writer. And when a writer writes, he’s always referring to a social and historical context. It’s impossible for Argentinian writers not to write as Argentinians because to be Argentinian is a circumstance of fate like it is to be Cuban.
When you analyze the bourgeois writer’s novel, you see the shortcomings of bourgeois society. Even when you try to write a fantasy story, in some way, that fantasy is going to be connected to reality. But regardless, if someone is a true writer—not an opportunist who wants to be in favor with the government of the day—that person is always going to be for freedom. The simple truth is that without freedom, the writer cannot exist. And the writer who is for freedom is, by definition, not for any totalitarian system. So the duty of the writer is to write well and champion freedom. And he champions freedom because he has an obligation—what better obligation than this?”
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
McDowell, E. (1990, December 9.) The New York Times. Reinaldo Arenas, 47, Writer Who Fled
Cuba, Dies. Retrieved December 4 2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/09/obituaries/reinaldo-arenas-47-writer-who-fled-cuba-dies.html
Slater, A. (2013, December 5.) The New Yorker. The Literature of Uprootedness: An Interview
With Reinaldo Arenas. Retrieved December 4 2016 from http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-literature-of-uprootedness-an-interview-with-reinaldo-arenas
Tatchell, P. (2001, June 8.) The Guardian. The Defiant One. Retrieved December 4 2016 from
Manrique, J. “A Sadness As Deep As The Sea”. Retriever December 4 2016 from
Slater, A. (2013, December 19.) The Huffington Post. On Exile and the Longing for Home: Cuban
Writer Reinaldo Arenas. Retrieved December 4 2016 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ann-tashi-slater/on-exile-and-the-longing-_b_4451017.html
Manrique, J. (2003) BOMB - Artists in Conversation. In Memoriam: Reinaldo Arenas.
Retrieved December 4 2016 from http://bombmagazine.org/article/6392/in-memoriam-reinaldo-arenas
New World Encyclopedia. Reinaldo Arenas. Retrieved December December 4 2016 from
Kirchick, J. (2016, November 27.) The Daily Beast. Fidel Castro’s Horrific Record on Gay Rights.
Retrieved December 4 2016 from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/11/27/don-t-forget-fidel-castro-s-brutal-oppression-of-gay-people.html