The Cuban Revolutionary war has been viewed through different lenses, typically dependent upon which side of history the viewer falls on. Fidel Castro’s march through Havana after the exit of Fulgencia Batista was paraded as the era of change that Cuba needed in order to break out from Yankee imperialism and the iron grip of organized crime. The charismatic and bearded leader introduced a new pride in Cubans with promises of true revolution and equality for all. Today, nearly sixty years later, we know that did not happen and the true number of people persecuted under his rule may never be known. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was just one of thousands of exiles who were able to leave the island they called home to escape relentless persecution because of their sexuality and literary beliefs. And when he took his own life on December 7, 1990, an end came to a short but painful life in which he never truly found peace. Before his death he made it a goal to complete this autobiography as a sort of farewell gift to those who knew him or his work. His death was no accident and Arenas explains himself that he will in fact leave this world as his choosing. Twenty-seven years have passed since his death but his story is remarkable even today. The book was adapted into a screenplay by Julian Schnabel and the film starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp. Both are great actors but as good as the film may be, the only person who told Arenas’ story the best was Arenas himself.
The author begins the book by taking us back to his childhood in Cuba, in particular his village of Holguín where he was born into a village of poverty where he and his closest siblings had no shoes and sometimes ate the earth. The descriptions of the poverty that could be found in his village are shocking but an accurate portrayal of life in small villages just decades ago. At a young age, he realizes he is a homosexual and his sexual orientation will be a major factor in almost all of the events that take place throughout the rest of his life. They are also central to everything in the book. Stories of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba under the Castro government are well-known but those outside of Cuba may not know just how much. In a society where all were supposed to be equal, the blatant harassment and discrimination of gay men and women contradicted the revolutionary ideology. Nevertheless, from Arenas’ words, it does seem at times as if homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality. His encounters with men are spontaneous, dangerous and also numerous. And his descriptions of his encounters and what he witnesses are graphic and not for readers that are uneasy with explicit sexual dialogue.
As a writer, Arenas also possessed another quality which made him an enemy of the state. He explains himself that Castro does not like writers, either those for or against the government and the suppression of free thought, speech and works of literature is present everywhere as big brother cracks down in Orwellian style manifested in the classic 1984. Informants, mail-opening and surveillance were tools of the trade as ordinary citizens lived under a microscope where everyone was suspected of being counter-revolutionary and forced to live on meager rations with nearly no income. In fact, their lives stood in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Castro and his subordinates. In short, it was the classic totalitarian state despite of the image projected by the Castro regime. Cuban exiles will readily agree with this but even in Cuba, there are those who believed in Castro and still do. The debate will go on for an eternity.
Arenas realizes that his sexual orientation and writing have made him a target and he knows it is just a matter of time before the authorities come for him. They do and his incarceration in Cuban jails makes up the central part of the book. His descriptions of life in Cuban prisons defy belief and it is a miracle that anyone survives. Towards the end of the book, he admits that he never fully healed from prison and that no one ever does. But he remains strong in the face of adversity as authorities do their best to break his spirit and turn him into informant. When he finally puts prison behind him, he troubles are over as he has to earn a living but is known to the State and known in society as part of a group of people who are often ostracized. He knows he must get out of Cuba, but the questions remains as to how he will do it. A chance event in Peru changes his life and the lives of thousands of other Cubans and when he finally steps foot on U.S. soil, the next phase of his life begins but not long before it tragically ends.
Although this is Arenas’ autobiography, he tells the story of the lives of many people close to him, all struggling to find peace and happiness in a society which represses anything an everything. Scene and scene of debauchery and tragedy play out by characters just short of despair. Their stories and Arenas’ life reveal the facade behind the triumphant revolution which replaced on dictator with another who was at times even more brutal towards his own citizens. In a cruel twist of fate, Castro outlived Arenas and many other Cuban exiles depriving them of the chance to see Cuba after Castro. The future will tell if Cuba will every truly be free but as the nation moves towards that goal, then it is best served to remember the stories of those who have suffered and Arenas who through his words, one of Cuba’s loudest voices.