‘In Cuba, my books fall apart and vanish’

Fiction
Cuba
Culture
Politics

There are changes that are necessary. But at times they are applied in a way that is quite arbitrary. There is an ‘economistic’ approach with little vision of the social impacts of the changes. For example: it is now possible for Cubans to stay in tourist hotels and to sell their houses and their cars, but these changes favour only people who have money, or houses or cars. The great majority can’t participate in them. The internet is to be made more available but the tariffs are the highest in the world. So, it’s difficult to understand the logic of some of these changes.

Vanessa Baird/New Internationalist

You enjoy international recognition, but how does your work go down in Cuba?

When we launched The Man Who Loved Dogs in Havana we had 1,000 books which sold out in two hours. I had to sign 800 books in one sitting. But in the media, in newspapers and the more official magazines, my name is seldom mentioned.

There are two reasons for this: the first is my person and the second my books. As a person I am very independent. My duty is to my work, to my writing. I don’t belong to any official organization. I am not an official writer. My books have a vision that is very critical of Cuban reality.

Literature and writers are not promoted in Cuba. There is no market structure for it. My German, Spanish, English, French publishers all do promotion. But in Cuba publishers do nothing to sell my book: first, because they know it will sell, and second, because they are not interested in doing this work. Often my books are only published at all in Cuba because I insist on it; I want Cubans to be able to read them [in fact, Padura’s crime novels are top of the list of books that Cuba’s female cigar-rollers want read to them while they are working]. Often Cubans wanting to read my books ask friends in other Spanish-speaking countries to send them copies. Cuba does not reprint books and so copies fall apart and eventually disappear.

Unlike many Cuban writers, you have stayed living in Cuba. Why is this so important to you?

I am a Cuban writer and I’m interested in writing about what has happened and what is happening in Cuba. My last two novels, Heretics and The Man Who Loved Dogs, have a more universal panorama, the latter taking place in Russia, Spain, Norway, Mexico. But they are born in Cuba and return to Cuba. Heretics is a reflection on individual freedom of all kinds. The Man Who Loved Dogs could only be written in the way it was written by someone who lived in a socialist system like Cuba. The analysis of the story of Trotsky and [his assassin] Mercader is seen from the perspective of a Cuban who is the ultimate victim of the novel. It is upon his life that all that has happened during the 70 years of communism will collapse. He is crushed by it. As a Cuban I am interested in reflecting on these themes.

Why did you choose to write a novel about Trotsky?

There is almost no information about Trotsky in Cuba. The name of Trotsky disappeared for the same reasons that Stalin and others removed him. That aroused my curiosity. In the library I found just two books that referred to him, one called Trotsky the Traitor, the other Trotsky the False Prophet.

My duty is to my work, to my writing. I don’t belong to any official organization. I am not an official writer. My books have a vision that is very critical of Cuban reality.

I had to look abroad for my research [which took two years] and that enabled me to write a history that is new. For example, the vision of the Spanish Civil War is one that emerged only after the opening of the Russian archives in the early 1990s. Before that no-one knew the depth and role of the Soviet communists in Spain during the Civil War; it totally changed our romantic view. There were no papers about the assassination of Trotsky in the archives but there were many documents about the relationship of the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. We began to see the evidence of Stalin’s pathological illness and its impact. Stalin killed so many communists in Poland that they had to re-establish the party. He killed more members of the central communist party in Germany than Hitler.

Another thing that made me think about writing this novel was the discovery that Ramón Mercader [Trotsky’s assassin] had lived in Cuba for four years under another name. In Cuba there was even less information about Mercader than Trotsky, but I did meet the radiologist who treated him when he got cancer.

The book got people in Cuba interested in finding out more about Trotsky. But this is difficult still, because his writings are not in circulation.

You are dealing with subjects that are politically quite sensitive. What’s been the official reaction?

Some Cuban officials don’t like my books. But fortunately they have all been published in Cuba and [several have] won prizes. I received the National Literary Prize, the most important in Cuba.

I know that among the people who read The Man Who Loved Dogs are [former Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez, [Argentina’s President] Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and [Brazil’s President] Dilma Roussef. I don’t know if Fidel or Raúl Castro [the former and current presidents of Cuba] have read it. You can’t buy the book in Cuba anymore. There were just two print runs of 4,000 each and they sold out. Most important for me is the relationship with ordinary readers and the response from them has been warm. Many agreed that it was necessary for me to write this book, and that they understood the history better now.

What do you think of the changes or reforms taking place in Cuba today?

There are changes that are necessary. But at times they are applied in a way that is quite arbitrary. There is an ‘economistic’ approach with little vision of the social impacts of the changes. For example: it is now possible for Cubans to stay in tourist hotels and to sell their houses and their cars, but these changes favour only people who have money, or houses or cars. The great majority can’t participate in them. The internet is to be made more available but the tariffs are the highest in the world. So, it’s difficult to understand the logic of some of these changes.

The state is deformed, economically. And politically, too. People don’t believe in the structures of government. What is called ‘popular power’ is a structure in which people have no confidence because they know that it cannot resolve problems.

One important change has been allowing people to travel freely. But it is going to be the most costly for Cuba because it will be the best educated and most intelligent who leave. Those who have learned to live without working will remain.

Cuba is the only country I know where those who don’t work can live better than those who do. Those who do ‘business on the street’ or who have a brother who works in the US and sends back $100 a month, can sit at home, watch television all day, and be better off than a doctor who works eight hours a day [doctors’ salaries were recently increased to $30 a month].

The cost of living has risen. A part of the population has become poorer, mainly those who live in the barrios, who are black or mestizo [mixed], those who don’t have family outside Cuba and people in ‘the third age’ [living on a pension of $10 a month].

There are no studies to show how many people are living below dignity level. The poverty is not obvious. There are few homeless people. There is no hunger but many people don’t eat properly. And it will get worse.

Are there any good things?

Cuba fortunately is not yet a violent country, you can feel safe, nobody is dying of hunger on the streets. You can’t find aspirin in hospitals, but you can find people who can save your life when something serious happens. The most important things work.

It is now possible for Cubans to stay in tourist hotels and to sell their houses and their cars, but these changes favour only people who have money, or houses or cars.

But economically the country is not working. For example, you can’t buy Cuba’s most popular cigarettes in the airport duty-free; you can’t get potatoes. There is a great problem of organization. The state is deformed, economically. And politically, too. People don’t believe in the structures of government. What is called ‘popular power’ is a structure in which people have no confidence because they know that it cannot resolve problems.

Do you think the economic changes on the island will lead to political changes?

Yes, sooner or later. The economic changes are provoking social changes and these changes are sooner or later going to produce political changes. I don’t know when it’s going to happen. We assume that in 2018 Raúl Castro will hand over power, supposedly to a civilian leadership. But at the same time the military people are strengthening their economic power. The majority of ministers come from the military. We could have a civilian government of generals or we could have something else. We don’t know.

Can you speak – and write – more freely today than you used to?

I have always spoken in this way, although I have often felt fear. But I think feeling afraid is normal, human. The important thing is to engage with the fear. I have always thought this way, always been critical of the Cuban reality. We have a system that is very vertical; people are not able to make decisions about their own lives.

What do you think about restriction of the internet in your country?

I think the internet is as important and necessary in today’s world as the invention of the wheel in Neolithic times. It is a basic instrument of knowledge and communication that a person needs and restricting it is holding back the country’s development. The space for information needs to be democratized, via blogs, via the internet. We can’t just have the official space.

When you see ‘savage capitalism’ operating in countries you visit do you worry about what might happen to Cuba?

Yes, it makes me afraid. But I think that if we delay change we have a greater risk of ending up with savage capitalism. We have wasted many years during which we have not changed the country enough to save the good things. Inevitably the economic changes are going to produce imbalances; we have them already. If we delay restructuring, things will become more unbalanced and this worries me.

If you were President for a day and you could do just two things, what would they be?

One would be to organize a carnival in all the country, where people could eat and drink all the rum they wanted and enjoy themselves, because Cubans have had a tough time in the past years.

The other would be to try and turn Cuba into a normal country. By ‘normal’ I mean a country where a doctor can earn, though their work, enough money to live with dignity. Where a person can have the possibility, at least, of thinking about how to build their future. In Cuba, the state decides what you can do at any moment and it makes this an abnormal country. I should add that the US embargo against Cuba creates an economic tension that affects everything and everyone. If we had normal relations with the US, it would be easier for Cuba to be a normal country. Our problems are not just Cuba’s fault, although they are largely; the very real impact of the US embargo is also to blame.

Leonardo Padura’s books are available in English translation via Bitter Lemon Press (bitterlemonpress.com). They include the Havana crime series, featuring inspector Mario Conde. His most recently translated book, The Man Who Loved Dogs, is reviewed in New Internationalist (NI 471, April 2014).

Look out for the October 2014 issue of New Internationalist on Cuba, edited by Vanessa Baird. Coming soon.

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