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Reinaldo Arenas or gay hedonism in Cuba

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 24 november 2000


The New York painter Julian Schnabel devoted a movie to the life of Reinaldo Arenas. The film is based on his autobiographical Before Night Falls (1992/1993). A taste of the life of this horny but doomed Cuban writer.

Cuba figures importantly in discussions on homosexuality. To my knowledge no other Third World country has in gay studies been described to an extent like Cuba. These stories all show some similarity. Gay men have indeed been persecuted in Cuba, but luckily things are a bit better these days. Authors add excusingly that Fidel Castro has done a lot of good for the Cubans as far as education and health-care are concerned. An important question is where the homophobia of Castro`s regime comes from. With nuances all authors point at traditional Latin-American machismo, though they also have to admit that socialism didn`t do much for the breaking down of male megalomania and hatred against gays.
The cowardice and half-heartedness of left wing, sometimes even homosexual Cuba adepts we`d better forget. Meanwhile it`s beyond a doubt gays have been imprisoned en masse in the so called UMAP camps: the military units supporting the production. Jan Lumsden cautiously objects these camps weren`t for gays in the first place, but has to admit gays were its main population. All boys and men unfit for military service, arrested for homosexuality or considered unsocial in any other way, ended up in the UMAP camps where they carried on forced labour in for instance the sugar cane crop. The camps were in existence from 1965 till 1970. Since then queers who were dangerous to the state landed in jail again or in a regular work camp. The mass escape of maricones" during the Mariel exodus to the paradise of capitalism and decadence, North America, in 1980 was not accidental!

Autobiographies

Fortunately Cuba itself has produced enough homosexual writers writing about homosexuality in Cuba itself. Without a doubt the most important one among them was Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990). He has eleven novels and some short stories, essays, poems and plays and an autobiography to his name. Most of his novels have been translated in French or English.
His autobiographical books are his best, I think. Like Old Rosa (1981/1989) about his childhood, El Central (1981/1984) and The Brightest Star (1984/1989) about the Cuban concentration camps for gays and Before Night Falls (1992/1993) about his life as a whole. Arenas was born in a Cuban province in 1943. At the time of Fidel`s revolution he heroically tried to join the revolutionaries. Therefor he was awarded a place in a agricultural-school. He got work in a chicken farm but soon sought his safety in the city and in literature. The city in Cuba is Havana. After some initial doubts about his sexual preference he chose for a shameless passive homosexuality. At the end of the Sixties he figured he had been fucked by some 5000 men. Despite growing homophobia Cuba was still a gay paradise. Arenas` first novel was published in the Sixties in Cuba itself. Though for his second novel he was awarded a literary prize, due to its presumed critical tone it could not be published in Castro`s empire and neither also his later work. He had to smuggle his manuscripts out of the country. Mainly because of his success abroad Arenas became an unwanted inhabitant of Cuba. From 1970 onwards he would get to know unwillingly the inside of the working camps and prisons of this sugar cane paradise. In 1980 he fled with many other Cubans amidst a mass of queens, lunies and other so called criminals to Florida. In the US he was free, but to his chagrin the men were less interested in active sex than in Cuba and regrettably the fame of the writer behind bars was bigger than that of the free bird. In New York this blatant sodomite contracted Aids and in 1990 he made an end to a life of illness. In a final move he shoved the reason for his suffering in Castro`s shoes, the self-evident object of his hate.

Ambivalence

Despite his rage Arenas` novels and prose poems are poetic and full of ambivalence. El Central interweaves the horrors of the slavery of negroes and Indians with those of the gay concentration camps. In The Brightest Star he descibes fellow prisoners who are blatant queens in negative terms while portraying the guards as seductive and horny. The guards fuck the prisoners because a queer is the one receiving".
Arenas has an obvious hate-love affair with machismo and Castrism. This makes his work elusive to both leftist Castro followers and rightist fugutives. The shameless homosexuality doesn`t go with either camp. About the relationship of gay persecution and pleasure in the Sixties in Before Night Falls he makes the following remark: [Young Cuban men] had girlfriends or wives, but when they came to us they enjoyed themselves thoroughly, sometimes more than with their wives, who often would refuse to suck or had inhibitions that made love-making less pleasurable. [...] Perhaps as a protest against the regime, homosexuality began to flourish with ever-increasing defiance."

Hedonism Especially his autobiography is a testimony to a fabulous homosexual hedonism. In Havana Arenas lives with a communist aunt right next to a military training camp. The recrutes and officers are lining up so to speak to fuck Arenas. One night he`s in bed with a soldier when there`s a knock on the door. Of course Arenas doesn`t open the door, but his lover insists, climbs over a wall, crawls through a window and reaches his goal. The intruder appears to be a teacher of the soldier. Who of them is most under a cloud? Not all sex is as funny and pleasurable though. There are provocating-cops hunting queers, there are thieves seeing queers as an easy prey to rob and there are queer bashers. At one occasion a cop first fucks Arenas before arresting him for homosexual conduct. The arrest comes to nothing because Arenas in turn sues the cop.
The autobiography doesn`t deal with gay sex only, but also tells about the cultural and social life in Cuba. About poverty, social control, literary circles of friends. Main themes are the portrayal of the island as one big prison, where sodomite hedonism is a clear protest against the cruel Castro regime. Some chapters are devoted to other gay Cuban writers like Virgilio Pinera, José Lezama Lima (writer of the magnificent novel Paradiso) and Nelson Rodriguez. Rodriguez tried to escape from Cuba with his sixteen year old boyfriend. Nelson had been imprisoned in a gay camp and dreaded ending up there again. The lovers hijacked a Cuban plane with a handgrenade, but came face to face with some security-agents. The boyfriend didn`t dare throw his grenade, Nelson did. The grenade made a hole in the bottom of the airplane which made a sucessful emergency landing. Nelson tried to escape trough the hole but got hit by the plane`s propeller. After his wounds healed he and his boyfriend were condemned to death and executed. Arenas dedicated The Brightest Star to Nelson Rodriguez. Also Rodriguez described his experiences in a gay camp, a report still rotting away somewhere in Cuba.
The books of Arenas are well written, erotic books giving a nuanced portrayal of the social life in Cuba under Castro. And that is, despite what Castro adepts like us to believe, no other than a prison. Read The Assault (1990/1994), Arenas` posthumously published novel. According to Arenas the ultimate subjection the communists thought up for the people they enslaved was teaching them no other language than the orders and speeches of their Great Leader. The Cubans are not allowed to speak their own language and may not eye each other`s butt. This is the way Arenas depicts communism: culture-less and sex-less. Meanwhile Arenas passed away. Unfortunately Castro still manages to stumble on on a stick and a punch and impose his will on the Cuban people.



 

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