Monday, March 23, 2009

Before Night Falls: The Silenced Side of the Cuban Revolution

Publicado: 05/03/2009 - 15:03

Before Night Falls: The Silenced Side of the Cuban Revolution

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas is a unique recorded account about the atrocities committed in the name of the Cuban Revolution but hardly known by the outside world. It is a first hand report by someone who personally suffered the many injustices of Castro’s regime. In the text Arenas recount: “More than thirty years have gone by, and Fidel Castro is still staging those show trials and, of course, televising some of them. But now Castro is no longer executing Batista’s’ henchmen; instead, he executes his own soldiers and sometimes even his own generals” (46). This memoir is a great example of a testimonio, in which “the narrator intents to communicate the situation of a group’s oppression, struggle, or imprisonment, to claim some agency in the act of narrating, and to call upon readers to respond actively in judging the crisis” (Smith & Watson, 206). In Before Night Falls, Arenas unmasked the brutality, persecution, coercion, imprisonment and death tactics used by Castro to keep the Cuban people from protesting against his government.

In Before Night Falls, Reinaldo Arenas chronicles his life from childhood growing up under Batista’s’ dictatorship, the Cuban Revolution and later his life and death in exile in the US. It is a very important piece of literature because one hardly ever reads about the Cuban revolution from a writer growing up in the island. And also because Arenas, being himself a master writer, is able to keep the reader intrigued with his natural story telling style, full sexual images of freedom, prosecution and imprisonment. He began writing his memoir while “being a fugitive living in the woods… I had to write before it got dark” (XII). He finished it later on while living in exile in New York before his death.

Arenas story sheds light on a different side of Castro’s dictatorship which is usually omitted or romanticized by authors and many media outlets. Soon after Castro came into power, Arenas confirms, all those who dare say or write anything negative about the system were systematically persecuted and sent to prison. For example, Heberto Padilla, a poet who wrote a text in which he condemned the revolution, was later arrested, beaten and tortured until he retracted what he said and called himself a traitor of the revolution (136). No body was (is) allowed to freely express their personal views in Cuba. All those who dared to speak up against the system were (are) sent to prison accused of treason, but first they are publicly humiliated on national television or on the streets so as to send a warning to all those thinking of doing the same.

In addition, Arenas shed light on the fatal fate of many artists of his generation: “Nelson Rodriguez… was executed. Delfin Prats… became a dehumanized alcoholic. Pepe el Loco, the bold chronicler, ended up killing himself.” (88-89). Any artist or ordinary citizen who did not follow the line of communism were persecuted, tortured and kill unless they became one of Castro’s sympathizer. If an artist was part of the socialist system they were allowed special favors such as travel and the opportunity to study abroad paid for by the government. Nevertheless, dissidence was not tolerated and was heavily punished by imprisonment, death or exile. Freedom of speech was not allowed under Castro’s government. Reinaldo Arenas was persecuted and imprisoned for having the audacity to smuggle and get his writings published abroad and also for his sexual orientation, he was homosexual.

Consequently, Arenas uses sexual images in the text as symbols of personal freedom. Throughout the text, Arenas describes vividly the many sexual adventures he had while living under Castro’s regime. Sometimes he uses humor and erotic verbosity, and at times might appears gross to the reader but his bluntness and honesty far outweigh any moral prejudgment. He claims that by the time he was twenty three he had had sex with more than 5000 men, and that “a certain erotic rebelliousness pervaded our youth” (92). With no apologies for his sexual orientation or that of the young people he met, he describes without sparing any detail, all his sexual encounters with lovers, strangers and soldiers. Reinaldo Arenas notes that at times he, and many others with the same sexual orientation (including members of Castro’s government), had to hide (repress) their homosexuality for fears of retaliation from the government, given the fact that “all dictatorship are sexually repressive and anti-life” (93). In 1973, following an altercation on the beach, Reinaldo was falsely accused of sexual molestation and arrested. He escaped from jail and made a desperate attempt to flee the island in an inner tube. The attempt failed and Reinaldo became a fugitive. He was re-arrested near Lenin Park and sent to the notorious El Morro prison, where he served two years alongside murderers, rapists and common criminals but his yearning for freedom never stopped, even in the face of death.

In 1980, Castro allowed homosexuals, mental patients and criminals to leave Cuba in the Mariel Harbor boatlift; a last-minute auto-change to his passport allowed Arenas to leave the country undetected. Finally feeling free, Reinaldo Arenas expected people in the USA to be more receptive about what he had to say regarding his personal experience under Castro’s dictatorship, but he was astounded by their reaction. He was ostracized and marginalized for his criticism of Castro by leftist intellectuals in Latin America and leftists here in the USA who were Castro’s regime admirers. Even professors at universities who previously used his books in their literature classes started to remove his books from the curriculum. He noticed that “ as soon as I started denouncing the tyranny I had been suffering for twenty years, even my own publisher, who had made enough money from my books, covertly turned against me” (287). Reinaldo discovers that even a capitalist free society have its own particular flaws.

However, now that he was finally free, he would use this freedom to denounce all the atrocities he witnessed in Cuba. He began travelling around the world given lectures at universities in search of sympathizer for his cause, exalting people to open their eyes and help the Cuban people to liberate themselves from Castro’s dictatorship. Although Arenas presented “excerpts from the Cuban newspaper Granma, and other legal documents” (303) as evidence to support his claim, he received a lot of resistance and people refused to believe his testimonio. Regardless of the skepticism he received, he continued to tell his side of the story of the Cuban revolution, inviting readers to join him in his fight to liberate Cuba and his fight against all forms of oppression. Reinaldo Arenas died in 1990 after finishing Before Night Falls, leaving to the world his testimonio of all the social injustice he and others endured under Castro’s regime that otherwise humanity would have never known.

Work Cited

Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls, Penguin Books, USA 1993.

Smith, Sidonie, and Watson, Julia. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life

Narratives. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

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