Thursday, 1 December 2016


Fidel Castro is dead but Guantanamo goes on. That Guantanamo towards which a writer once escaped…Wot! You mean FROM Guantanamo, surely?

Nope. The flight in question was not from Guantanamo, but to it. An attempted escape to Guantanamo US Base. You’d better believe it, because it is true. Just read Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls.

Arenas was a Cuban writer of lyrical novels exuding political and sexual unrest. Like The Palace of the White Skunks, Singing from the Well and The Colour of Summer. Before his untimely 1990 death in New York, Arenas composed the autobiographical memoir Before Night Falls. A beautifully disturbing, infuriating, moving book. Made by director Julian Schnabel into a powerful film. Spanish actor Javier Bardem played Reinaldo. Johnny Depp’s cameo performance as a hilarious, heroic, drag maricona (gay) by itself is worth the video hire.

And Guantanamo? Easily told. Brought up in abject rural poverty, ignorance and disease, young Arenas rises above those formidable handicaps to study literature and quickly becomes an author of great promise. One handicap, sadly, he never overcomes. As a self-conscious gay man living under the aggressively macho, socialist Castro regime, he is doomed as an outsider, an outcast - a marked man. Make no mistake, Arena is no boy scout figure. The candour with which he describes his voracious promiscuousness is a bit shocking – and meant to be so, no doubt. Eventually – homosexuality being both illegal and counter-revolutionary in Cuba – Reinaldo’s proclivities leads to his arrest. Locked up with twenty others in the stinking Miramar police station, he runs out through the back door, jumps into the sea and manages to swim away to his aunt’s house. But, as the dictatorship’s ubiquitous police hunts him out, where is he to find sanctuary?

In the whole of Castro’s Cuba, one place alone. Guantanamo, of course. US naval base and execrated bastion of Yankee imperialism in a people’s paradise. A black friend shows him the way. At midnight, the fugitive crawls through bushes, glimpses the lights of the American airport, is about the enter the river that separates him from Guantanamo when…

Alas, Reinaldo never makes it to that alluring, forbidden capitalist freedom. The border is too well-guarded. Instead, he endures years of imprisonment, persecution and torture in his own land. Banned from publishing a single line at home, he smuggles out abroad his manuscripts in most ingenious ways – pretty extraordinary which bodily orifices can serve as literary hiding places! Final flight comes at last in 1980, to the delayed promised land, the US. Settled in New York, living on the edge of poverty, Arenas vividly describes the hostility, insults and prejudices he suffers at the hands of Western liberal and leftish intelligentsia, for whom any attack on Castro is an attack on the Left – the ‘Fascist Left’, the writer aptly terms it. Against them, against the anti-life forces, as he sees them, Reinaldo screams. Screams loud and clear with his pen, his soul, his whole being. Terminally ill with AIDS, in 1990 he decides to end his own life. His farewell letter includes
these words:

“I end my own life voluntarily because I cannot continue working. Persons near me are in no way responsible for my decision. There is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The suffering of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness and the diseases contracted in exile would probably never have happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country…Cuba will be free. I already am.”

I confess it: as a bolshie teenager growing up in Rome, Fidel was one of my idols. When the Bay of Pigs invasion was routed, I rejoiced. However, something has gone rotten in Cuba since. Didn’t Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and now leader, declare that “should any prisoner escape from Guantanamo into Cuba, he would be returned to the Americans?” Clearly, revolutionary purity ain’t what it used to be. And Arenas’ odyssey, if it proves anything, it proves that that no regime, even if putatively progressive, can suppress, stifle the spontaneous urge to creation, the fierce independence of a human soul.

As for the writer’s sins, his suicide, hear this: Christ offers redemption to all creatures. No one is excluded – providing they repent. No one is beyond reach of the outpourings of Divine Love through the sacrifice of the Cross. Further, the self-righteous among us should keep before their eyes, emblazoned in words of fire, Christ’s terrible warning to the Pharisees:

“Verily, I tell you: the prostitutes and the tax-collectors go into the Kingdom of Heaven before you.”

And Castro? Has he perished for good – as he, a self-declared Marxist-Leninist atheist believed - or…what?

I picture Fidel finding himself, to his amazement, before the Pearly Gates. Disdainful at first, when the old revolutionary glimpses through the entrance some of the blessed souls puffing away on fat Havana cigars, he reflects: ‘Oh, well, never mind this religious hocus-pocus. The set-up doesn’t look too bad. I might as well seek admission.’ So, a bit diffidently, Fidel inquires of the gatekeeper: ‘Can I come in?’

‘Only if he agrees’, Peter replies, pointing to a figure nearby. ‘Who is that?’ Castro hopefully asks. Sternly, the Saint replies: ‘Somebody you should know: his name is Reinaldo Arenas’.

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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