For Arenas, a Cuban writer who in 1990 ended his life in his Manhattan apartment at 47, life was a relentless downpour of extremes. He was openly gay in a country whose official stance on homosexuality mirrored the one it had on vermin. Through its early years, and especially after its clampdown on the country’s cultural institutions in 1971, the Cuban regime made it a top priority to “cleanse” its cultural and academic ranks of any semblance of what it called “false, elitist intellectualism.” For the State, this was a perfectly vague platform from which to launch political purges, ridding itself of anyone that refused to parrot its orthodoxy or live by the creed of its new, improved, revolutionary morality.
As hard as it may be to accept for the fawning masses of privileged, clueless Western academics, the Cuban Revolution always saw homosexuals as contemptible. The regime didn’t base its views on any particular concern for the natural order of things. Homosexuals weren’t repulsive to the Cuban Stalinists, for whom nature was only a plaything to mold into whatever contortion they needed to justify themselves from moment to moment. In defying the revolution’s ideal of manhood, however, homosexuals were contemptible for their prima facie disobedience to the State, which is about the only thing that will ever truly repulse a Stalinist.
For all its rhetoric to the contrary, the Cuban government sought primarily to establish itself as an industrial ant-farm and a model exporter of its home-brewed brand of Stalinism. These were goals that, although shrouded in noble rhetoric, required the enforced participation of every one of the country's able-bodied men via mandatory military service, block-by-block neighborhood watch groups, and “volunteer” agricultural work campaigns. It also required the State to politically readjust—and reaffirm—the culture’s sacred patriarchy, which the State used as a base from which to erect what it called el Nuevo Hombre, or the New (revolutionary) Man. In this great vision, the homosexual lost his right to officially exist in society, morphing overnight into a being in need of “help” to rediscover his true calling within his newly revamped revolutionary wonderland. His “therapy” came as quickly as his “diagnosis”—by way of four-year stints in forced labor camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAPs). Here, for 14 hours a day, homosexuals—as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who refused to work for or pledge allegiance to the regime—basked in the therapeutic splendor of a sugar cane plantation, where they cut cane under the tropical sun until their skin blistered and their hands bled. The work would make them men. Many of these people were never heard from again.
This was the landscape in which Arenas pursued his relentless, near pathological erotic adventures with other men, leading to the rather awkward conclusion that if courage is a primary attribute of masculinity, then Cuban homosexuals in Arenas’ time ranked among the most masculine men in the world. The risk of living as a homosexual in Cuba during the 1960s and 1970s was to place your life in the hands of a regime that saw you as nothing more than an expendable slave who refused to do what he was told. If this isn’t the risk of death in the outright, then it’s the risk of something worse than death—the risk of living under such conditions that make dying desirable.
For Arenas, each day brought with it the news of another friend or former lover surrendering to the State, opting to work as informant in exchange for the right to live outside a labor camp. As if this weren’t enough, undercover G2 officers—the proud men of the Cuban Stasi—posed as homosexuals, entrapping unsuspecting drifters into compromising situations that would end with their shipment to a labor camp, their snitching on secret dissidents or homosexuals, or both. On many occasions, Arenas’ chosen lifestyle nearly cost him his life at the hands of the G2, and on one occasion, made him a wanted man for two months. The lam-run, in which he traversed the island and changed his physical appearance to avoid detection, ended with a prison stint in one of the country’s most insidious dungeons, Havana’s El Morro.
But Arenas wasn’t just gay. That’d be too easy. He was also a writer of poetry and fiction, perhaps the most extreme form of social deviance in a country that sees art merely as a tool with which to mythologize the State and its bureaucratic machinery. Arenas had no desire to be a clapping seal for the Party, and had other things to write about than the glories of the proletariat and the need to show a hysterical gratitude to the bearded, sociopathic billionaire running the country.
His greatest crime—more than his homosexuality, artistic leanings, more than his associations with dissidents and artists—was the sin of having bypassed the censorship boards posing as publishing houses and smuggling two completed manuscripts out of the country to France. The manuscripts turned into Singing From the Well (1967) and Hallucinations (1969), each published by Édition du Seuil in Paris, each a classic. This was the deed that placed Arenas on the list of most sought-after dissidents during his time in Cuba, which ended in 1980 when he snuck on a boat during the Mariel Boatlift and managed to escape the reach of the authorities hot on his trail. Within two years, he was living in New York, and within a decade, he’d contracted AIDS. On December 7, 1990, he died by his own hand.
Last week I finished his final book, Before Night Falls, the memoir that served as the basis for the film of the same name, starring Javier Bardem as Arenas. The film also features Johnny Depp in two roles, as an undercover G2 officer posing as a gay prowler, and a transvestite named Bon-Bon. The film and the book should be required reading and watching for a nation too naive and ignorant of 20th-century history to understand what it’s often marching, chanting, and kneeling for.