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Interviews : Manuel Vázquez Portal

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Born in 1951, Manuel Vázquez Portal grew up in the early days of the Castro regime. He received a degree in philology and worked for several years as a teacher. Afterward, he served as a literature advisor in the Ministry of Culture and a journalist with a state-owned media outlet. Through his work, he discovered first-hand how the regime used media and literature as propaganda and banned anything that challenged government ideology. Disillusioned with the regime’s censorship, Manuel focused his talents on children’s literature, a field that offered more flexibility for creativity and imagination.

In 1995, Manuel joined an independent news agency called Cuba Press, and in 1998, he helped form a similar organization called the United Workers Group. In 2003, Manuel was arrested along with 74 other nonviolent dissidents as part of a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his criticism of the regime. While incarcerated, Manuel worked with fellow political prisoners to organize protests against the prison guards and hunger strikes.

Also during this time, Manuel smuggled his diary out of prison with its descriptions of the conditions he and fellow prisoners endured; his testimonies were published for the outside world under the title Written Without Permission. The Committee to Protect Journalists presented Manuel the International Press Freedom award in absentia for his efforts to expose the regime’s treatment of political prisoners..

In 2004, Cuban authorities transferred Manuel from prison to a hospital; years of abuse and malnutrition had caused his health to deteriorate. Much to his surprise, Manuel was released and went into exile. He brought his family to the United States where he continues to champion a free and democratic Cuba. 

Look, art is an effect of spiritual cleansing, of conceptual and emotional freedom. If I was to give you a metaphor, a parable, I would say that caged birds do not sing. A nightingale inside a cage will die. And socialism and communism demand defending [the system] or keeping silent. The history of intellectual and artistic dissidents inside totalitarian societies is quite lengthy. From Mikhail Bulgakov, who never saw his novel, The Master and Margarita, or his published theatrical works, to Anna Akhmatova [Anna Andreyevna Gorenko], an exquisite poet who also never saw her poetry published under [Joseph] Stalin and various Soviet governments, paid for their “heresy” of telling the truth by being silenced. And Herta Müller, the Nobel Prize[winning] Romanian author said that, “People who have lived under a totalitarian dictatorship deserve a second chance at life because in reality they have never lived one.” And I believe that to be the truth.

Throughout history, the world has always said that the artist is a transgressor. If one doesn’t transgress, doesn’t go against what is “politically correct” and find new ways of expressions, I believe they are no longer an artist. [Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) was a Russian writer and playwright. Anna Andreyevna Gorenko (1889 – 1966), better known by her penname Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet. Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1922 which he ruled until his death in 1953. Herta Müller (1953 – ) is a Romanian writer and poet who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.]

In essence, since totalitarianism kills all those freedoms, art turns into something flat, sad, and untruthful. Try to find in literature or art from that which used to be called socialist realism which was really something very bad, of very low quality. However, inside those circumstances there has been born a type of art, of grand literature, that was discovered much later…I don’t know. Boris [Leonidovich] Pasternak was sent to jail…Some other ones come to mind…Soviet writers, Russians… It would be tedious to name a list of the great poets and writers, painters, musicians, scientists. [Andrei] Sakharov was a scientist and his freedom of expression cost him what we all know.

Dissenting from communism is very dangerous. To think within communism is dangerous because the hierarchy are the only ones who [are allowed to] think under communism. The people must obey and comply. And the artist neither obeys nor complies. An artist is disobedient, a transgressor, always finding freedom.

[Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890 – 1960) was a Russian writer and poet who is well known for his novel, Doctor Zhivago. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958. Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) was a Russian physicist who was instrumental in the development of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. However, he became one of the regime's foremost critics and an iconic defender of human rights and democracy around the world. He received the Nobel Peace prize in 1975.]

In Cuba, in the beginning of the 1960’s, Fidel Castro placed his gun on a table during a meeting with intellectuals and said, “With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” There died the freedom of aesthetic. Of course, Fidel Castro is such a faker that those words, “With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing,” are taken from John Calvin’s, “With the Church, everything. Against the Church, nothing.”

So, Fidel Castro is such a sloppy guy that he plagiarizes philosophers, writers, and thinkers. In essence, Fidel Castro did not even come up with that phrase. He took it and bent it. It was an idea from John Calvin. From there on, it was as the writer Virgilio Piñera used to say, “I am very afraid.” The writer begins to feel fear. And the great [artists] began to emigrate. That’s how they all left the country such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Pio Serrano up to the last intellectual. And that of course created stale literature, of low quality.

When one reviews Cuban literature during Castro’s time, one notices that the literature that was saved was from the great writers who were already famous in the republic: Alejo Carpentier [y Valmont], [José] Lezama Lima, Eliseo Diego, Fina Garcia Marruz, and some other writers that appeared.

[John Calvin (1509 – 1564) was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation. Virgilio Piñera (1912 – 1979) was a Cuban writer and playwright. Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929 – 2005) was a Cuban writer and film critic who lived in exile as a prominent critic of the Castro regime. Pio Serrano (1941 – ) is a Cuban writer and poet who lives in exile in Spain. Alejo Carpentier y Valmont (1904 – 1980) is a Cuban novelist recognized as one of the most influential figures in Latin American literature. José Lezama Lima (1910 – 1976) was a Cuban poet and novelist. Eliseo Diego (1920 – 1994) was a Cuban poet. Fina Garcia Marruz (1923 – ) is a Cuban poet.]

But from there on, we were dealing with literature that was entrenched, complacent, apologetic, where the work’s purpose was to cover reality with ideology. Therefore we found ourselves with really bad literature, really bad art.

It doesn’t really happen with sculpture or music which does grow during this period. And we find out that being a poet, an artist inside communism is a very hard profession, very arduous. So people migrate. But when people migrate, they lose a bit of their roots and they lose a bit of their origins, even though in the history of Cuban literature, much of the great Cuban literature was written in exile. From [José María] Heredia, our first great romantic poet, to [José] Marti our great modern poet. But that doesn’t mean that literature doesn’t require the indigenous experience of one’s country.

[José María Heredia (1803 – 1839) was a Cuban poet under Spanish rule. Jose Marti (1853 – 1895) is recognized as Cuba’s national hero. Marti was a writer and essayist who advocated for Cuban independence from Spain.]

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.

More from Manuel Vázquez Portal

Manuel Vazquez Portal: Art Under Tyranny “An artist is disobedient, a transgressor, always finding freedom.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: Background “I'm tired of painting a pretty picture when in reality the quality of life in Cuba is catastrophic.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: Change in Cuba? “Raul Castro has established a scheme for survival.” More + Manuel Vazquez Portal: The Black Spring “The cell was three steps wide and seven long.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: Release and Exile Manuel reveals the details of his release and exile. Manuel Vazquez Portal: International Support “All international organizations help by giving visibility to a prisoner.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: The Ladies in White “But what the Cuban government did not expect was the appearance of a feminist movement.” Manuel Vazquez Portal: Defiance in Prison Manuel talks about continuing nonviolent resistance in prison.