Sexual Revolution

In his explicit memoir, Reinaldo Arenas recorded the perils of being a homosexual man in Castro’s Cuba

Illustration by Christopher Cozier

It was Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret, who once famously boasted
that he had slept with a thousand women. (Later, someone rather unkindly
pointed out that he had paid most of them.) But these exploits pale into
insignificance in comparison with the amorous exertions of the gay Cuban
writer Reinaldo Arenas, who claims at one point in his memoir Before Night
Falls
to have enjoyed intimate relations with no fewer than 5,000 men.

An exhausting prospect, and a subject that Arenas develops with considerable
candour throughout the book (I shall leave the details to the imagination).
But, however unsparingly told, this memoir is not just a monumental act
of oneupmanship. Arenas’s very active brand of homosexuality is the theme
around which a personal and political odyssey is constructed, the reason
for the writer’s experience of discrimination and ostracism.

Reinaldo Arenas was born in Holguín, Cuba, in 1943,
his childhood and adolescence experienced under the corrupt and repressive
rule of the various strongmen who dominated the island. The most infamous
of these was Fulgencio Batista, a nasty mix of playboy and torturer, whose
unsavoury regime paved the way for Fidel Castro’s guerrilla campaign and,
eventually, the Revolution. Arenas was conscious, he says, of Batista’s
iniquities, but also felt free during his early rural years in a way that
he never would again. Much of this freedom, it must be said, was of a sexual
nature, and we soon discover that the young Reinaldo is drawn more to his
own gender than to the opposite.

In the last days of the Revolution, he recalls, he tried to join the rebels,
but was told to go away — unless he could somehow get hold of a gun, preferably
by killing one of Batista’s cops. Even so, the early days of Castro’s government
seemed promising: Arenas received a scholarship, was selected for political
training, and took part in the wholesome singing of revolutionary songs
and hiking expeditions that the new regime encouraged.

But, inevitably, there was something, or someone, in the closet trying
to come out, and Arenas’s sexual orientation began to assert itself, especially
after he moved to Havana and associated himself with an artistic and mostly
non-revolutionary group. Cruising was the norm, and Arenas began to develop
a reputation for promiscuity and risk-taking. He also makes it clear that
the search for intellectual and artistic integrity was inextricably interconnected
with the quest for personal, and thus sexual, freedom.

This emphasis on personal gratification as opposed to the collective ethos
puts Arenas on a collision course with the Revolution, which in the late
1960s was taking its most militant and, to many, most intolerant form. Castro
himself was quoted as saying that a homosexual could never make a good revolutionary,
and gay men were routinely rounded up and sent to forced labour camps. This
happened to Arenas, who found himself in a the sweltering inferno of a sugar
plantation, pressed to take part in the infamous bid to cut ten million
tons of cane in a single harvest.

Someone like Reinaldo Arenas might reasonably be considered unconventional
in a liberal democracy, but in a one-party state dominated by ideological
puritanism he was quite simply a counter-revolutionary. As he fell from
grace with the regime, he embraced the counter-culture more tightly, associating
with a coterie of artists and non-conformists who rejected the Revolution
as wholeheartedly as it rejected them. In his account of Havana in the 1970s,
he emphasises the shortages, the hardships, the monotony of a life in which
travel was forbidden, and escape a constant dream. He also reveals how many
writers succumbed to despair or suicide, or became informants and secret
policemen of a literary type. Some of the most fascinating anecdotal material
concerns Cuba’s great writers — José Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera,
Nicolás Guillén — and their varying reactions to the “official”
ideology of the Revolution.

As Arenas’s fame as a writer grew outside Cuba (due to manuscripts smuggled
out and published in France and Latin America), so did the disapproval of
the Cuban state weigh more heavily. Eventually, a typical tryst ended in
disaster, as Arenas was arrested and charged with corrupting a minor. If
the state had failed to convict him of political crimes, it was, it seems,
content to discredit and shame him with the stigma of a sexual criminal.
There follows the most harrowing section of the book. Telling of interrogation
and unspeakable living conditions in the infamous Castillo del Morro, Arenas
explains with lucid detachment how he survived two years of prison. Perhaps
the most chilling aspect of this period is that the authorities tried to
persuade him to change his outlook, to abandon what they viewed as a decadent
lifestyle, and to write a book or books celebrating the Revolution. Yet,
far from breaking Arenas’s spirit, the experience of imprisonment merely
increased his resolve to escape from Cuba.

The opportunity finally presented itself in April 1980, after Arenas had
been released from jail but was still, he claims, under constant state supervision.
It was then that, under pressure from thousands of Cubans seeking asylum
in Havana’s Peruvian embassy, and threatened by wide-scale social upheaval,
Castro opened the floodgates and allowed shiploads of escapees, mostly criminals
and other “undesirables”, to sail to Florida from the port of Mariel. Among
this flotilla was Reinaldo Arenas, who had managed to shrug off the secret
police, change the name on his document to “Arinas”, and board a vessel.

Within ten years Arenas was dead from AIDS, but as this powerful and unforgiving
memoir makes clear, he did not find, nor expect to find, a promised land
in the United States. Miami he hated; New York was better. The capitalist
system, he said, “was also sordid and money-hungry”. After arriving in America,
he wrote:

The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.

This is a controversial, at times difficult book. And Arenas’s story became
even more controversial in 2000, when a film version, starring Johnny Depp
and Sean Penn, drew strong protest from supporters of the Cuban Revolution,
for what they saw as a distortion of Castro’s policies towards gays and
dissidents.

Sympathisers and critics of the Revolution will inevitably argue over the
accuracy of the events it portrays, but few can deny this is an important
statement about individual freedom and the right to be different. Arenas’s
memoir will obviously confirm every conservative’s worst fears about Cuba,
yet annoy admirers of Castro as right-wing propaganda. But beyond the political
battlelines, Before Night Falls has an enduring resonance as a historic
document, and as an insight into a particular sort of personal courage.
Few readers will end this book by liking Arenas, but equally few will fail
to admire his resilience.