Fidel Castro was born August 13, 1926. That makes him 85 years old today [August 13, 2011]
The Beat Generation’s particular involvement in Cuba, and in the Cuban Revolution, has been comprehensively explored by Todd Tietchen in his 2010 book, The Cubalogues – Beat Writers in Revolutionary Havana. From the publisher’s description:
“Immediately after the Cuban Revolution, Havana fostered an important transnational, intellectual and cultural scene. Later, Castro would strictly impose his vision of Cuban culture on the populace, and the United States would bar its citizens from traveling to the island, but for these few fleeting years, the Cuban capital was steeped in many liberal and revolutionary ideologies and influences. Some of the most prominent figures in the Beat movement, including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), were attracted to the new Cuba as a place where people would be racially equal, sexually free, and politically enfranchised. What they experienced had resounding and lasting literary effects both on their work and on the many writers and artists they encountered and fostered..”
A review of Tietchen’s book (for The Beat Review) by Phil Dickinson can be read here.
“Prose Contribution to Cuban Revolution“, Allen’s October 1961 letter-manifesto, is one of the core texts Tietchen looks at:
“I’m NOT down on the Cubans or anti-their revolution. It’s just that it’s important to make clear, in advance, in front, what I feel about life”, he (Allen) writes. “Big statements saying Viva Fidel are/would be meaningless and just two-dimensional politics”.
And again –
”What to do about Cuba? Can the world reality (as we know it through consciousness controlled by the cortex part of the brain) be improved? Or, with expanding population and increasing need for social organization and control and centralization and standardization and socialization and removal of hidden power controllers (capitalism), will we, in the long run, doom man to life within a fixed and universal monopoly on reality (on materialist level) by a unison of cortex-controlled consciousness that will regulate our beings evolution?”
Allen was concerned/challenged, hearing such speeches as this.
This prophetic critique echoed several years later when he was was expelled from Cuba (having been invited, in 1965, by Haydee Santamaria, director of Casa de Las Americas, to judge the prestigious Casa de Las Americas prize). The key issue was homosexual repression. Allen, unrepentant in speech and action, pointedly challenged the Cuban authorities – “I woke up with (a) knock on my door and 3 miliciano entered and scared me…Told me pack my bags the immigration chief wanted to talk to me, and wouldn’t let me make phone call..told me they were putting me on the first plane out.”
He had been consorting with Jose Mario Rodriguez of the literary group, El Puente, with Manuel Ballagas (son of poet Emilio Ballagas), whom he finished up sleeping with, had outraged his hosts (pinching Santamaria’s ass, flippantly remarking he would like to sleep with Che Guevara)
Robyn Grant’s illuminating piece, Seducing El Puente – American Influence and The Literary Corruption of Castro’s Cuban Youth, may be read in its entirety here.
As she notes in her conclusion: “Ginsberg’s visit to Havana had repercussions in the United States and Cuba while impacting both El Puente and the Beat Generation. It instigated a sense of disillusionment that pervaded Cuban culture and drove a wedge between the socialist government and its American sympathizers, whose literature and counter-cultural tendencies were deemed to have corrupted Cuban youth. After the censure of El Puente (sic), the government committed Jose Mario (Rodriguez) to a UMAP labor camp (Military Units to Aid Production), established to eliminate currents of Cuban counter-culture, evident in homosexuality and other symptoms of “bourgeois” society (Rodriguez recounts being officially detained “(at least) 17 times”). “Back in the United States, Allen Ginsberg and other Beat poets realized the faults of the Cuban socialist utopia. Ginsberg remarked on the country’s “communist brainwashing”, calling it, “puritan, conformist and pervasive”. He recognized that “since the revolution had to succeed at any cost, most Cubans were willing to go along with less freedom”, though for him, “curtailing of freedom of speech was too great a price to pay for the revolutionary state”. In a later interview (with Allen Young, for Gay Sunshine, in 1981), he (somewhat) backtracked, claiming, “I just gave (the Cuban government) the benefit of the doubt, understanding that I was like a pawn. It was a fight between the liberal groups and the military bureaucracy groups…tho’ I don’t think Castro was very tactful on the question of homosexuality. There was an excessively macho thoughtlessness on his part and insensitivity.”
Gay rights in Cuba hopefully seem to have significantly improved (although there are still in-grained prejudices and some way to go). Private, non-commercial, sexual relations between same-sex consenting adults, 16 or over, have been legal since 1979. Mariela Castro, daughter of current President, Raul Castro, has been a visible presence, pushing for gay rights, with the pro-gay, government-sponsored Cuban National Center For Sex Education (CENESEX), for some years now. Even Uncle Fidel has expressed regret.
Here’s footage of 2011 gay pride in Havana.
oh – and congratulations Wendy Iriepa and Ignacio Estrada!
“Prose Contribution to Cuban Revolution” (originally appearing in El Puente in 1961) was published in the US in 1966, in Detroit, by John Sinclair and the Artists’ Workshop Press, in an edition of 1,000. It was subsequently included in Poetics of the New American Poetry (edited by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, 1973). In 2001, it was incorporated into Deliberate Prose – Selected Essays 1952-1995. [It will be included, in its entirety, in the upcoming Essential Ginsberg, to be published by HarperCollins, Spring 2015]