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At Cuba's Book Fair, Castro Challenged by ‘Unauthorized’ Literature

New America Media, News analysis, Louis Nevaer Posted: Feb 25, 2009

Editor's Note: A Cuban novelist whose tale is critical of Fidel Castro and the society that developed after the revolution had a public—if extra-legal—reading of his work at the Havana Book Fair. It portends an opening for change in Cuba that observers welcome, even if they don't quite know why it is occurring. Louis Nevaer is a NAM contributor and his forthcoming book, "The Hispanic and Latino Employee," will be published in December 2009.

HAVANA, Cuba – The public reading last week of a selection from Orlando Pardo's new book, "Boring Home," at the Havana Book Fair marked the first time in 50 years that Cuban authorities allowed a reading from a book not approved by the state.

Pardo's book tells the story of how the Cuban Revolution resulted in a country in which the people are consumed by an existential ennui, challenging the government's political ideology. The Cuban government maintains that it has created a classless society where workers govern and everyone is happy. Although there were threats against the author and his supporters who demanded the right to have a reading in public, the fact that the authorities were content with videotaping the event – and did not move to arrest the organizers and detain the spectators – is a sharp departure from how the Cuban government has dealt with extra-legal literary readings in the past.

Cuba watchers do not know what to make of it, but it suggests one of two things: Raul Castro's grip on the state's security is less firm than was Fidel's, or the Cuban regime is becoming exhausted, unable to foster the same "revolutionary" fervor among the Cuban people. This may be similar to other oppressive regimes where fiction becomes a means by which civil society asserts itself in the face of dictatorship. The work of Nigerian writer Helon Habila in her novel, "Measuring Time," comes to mind, particularly how her work has become a statement against the moral bankruptcy of the Nigerian government.

In Cuba, Pardo's novel, the first clandestinely published work of fiction, tells the story of what it is like to have lived through a revolution that offered so much hope, but delivered crushing defeat and despair, a melancholy narrative of a nation transformed into the nothingness of waiting for the day when nature's course will bring real change: Mortality will remove the Castro brothers from this earth.

"Orlando has let his beard grow, and also his hair," Pardo begins the first chapter, "Decalogue of Year Zero," describing one of the protagonist's enthusiasm for the revolution by emulating the grooming habits of "los barbudos," or "the bearded ones," as Fidel and his revolutionaries where known in 1959. The Cuban Revolution, which has named each year – "The Year of Literacy," "The Year of Record Harvests," etc. – is mocked in the chapter's title: Year Zero is 1959, the date from which Cubans today measure time.

In a country where publishing is controlled by the state, anything that is published privately, in violation of Cuban law, is considered subversive. Pardo, however, does not see himself as a rogue element, but rather a true patriot, one who wants to speak the truth about Cuba as he sees it, to himself, to the Cuban people, and to the world.

When Pardo approached organizers of the Havana Book Fair about presenting his book, permission was denied, since metaphors critical of Castro are the equivalent of political speech, and a novel that begins in "Year Zero" and tells the story of despair and hopelessness is considered an attack on the triumphs of the revolution. There would be no place for Pardo within the walls of the Cabaña, where approved books are presented.

Pardo, who until now has been an author in good standing, alerted bloggers, writers and colleagues, and there was a spontaneous surge of support for Pardo. Word quickly spread that Pardo, with the assistance of Yoani Sánchez, who runs "Blog Generacion Y," [http://desdecuba.com/generaciony/], would defy officials, staging an "unofficial" public reading from the novel. Hundreds of emails were sent and forwarded throughout Cuba, and on Feb. 16, at 3 p.m., participants began to gather on a grassy field not far from the grounds where the official book fair was taking place despite the obstacles (school children were allowed to have an impromptu kite flying romp in the middle of the school day where the reading was to take place) and threats (Pardo was warned that he would not have any other work published if he defied the decision of the book fair organizers).

Some were apprehensive that officials would make good on their threats against Pardo and his supporters, and international reporters were invited to document the event – including CNN and Spain's El Pais. The reading, however, unfolded without incident: Almost 50 supporters gathered as Pardo read an excerpt from his novel while state security personnel watched and filmed from a distance.

"It's important because young writers attended, who have been very brave. Until now, [Pardo] had not had any difficulty publishing through official channels, and we hope that going forward this won't be the case," Yoani Sánchez told reporters. The entire gathering was videotaped by officials from Cuba's Interior Ministry, or MINIT. [http://www.elpais.com/articulo/cultura/Habana/tolera/presentacion/libro/escritor/critico/Castro/elpepucul/20090217elpepucul_1/Tes]

MINIT personnel stopped various participants, asking for identification papers or passports, and asking why they were there. Several Cubans in attendance took the opportunity to complain about the surveillance officers who had been stationed in front of their homes in recent weeks. The public reading was allowed to proceed, which surprised some participants.

An excerpt in Spanish of "Boring Home" is online at: http://mesoamerica-foundation.org/boringhomeexcerpt.html

The censuring of writers at the Havana Book Fair continues, with the violent oppression of Herberto Padilla's "Fuera de Juego," in 1971 being the most stark example. Banned, Padilla was arrested and copies of his book were burned.

"We have not progressed much," Sánchez said, explaining that the only copies of "Boring Home" are those made on copy machines and clandestinely circulated by readers.

"This will all change, soon," Pardo said. "We are reaching the natural limits of this regime, of this time."

There is a realization among young Cubans that time – mortality – and not the U.S. embargo or an internal uprising by Cubans will bring change. "We are marking time," a young man, a mocha-colored self-described "voracious" reader, told this reporter. "We are looking forward to state funerals that will allow Cuba to evolve, and for Cubans to have a government that reflects the political, economic and racial realities of who we are as a people."

Related Articles:

Winds of Change Blow Across Cuba

New America Now: A Cuba Special

‘Obama Effect’ Highlights Racism in Cuba

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