The Cuban Regime’s Historical Fear of Literary Dissent

“Within the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing.” With these words pronounced in June of 1961, Fidel Castro dictated a course for Cuba’s intellectuals that would prove all too literal in the years to come. Writers who became disillusioned with the revolution and fell out of favor with the socialist regime, such as Heberto Padilla and Reinaldo Arenas, were persecuted by the Cuban establishment through methods such as censorship, exile, denouncement and imprisonment.

Some writers today are able to publish their work and remain unpersecuted in Cuba by walking the thin line between being within the revolution and outside of it, such as Leonardo Padura, who keeps his criticisms of the government relatively opaque and subtle. Dissident literature threatens collectivist political systems such as that of Cuba, because such systems depend on the ideological unity of their populations, and public expression of dissent can lead to widespread ideological discontent.

The “Padilla Affair” of 1971 is marked by many as the beginning of the Cuban government’s persecution of writers. Heberto Padilla was, at first, an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution, as many writers and intellectuals were in 1959. Yet throughout the 60s, Padilla took a more critical view of life in Castro’s Cuba. Prior to the Padilla Affair, the government had not yet decisively cracked down on intellectual dissent in the country. In 1968, Padilla was even awarded first prize in a national poetry contest run annually by the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, or UNEAC – the Cuban Writers and Artists Union. His collection of poetry that took the prize, titled Fuera del Juego (Out of the Game), contained clear revolutionary skepticism, with such lines as: “The poet! Kick him out! / He has no business here. / He doesn’t play the game / He never gets excited / Or speaks out clearly. / He never even sees the miracles.”

Soon after receiving the award, Padilla was placed under house arrest, and in 1971 was interrogated for a month by the Cuban security police. He was later forced to appear before UNEAC and make a public confession of his counter-revolutionary crimes and accuse other writers of similar sentiments, an episode that became known as the Padilla Affair, which began a sea change in the attitude of the government towards Cuba’s intellectuals. The literary and the political became inextricably intertwined in the country, with each fighting against the other. To writers outside Cuba like the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, Padilla’s forced confession was proof that “to force comrades, with methods repugnant to human dignity, to accuse themselves of imaginary betrayals and sign letters in which even the syntax seems to be that of the police, is the negation of everything that made me embrace, from the first day, the cause of the Cuban revolution: its decision to fight for justice without losing respect for individuals.”

The literary and the political became inextricably intertwined in the country, with each fighting against the other.

The five-year period immediately following the Padilla Affair, from 1971-1975, became know as the Five Grey Years by many Cuban intellectuals. Cultural institutions, including UNEAC, were altered or created to encompass virtually all creative talent and to enforce political standards upon it. In a 2014 WorldPost article, Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban blogger and dissenter, calls this process “the parameterization of art; a process where a set of parameters of acceptability is created along ideological lines, dictated by power.” During the Five Grey Years, artists who did not remain within these parameters were fired from their jobs, harassed, forced into labor camps, or even imprisoned.

Cultural institutions were altered or created to encompass virtually all creative talent and to enforce political standards upon it.

In the 80s, the strategies that the Cuban government used to control the country’s writers shifted away from intimidation and imprisonment to a more subtle form of parameterization – creating incentives to follow ideological guidelines. Sanchez refers to this shift as “substituting the carrot for the stick. Instead of repudiation rallies—screaming mobs surrounding their homes – public scorn and threats of prison, intellectuals were offered small stipends.” This change may have been due to the increasing public outcry, both within the island and in the rest of the world, which came in response to writers speaking out against the government after being forced into exile. Starting in 1980, the government became less forceful in its persecution of dissenters and tried instead to capture the country’s intellectuals with perks, such as permission to travel abroad and the possibility of paying for the trips in national currency, instead of the expensive convertible pesos required from other Cubans. Members of UNEAC were allowed to have an email account, and some even received a home Internet connection. However, all this privilege came at the cost of not criticizing the government—“of agreeing to the gag order,” in Sanchez’s words.

The methods used by the Cuban government to prevent and obscure intellectual dissent reflect a deep fear of this type of criticism. This fear at first seems strange, given the small number of well-known and accomplished writers and intellectuals in the tiny country. Other socialist countries like Cuba have, throughout history, responded to intellectual dissent with a similar degree of ferocity. In the Soviet Union of the 60s and 70s, Soviet authorities used similar tactics to repress dissident writers: distributing propaganda that discredited dissidents, confiscating dissident literature, removing dissidents from their jobs, prosecution and incarceration, and exile.

The variety of the methods used by the Cuban government to prevent and obscure intellectual dissent shows a powerful fear of this type of criticism and its engenderers on the part of the government.

What is it that inspires such a violent reaction to intellectual dissent in socialist governments? They don’t threaten socialist leaders militarily or even politically for the most part, but they do influence public opinion. In his famous 1944 critique of socialism The Road to Serfdom, the Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich von Hayek wrote, “If people are to support the common effort without hesitation, they must be convinced that not only the end aimed at but also the means chosen are the right ones.

The official creed, to which adherence must be enforced, will therefore comprise all the views about facts on which the plan is based. Public criticism or even expressions of doubt must be suppressed because they tend to weaken public support.” This “common effort” focus is specific to collectivist political systems like socialism (and, in practice, fascism), as opposed to a capitalist society where the focus is on individual effort.

In a collectivist society like that which existed in Soviet Russia and which exists in Cuba today, collective political ends trump individual expression, rather than individual expression dictating political ends as it does in democratic, capitalist societies. Public unity—the universal belief that “the means chosen are the right ones”—is essential to collectivism, because any outburst of individual dissent threatens the integrity of the system. In order to maintain its authority as a socialist government, the Cuban government needs to keep its citizens in ideological agreement—thus Castro’s proclamation of “Within the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing.” If people were allowed to think outside of the ‘revolution’ mindset, Cuban socialism would not last long.

Leonardo Padura Fuentes, a contemporary Cuban writer, seems at times to be an exception to the “outside of it, nothing” rule. Padura is the author of a number of detective novels and other books, and was awarded a UNEAC prize for literature in 2012. He has been able to skirt punishment by the government by avoiding outright dissidence, while still burying social criticism in many of his works. He explains the manner in which he is able to remain on this thin line: “I have no militancy, not with the Party, nor with la disidencia.” In this way, Padura operates not quite “within the revolution,” but not quite “outside of it,” either. Sanchez describes Padura as “an unusual man”: “His ‘rarity’ lies fundamentally in having been able to sustain a critical vision of his country, an unvarnished description of the national sphere, without sacrificing the ability to be recognized by the official sectors.” Still, every time he finishes a novel, Padura worries, “This is the one they’re not going to let be published.”

It’s not clear what the best approach to writing is in a country as keen on ideological censorship as Cuba. Padura has said that he chooses to remain within the constraints set by the Cuban establishment “so that I can express what Cuba is, and I have not left Cuba because I am a Cuban writer and I can’t be anything else.” The author Reinaldo Arenas, on the other hand, felt that it was his obligation to challenge the political status quo in Cuba in his writing: “If someone is a true writer—not an opportunist who wants to be in favor with the government of the day – that person is always going to be for freedom. Because the simple truth is that without freedom, the writer cannot exist. And the writer who is for freedom is, by definition, not for any totalitarian system. So the duty of the writer is to write well and champion freedom. And he champions freedom because he has an obligation —what better obligation that this?”

As long as Cuban socialism endures, it will be difficult for writers in Cuba to include obvious political criticisms in their work. And yet, great literature and culture continues to be produced in the country. Sanchez points out a growing change in ideological tides in Cuba: “Suddenly,
the rebellion appears to be winning over a broad cultural spectrum of this island, slowly, but with clear signs of irreversibility. This time the vanguard of change has not been launched from books, nor in the lyrics of songs, nor in the curricula of the universities, but in them it is finding an amplifying echo.” Padura’s work is an exemplar of this echo. Perhaps soon intellectual dissent won’t be so difficult on the island. As Sanchez writes, “The critical consciousness of Cuban society seems to be waking up.”

Rachel Butler ‘18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at

Rachel Butler

Rachel Butler '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at

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