The Arrest of Heberto Padilla and Belkis Cuza Malé

Translator's Note: Belkis Cuza Malé's account of her arrest and that of her husband, Heberto Padilla, reveals intimate household details of what happens after the notorious knock at the door, the dreaded harbinger of the dangers to be faced when the full weight of a totalitarian state falls on an individual. The two Cuban poets, initial supporters of the Cuban Revolution, worked in state-sponsored cultural institutions. Padilla had held several government positions. His politically critical writings surfaced in the book of poems pointedly titled Sent off the Field. Winner of a literary prize in 1968, the book was published with an inserted official statement denouncing its political views. Women on the Front Lines, Cuza Malé's book of poetry, was peremptorily suppressed by the government. Their tense situation culminated in 1971 with their arrest by state security. A month later in a televised gathering of writers summoned to the event, Padilla read a statement accusing himself, his wife, and other writers of being counterrevolutionaries. The Padilla Affair became a cause célèbre that provoked a schism among writers and artists from around the world who had in the past expressed their support and had been assiduously courted in Cuba. Many of these writers denounced the proceedings by signing two letters published in Le Monde. Other Cuban artists before him had been jailed and had fled into exile, but Padilla was subjected to public humiliation fueled by the implacable wrath reserved for those considered traitors. His political connections are evident in the list of friends mentioned in this passage. The Communist journalist Saverio Tutino became one of the founders of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Jorge Edwards, the prominent Chilean novelist who was the Allende government's first representative in Cuba, was ordered to leave the country. Edwards would write about his traumatic Cuban experiences in his memoir Persona Non Grata. Norberto Fuentes, a Cuban writer who now lives in the United States, was for many years part of Raúl Castro's inner circle. A grimmer fate awaited Alberto Mora. The former comandante, government minister, and friend of Ernesto "Che" Guevara committed suicide after being politically disgraced for defending his friends, among other reasons. Padilla was placed under house arrest. Both he and his wife were eventually permitted to leave the country after much international pressure, which included that of Senator Edward Kennedy.

April 30, 1971

I have not written in my diary for almost two months now. It is just so hard to focus on one specific moment in my memory. The many painful and absurd situations we experienced happened in such a short lapse of time that, no, it is not at all surprising.

To reconstruct the events, I would have to start with the night before. That evening, Heberto asked me to phone him around nine o'clock at Saverio Tutino's room where he was meeting Jorge Edwards and Norberto Fuentes. He wanted me to confirm that he had indeed made it to the Hotel Riviera where the Italian journalist was staying. I went out to call him from a public phone since I did not want to use ours. Later that evening someone played back my own ruse. After Heberto had returned home, the phone rang. When I answered, I heard a voice ask innocently for "Luis." I did not realize at the time that they were trying to locate Heberto.

The following morning, on Saturday, March 20, I woke up not suspecting I would soon witness events that would change the course of our lives. It is now very clear to me. Days before I had been running from one place to another in an effort to hide the manuscripts of Heberto's novel. I was afraid that the slightest carelessness could provide them the opportunity to steal it. My inner tension was fueled by constant visits from an unscrupulous person who pretended to be our friend. I suspected—with good reason—he might be spying for the police. Pressured by the mounting uncertainties of our circumstances, we felt completely isolated.

Lately Herberto's voice had lacked his former confidence when he reassured me they could only charge him with committing "crimes of opinion." Norberto Fuentes had not left our apartment for two days, chatting with Heberto for hours on end. I could not put aside my distrust at these frequent visits. I knew him well; he was not a friend. Our own symmetrical little world did not seem to allow for this new "acquisition." He stuck out, oddly out of place, intruding on the intimacy of our small book-covered office. Of that, I am sure. He belonged to a world very different from our own.

For a while, we had sensed hovering over us eyes without faces who were keenly watching. We were under surveillance and closely shadowed. On that Saturday morning, they succeeded in catching us by surprise.

The knock at our door came around seven in the morning. Still sleepy, I peered though the peephole. I could not see anything. It was difficult to make out a face because our hallway was always dimly lit.

Frightened, almost terrified, I asked who was at the door. An imposingly deep voice responded from the other side: "Telegram." I was able then to distinguish through the peephole a very dark face with a menacing expression. I ran to inform Heberto, who told me not to open: "Let him slip the telegram under the door."

"Sorry, you'll have to sign."

I was almost certain that man was not delivering a telegram. Most likely, I thought, it was the police. Heberto kept telling me not to open the door. "Let them knock it down," he shouted as if that would somehow put a stop to it all.

However, I went and opened the door fearing that if I did not it would only make matters worse for us. Nor could I bear to prolong my anguish.

It happened in a flash. The door was pushed in. A very big black man called out "State Security!" as he shoved his credentials in front of my face. Twelve to thirteen men, guns in hand, barged into our apartment.

There was no need to figure out what to do next because one of them shouted for me to sit, pointing to a nearby chair. Soon after, I saw Heberto come out of the bedroom. He was wearing a pair of beige jeans, a gift from the Mexican poet Efrain Huerta, and a long-sleeved yellow and blue plaid shirt. Behind him, a group of men followed pointing their guns at him as if to prevent a dangerous criminal from fleeing.

I sat crying. It was and still is hard for me to sort through the rapid succession of strange images. A nightmare was reeling before my eyes. A dwarfish dark man began taking pictures of the apartment, of me, and of whatever he found interesting. He did not spare the illustration taken from an American magazine that I had framed and hung on the wall. There was an ideological slant to the whisky ad's slogan: "Sold everywhere, except Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba."

My naïveté as a collector of popular ads could be used to indict me! Fear and pain can instigate outbursts of fury. I do not know how I mustered the courage to scream at the man with the photographer's face, "Why not also take a picture of that other poster?" The enormous, almost liturgical drawing of Che Guevara was inscribed with the poem I had written about him. Alberto Mora had given it to me as a gift at the closing of the university's cultural exhibit. It was so big it practically covered our entire living and dining room wall. Reaching almost up to the ceiling, it was impossible to miss. The man disregarded my words. He was there to collect all possible evidence they could use to convict us of the crime of political dissidence. Probably he thought it obvious that the enormous Che hung there as a decoy. Relentlessly, he pursued his mission.

I could not stop myself from crying. I invoked God's name and began praying a litany of Our Fathers and Hail Maries in search of an answer. Suddenly a crackling noise caught my attention. It came from an old empty peach can that I had filled with water and placed on the stove to make coffee. Just before the knock at the door, I had gone back to bed waiting for the water to boil. By now, it had completely evaporated, creating the spluttering sound. One of the agents finally went over to turn off the gas stove.

An enormous sense of peace, of unimaginable tranquility, invaded me. From somewhere in the universe, I heard a voice call out for me not to worry; reassuring me that nothing else would happen to us, all would soon be over. Despite my beatific trance, I forced myself to be realistic, to contradict myself, to discard false hopes because my hunch seemed too farfetched. What else was there to hope for except years wasted inside a jail cell? How could we not fear the loss of freedom? Had they not taken the first step? Was Heberto not already in custody at the State Security headquarters?

The agents, who up to that moment had been in charge of the search, applied themselves to the task of implacable destruction. They were brutal. In seconds, they created total chaos. It was easy for them; our apartment was so small. Ours was just a place where two writers worked. We had books and some pictures on the wall; that was all.

The nausea that came over me still has not left me. I asked permission to go to the bathroom (my own bathroom!). I had to go three more times. I was not dreaming. I understood the words that the short heavy-set man was saying to me. While trying to keep his voice polite, he asked continually where we had hidden the novel.

"Why don't you put an end to our search? Just tell us where it is." Sobbing, I answered as best I could. I avoided consciously making any involuntary flicker of my eyes that might betray me to them.

He gave me up for hopeless. He turned around and went back to the bedroom. Immediately an excited voice rang from my daughter's room alerting everyone else, "Will you look at this? It is here! It's here!"

The first copy of the novel had surfaced. While rummaging through the books in a little bookcase, a painting had slipped from the wall and one of the manuscripts fell to the ground, revealing its hiding place. The back of the frame had provided a perfect niche for it.

Quickly they began pulling down and ripping open the back of all the other picture frames in fruitless attempts to find more copies. Unfortunately, the other manuscripts hidden elsewhere began cropping up as if they had been in plain sight all along.

The commander snickered: "So you didn't know where they were, did you?

They discovered five typed copies of the manuscript. Heberto had employed a very frightened typist whom I have not seen since. The more he typed, the more afraid he appeared to be.

I abandoned myself to gloomier thoughts. Heberto was in jail, they already had the manuscripts; this could not end well; any happy outcome seemed far-fetched indeed. Lost in thought, unable to stop crying, I realized bitterly that my last hope was going to vanish unless a miracle happened.

One of the agents, a tall skinny young fellow, inched toward the dining room. Just when he was about to start searching a wicker basket where I stored my daughter's toys, their commander ordered him peremptorily to stop: "Let it go." It was my miracle.

His order prevented them from finding the original. Its pages marked with cross-outs were bound between two blue cardboards and wrapped in a nylon bag. Without saying anything to anybody else, I had placed it haphazardly among the toys telling myself that I would leave it to fate to decide whether it survived or not.

The commander of this search and detention "operation" shut all the windows and instructed me to accompany them to headquarters to sign papers related to Heberto's arrest. I refused repeatedly, saying I would not go. It was not their usual procedure; I was certain they were deceiving me. My refusals were worthless. I looked around me. The havoc in the apartment was impressive: books were strewn on the floor, paintings ripped apart. I realized I had no option but to go with them.

In a few minutes, they closed up the whole apartment. The commander gave an order I did not catch. I innocently begged him to allow me to inform the head of our neighborhood's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution who lived in our building. I wanted to tell him what had happened in my home. How absurd! What sense did it make to let this person know! A sharp-spoken man who always wore dark glasses, he was a wary enemy of anyone who held beliefs different from his own.

They told me, of course, it was unnecessary; they were in a hurry. As they led me away through the darkened hallway, I did see that one of them stayed behind on purpose. No doubt, they did not want the neighbors to find out nor have me call attention to what was happening. However, I was unable to control myself and continued to cry and cry.

From La Detención. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Diana Alvarez-Amell. All rights reserved.