While the encomia from world leaders and cultural figures continue to pour in after the death of Gabriel García Márquez at the age of 87 last month, a Charles Lane column in the Washington Post last week on the 1982 Nobel Prize-winning novelist threatened to reopen a 40-year-old wound. Lane recalled the Padilla Affair—the arrest, imprisonment, and show trial of a Cuban poet, an episode that once divided writers and intellectuals across the world, with García Márquez coming down on the wrong side.
In 1971 Cuban state security jailed the poet Heberto Padilla for a book that appeared to criticize the revolution and its father, Fidel Castro. Padilla was forced to confess his sins and denounce other transgressors, a handful of Cuban writers including his wife Belkis Cuza Malé, also a poet. Padilla apologized to Castro, to whom, as Padilla said, he had “been unfair and ungrateful [and] for which I will never tire of repenting.”
Castro’s subsequent speech underscored the purpose of the arrest and confession—a “rigorous alignment with the revolution and subordination to its political dictates,” as one scholar put it, “was a precondition for intellectual activity.” In other words, this socialist utopia would cut off the tongues of its subjects unless they sang its praises. Many literary figures, including a number of major Latin American novelists and poets like future Nobelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz, turned on Castro and withdrew their support for a revolution that they came to recognize as simply another color in the totalitarian spectrum. In response, Castro fumed in the clichéd rhetoric of revolution that these were “brazen Latin Americans” who “live in bourgeois salons 10,000 miles from the problems.”
Living nearly 5,000 miles from Havana in Barcelona, García Márquez refused to sign a letter criticizing Castro—which is to say, he not only came out against a fellow writer, human rights, and free speech, but also on behalf of false imprisonment, torture, false confessions, show trials, and executions. The Padilla Affair was the most notorious moment in a long career of what Lane rightly characterizes as García Márquez’s “political rottenness.” In reward for his loyalty, as Lane explains, he “gradually rose in Havana’s estimation, ultimately emerging as a de facto member of Castro’s inner circle. Fidel would shower ‘Gabo’ with perks, including a mansion, and established a film institute in Cuba under García Márquez’s personal direction.”
His friendship with Castro, the Colombian novelist flattered himself, was based largely on their shared literary tastes. He never published a book without first showing the manuscript to the man who’d imprisoned dozens of Cuban writers. For Castro’s part, it’s not hard to see why he felt indebted to García Márquez—the great man of modern Spanish letters had not only proven his loyalty but had more importantly provided the revolution, and Castro himself, with invaluable legitimacy, without which the course of modern Latin American history might have turned out differently. In soliciting his friendship and continuing to make sure García Márquez remained personally invested in the revolution, Castro was feeding the ego behind what had become the happy and most famous face of a monstrous regime.
Years after the Padilla Affair, García Márquez defended his stance, arguing that it was by staying close to the revolution, as he hinted to the New Yorker in a 1999 profile, that he was able to work on Castro directly, and behind the scenes, to win Padilla’s release in 1980. (Writing last month in National Review, another Cuban emigré poet jailed by Castro, Armando Valladares, charges that García Márquez in fact informed on dissidents to Cuban intelligence.) When asked why he continued to support Castro after so many of his friends and colleagues had seen the mask fall, García Márquez said that it was because “I have much better and more direct information, and a political maturity that allows me a more serene, patient, and humane comprehension of the reality.”
Reality is a peculiar word for a writer whose literary reputation is tied to the genre he brought to a sort of perfection—“magical realism,” a technique combining supernatural elements with the real world: blood that comes alive and slithers through the streets, for instance, old men with wings, and so forth. Some critics argued that García Márquez employed magical realism to critique the existing political culture of Latin America. However, outside his friendships with numerous world leaders (and a bizarre effort to facilitate negotiations between the Colombian government and the Cuban-backed terrorists of FARC who were trying to overthrow it), it’s hard to see how the novelist had much connection with any political reality at all.