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The fight and flight of Reinaldo Arenas.

BEGINNING ON APRIL 20, 1980, thousands of Cuban emigrants began sailing in hundreds of small boats from Cuba, to seek greater freedom in Florida. Among them were significant numbers of what the Castro regime labeled "social misfits," including people with criminal backgrounds and with records of mental hospitalization. The refugees' major crime, however, seems to have been their desire to leave Cuba for the United States, as shown by the high number of refugees given immediate entry upon their arrival. At the end of a rather chaotic and highly controversial relocation process, Victor H. Palmieri, U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs for President Carter, indicated in a memo that 119,252 emigrants had sailed in small boats from the port city of Mariel, some twenty miles from Havana. By the end of the boatlift on September 29, 1980, the media had reported that out of 124,779 refugees, 121,000 had been released to family, friends, or sponsors (Preston, 1980).

One "social misfit" group expelled from their country were gays and lesbians. Among them was the renowned novelist, short-story writer, poet and playwright Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990). He was released within one day, perhaps because he was sponsored by an aunt who was living in Miami. He was lucky; many other single gays who arrived without families in the U.S. were held in relocation centers and released only after gay associations served as sponsors.

Arenas arrived in Key West on May 5, 1980, where he was processed at the Truman Annex of the U.S. Naval Facilities. He was penniless and, like all of his fellow travelers, he had been stripped of his material possessions, including his literary work in progress. In spite of his strong international reputation--particularly in France, where three of his novels published in French had received high critical praise--Arenas arrived, not as an intellectual seeking freedom of expression, but as a homosexual with a criminal record. The American reporter Marlise Simons, writing from Havana for The Washington Post on May 12, reported Arenas' arrival in the United States as a writer with "a jail sentence for a homosexual offense."

Simons also stated that Arenas barely escaped the Cuban authorities once it was discovered that he had attempted to leave the island under a pseudonym. That incident would become one of Arenas' most frequently narrated episodes in a hellish escape. According to his version, Arenas had changed the name on his passport to read Arinas, and, as his good friend Roberto Valero joked, like "harina" (the Spanish word for flour) Arenas flowed away from the island.

Documents available at the Carter Presidential Library do not estimate the numbers of Marielito homosexual refugees. The reason, as indicated in a press release dated Sept. 9, 1980, was that:
 The Department of Justice has concluded it has the legal obligation to
 exclude homosexuals from entering the United States, but it will be
 done solely upon voluntary admission by the alien that he or she is a
 homosexual.... To ensure a uniform and fair enforcement policy and to
 prevent invasion of privacy, INS inspectors have been directed not to
 ask aliens questions concerning their sexual preference during the
 initial inspection process. However, if an alien makes an unsolicited,
 unambiguous admission of homosexuality he or she will undergo a
 secondary inspection.

According to that statement this policy had been in effect since August 2, 1979, after the Public Health Service "announced it would no longer certify that homosexuality is a mental disease or defect" (records of the Cuban-Haitian Task Force-RG 220, Public Affairs File, box 22). One assumes that no queer refugee volunteered that information. Even today there is no concrete number of gay refugees, but the numbers were often characterized as "thousands."

Who was Reinaldo Arenas, and why did he choose to become one of the most vocal figures among activists in exile opposed to the Castro regime, to the detriment of his literary reputation? Arenas was born in 1943 in a rural village in the remote eastern Provincia de Oriente. He became for a short period of time proof that the Cuban government's literacy campaign, among the nation's first openly socialist projects, could produce literary jewels. Among the first generation of trained socialist students, the so-called Young Communists, Arenas witnessed in 1961 one of the most controversial socialist projects of the Cuban Revolution: the nationalization of private lands. Against his wishes, Arenas eventually became a farm manager. His heart was set, however, upon becoming a writer.

When Arenas wrote Hallucinations: or, The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando, his second novel, at the age of 24, Havana was still the glitzy city that had enchanted Ernest Hemingway and Hollywood stars, and would soon become Arenas' favorite literary setting and his preferred sexual playground. The book was a way to contest the revolutionary political code of the so-called "new man," of which the iconic representation was the macho rebel Che Guevara. The concept of the new man did not allow space for gays, who were kept away from revolutionary projects by means of national campaigns in which they were rounded up in police raids and sent to work camps that were established after 1963. Those camps also housed other men considered antisocial elements, most particularly young people who refused to participate in revolutionary projects and people with strong religious convictions, mainly Protestants such as Jehovah's Witnesses, and Catholic priests (Alonso, 1985).

Arenas avoided apprehension for quite some time, even though he had a rather open homosexual life, including sexual acts at public beaches, an activity well known by his friends. Perhaps he was testing the limits of his ability to escape police raids, a fact that he often bragged about. But Arenas was not so lucky in his capacity as a writer. Although Hallucinations won a national literary contest in Cuba in 1967, the official publishing house stalled publication of the novel, perhaps because of its open allusions to homosexuality. Always fearless, in 1967 Arenas did not hesitate to smuggle the novel to Paris. Publishing abroad without permission by Cuban cultural institutions was then, and still is, a violation of Cuban revolutionary regulations. With the publication in 1968 of the French translation of Hallucinations, Arenas became an instant celebrity. The French press declared it one of the best novels published in French translation that year, an honor that it shared with Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Arenas became a cause celebre as one of the few underground writers in Cuba who dared to publish his smuggled works abroad. That fame would lead to his incarceration in 1973 for "ideological deviation."

When his third novel, The Palace of the White Skunks, appeared, first in French translation in 1975, Arenas was in prison after his arrest in 1973 at a Havana beach, where he'd been charged with the corruption of minors. His reputation as a sexual outlaw, almost at the level of that of French novelist Jean Genet, a writer Arenas admired, had finally caught up with him. As Arenas would vehemently claim, his arrest was carefully orchestrated with the help of some of his friends acting as police informants. The local police set up an entrapment sting using two adult men who claimed at the trial to be minors.

Arenas' conviction led to his incarceration in the Morro prison, a 400-year-old castle built for defense in Havana, which in the 70's was still functioning as one of the most horrific of Cuban prisons. There he endured torture, such as isolation in perpetually illuminated cells so small that the prisoners called them "drawers." The interrogation sessions eventually paid off: Arenas broke down and signed a document in which he agreed that his work published abroad had a counterrevolutionary intention. Bravely, however, he did not reveal the names of any of the Cuban friends who had helped him to hide the manuscripts or to smuggle them abroad.

Arenas' criminal record as a felon, a homosexual pederast charged with corruption of minors, was to become his "ticket" out of Cuba. Arenas considered his arrest political persecution, including a period in which he became a fugitive from justice. Perhaps the most debatable accusation was the charge of corruption of minors.

Soon after his arrival in the U.S., Arenas took on the role of the "outlaw" in his numerous interviews with literary critics and reporters for Spanish-language newspapers, promoting himself as both a "Marielito" and a homosexual. From these two positions he became a political and a sexual outlaw. His increasingly graphic discussions of his gay sexual activity became part of his political activism against the Castro regime. He soon became known as the most vocal and most feared of antirevolutionary Cuban writers exiled in the U.S. or abroad. He maintained close ties with Cubans who had criminal records, such as Marielitos who committed criminal acts shortly after arriving in the U.S. He wrote personal letters to Marielitos in jail and in 1987 went to Atlanta as a volunteer to serve as a mediator during the riots at the federal prison.

During his ten years in exile he remained active as an organizer in national boycotts against the Castro regime, and he often underwrote their promotion. This was an economic sacrifice, because he was living in poverty in New York's Hell's Kitchen district and receiving care through Medicaid. One example was his open letter to Castro, which demanded that a plebiscite be held in Cuba modeled on an earlier election in Chile. Published in 1989 with his good friend and exiled Cuban painter in France, Jorge Camacho, it was signed by 163 international figures, including Camilo Jose Cela, Ernesto Sabato, Federico Fellini, Juan Goytisolo, Manuel Puig, Susan Sontag, and Octavio Paz (Ojito).

A self-made, clumsy activist, Arenas often vacillated between the gay and the antirevolutionary aspects of his message. Unlike other Latin American writers, particularly those living in the U.S, Arenas began fairly soon after his arrival in 1980 a gradual coming-out process, which involved revealing select details about his criminal case and, controversially, his outing of fellow Cuban intellectuals, whether residing on the island or abroad. In the restrained climate of the early 80's, he became one of the first Latin American writers to speak openly about his personal life as a gay man, always linked to his fierce attacks upon the Castro regime. As an out-of-the-closet writer, his gay activism was considerably less robust than his antirevolutionary work. Even so, unlike many other gay Cuban refugees, he took increasingly strong pro-gay stances and dared to explore a gay sexual aesthetic that often included autobiographical anecdotes and expressions of his own concerns about particular sexual practices.

Was Arenas too hot to handle for the mainstream press and the literary journals? He certainly was. An example would be his first self-outing interview, which took place in 1980 in conversation with Cuban-American scholar Ana Roca. According to a letter from Dr. Roca to Arenas, in that interview they had spoken about "Cuba, politics, and gays." The interview was not published in its original form, however. Dr. Roca apologized that the journal that had accepted the interview for publication, Americas: The Official Publication of the Organization of American States, had edited out certain sections from the published version. Thanks to Dr. Rueda this interview became available to me. The following quotation is one of several statements that reflect Arenas' extremist positions concerning homosexuality and its marginal, criminal status in revolutionary Cuba. It is a plea for acceptance that even today might fail to gain acceptance in traditional U.S. society:
 There is a reality of which I have always spoken in regard to the
 homosexual world in Cuba. A totalitarian state is always going to
 persecute the world called gay, the homosexual world, simply because
 one needs a broader margin of liberty than does the person, let's say,
 conventionally established among the traditional canons of bourgeois
 morality. A reactionary system in Cuba, because we cannot speak of a
 revolutionary system in Cuba, because it is an absolutely reactionary
 and fascist system, has to persecute all those manifestations of
 liberty and rebellion, and every manifestation of liberty and
 rebellion, as much sexual as political and intellectual, indisputably
 bears implicitly manifestation opposed to tradition, to
 totalitarianism. A totalitarian system cannot permit itself the luxury
 of having in its country and in its jail people who do not avail
 themselves of that completely stupid morality.

IN RETROSPECT, it is understandable that in 1980 an American publisher might have been reluctant to deal openly with Arenas' charges of Cuban revolutionary homophobia, with his charges of severe human rights violations. Furthermore, Arenas left some of his most serious accusations unsubstantiated and mentioned the names of alleged victims. A publisher would have hesitated to print the specific charges or to reveal the identity of people still living in Cuba.

In his 1992 autobiography Antes que anochezca, published as Before Night Falls in the following year, Arenas continued his political outing practices, which he intended as part of his campaign against Castro's revolutionary homophobia. The book was produced with the clear intention to shock its reader with revelations of extreme sexual practices. Not only was Arenas a pioneer gay activist--both in the Latino and in mainstream gay circles--but even today he's among a handful of gay Latin American writers who have been willing to discuss their sexual orientation. Arenas knew the publication of the autobiography would be posthumous, a fact that may explain his willingness to be explicit and even crude in many of its sexual descriptions. His raging behavior, whether in real life--he had many confrontations with dissenting critics, such as the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez--or in his highly erotic literary explorations, provided him the outlaw status that he seemed to thrive on.

Arenas' memoirs are organized around specific episodes that seem to define his gay self, particularly ones that reveal homophobic attitudes in Cuba and later in mainstream Latino communities in the U.S. In his autobiography, for example, he makes an effort to recall his earliest memories of gay sex, which are more important to him than his Cuban ethnicity. An affection for Cuban culture does show itself, such as his happiness in remembering how Cuban peasants celebrate Christmas. Arenas' interest in Cuban identity is largely confined to the times when Cuban culture helped shape his gay identity or limited the development of his gay sensibility by restraining his literary and sexual freedom.

Although Arenas' autobiography deals with his life in Cuba, he was also writing as an out-of-the-closet Cuban ten years after his arrival in the U.S. In documenting his sexual past, Arenas was writing as an outlaw, and not only in terms of engaging in sexual relations against revolutionary ideology or against sodomy laws in the United States. He engaged in sexual activities in public places, both in Cuba and in the U.S, and his preference for unprotected sex is fully documented in his autobiography and in his private correspondence. Perhaps Arenas' most contentious statement in the autobiography is that his sexual dealings with minors were both numerous and consensual. His encounters with teenage boys, which he labeled as "exceptional adventures," became connected to a fixed process, a mandatory routine prior to his sitting down to write. Critics have ignored this side of Arenas' sexual make-up, a motif that appears in various forms in his writings.

Because of advanced AIDS, Arenas committed suicide on December 7, 1990. As a self-made personality, albeit one rather rough around the edges, Arenas became an activist and a gay advocate of national and international notoriety, and he did this despite knowing that his self-promoted identity as a gay man would result in rejection by his Latino and Latin American readers. This was the fearless Arenas that many people remember today, risking the consequences of saying in public and writing down in books things that promote outrage in those bound by cultural constraints and personal conventionality.

Author's Note: All documentation and data about the Mariel boatlift come from the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Citations for items referenced in this article are available upon request. I would like to thank Dr. Ana Roca for her permission to quote from the unpublished manuscript of her interview, which she made public at the Cuban Research Institute (CRI) Conference at Florida International University, February 8, 2006.


Alonso, Pablo M. Cuba, Castro y los catolicos (Del humanismo revolucionario y los catolicos). Hispamerican, 1985.

Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Translated by Dolores M. Koch. Viking, 1993.

Arenas, Reinaldo. Hallucinations; or, The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando. Translated by Andrew Hurley. Penguin, 2002.

Arenas, Reinaldo. The Palace of the White Skunks. Translated by Andrew Hurley. Viking, 1990.

Ojito, Mirta. "Intelectuales piden apoyo a llamado pro libertad." El Nuevo Herald, Dec. 2, 1989.

Preston, Julia. "The Cuban Refugees: Escape to Captivity." Village Voice, Dec. 10-16, 1980.

Simons, Marlise. "Letter From Cuba." Washington Post, May 12, 1980.

Valero, Roberto. Manuscript of an article entitled "El mundo alucinante de Reynaldo Arenas" ("The hallucinatory world of Reynaldo Arenas"). From the Reinaldo Arenas Collection (CO 232) in the Princeton University Library.

Rafael Ocasio is professor of Spanish at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.
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Author:Ocasio, Rafael
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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