‘He was mocking his captors’: a poet’s confession and the Cuban revolution


By the end of his marathon self-criticism, Heberto Padilla was drenched in sweat.

The Cuban poet, imprisoned for criticising his country’s government a month earlier, had just declared himself, his colleagues and his wife to be counterrevolutionaries. Those very people were sitting in the audience, and seemed unsure what to make of Padilla’s manic performance.

Footage of the scene, captured in 1971 and featured in a new documentary, sheds light on a pivotal moment in the relationship between Cuba’s intellectuals and its revolutionary government – one still relevant today in a country that has almost a thousand political prisoners, among them many artists.

The Padilla Affair, directed by the Cuban film-maker Pavel Giroud, charts the poet’s fall from grace: he began as a supporter of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, but over the years his poems – with titles such as To Write in the Album of a Tyrant, or The New Caesars Sing – betrayed his growing disenchantment.

Padilla assumed the role of the rebel intellectual – until he was imprisoned on 20 March 1971. Intellectuals around the world, many of whom were sympathetic to the revolutionary government, wrote a letter to Castro demanding Padilla’s freedom.

Thirty-seven days later, Padilla was released and appeared in front of the Cuban Writers’ Union. Over the course of three and a half hours, in which Padilla grew ever more histrionic, he said he had been a “bourgeois writer, unworthy of being read by the workers and unable to understand the complexity of the revolutionary process”.

When an abbreviated transcript of the self-criticism was released and read overseas, many foreign intellectuals, knowing Padilla’s character, assumed he had been coerced, and ended their support of Castro’s government.

The government’s treatment of Padilla marked a hardening in the repression of the arts in Cuba.

“This was the moment Castro achieved dominance over the Cuban intellectuals,” said Giroud. “He put an end to the criticism and sowed fear among them. He lost some valuable allies – but he gained absolute control of power.”

Though the meeting was filmed, that footage was never widely shown, sitting in state archives for 50 years. Giroud cannot reveal how he came to possess one of the boxes of reels.

“I wasn’t looking for it – it was placed in my hands,” said Giroud. “And obviously my first thought was to make a film with it.”

Rather than simply playing the entire se

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