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Reinaldo Arenas: 1943-1990: Cuban Writer - Imprisoned For His Books

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Though Hallucinations also won an award from UNEAC, it was banned by the government for its anti-revolutionary tone. The following year, with the help of French friends, Arenas smuggled Hallucinations out of the country. It was published to acclaim in Mexico and Spain; in France it was named the best foreign novel of 1969. "If I had been living in the free world, this would have served me well," he wrote in Before Night Falls. Instead, "in Cuba, the official impact … was for me absolutely negative." For publishing abroad, without the consent of the government, Arenas was labeled a counterrevolutionary. "By the year 1969 I was already being subjected to persistent harassment by State Security, and feared for the manuscripts I was continually producing."


In 1970 Arenas—along with many other young intel-lectuals—was sent to work on a sugarcane plantation. "Unless you have lived through it, you could not possibly understand what it means to be in a Cuban sugar plantation under the noon sun, and to live in barracks like slaves," he wrote in Before Night Falls. It inspired his long poem El central, which was smuggled out and published in Spain. Meanwhile Arenas was working on Farewell to the Sea, one of five novels to make up his Pentagon series detailing the history of Cuba. Set at a beach resort, the novel reveals the inner thoughts of a Cuban couple and the way Castro's revolutionary government damaged their lives. That the book was written is a testament to Arena's determination. The original manuscript was lost when he placed it in hiding with friends. He rewrote the book, only to have it confiscated by the police. Finally, he was able to smuggle his third rewrite of the book to France in 1980. Other books in the Pentagon included Singing From the Well; The Palace of the White Skunks, which was also smuggled to France; The Color of Summer; and The Assault. The latter two were written in the United States.


In 1973, after an altercation on a beach, Arenas was arrested and charged with "ideological deviation." While out on bail he made a daring escape and eluded police for several months. During that time he attempted to leave the country several times. When that failed, he tried to commit suicide by slicing his wrists with a broken bottle. When that also failed, he resorted to his oldest companion—writing. He wrote an open letter to international agencies and free governments. "I wanted to report all the persecution I was being subjected to," he wrote in Before Night Falls. The letter was smuggled out by a French friend and was published in France and Mexico. When Arenas was finally captured he was sent to El Morro prison—coincidentally the same prison where Friar Servando had been incarcerated. The prison was loud, hot, and overcrowded. Excrement piled in corners, urine flowed like rancid rivers, bugs were everywhere. Murder was common and vicious. Food was scarce and barely edible. In addition, Arenas was subjected to intense interrogation. The government wanted him to confess to being a counterrevolutionary and a homosexual and to vow to change. Arenas eventually gave in. It was a bitter, demoralizing defeat for him. "Before my confession I had a great companion, my pride," he wrote in Before Night Falls. "After the confession I had nothing; I had lost my dignity and my rebellious spirit."

Though Arenas was released from prison in 1976, he continued to live in fear. He was regularly visited by the police and his room was occasionally ransacked. He had to write in secret and could trust no one. "That was my life in early 1980; surrounded by spies and seeing my youth vanish without ever having been a free person," he wrote in Before Night Falls. In 1980 Arenas decided he had had enough and, after doctoring his identity card, joined the over 130,000 Cubans who were allowed to leave the island during the Castro-sanctioned Mariel Boat Lift. On May 4, at one in the morning, Arenas boarded a boat for Key West. "When officials in the government realized I was gone, I discovered later, they sent a boat after me, but it was too late," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By the end of the year Arenas was living in New York City, 37 years old, and free for the first time in his life.


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