Cuba: An interview with Leonardo Padura

Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes visited Denmark in September to present his latest book, The Man that Loved Dogs, recently published in Danish. The IMT in Denmark, Socialistisk Standpunkt, interviewed him, asking what led him to write the book and his views on the present situation in Cuba.

The Man that Loved Dogs is an elegant weaving together of the destinies of three men. One of these is Leon Trotsky, who together with Lenin was one of the leaders of the Russian revolution in 1917. The other destiny is that of the man that murdered Trotsky with an ice axe in 1940, Ramon Mercader who was recruited to carry out this task during the Spanish Civil War as a member of the Communist Party. The last destiny belongs to the narrator in the book, the fictitious Cuban author Iván.

The novel tells the story in the 1930s of the struggle between Marxism and Stalinism, between Socialism and Fascism. At the same time the novel, through the narrator Iván, gives a seldom told and a very honest insight into Cuban life during the last thirty years.

We met Padura, a man in his fifties, on a grey morning in Copenhagen. Many times during the interview Padura excused his English although there was no real reason too as it was quite good, but it was clear he felt more confident in Spanish, and possibly he would have expressed his opinions more clearly if we could have conducted the interview in Spanish.

We started by asking about what inspired the book.

Padura explained the book was more the result of an obsession than inspiration. The first seeds for the book were sown in 1989 when he visited Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan in Mexico, where Trotsky lived during the last years of his life until he was murdered. Padura felt a strong emotion in the house; to him it looked more like a jail or a castle.

At that time there was very little information available about Trotsky in Cuba. Padura explained that he was studying at university in Cuba at that time, and the political line in Cuba about Trotsky was the same as in the Soviet Union, i.e. more or less an ignoring of the existence of Trotsky and if they did ever admit his role, he was portrayed as a traitor of the working class. This actually led Padura to becoming more interested in the life and works of Trotsky as a revolutionary. Padura recalls that those were interesting times: only one month after he visited the house in Coyoacan the Berlin Wall came down, but at that moment no one could imagine how quickly the wall would actually fall and how the world would change.

The other inspiration for the writing of the book came when two or three years later he first found out about Ramon Mercader and the fact that the assassin of Trotsky had spent the last four years of his life in Cuba, from 1974 until he died in 1978. He had lived in Cuba secretly. Even people that knew Mercader when he lived in Cuba and visited him in Havana did not know that the man Ramon Lopez or Jaime Lopez (his pseudonyms) was in reality the killer of Trotsky.

These two aspects, combined with the opening of the Moscow archives in the 1990s and the subsequent publication of material about the real situation in the 70-year history of the Soviet Union, laid the ground for Padura deciding to begin to write his novel. In this period Padura wrote his famous novels about the detective Mario Conde and later a more historical novel La novela de mi vida which gave him the tools for writing this massive historical novel covering an important part of the 20th century history. In 2005 Padura began a serious study to write his novel, reading a lot, doing research, etc. Two years later he began to write the novel, a process that lasted three years.

We asked Padura about Trotsky and why he had decided to write about him?

Padura explained: “My idea was that the assassination of Trotsky had a special meaning, a poetic or metaphoric meaning in the development of the 20th century, because it happened at a moment when Trotsky was less important and yet Stalin decided in any case that he needed to kill Trotsky. Symbolically it meant to me the end of the big utopia of the 20th century and this was the sense in which I tried to write the novel.”

Why did you decide to go to Coyocan as almost no Cubans knew about Trotsky?

Padura: “Almost no Cubans knew or know about Trotsky. In the national libraries in those times there were only 3 books about Trotsky; the second part of My life [Trotsky’s autobiography – ed] in French and 2 books published in the USSR by Progress Publishers one with the title Trotsky the Traitor and the other Trotsky the Renegade, both written by a team of authors (academics) in the Soviet Union. For normal people and even university students like my self – I studied philology – Trotsky didn’t exist and information about him didn’t exist.”

So why then did you decide to write something about Trotsky for Cubans?

Padura: “This book is written specifically with the Cuban readers in mind, because in Europe and the US many people know about Trotsky, or maybe not many people, but they have the possibility to know. But in Cuba it is impossible to know, and not only about Trotsky, but also about the relationship between Trotsky and Stalin, that in many ways explains the situation in the Soviet Union and Stalinist politics, the reason for the 'barbarianisation' of this utopia. In Cuba as a socialist country I thought and I think that it is necessary to reflect on what happened in the Soviet Union and in Cuba. Even now for example in Cuba the new government are trying to change many things of this heritage.”

How has the book been received – has it created any debate in Cuba?

Padura: “The first edition was published in Spain. For the last 15 years I belonged to a Spanish publishing house and my books were first published in Spain and later with a special license in Cuba. The Man that Loved Dogs was presented this year in the Havana book fair in February, but it was published in a small edition, only 4000 copies, out of this maybe half are not on the market. But many people first had the Spanish or Mexican edition; later many people obtained the book and wrote to me, called me or addressed me in the streets about the book. Curiously on the day of the launch at the book fair no news appeared in the media about the presentation. Also afterwards the papers kept quiet even though the launch of the book was the most exciting meeting in the book fair, and the room was completely full with people outside trying to get in. A week ago the book won the national critics prize in Cuba, this highlights Cuba's contradictions: twenty years ago maybe I  wouldn't even have been able to think about writing this book; ten years ago I could write it but it wouldn’t have been published in Cuba; now it can be published and even though it is silenced in the media it can win prizes.”

The Man that Loved Dogs is not only about Trotsky and Mercader but also very honestly describes life in Cuba over three decades. Could you tell us some more about the Five Grey Years in the 1970s?

Padura: “The character of Ivan – Ivan is not a man; Ivan is the synthesis of a generation, in which I put many of the illusions, disillusions, defeats and fears of my generation. It is a man that represents all the problems we have lived through in Cuba in my generation, that generation that grew up in the revolution, studied in the revolution, went to war in the revolution and that in the ‘90s found they had nothing in their hands.

“In the context of Ivan the situation in the ‘70s is very important. These years were the moment in which Cuba made the change from the ‘tropical revolution’ to the ‘socialist soviet revolution’. It was the period of institutionalization of the country. In the years between 1971, when the First Congress of Education and Culture was held and 1975, the time of the First Congress of the Party political, social and cultural politics in Cuba took on the highest level of orthodoxy and intolerance, a total incapacity to tolerate and admit differences. In those times many artists, especially artists. but even public figures, teachers, professors, that had homosexual preferences, religious inclinations, or were not ‘Hard enough’ revolutionaries. were isolated from public life. Many people who were in theatre, writers, painters, cinema makers and professors were isolated and nobody knew for how long. The whole decade of the ‘70s was very hard for these people.

At this time I was at the university studying philology and we felt the weight of this situation. As students we were very innocent, but we felt the weight of this social and cultural situation in Cuba. It provoked a big change in literature, cinema, etc. because the institutions wanted to introduce ‘Socialist Realism’ into culture and it was a great disaster; now all this creation doesn’t exist and the most important writers of this period are totally forgotten.

My generation, that at that time was 23-25 years old, began a change that in the ‘80s made important changes in the creation of culture and in the ‘90s there was a new revival of culture. The ‘90s was the moment of the big crisis, because the Soviet Union disappeared and with that paper, electricity, buses, etc., disappeared and Cuban society practically came to a standstill. The economy was at the lowest level, but this terrible situation in which the people had to struggle to get something to eat every day was a moment of big creation – a time in which the film ‘Chocolate and Strawberry’ was made about intolerance and homosexual life in Cuba. Many from my generation in cinema making and writing contributed to this big change that to this day with a new generation of artists is the real creation of the Cubans artist.”

What about the younger generation and art?

Padura: “The new generation is different from us in many senses, but they have one very important difference; in our time we believed in something, we had doubts, but we believed in something. The young generation has no doubts, because they don’t believe in anything. They are totally heretical, they have lost confidence, they try to publish and make things outside Cuba, to earn money.”

What is the situation in Cuba now? On the one hand the book has been published but on the other we saw you explain at a presentation of the book in London, that there are some people in high positions in the media and society that might not be so happy about the book?

Padura explained that these people don’t say anything about the book; for them the book simply doesn’t exist: “But it exists for the readers, for the world, for the normal people in Cuba. The book has been published in several languages, has won two international prizes, one of which in Cuba, and I think that the political culture has changed enough to admit that this kind of book exists and not make this a problem. It is an intelligent approach because if they made a problem of the book and with the fact that I live in Cuba, work there, etc., that could be worse than the book itself. And in Cuba now there are enough problems economically and socially so we don’t need to create another one. In some sense I think that the best way in which the government can use the publication of this kind of book in Cuba is as propaganda for the need for change.”

Leonardo padura - Photo: DontworryLeonardo padura - Photo: Dontworry Could you develop what you said at the beginning of the interview, that it is important to know not just the history of Leon Trotsky but also the history of the Soviet Union? What do you think is important that the Cubans  take on board from this history?

Padura: “This is a very complex book because the story is the story of one of the most important processes of the 20th century. The possibility of creating a new society with high levels of equality and high levels of workers' democracy, where the people govern themselves, was one of the big dreams of the human race. This process was defeated, because Stalin was the creator of ‘real socialism’; Lenin didn’t have time to make it. He developed with Trotsky the philosophical points of the new society, but then in practice it was Stalin that made 'real socialism'.”

He goes on to give an example some of the problems that existed in the Soviet Union: “There is a territory between Ukraine, the south of Poland and Russia called Little Russia which is the part of Europe, and maybe the whole world, with the richest soil for producing a certain kind of corn. In this region ‘Stalin socialism’ produced hunger and 10 million people died of starvation. You must ask yourself: how is it possible to build a new society if the soil is sterile for years because of the methods you have used for production. It is the same in Cuba and in all the socialist countries. In Cuba now we don’t have sugar cane, we have no coffee, tobacco, onions or whatever you want. The economy is at disaster level, and therefore Cuba depends on its doctors that work in Venezuela and the petroleum that Venezuela gives in return to Cuba, and on tourism. These are the two economic activities: services out of Cuba and tourists into Cuba. This is the result of the socialist economy in Cuba and the Cuban government under Raul Castro – but not Fidel – now recognizes that this disaster is part of the system, and worse now, that this system is the creator of corruption, the same corruption that in the USSR created the big mafias, and it could end up the same in Cuba if the thing is not controlled. For this reason I think that when I explain what happened in the USSR, that the system has a real problem when a person lives in fear all the time, when he fears to speak the truth because he fears the system. This is not the model of the new society, it is another thing, but it is not the new society. Many people in the world dream, desire this kind of society with this level of equality because the real world as it is, is not good for most people. You in Denmark have high standards of living, but for people in Africa, or some parts of Asia or in Haiti, which is very near to Cuba, there is a total disaster. But if the socialist system repeats the same mistakes, the results will be the same. For this reason I believe the new utopia needs to rediscover the basis of the system with the real components that this kind of society needs: real democracy, real power to the people that work, not for the bureaucracy as was the case in the Soviet Union and in many socialist countries. For this reason I think that this book certainly is relevant to the moment we are living through.”

In the video of the meeting in London you said something along the lines that it was not so much the collapse of the Soviet Union, but what happened after, that was really a disaster. Did you mean because of the going back to capitalism and the complete collapse of the economy or…?

Padura: “Yes. One North American writer said that the US for many years feared the communists and they thought that they had won that battle, but then the USSR gave the US the Mafia Russo, which was worse than the Socialists. For the Soviet Union and Russia it was worse too.”

So what do you think will happen now in Cuba?

Padura explains that the situation is different for many reasons. “First because Cuba is not a rich country like the Soviet Union was. Cuba is rich in the sense that we can live well with our resources but Cuba needs a change of structures that Raul is trying to make now.”

Some of the most moving parts of the book are about Ivan and how he feels he is being dragged out of the dark when he discovers there is a whole part of history he didn’t know about, and also how he loses belief in the utopia. This can appear as somewhat dark; is there also some light, some hope?

Padura: “My generation has lived in a very complicated situation in Cuba for many years. It was the generation that could go to special schools in the country, the Angolan war, and who in the ‘90s, when the crisis created a dramatic situation, had to struggle to feed their children every day. These children are now 18-22 years old, and all have either left Cuba or are thinking of leaving. These people have no house, no car, not even a computer. Recently I met a man who Olympic champion twice, but he has no computer, no car, no house. I asked him, ‘give me your e-mail’ and he said ‘what! I don’t have an email, I don’t even have a computer’. This generation lost everything; their work, their dreams, Now Ivan's generation has a big problem because Cuban society is changing and this change needs a strong force, the youth to tame the results. My generation, that is mostly a University generation, doesn’t have the tools to live in this new world.

Spoiler warning: if you don’t want to be told how the book ends please skip the next few lines – Ed: “The end of Ivan is symbolic; it is not the death of the person and his dog, but the end of the illusions, of the possibilities.

“I am personally a very lucky man, because as a consequence of my work I have the possibility to travel, to build a house (although with many sacrifices). I won a prize in Spain and could buy car – but I am the exception in my generation. Many of my friends who studied at university live outside Cuba; others live inside but with many difficulties. We are trying – Cuba as a country is trying – to change, but without consulting my generation which was the most sacrificing generation. Our parents had a choice; my father decided to live in Cuba. Our generation for many years didn’t have the choice; we couldn’t even choose our career in university. I wanted to be a journalist, but that was closed when I started, so I had to study philology. It turned out to be lucky for me, but I didn’t choose it myself. Not even the choice of future was possible for us and now the future is changing and nobody asks us whether we agree or not. It is the high levels of society that decide. Everybody knows Cuba is an economic disaster, but nobody asks us if we agree or not – this is the real drama of our generation. When I was finishing the book, I gave the manuscript to some friends, and some of them said the end is very sad and terrible, and I asked them: but is this not the end of our generation? And all of them said: ‘yes you are right’. This is what the end of the book means.”

Could you explain something about Mercader, since many people, including us, don’t know much about him?

Padura: “In certain ways Mercader was a victim of his time, of his situation. The ‘30s was a very difficult moment for the left in the world – more than now – because the number of possibilities was closed: in those times you were either with Stalin or with Hitler. If you had another position on the left, they said you were counter-revolutionary. The people who belonged to the Communist Parties had only one idea; that Stalin was the maximum leader and that orders from Stalin were like the Pope's decisions for Catholics. The Third International controlled the left in an incredible manner throughout the whole world. Mercader lived in this environment in which belonging was more than a compromise; you were inside a political net and you had to obey all the time. He had elements of the fanatic; his mother was a fanatic and he was a fanatic. But the question I asked myself many times before writing the book and afterwards was: can a crime be justified even for a big idea, if the better future of humanity needs the crime? My answer is ‘No’. It is not the same as in a war where you have to kill or be killed. It is a situation with other characteristics; Trotsky was assassinated in a moment when he was not an important opponent of the USSR, of Stalin. It had no justification either historical or ethical. Mercader obeyed the order of Stalin. Stalin was responsible, and in this sense Mercader was in some way a victim of Stalin, like Trotsky and like millions of people in the world.”

With that comment the one and a half hours we had been given for the interview came to an end. The Man that Loved Dogs raises a lot of relevant questions about Trotsky and Stalin and the struggle for socialism in Cuba. We agree with Padura that this book suddenly has an actuality not just in Cuba but all over the world. We warmly recommend it to all our readers.

Le prix Initiales for best foreign novel in 2011, the Italian V Premio letterario Francesco Gelmi di Caporiaco 2010 and the Critics Prizein Cuba.

See more here