On June 13, writer Miguel Mejides died in Havana, and on June 20 the poet and author Rafael Alcides also passed away. Concerning both deaths, on June 21, a condolence letter was sent by email on behalf of organization called PEN Cubano, which I quote below in its entirety:
"A few days apart, Rafael Alcides (Bayamo 1933), a first-rate poet, and Miguel Mejides (Camagüey 1950), an important writer of stories and novels, two Cuban authors whose ingenuity, imagination and ability to reflect on the nation's life earned them an important place in Cuban letters, have passed away. The Cuban chapter of PEN joins their relatives, friends and readers in mourning their passing."
On the official website of PEN International there is no mention of the Havana branch that the two claim to head up, and in relation to Cuba the only thing that can be found is the Center for Cuban Writers in Exile, with its headquarters in Coral Gables (Miami), under the presidency of José Antonio Albertini, and with Luis de la Paz as its secretary.
Presumably, Arrufat and Montero did not just invent these positions. Apparently, as came to light in October last year, a Cuban PEN is in the process of being founded or consolidated. But, could it exist, when there is already a PEN of Cuban exiles?
Judging by the cases of Mexico and China, yes: Mexico has a center in Guadalajara, another in the capital of the country, and a third in San Miguel Allende; and in China there is a center in Beijing, and two outside its borders, one of them in Brooklyn. The PEN in Coral Gables and that in Havana could coexist, then.
Arthur Miller said “no” to Soviet writers
PEN International was founded in London, in 1921, by the British writer and journalist Catherine Amy Dawson Scott. The name of the organization is an acronym based on its first members: Poets, Essayists and Novelists. Present in more than 100 countries, the organization has been chaired by authors such as H.G. Wells, Thornton Wilder, E.M. Forster, Benedetto Croce, Arthur Miller and Mario Vargas Llosa, among others.
In its charter, approved in 1948, reads: "PEN stands for the principle of the unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace."
The imperative of the "free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions" is also asserted. Its official webpage points out that, thanks to the efforts that PEN International undertook, the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka was saved from the death penalty. PEN International supported Salman Rushdie and his publishers when a fatwa was declared against him, and currently spearheads efforts to hold the assassins of Russian journalist Ana Politovskaya, shot dead in Moscow, accountable.
To these examples I add one related to Cuba: it was on behalf of PEN Mexico that a group of writers – Rulfo, Paz, Fuentes, Elizondo, Pacheco, Garcia Ponce, Pellicer, Revueltas and others – sent a public letter to Fidel Castro in 1971 that concluded: "Our shared opinion asserts the right to intellectual criticism in Cuba, as in any other country. We see the freedom of Heberto Padilla as essential so as not to impede, through a repressive and undemocratic act, the great development of Cuban art and literature."
A few years earlier, in 1967, the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) had sent Pablo Neruda a public letter of condemnation for attending an International PEN congress held in New York. Along with habitual signers, like Roberto Fernández Retamar (who seems to have organized it), there was also José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera. Enrique Labrador Ruiz, a great friend of Neruda's, refused to sign it, but one can find Anton Arrufat's name among the signatories.
That same year of the letter against Neruda, the playwright Arthur Miller, president of PEN International, and Marilyn Monroe's former husband, traveled to the Soviet Union. (This last detail is not trivial: when Miller interceded to save Soyinka's life before the Nigerian dictator in power, he was received only because of his former relationship with Marilyn.)
A trip by an American writer to the Soviet Union was a rare event at that time. A book came emerged from Miller's Soviet stay, magnificent not so much for its text as for the images obtained by his wife, the photographer Inge Morath. Theaters, museums, ministerial offices, painters' studios, dachas and – a great surprise – the first writer that appears in its pages is a young Iosíp Brodski, already persecuted politically.
At the Union of Writers Miller and Morath were awaited by a few literati who announced, all together, their desire to found a PEN center in Moscow. Something stopped them, however: the PEN International Charter. They asked him if an exception could be made. Some changes, certain adjustments ...
Miller was then forced to point out that the PEN's founding principles could not be bent to accommodate Soviet writers. And it was not until two decades later, in 1988, that PEN Russia was founded.
For the defense of writers, in Havana
It seems that someone more willing to make concessions than Miller contacted Arrufat and Montero in Havana. After all, if a PEN center operates in China, why could it not do so in Cuba? Everything will depend on how seriously the people in charge take their task.
Antón Arrufat, a victim of censorship in the 70s, has enjoyed the regime’s favor for several decades. His official career has earned him the greatest literary awards in the country, as well as a restored palace on the Calle Prado (the lower floor, dedicated to a Havana school that he presides over, and the upper floor, his residence). Will Arrufat risk such privileges to defend other writers?
Without any pro-regime delusions, Reinaldo Montero has always avoided compromising statements and gestures, and has defended his right to write his books in peace. Is he going to step away from his desk to address problems arising between his colleagues and the authorities?
Arrufat and Montero, who enjoy greater autonomy than those Soviet writers with whom Miller met, must not have objected to the principles of the PEN International charter. But will they follow its principles, or abandon them?
For the Castro regime, it would be very expedient to have an ineffective or a docile PEN Cuba. Admitting it as a “non-governmental” entity, they would have another kind of UNEAC, and one that would be much more exploitable internationally. And, since President Arrufat and Secretary Montero have already been tapped, the way is blocked for any rebellious volunteers to try to found another branch of PEN Havana.
The above are questions and speculations. It remains to be seen what Arrufat and Montero will do, although some of this can already be discerned by examining the condolence note sent by both.
Sent to a list of addresses from Arrufat's private email account, the note does not contain any request for publication and, as far as I know, no attempt was made to publish it in any medium. We can assume that it would have been spurned by the official press, but, did Arrufat and Montero at least try? And, since they run a non-governmental organization, why did they not try to publish it in the island's independent press, or in that of the community of Cuban exiles?
Nor was it publicized anywhere on the Web: there is no doubt that it is a public letter that is not very public. And, judging by its text, it is a public letter that is not very public, from an organization that, if non-governmental, is barely so.
Arrufat and Montero did not react immediately to Miguel Mejides' death, allowing more than a week to pass. What seems to have spurred them to draft their letter of condolences was the death of Rafael Alcides, and the official silence surrounding it. Since the official media published news of Mejides' death, but remained silent about Alcides, the occasion lent itself to PEN Cuba taking a stand against political censorship.
There is no reference in the PEN Cuba letter, however, to the uneven coverage of the authors' passings. Those who were able to read it had to read between the lines and intuit that, by mentioning Mejides and Alcides together, they were condemning the discrimination against the latter. The condemnation was not explicit, but had to be deciphered amidst the allegorical and ambiguous forms of expression so common in Cuba. The signers of the letter counted on their readers' complicity, so as not to provoke the authorities.
Virgilio López Lemus was more daring when he wrote of Alcides, in an official publication: "He had the right to renounce whatever he wanted, we have no right to renounce him and his beautiful body of work." His obituary, which appeared in Cubaliteraria, was one of the two published by the regime's press. The other, appearing days later in La Jiribilla, contained a text published by Roberto Manzano on Facebook. (Cubaliteraria and La Jiribilla are means directed abroad, with few readers on the island.)
Speaking of the subject, Arrufat and Montero were obligated to denounce the censorship that had been practiced. And it is not that Rafael Alcides, who resigned his UNEAC membership and rejected the National Literature Prize, needed to be mentioned in Granma at the time of his death, but rather that the readers who read him with such fervor (that with which, in the 80s, I saw so many read As Grateful As a Dog) should know that the poet has died.
It is mainly a right of Cuban readers, a right to memory, and it is for violations like this, and even worse, that a PEN should exist in Cuba.
If Arrufat and Montero did not feel the obligation to speak out openly on the subject, they demonstrate how incapable they are to champion the defense of the rights of a group that, also including readers, transcends the union itself. But if, conscious of their duty, they decided to keep a low profile, and expressly themselves mutedly, and engage in – now as president and secretary general of an NGO – even more dissimulation, the least caustic thing that could be said of both is that they combined their efforts as dramatists to produce a new farce that favors them.