Gabriel García Márquez was a gifted writer but no hero
Statesmen eulogized Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who died at age 87 on April 17. “The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers — and one of my favorites from the time I was young,” President Obama said; he called the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas.” Juan Manuel Santos, president of García Márquez’s native country, hailed him as “the greatest Colombian of all time.”
The obituary of García Márquez that I would most like to read will never be written. That is because its author would have been the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla — who passed away 14 years ago. No one was better qualified to assess the weird blend of literary brilliance and political rottenness that characterized García Márquez’s long career.
In 1968, just as “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was propelling García Márquez to fame, Padilla published a collection of poems titled “Out of the Game.” Cuba’s cultural authorities initially permitted and even praised Padilla’s book, despite its between-the-lines protest against the official thought control that was already suffocating Cuba less than a decade after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.
Then instructions changed: The Castro regime began a campaign against Padilla and like-minded intellectuals that culminated in March 1971, when state security agents arrested Padilla, seized his manuscripts and subjected him to a month of brutal interrogation.
The poet emerged to denounce himself before fellow writers for having “been unfair and ungrateful to Fidel, for which I will never tire of repenting.” He implicated colleagues and even his wife as counterrevolutionaries.
Intellectuals around the world, led by García Márquez’s fellow star of the Latin American literary “boom,” Mario Vargas Llosa, condemned this Stalinesque spectacle. Many cultural figures who had backed the Cuban revolution soured on it because of the Padilla affair.
For García Márquez, however, it was a different kind of turning point. When asked to sign his fellow writers’ open letter to Castro expressing “shame and anger” about the treatment of Padilla, García Márquez refused.
Thereafter, the Colombian gradually rose in Havana’s estimation, ultimately emerging as a de facto member of Castro’s inner circle.
Fidel would shower “Gabo” with perks, including a mansion, and established a film institute in Cuba under García Márquez’s personal direction.
The novelist, in turn, lent his celebrity and eloquence to the regime’s propaganda mill, describing the Cuban dictator in 1990 as a “man of austere habits and insatiable dreams, with an old-fashioned formal education, careful words and fine manners, and incapable of conceiving any idea that isn’t extraordinary.”
To rationalize this cozy relationship, García Márquez offered himself as an ostensible go-between when Castro occasionally released dissidents to appease the West.
What Gabo never did was raise his voice, or lift a finger, on behalf of Cubans’ right to express themselves freely in the first place.
Far from being “a representative and voice for the people of the Americas,” he served as a de facto spokesman for one of their oppressors.
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