Persona Non Grata, by Jorge Edwards
Mission to Havana
Persona Non Grata: An Envoy in Castro’s Cuba.
by Jorge Edwards.
Translated by Colin Harding. Pomerica Press. 275 pp. $8.95.
Shortly after his election in September 1970, President Salvador Allende announced—to the surprise of nobody—that Chile would resume the diplomatic relations broken with Cuba ten years before. To reopen the Havana embassy and act as charge d’affaires, he dispatched a young career diplomat named Jorge Edwards, who had been the political counselor of the Chilean embassy in Lima. It was understood that Edwards’s mission was purely temporary; he would be replaced in a matter of weeks by an “important Chilean political personality” whose name would soon be submitted. For his part, Edwards was assured that once his duties in Cuba were concluded, he would be sent to a coveted post in Paris, to act as chief of staff to Ambassador Pablo Neruda. Edwards arrived in Havana in December 1970, and, his mission completed, departed for Europe in March 1971. This book is the story of those fourteen weeks.
On the face of it, these facts do not seem to hold out much in the way of literary possibilities. Indeed, had President Allende chosen someone else for the job, the mission would probably not have yielded up much of interest. Yet the man selected for it has produced an impressive literary work and a major document—one of the most important political testaments ever written by a Latin American. Edwards’s book is the story of one intellectual’s disillusionment with a socialist regime—and this is not just any intellectual or any regime, but a left-wing Latin American writer and that holy of holies, the Cuban revolution. In both style and substance, Persona Non Grata deserves comparison with Milovan Djilas’s Conversations with Stalin and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. If it fails quite to reach the level of either as political analysis, it might well surpass both as an act of intellectual courage. After all, when Djilas and Koestler broke with the Soviet dispensation, they could fall back to the well-established ramparts of European social democracy; when a Latin American literary intellectual publicly breaks with the Cuban regime, there remains for him nothing but Outer Darkness.
Much of the interest which this book holds for us arises out of certain personal facts about the author himself and the context in which his mission took place. What commended Edwards to President Allende was the fact that he was one of the very few career diplomats to be publicly identified with both the Cuban revolution and the cause of Chilean socialism. From the Cuban point of view, however, he was not so satisfactory a choice. True, he had been a contributor to the literary magazine produced by the Cuban state publishing house, and he had visited Cuba in 1968 to serve on a literary-prize jury. He had also continued his relations by mail with many of the Cuban writers he had met at that time. But by 1970—this was apparently not known to Allende—Edwards’s Cuban friends (notably the writers José Norberto Fuentes and Herberto Padilla) had fallen into disgrace, and this made their friends, both domestic and foreign, the objects of severe suspicion.
Nor was Edwards’s social background particularly reassuring to the Cubans. A poor connection of an enormously wealthy, conservative Chilean family, the young socialist diplomat happened to be the nephew of his country’s last ambassador to Havana, a bon vivant millionaire who was well remembered on the island. President Allende was apparently ignorant of this fact as well, and it was only as a personal favor to him, Castro eventually told Edwards, that the appointment was approved.
The political context in which the mission took place was hardly less dramatic. On the one hand, Edwards represented a government which the Cuban leaders—with their rigid adherence to a guerrilla metaphysic—had insisted for years could never come to power. On the other, he arrived in Cuba at the very moment when the Castro regime, to which his own government should presumably be deferring in matters of revolutionary judgment, was entering its dog days. The campaign to produce ten million tons of sugar had ended in failure, and the bill had long since fallen due for Che Guevara’s lyric excesses as Minister of Industries. Signs of economic deterioration were omnipresent and unmistakable.
Perhaps even more significant was the drastic shift in what might be called the country’s moral tone and mood. When Edwards had visited Cuba on a purely literary mission back in 1968, it was still possible (he now writes) to perceive lingering traces of that revolutionary gaiety and spontaneity which had so charmed and disarmed foreign visitors. Now, in the wake of economic failure, the population was demoralized and the regime was in a nasty, vindictive mood, thrashing out in all directions at scapegoats. Favored targets included foreign experts, particularly those whose counsels (spurned by Castro) had proved correct, and Cuban intellectuals, particularly poets and creative writers. At the same time, Edwards stumbled upon what Trotsky would have called a “bureaucratic Thermidor”; that is, while the same familiar figures continued to lead the revolution from the principal command posts, in the shadows behind them there had grown up an invisible army of careerist functionaries into whose hands much of the real power within the state had increasingly devolved. It was with such men—not with Castro or his foreign minister, Raúl Roa—that Edwards had to conduct the bulk of his business. In the process, he learned considerably more about the Cuban revolution than he would have if his personal and political favor had been sufficient to grant him greater access to the men at the top.
What kind of place did Edwards find Castro’s Cuba to be? If one were to draw up a scenario for the ideal fascist state, it is difficult to imagine how the Cuban revolution could improve upon it. The principal motifs would include a lifetime dictator to whom was granted the sole right to have a sense of humor. An economic system characterized by absenteeism, disorganization, and decay, punctuated at long stretches by Potemkin villages for the delectation of visiting foreign innocents. Anti-vagrancy laws and forced labor. An omnipresent secret police, with microphones everywhere. People afraid to trust even their best friends. Categories of guilt and innocence unrelated to facts. Above all, a vicious and pervasive anti-intellectualism. “We in Cuba do not need critics,” the rector of the University of Havana intoned to Edwards. “It is very easy to criticize. Anything can be criticized. The difficult thing is to carry out a job of work, build a country. That is what we need; people who can get things done and can build a society.” This statement, which would not seem out of place in Pavelic’s Croatia or Antonescu’s Rumania, or—why not say it?—Hitler’s Germany, probably comes close to synopsizing Edwards’s entire Cuban experience.
As distressed as the young diplomat was over this state of affairs, he did not quite see, at the beginning, how it all related to him personally. Since he had had no experience with totalitarian states, he was not yet attuned to reading the thousands of tiny signs which explained his precise standing with the regime and the direction in which his political fortunes were tending. At first he did not think much about the fact that he had inexplicable difficulties obtaining a proper automobile, or that his efforts to locate a house for the Chilean embassy chancellery were continually (and mysteriously) aborted. Nor did he see anything to worry about in his private social meetings with Cuban writers, even though he knew that many of his friends were out of favor with the regime. Coming from Chile, which was essentially a 19th-century liberal-bourgeois state, Edwards was reluctant to believe that in Cuba there remained no areas of life which were not, perforce, political.
In time, Edwards was compelled to admit to himself that he was constantly being followed, and that his every conversation was being monitored, either electronically or through informers. Eventually he pieced together the reason for the Cuban government’s unhappiness with his appointment. When he had served as a judge in the 1968 literary competition, he had rather too forcefully taken the part of a Cuban contestant whose work was objectionable to the one Cuban member of the jury. From this single fact, which Edwards failed to realize was based on something other than a difference in literary opinion, the regime had proceeded to draw up an entire bill of indictment against him. But in true totalitarian fashion, it was not to be presented until the right moment—whenever that might be. In the meantime, he was forced to live, along with his writer friends, who were in much the same dilemma, in a kind of emotional pressure cooker. For weeks he watched his Cuban colleagues move slowly but ineluctably toward insanity; one of them went so far as to carry his book manuscript around with him at all times for fear that it might be taken away. For his part, Edwards developed chronic insomnia and mysterious pains in his chest and upper arms, akin to the first symptoms of a heart attack. His stay in Havana began to make him think of “Kafka’s novels; I was caught up in the mechanisms of a trial in which my guilt had already been decided, without my suspecting it, by an invisible and unknown authority.”
This pathological mood is broken midway in the book by the arrival of the Chilean schoolship Esmeralda, which was docking in Havana mid-point in its annual cruise. Apart from placing Edwards once again in contact with a normal psychological environment, the visit of the Esmeralda taught him some important political lessons. The Chilean naval officers, conservatives whose values he had never before appreciated, turned out to be good-humored, realistic, and surprisingly open-minded. By contrast, their Cuban hosts, particularly Fidel Castro (whom Edwards now observed at close range for the first time), showed themselves to be provincial, ignorant, and fatuous. While the naval officers represented a hierarchy of rank and privilege which, in the context of a seagoing vessel, made sense, Castro’s authority was revealed to rest upon a sinister combination of personal charisma and fear.
The visit was equally instructive for his Chilean compatriots. The introduction of the enlisted men to the socialist paradise of the Caribbean had been expected to yield politically edifying results which would presumably redound to the benefit of Allende’s regime in Chile. Instead, the opposite occurred. The poverty and tawdriness of Havana left the sailors “thunderstruck and overwhelmed,” Edwards reports, “as though in Cuba they had stumbled upon a grim future that they thought must inevitably be in store for Chile.” As for the officers, on the final night of the visit one of them conceded to Edwards that far-reaching social and economic changes in Latin America were long overdue; he even welcomed some of them. “But not all of this!” he exclaimed. “This for me is unbearable.” Summoning up his final reserves of socialist conviction, Edwards replied, “We are taking a different road.” “Don’t you believe it!” the officer shot back. “You don’t know. You left Chile in the early days and you don’t know.”
Shortly after the departure of the Esmeralda, Edwards was advised that his replacement had obtained approval and would soon arrive. At the same time, he learned through different channels that his reports to the Chilean Foreign Ministry on the economic and political situation in Cuba had been leaked to Castro, who was, to say the least, acutely displeased. And then, the evening before his departure, Edwards was unexpectedly brought into Castro’s presence and subjected to one of the dictator’s bullying tirades. While Foreign Minister Roa and President Osvaldo Dórticos cowered in a corner of the room, the Cuban premier read Edwards his full bill of indictment as a counterrevolutionary.
Far from recanting and conceding his errors, however, Edwards coolly defended his position as an independent left-wing intellectual, and pointed out to Castro that many of the regime’s failures were due not to counterrevolutionary activities but to the suppression of open discussion and debate. At first Castro was visibly annoyed by the backtalk, but then (with his childlike love of novelty) he became intrigued by Edwards’s intellectual courage, the likes of which he was not precisely accustomed to encountering in such situations. Yet although Edwards spent more than an hour offering meaty arguments in favor of the “de-Stalinization” of Cuba, at the end the only thing about their discussion which really impressed Castro—by his own admission—was Edwards’s calmness in a trying situation.
Lacking diplomatic passports, Edwards’s Cuban friends fared less well at their own inquisition. Some weeks after his departure, he read in the French press that a half-dozen of them spent an entire evening publicly confessing their crimes and errors, an exercise in self-abasement in which the name of their departed Chilean friend also figured. The Cuban government, unwilling to let the matter rest, next tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the Chilean Foreign Office to drop Edwards from the diplomatic list.
During Edwards’s stay in Cuba one of his friends there warned him against the well-documented tendency of foreign visitors to view the revolution in an increasingly benevolent light once separated from it by time and space. Though apparently conscious of this pitfall, Edwards has only partly avoided it. He writes that even today he is still “far from believing that the situation in Cuba is even remotely comparable to the terrible Stalin years” in the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that anyone reading his narrative could offer so generous an appraisal. Those differences that do exist do not so much point to any virtue in the Cuban regime as illustrate the full enormity of the Soviet model upon which it is based.
To some degree, I think that Edwards’s mellowed view must be read in the context of events in his own country after September 1973: he appears to have become somewhat “re-radicalized” by the military coup in Chile and its aftermath, the causes of which he does not fully understand. This is not really surprising, since he spent the entire Allende period far from his country, and he knows of it only what exiles and friends have told him.
Persona Non Grata ends on a note of socialist reaffirmation, in which its author anticipates the triumph of humane values both in Chile, which he likens to Franco Spain, and Cuba, so reminiscent of Stalinist Russia. These comparisons are perhaps more apt than even their maker intends. For if the experience of recent history is any guide, Edwards will be able to return to his native Chile far sooner than he will be able to speak his mind freely in Havana. If this is not clear to him now, it may yet become so; meanwhile, Persona Non Grata is a warning clearly posted for those capable of reading it.