To see horror, one startled eye is enough. — Cuban poet Heberto Padilla.
Like many Cubans in Miami, I’ve waited for days to hear from the man we call el sueco, the Swede, the human rights activist who survived the car “accident” in which Cuba’s best-known dissident, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and a young enthusiastic activist, Harold Cepero, were killed.
But Jens Aron Modig has not said a word in public since he returned to Stockholm, and few are surprised.
The Cuban government split up the two survivors and kept a hostage: the Spaniard driving the car, Angel Carromero, a fellow human-rights activist accused by the Cuban government of vehicular homicide and facing 15 years in prison.
For those of us who have witnessed first-hand accounts of past victims of Cuba’s regime, the Stalinist theater piece that played out in Havana before Modig flew home is reminiscent of another well-known case: the Padilla Affair of 1971.
Heberto Padilla was one of Cuba’s most important poets, a gentle, talented man who translated Keats, Blake and Byron and penned odes to love and country and everything else in life worth writing about.
In 1968, a panel of judges awarded Cuba’s highest literary prize to Padilla’s book of poetry, Fuera del juego (Out of the Game), an unprecedented work critical of the totalitarian turn of the Cuban Revolution. The state-sponsored Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, which awarded the prize, was forced to issue a statement criticizing the book as counterrevolutionary. Padilla became a pariah, constantly under surveillance. Two years later, after officials learned he was writing a novel that also would be an affront, he was arrested.
Under the duress of interrogation and the threat of imprisonment, he was forced to perform a humiliating act of self-criticism by reading a statement before the union saying he had been wrong for questioning the revolution.
Forty one years later, Carromero’s mea culpa — issued in Havana as the Cuban and international press dutifully captured it and sent it out into the world without much questioning — rings so familiar.
He was driving too fast, the accident was his fault and should not be used for political purposes, Carromero said. Modig was allowed to go home.
As we wait out his eloquent silence, it’s helpful to remember Padilla, who outsmarted his jailers.
The impeccable writer let the grammatical mistakes of the state security official who actually penned his statement stand, and the free world knew that no matter what he said, it was a fake confession.
Padilla, who died in exile in 2000, lived in virtual house arrest until he was allowed to leave Cuba in 1980 at the request of Sen. Ted Kennedy.
The suspected truth behind Padilla’s false mea culpa wasn’t fully known until he and his family were free.
If a book of poetry was that that much of a threat to a totalitarian regime then, imagine the significance now of the real story behind Payá’s death.
We must listen to the silences, question the mea culpas – and wait.
One thing is different: Truth is harder to keep in the shadows for decades. Even dead poets speak long after they’re gone.