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.
García Márquez went so far as to defend death sentences Castro handed out to politically heterodox Cuban officials — one of whom had been personally close to the writer — after a 1989 show trial.
One can imagine many motivations for this shabby behavior, some more comprehensible than others. A youthful dabbler in Communist Party activity in the 1950s, García Márquez belonged to a generation of Latin American intellectuals for whom anti-imperialism was an ideological given, as well as a badge of sophistication; perhaps he never outgrew that.
“Friendship” with men like Fidel Castro is hard to escape — though, given the benefits he reaped from that relationship, tangible and otherwise, it’s doubtful García Márquez ever contemplated a break with Fidel, even secretly.
Whatever their causes, García Márquez’s Cuba apologetics will forever mar his legacy. True literary greatness is a function of not only narrative skill and linguistic creativity, which García Márquez possessed in abundance, but also moral courage, which he lacked. Against the multiple evils, social and political, that plagued his native region, he bore witness too selectively.
Castro finally let Heberto Padilla leave Cuba for the United States in 1980. In his 1989 memoir, “Self-Portrait of the Other,” the poet noted that he sought García Márquez’s aid for an exit visa but that the writer tried to dissuade him from going, saying that Cuba’s enemies might use his departure for propaganda purposes.
Apart from that book, Padilla produced little. He bounced from one college job to another before dying, a broken man, in Auburn, Ala. He was 68.
In truth, Heberto Padilla did not have half the talent Gabriel García Márquez had. Still, some of us admire him more.