The Bridge from Cuba

The night of February 20, 2014 an overflow crowd of passionate Cuban-American fans awaited the island writer, Leonardo Padura, at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. Books & Books, the organizer of the event, together with the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University, had wisely foreseen the need to move the reading to the larger location down the street from the landmark Miami bookstore.

Leonardo Padura has achieved an international following for his Mario Conde detective series. More recently, his long and probing historical novels have won him a new literary fame in the United States, including a recent write up in The New Yorker. An American edition of his work, The Man Who Loved Dogs, ostensibly about Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramón Mercader, but ultimately a profound meditation on utopian ideals, was just released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Padura’s latest novel, Herejes, or Heretics, soon to appear in English, engages with a tragic story that will be familiar to those who recall the 1976 movie, Voyage of the Damned, starring Faye Dunaway. Departing from Hamburg in 1939, the S.S. St. Louis ocean liner was filled with 937 German Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. Although the passengers purchased legal landing permits, upon arrival in Havana the Cuban authorities refused to honor them. After six days docked at the harbor, only a handful among this Jewish cargo were allowed to set foot on Cuban soil. The ship set sail to the United States, which also refused entry to the despondent passengers. Returning to Europe, the governments of Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom accepted several passengers, but at least 600 died in Nazi concentration camps.

Among Cubans, the telling of the story of the St. Louis evokes great sadness. Up until that moment, Cuba had been a haven for Jews, many of whom, like my own family, felt they’d found their promised land in the tolerant and joyous tropical island. Cubans think of the St. Louis incident as an exception, not the rule. The Cuban attitude toward Jews, both in the past and present, has been one of acceptance and even admiration. Today’s tiny Cuban community of a thousand Jews is flourishing. The fact that Padura chose to create Cuban Jewish characters affected by the legacy of the St. Louis is itself a sign of how respected this community is by Cubans, including those still living under socialism.

At the book event, Padura was introduced by two friends from his youth. Both men have resided in Miami since the early 1960s. They spoke warmly of Padura and declared that he continues to be the same humble person, and true friend, he was before becoming famous. Padura sat smiling on stage, his eyes misting.

Padura read only a brief passage from Herejes, preferring to speak without a written text. He began by addressing his choice to remain in Cuba. His native land, and in particular his Havana neighborhood of Mantilla, which he likened to García Marquez’s Macondo, is the source of his rootedness as a writer. He remarked that his wife Lucía thinks the place is ugly, but for him it’s magical. “That’s how we Cubans are,” he noted, “We are proud even of living in destroyed places like Mantilla.”

When he came in 1992 for a first visit to Miami—where a brother lives—he was continually asked, “You’re not thinking of going back, are you?” The fact that he planned to return to Cuba at a time when the island was experiencing hunger, blackouts, and moral desperation, seemed crazy to his fellow Cubans in the diaspora. It was impossible to take a stand as a writer who has opted to stay home, in his own country, to write.

Things haven’t changed all that much. In an interview earlier that day, he said he’d been hoping the reporter would ask him about books, movies, and baseball, all topics he loves to talk about. But after inquiring only about politics in Cuba, the reporter said the interview was over.

For years, he stated, his friends had been pleading with him to do a public event in Miami, but he’d been hesitant. He considers himself an independent writer, not a representative of any party or political position. He decided to take a chance. The moment seemed ripe, finally, for his appearance in Miami. Maybe after a half century, the Cuban diaspora could listen to his message without throwing tomatoes at him.

His message was a call for peace. Looking priestly in a black shirt and black jacket, Padura bemoaned from the pulpit the divisions among family and friends brought about by the Cuban Revolution. He called for “fraternidad,” for fraternity, for the unity that until very recently has been tenuous among Cubans here and there.

The moment he uttered those final words, the audience rose and gave him a standing ovation. It was a victory for literature and its capacity to unsettle borders. Seconds later, in true Cuban style, the crowd jumped from their seats and elbowed their way to the next room to form a line to get books signed by the author. Padura’s speaking tour continues to New York and Chicago, no more than a couple of weeks, so he can get back to Cuba by early March. He doesn’t like to be away from his Macondo for very long, though soon after he will continue his literary tour in Europe.

Back in 1992, I published an Op-Ed essay in the The New York Times entitled “A Bridge to Cuba.” I spoke then of the possibility of extending a bridge to the island from the United States, a bridge between Cubans who share culture, memory, and hopes for a better future, despite being split as a nation by politics and ideology.

Now, twenty-two years later, the bridge is extending in the other direction, from the island to the diaspora. Last year, the Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez, was in the United States and was received with tears and an outpouring of affection when she spoke at the Freedom Tower and Florida International University in Miami.

The line for a one-on-one moment with Padura snaked all the way to the back of the room. It was amazing to see Cubans on this side of the border waiting patiently to meet Padura and congratulate him. I was toward the front of the line and waited close to 45 minutes for my turn. At the rate the line was moving, the book signing would go on till midnight. Padura didn’t rush; he wrote long inscriptions for each person. He smiled patiently when people asked for a photograph. Everyone wanted a “selfie” with him.

Before leaving, I turned back and shook my head in disbelief—Wait a minute, am I seeing Miami Cubans standing on line to get their books signed by an island writer? Didn’t they all leave Cuba never to have to stand on any line again? I felt hopeful for my people. We’ve come a long way—the reconciliation many of us have dreamed about for years, the rescue of our lost illusions, isn’t so far away anymore.