Reinaldo Arenas (July 16, 1943 – December 7, 1990) was a Cuban poet, novelist, essayist and playwright. Despite his early sympathy for Fidel Castro's revolution against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, he grew critical of and then rebelled against the Cuban government. Before and during his exile from Cuba, he wrote and published many works, including books, essays, songs, plays and long stories.
Arenas is well-known for his autobiography Before Night Falls, which was on the New York Times list of top ten books in 1993 and was later made into a film. He also produced many notable works of fiction set in Cuba, such as Farewell to the Sea and Singing from the Well.
Arenas was sent to prison after being convicted of "ideological deviation" and for smuggling his works out of Cuba. He was eventually forced to renounce his work, which was considered "counterrevolutionary." A homosexual who was persecuted because of his sexual orientation as well as his political outlook, Arenas was able to leave Cuba in 1979 when Castro attempted to rid the country of those deemed socially "undesirable." Though Arenas eventually committed suicide in 1990 while suffering from AIDS, in his final decade he finally felt free from the oppression of the Cuban government and encouraged others to continue in their struggle for freedom.
Arenas was born in the countryside, in the northern part of Oriente province in eastern Cuba. Soon after he was born, his father left his mother and she took them to live on her parents' farm. Though his childhood was plagued by poverty, it was also filled with a sense of mysticism and freedom. He was surrounded by trees, family, nature and an overarching sense of harmony. Arenas' early years were characterized by curiosity, spirituality, sexuality, creativity, and imagination.
Arenas' mother taught him how to write by writing out long sentences that he would trace over. When Arenas was six, he began attending school at Rural School 91 in Perronales County. He also attended a literary evening once every weekend, where students would recite poems from memory. He recalls this as being one of the most literary times of his life, though he lacked much formal training. The only other literary influences he encountered in youth were his grandmother's mystical stories, together with the songs that he learned and would sing to himself in the woods.
Despite his short life and the hardships imposed during his imprisonment, Arenas produced a significant body of work.
After entering a storytelling contest, he was invited to work at the Cuban National Library in 1963, where he began writing and reading non-stop. However, before long, the library was considered a place of ideological corruption and any book Castro's regime considered ideologically suspect was removed.
In 1965, Arenas submitted Singing from the Well to a literary competition sponsored by the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC). As the judges could not come to an agreement, no first prize was awarded that year, but Arenas was awarded first honorable mention. This novel was about a child who was persecuted by his family, as well as by the impoverished conditions of his rural existence, and had to rely on his imagination to survive. The supposed lack of realism in his writing led to this novel's limited publication of only 2,000 copies before it was banned in Cuba. The regime considered the free-flowing narrative to undermine the officially encouraged Socialist Realism that should characterize writing and art, as cultural policymakers demanded that literature clearly contribute to revolutionary consciousness. 
In 1966 Arenas was awarded second place by the UNEAC for The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando, and again no first prize was given out. This novel was also banned in Cuba, but was later published abroad. Arenas left the National Library and became an editor for the Cuban Book Institute until 1968. From 1968 to 1974 he was a journalist and editor for the literary magazine La Gaceta de Cuba.
Arenas' writings and openly homosexual lifestyle were, by 1967, bringing him into conflict with the Communist government. On grounds that Singing from the Well and The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando were published without prior authorization from the (UNEAC), Arenas was placed under surveillance and questioned by the Directorate for State Security. His writings supported the individual's right to self-expression and were thus deemed anti-revolutionary and subject to censorship.
Many of Arenas' manuscripts were destroyed, stolen or lost. For example, Farewell to the Sea was destroyed by one of his former friends, and it took him two years to rewrite the manuscript. In fact, it was rewritten a total of three times, as it kept vanishing or ending up in the hands of the state. He found himself constantly moving his work from one hiding place to another until he could find a way to smuggle it out of the country. After Arenas escaped from prison, he himself even burned some manuscripts in fear that they would be discovered. Considered by many to be his best work, Farewell to the Sea is set on a Cuban beach immediately following the Revolution, describing the mourning of a disenchanted poet over the new suppression while his wife longs for the connectivity that she can no longer find.
His Pentagonía is a set of five novels that comprise a “secret history” of post revolutionary Cuba, which was never completed. It includes the poetical Farewell to the Sea, Palace of the White Skunks, Singing from the Well, The Color of Summer and The Assault. In these novels Arenas’ style ranges from a stark realist narrative to satiric humor. He traces his own life story in what to him is the absurd world of Castro’s Cuba. In each of the novels Arenas himself is a major character, going by a number of pseudonyms.
His autobiography, Before Night Falls was on the New York Times list of the ten best books of the year in 1993. Arenas began writing the story of his life while he was a fugitive living in Lenin Park in Cuba. He would have to write as much as possible before dark, since he had no light to write by; hence the title, Before Night Falls. However, this manuscript was lost multiple times and, while he was in the hospital, he dictated the story of his life because he was too ill to type. In 2000 this work was made into a film, directed by Julian Schnabel, in which Arenas was played by Javier Bardem.
Sadly, Arenas never received compensation for many of the books he published abroad. Moreover, he had a difficult time getting published once he was living freely in the United States. When he was living in New York, he began writing articles for the Spanish language magazine Mariel, founded by Juan Abreu and other Cuban emigres which was first published in Spring 1983. Though the journal was not well received, Arenas proudly contributed to it during its few years of publications.
A life of struggle
In 1952, Fulgencio Batista's dictatorship had become repressive both politically and morally. Under his government's oppression, the economy deteriorated, especially in the rural areas. There was no work, and Arenas' grandfather was forced to sell his farm and move to the town of Holguín, where Arenas regarded life as boring, commercial, flat, and lacking in mystery and personality. He shared a two-bedroom home with ten people, and would work a 12-hour day for one peso. On payday, he would go to the movies in order to let his imagination roam and escape what he felt was the dead town of Holguín. By 1957, terror had become commonplace—he would hear shootings daily. Conditions became more and more unbearable and, around 1958, there were periods of little food and no electricity.
When Arenas was 14, he felt it was his duty to join the guerrillas in the mountains. However the injustices Arenas began to witness there made him question the goodwill of the rebels whom he had joined. Before Fidel Castro even rose to power, those who were considered traitors by the rebels were already being executed. On December 31, 1958, Batista fled the country and Castro's revolutionary government took power in 1959.
When Arenas was 16, he was awarded a scholarship at La Pantoja, the former Batista military camp that had been converted into a polytechnic institute. He would later graduate as an agricultural accountant, in a new program the government had created with the secret agenda to confiscate all private land. Arenas describes it as a center for training young Communists. Arduous physical training was also involved, and in order to graduate, he had to climb the Sierra Maestra mountains six times. Upon completion, he was told that he was not simply a student, but also one of the vanguard of the Revolution. He was considered part of the official Communist youth movement and and a soldier of the new Cuban army. These young Communists would control the economy of the country, and, as agricultural accountants, would be in charge of the administration of land currently under private ownership but which would soon become the property of the State.
Later, Arenas was accepted into a planning course for agricultural accountants at the University of Havana, where he took courses in mathematics, trigonometry, political economy, and planning. During this time, he worked as an accountant for the National Institute for Agricultural Reform (INRA) to pay for his classes, though there was still not enough money for him to eat even two full meals a day.
The State soon began to control nearly every aspect of Cuban life. There was freedom to praise the Castro regime, but not to criticize it. Moreover, homosexuality was severely punished by jail, expulsion, or both. Those who were discovered to be homosexuals were often stoned, beat up, and barred admission to any state school. Thus, Arenas continually hid his sexual orientation.
By 1963, the persecution of homosexuals was getting worse, and they were being sent to UMAP (Units for Aid to Production) labor camps. All homosexual acts were deemed illegal and punishable by years in jail. By 1964, young men were even being persecuted for having long hair and wearing tight fitting pants.
Eventually, every gay writer and artist was "parameterized." That is, they received a telegram stating that their behavior did not fall within the political and moral parameters necessary for their jobs. Homosexuals were immediately removed from their jobs and sent to forced labor camps. Many became informers to save themselves, while others committed suicide to escape Castro’s cruelty. Bonds of friendship were shattered and mistrust filled the air.
Later, Arenas was pressured into marriage in order to apply for housing, as the state would not allow a known homosexual to have a home. Arenas married a woman named Ingrávida Félix, but he was still not allowed to get a house.
Arenas' found himself unable to trust anyone, as he slowly found out that many of his friends were informers for State Security. The Directorate for State Security was particularly interested in how Arenas managed to smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba. It demanded to know how many other manuscripts he had, where they were, and who Arenas' foreign contacts were. The police searched his room periodically and anyone caught hiding his manuscripts would have been sentenced to over a year in prison.
By 1969, a policy of state-enforced "voluntary" work was in full effect, and the Cuban people had to participate in Castro's agricultural efforts to harvest ten million tons of sugarcane. The National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) decided that all writers were to be sent to the sugar mills. In 1970, Arenas found himself working in one of these, cutting down sugarcane and writing a book praising Castro's sugar program. Had he attempted to leave the plantation, he could have been sent to jail for anywhere from five to 30 years.
The workers at the sugar plantations lived in barracks and were reportedly treated like slaves. Although it was considered “rehabilitation” by the regime, the laborers went to great lengths to get a break from the hard work. Some cut off their own fingers just to be able to get some rest.
On the other hand, many Cuban writers were becoming informers for the government, and the persecution worsened as censored writers' works were eagerly sought after by readers. The regime feared that large numbers of young people would become followers of nonconformist authors and attempted systematically to humiliate and demoralize any writers who might become counterrevolutionary symbols.
"Counterrevolutionary" writers were forced to apologize for their works and call themselves despicable cowards and traitors. Part of their "rehabilitation" involved stating publicly that they had come to understand the beauty of the Revolution. They were also forced to denounce their friends and retract their previous works. These confessions of ideological errors were filmed and circulated not only in Cuba, but throughout the Third World and Soviet bloc.
In the summer of 1973, Arenas was robbed at the beach. This contact with the police led to his arrest for being a homosexual. He was convicted of "ideological deviation" and sentenced to eight years in jail for publishing abroad without official consent. Arenas later escaped from prison, but was unable to find freedom from oppression despite several attempts to flee the country. He also attempted suicide on more than one occasion.
After escaping from prison, Arenas hid in Lenin Park. On November 15, 1974, he wrote—and succeeding in smuggling out of the country—an open letter asking for help and denouncing the Cuban regime. While in hiding, he began work on his autobiography Before Night Falls. The Directorate for State Security informed the public that he was a rapist who had killed an old woman, hoping this would increase the likelihood of his arrest.
Following his subsequent capture, Arenas was returned to prison at El Morro Castle and his autobiography was confiscated. Here, homosexuals were treated like animals. Ironically, since he entered prison as an assumed rapist and murderer, he was not held in the homosexual ward of the prison and was not subjected to as much brutality as other gay prisoners. However, inmates were allowed a mere one hour of sunlight once or twice a month. Also, informers, who were actually a part of the State Security apparatus, were placed within the prison. Arenas described the ethics of this era as those of a vendetta.
Arenas was in this prison for over six months before he was even allowed a trial. In the meantime, his fellow inmates found out he was a writer, and he began to write love letters to their girlfriends and families for them. Later, he was placed in solitary confinement, a time he described as one of utter isolation and despair. Here, he was questioned again about his contacts and how he managed to smuggle his work out of the country. If he confessed, he would have to inform on 15 to 20 of his friends who had helped him and made sacrifices for him, which he refused to do. Instead, he made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide.
Arena was then secretly brought to Villa Marista, the headquarters of the Directorate for State Security, as officials did not want him to commit suicide before they got his confession. He was told that if he did not confess, they could make him "disappear." After three months of death threats and interrogations, Arenas finally agreed to sign a confession.
In his confession, Arenas stated that he detested homosexuality and admitted to being a counterrevolutionary who had fallen victim to ideological weakness. He also recanted his writings. He stated that his only hope for redemption was to join the Revolution and work constantly on its behalf, promising to write only optimistic novels about the Revolution in the future. He praised those who informed on him and declared them to be heroes. Once again, he was sent to a forced labor camp to be "rehabilitated."
Arenas also agreed to reform his sexual behavior and to cut all of his ties with the capitalist West. In order to avoid any international scandal based on his status as a prisoner of conscience, he was also required to confess to rape and corrupting a minor.
After Arenas publicly apologized for all of his "crimes," he faced serious depression, feeling as though he had betrayed himself, his principles, and his friends. He was sent back to El Morro prison and was finally given a trial. He received a two-year jail sentence and had to make a list of people who were enemies of the Revolution. Reportedly, he gave only the names of those friends who had previously informed on him to the state. The regime also forced him to write a public letter stating that he was doing well, was in good health, and was hoping to return home shortly.
Later, Arenas was transfered to an outdoor prison, where he built houses for Soviet advisers from dawn until eight or nine at night. It was actually considered a privilege to be in this environment, and thus no one tried to escape, for fear of being returned to El Morro. Here, he was again required to write a public letter, stating that he was practically free, and that he could spend his weekends at home with his family. However, he secretly sent a letter to his friends in France describing his real condition.
In early 1976, Arenas was released from prison but was still being closely monitored. He tried to find his manuscript of Farewell to the Sea, but it had been taken by State Security. There was little food or water, and no work; and the city was filthy and unkempt. Trash had not been picked up for over three years in some parts of the city. By this time, it had become difficult even to swim in the ocean. Huge walls were put up to divide the beaches and keep those out who did not have a permit to be at the beach, which could only be obtained by government officials, Communist Party members and pro-Castro union members, etc. Arenas felt as though all of the joy in his life was lost. Not only had he lost all trust, but now he was prevented even from seeing the ocean that had been such a huge part of his life. Then, his grandmother passed away; and, with her passing, his perspective on life changed even more for the worse.
Nonetheless, Arenas persevered and illegally purchased a room—as no one was allowed to buy or sell property in Cuba—where he could continue writing his own novels in peace. Here he completed rewriting Farewell to the Sea, and found various hiding places for the manuscript, later smuggling it out of the country.
In 1979, Fidel Castro decided to get rid of those former political prisoners whom he considered to be unimportant and granted them exit permits to leave Cuba. Castro also permitted the insane, old criminals and homosexuals to leave the country. Professionals with degrees and talented writers were not allowed to leave, however.
The police who authorized Arenas' exit permit were not aware that he was a writer, only that he was a homosexual. As he left for the Port of Mariel, he was searched, since exiles were not allowed to take any papers with them, especially not phone numbers or letters. Passengers had to wait in line to confirm that they were not one of the writers or professionals who were not allowed to leave the country. So, Arenas changed his name from Arenas to Arinas on his exit permit, and slipped by State Security.
On the morning of May 4, he left on the San Lázaro and, after his boat was temporarily lost at sea, arrived in Florida three days later. He got a job as a visiting professor at the International University of Florida, where he taught a course on Cuban poetry. In August 1980, Arenas accepted an invitation to speak at Columbia University in New York. He subsequently moved to New York City on December 31, 1980.
After just three years out of Cuba, Arenas had taken part in three international films, traveled through Europe, wrote or rewrote six books, founded a literary magazine and had been invited to over 40 universities to speak.
Death and legacy
Arenas was diagnosed with AIDS in the winter of 1987. After battling the illness, Arenas overdosed from drugs and alcohol in 1990 in New York. In a suicide letter written for publication, Arenas wrote:
Due to my delicate state of health and to the terrible emotional depression it causes me not to be able to continue writing and struggling for the freedom of Cuba, I am ending my life…. I want to encourage the Cuban people out of the country as well as on the Island to continue fighting for freedom. I do not want to convey to you a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope. Cuba will be free. I already am. 
Through Arenas' honest and "campy" style, he managed to fight for the rights of individuals, regardless of things such as sexual orientation. His influence has not been simply literary, it has been political as well. Arenas, along with other Cuban writers, like José Lezama Lima and Nicholás Guillén, haven been influential voices of social protest. Even though he knew it was illegal to say and write about the regime in a way that was unflattering to Castro's image, Arenas' voice was a voice of courage that revealed the truth about the Castro regime. Arenas' unconventional novels spoke to human rights and changed both the lives of people as well as the style of literature. Though Arenas' surreal writing style was not accepted by the Cuban government, he still managed to reach out to readers in a way that not only gave them a glimpse into Castro's regime, but also let their minds experience the freedom and beauty in his stories.
- The Assault (1992) ISBN 0140157182.
- Before Night Falls (1993) (Dolores M. Koch, Translator), 1994 ISBN 0140157654.
- The Color of Summer (1990) ISBN 0140157190.
- The Doorman (1991) I (Dolores M. Koch, Translator), 1994 SBN 080213405X .
- Farewell to the Sea (1987) (Andrew Hurley, Translator), 1987 ISBN 0140066365.
- Graveyard of the Angels (1987) English translation by Alfred MacAdam ISBN 0380750759.
- The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando (1994) ISBN 978-0140241662.
- Mona and Other Tales (2001) ISBN 0375727302.
- Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories (1995) English translation by Andrew Hurley ISBN 0802134068.
- The Palace of the White Skunks (1990) English translation by Andrew Hurley ISBN 0140097929.
- Singing from the Well (1987) English translation by Andrew Hurley ISBN 014009444X.
- Frank Soto. Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990). Twayne's World Authors Series. (New York: Twayne, 1998).
- Reinaldo Arenas' Last Letter. picard.montclair.edu. Retrieved July 3, 2007.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls: A Memoir. Trans. Dolores M. Koch. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. ISBN 0140157654.
- Ocasio, Rafael. Cuba's Political and Sexual Outlaw: Reinaldo Arenas. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2003. ISBN 9780813026725.
- Soto, Francisco. Reinaldo Arenas. Twayne's World Authors Series. New York: Twayne, 1998. ISBN 9780805745542.
All links retrieved December 7, 2022.
- Reinaldo Arenas (1943 - 1990) - Find a Grave Memorial. www.findagrave.com.
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