The UMAP were labour camps where Fidel Castro interned and tried to correct the “improper behaviour” of homosexuals.

In 1962, three years after the triumph of the revolution in Cuba, the homosexual writer Virgilio Piñera was arrested on the beach of Guanabo, near Havana, during the Night of the Three Ps. He was not the only one. Alongside him, thousands of prostitutes, pimps, “birds” – a euphemism used on the island to refer to homosexuals – and many other people considered “antisocial”, were caught in a massive raid aimed at carrying out an act of “revolutionary social hygiene”.

Virgilio Piñera (1912 – 1979)

Virgilio Piñera (1912 – 1979)

Thanks to his prestige within the Cuban cultural world, and to his influences and friendships – the interventions of journalist Carlos Franqui and civil servant Edith García Buchaca were key to his release – Piñera only had to remain in prison for one day. On his release, however, he found that his house had been requisitioned by the state, and that he had no place to spend the night. To survive the ordeal, he had to ask his colleague Guillermo Cabrera Infante for improvised asylum. Some time later, as he confessed to people close to him, he discovered that he had been arrested because of a complaint by the head of the Defence Committee in his neighbourhood, who wanted to take his house.

Recalling that fateful day in his London exile, Cabrera Infante himself also recalled how, suddenly, his flat “was full of homosexuals who did not dare to go home to sleep. “In the morning, when I got up and went to the kitchen, I remember having to dodge all these friends, who were sleeping on the floor”. His confession was recorded two decades later, during the filming of Conducta Impropia (Misconduct), the documentary with which Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal denounced the repression experienced by homosexuals in Cuba after the triumph of Fidel Castro. The words of the author of Tres tristes tigres summed up a dramatic and widespread situation. After all, as he also pointed out, “not everyone was lucky enough to be Virgilio Piñera, nor to have the same friends as Virgilio Piñera had”.

Camps for hippies and “birds”

Article in ¡Adelante! referring to the UMAP

Article in ¡Adelante! referring to the UMAP

In those days, the Military Units for Aid to Production (UMAP) were created: labour camps similar to those in Nazi Germany – although inspired by others that already existed in various Soviet countries – in which people considered “social scum” were to be productive for society, while receiving a Marxist re-education which, among other things, sought to cure homosexuals of their “pathology and weakness”. In these camps were confined all those who were considered harmful to the country: hippies – to be a hippie it was enough to have long hair, dress in American fashion or listen to the Beatles – “birds” and any other individual who manifested any kind of “improper behaviour”.

Several speeches by Fidel Castro himself – and other members of the revolutionary leadership – have survived to the present day, in which he referred to homosexuals as people “incapable of embodying the conditions and requirements of conduct” of a “true revolutionary”. This is what he said in an interview in 1966 to Lee Lockwood, as recorded in his Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel, along with other phrases that were recovered a few years ago by Guillermo Sheridan for an article in Letras Libres. Among other things, for example, the Cuban leader explained: “A deviation of this nature clashes with the concept we have of what a communist militant should be”. In addition, he also considered that because of their “pathology”, homosexuals had to be kept away from children and young people, so that they could not corrupt them.

Repression of homosexuals in other Soviet countries

With these ideas in mind, several Cuban leaders repeatedly expressed their concern to “keep the streets clean” during visits to other Soviet countries. Heberto Padilla – a poet famous for having been arrested in 1971 for “professing anti-revolutionary ideas”, and for appearing 38 days later to read, suspiciously, a self-criticism in which he disavowed all his writings – narrated, also from exile, that, on one of his trips to Bulgaria, Raúl Castro was surprised to see a society “so neat”. “So he asked how they had managed to solve ‘the problem of homosexuals’, which was what particularly worried him. They told him they had separate camps, where they put all anti-social people, including homosexuals, and showed them to him. When he saw them, he returned convinced that it was a very good solution that could also be implemented on the island”.

Cabrera Infante, for his part, added in another anecdote that Ramiro Valdés was in China and “was very interested in talking to the mayor of Shanghai”. His intention was exactly the same as Raúl Castro’s in Bulgaria, but the answer he received was different. “There are no homosexuals in Shanghai. We’ve taken care of that”, he was told. “Apparently, they had taken advantage of a traditional Chinese festival where gays used to gather in a park near a river. Several Party volunteers had staked them and thrown them into the water. The bodies and blood downstream served as an exemplary message, putting an end to homosexuality in the city in one fell swoop”.

Censorship and ostracism

The UMAPs operated until the end of the 1960s, and were closed down thanks to growing pressure on the regime from a number of well-known intellectuals and international organisations. Thousands of people passed through them, many of them homosexuals, such as the writer Reynaldo Arenas, who endured sentences of several months – sometimes several years, as most of the inmates, shortly after their release, were tried and convicted again – during which time they had to work the camps in extreme conditions. But the repression did not end there.

In addition to the law against vagrancy that was introduced in 1971, there was increasing censorship that directly affected writers and intellectuals. As early as 1966, after the publication of Paradiso – a book condemned, among other things, for containing homoerotic passages – José Lezama Lima was prevented from printing and publishing his novel throughout Cuba. Moreover, his decision to award the Julián del Casal Prize to Heberto Padilla in 1968 for his collection of poems Fuera del juego (Padilla’s story has already been mentioned above), finally earned him the enmity of the Regime. From then on, he lived in an increasingly pronounced ostracism, and died in 1976 surrounded by silence, despite being one of the most renowned writers in the country’s history.

But he was not the only one. Other examples include the aforementioned Reynaldo Arenas, who had to take advantage of the Mariel exodus to go into exile in the United States, and Virgilio Piñera, who also spent his last years in Havana in forced anonymity. The playwright Antón Arrufat was sentenced to fourteen years of silence in 1968, due to the controversy generated by one of his writings. And René Ariza lived a parallel life to Arenas, first working in the UMAP and then going into exile, also in 1980. The list is long but the stories of repression, after decades of political control of communications, still struggle to come to light.