A conversation with the author born in Matanzas about his most recent book, "Fidel Castro. The Playboy Commander. Sex, Revolution and Cold War", recently published by Hypermedia in Madrid (Fidel Castro. El comandante Playboy. Sexo, Revolución y Guerra Fría). Two of the essential stages of any dazzle are adoration and demonization, both present in most of the material researched by Abel Sierra Madero for Fidel Castro.
The study not only re-reads the political flirt between the North American pulp world and the Cuban revolution - a scarce knowledge of which there was very little on the island - but also has an important visual archive to learn about that world dominated by soft magazines, whether they were porn or not and those that in the West is called "heart-felt", dedicated to the gossip and the petty morale of the time.
To discuss these issues further, I met Abel at a café in Rome and we recorded our conversation. Thinking and talking about the 1960s in the heat of August always has some punic contention.
Nothing fascinated and disgusted so much the U.S. press as the Cuban revolution in the years after 1959. To what extent was ontological eschatology incorporated into this primary view of Fidel Castro and to what extent was it also treated in a particular way, without mixing precisely with the ideology of the time?
Indeed, no myth is established without first establishing that affective duality on a massive scale. It is a process of mutual feedback between lovers and haters that gives body to the myth in time. Until now I had not meditated on the relevance of the concept of ontological eschatology to think about these narratives. Something productive can come out of that exercise if we take into account that, in a philosophical sense, eschatology is a notion that is related to life beyond the grave, to immortality, which are ideas encrypted in the construction of any myth and the Christian religion as well.
Although I believe that those narratives to which your reading points did have an ideological gaze. I explain myself. The pulp plots were part of a very specific context, the Cold War. In the United States, it was characterized, among other things, by the fear of communism and civil and sexual rights movements. The pulp stories were articulated on the basis of cultural recycling and anthropological discourses that were passed on to popular culture, to literature, in the form of stereotypes and language of animality and biopolitics that tributed to those fears. One of the essences of the pulp is precisely the recycling of this discursive repertoire. This was also translated into the representation of Fidel Castro. What interested me were the ways in which these languages passed and were digested in printed culture and how they were integrated into systems of representation of Castro and the Cuban revolution.
Along with that image linked to the "desire for a relationship" between certain sectors of the United States and Cuba, was any critical information that spoke of the scarcity and repression that drowned the country in the sixties and seventies also sold in all the merchandise?
The stories about the scarcity and repression of those years come rather from the journalistic world. Most of those who wrote about Cuba from the United States during that time had an affective relationship with the revolution and produced a militant type of travel literature. There were always exceptions. Allen Ginsberg, for example, was one of those who spoke in a more critical tone. Some African-American activists who were in Cuba also wrote unpleasant, rather harsh texts about racism on the island.
Playboy and other magazines where graphic material about Cuba was published had a massive international circulation. Do you have any idea how this " beard" fascination that was transmitted by the publications you analyze in your book worked in other western countries?
I concentrated mainly on the American printed culture of the Cold War, but the fascination with "the beard" had a great impact throughout the West. In the intellectual world, the pulp was always discarded and treated as minor literature, sometimes not even as literature. For the traditional art system, these stories belonged to a kind of mass dump that was not worth archiving. Hence some writers signed with pseudonyms so as not to tarnish their reputations. It may seem strange, but Ernest Hemingway was one of the writers who contributed to these publications at one time or another. Pulp magazines are not found in libraries, but in private collections and of course, on eBay, from where I built the entire book archive. Now it is that some libraries have been encouraged to collect these materials. The Library of Congress, for example, is building an archive on pulp fiction and men's adventure magazines, due, among other things, to the interest generated by the books published by Taschen and the pressure of an increasingly growing community that consumes this type of vintage culture.
Was anyone linked to the Cuban revolution other than Fidel Castro frequently represented in these publications?
The most recurrent image was that of Fidel Castro. Undoubtedly the most powerful and the best known. But, it is curious that in many of these plots the names of some exile leaders like Manolo Ray, among others, sneaked in. I am sure that some of the authors of those stories were Cuban exiles. Some magazines paid very well for the texts. Between 100 and 200 dollars, depending on the length and quality. At that time that figure was a fortune. I hope there is one of those authors out there and interview him.
One of the most interesting things - paradoxically - about the material in your book is that Alina Fernández, Fidel Castro's daughter, denied you any link to Playboy at the same time that someone connected to the magazine told you about the report that was made with her (which was not finally published). What do you think was the reason for this denial of her?
Although it's very difficult to prove, I think Fidel Castro found out about it and had the project aborted. It's possible that my questioning took Alina by surprise, she didn't expect it. Nerves or modesty made her deny her links with Playboy, but I'm sure that that photo session at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome was carried out. And no, I haven't had any reactions from her.
Towards the end of Commander Playboy, you study the representation of Castro in homosexual novels and magazines. What were the main differences - in terms of content and graphics - between magazines or books that were not aimed at that market and those that were? Did Fidel Castro (as Che Guevara is now used for example) ever be used as a gay symbol in the United States?
No, among the hundreds of pulp fiction stories I read, I only found one gay character. This kind of narratives and publications were aimed at working-class heterosexual men, who in addition to those adventure stories, were looking for pinup and nude sections. For the world and the gay market, there were other novels in paperback or pocket. Also other magazines.
Fidel Castro was never used as a gay symbol. He died very old and it was clear to the LGBTQ community that he was primarily responsible for the location of the UMAPs, those infamous forced-labor camps where thousands of young people, including hundreds of homosexuals, were sent. The gay representation of Che is very problematic and shows that the knowledge about the history of the Cuban revolution in the United States and Latin America is very basic and superficial. Most have no idea of the Cuban drama and do not even know that Guevara was a homophobic character with an anti-intellectual projection.
In an interview published in Hypermedia Magazine, you say about the Cuban studies: "This camp has been contaminated by clientelist relationships historically established by U.S. academics with cultural curators and officials. There is a tacit contract that implies a certain political condescension for the Cuban regime. Critical voices are usually punished and penalized by the prohibition to enter the island. Is there ever news that some of these pro-revolution academics have tried to intervene in the politics of the pulp magazines about Cuba, either by writing about (against) them in some important newspaper or by creating some publication that could be understood as a direct response to the pulp image of the revolution in general? Was there ever included research in the American academy, even if it was negative, of this camp file that you go through in your book?
The narratives that the American left produced about Cuba were concentrated in other areas. In addition to academic journals, of course, the left had other publications such as Evergreen Review or Pa'lante, as Rafael Rojas demonstrates in his book Traductores de la utopía, and also later Areito. These magazines disappeared, except the Evergreen Review, which has had its ups and downs. However, today there are other publications of great circulation and prestige, such as The Nation or Slate, which have a very jealous editorial policy towards Cuba. It is practically impossible to get a critical text on the revolution into these spaces. For them, it is possible that the Cold War is not over and Cuba, far from being a more comprehensive and complex formation, is the revolution. For them, Fidel Castro is untouchable.
During that period, the academy had a rather elitist, restricted view of culture, and the pulp was not part of its interests. Its intellectual projects were rather aimed at inducing a very particular reading and pedagogy about Cuba. Some, the most enthusiastic, devoted their time to actively attacking other visions or materials such as the documentary Conducta impropia, for example. Up to now, I have not found texts that point to a strategy of counteracting the stories of the world of the pulp about Cuba. It is possible that my book is one of the first to investigate and analyze these plots and aesthetics related to Fidel Castro and the revolution, and to understand them as a corpus, as an archive.
Does this iconography fascinated by the revolution survive in today's pulp or soft porn magazines?
Not at all. The contemporary world is so conservative, so puritanical, that it recalls the period of McCarthyism in the United States. In these moments the emergence of a genre like the pulp would be unthinkable. We live in an era of shame, modesty, and political correctness. This process has provoked, among other things, that networks such as HBO remove late-night softporn shows for adults from their platforms, or that Facebook censure works such as "The Origin of the World" by Gustave Courbet, but also those by Botticelli. It's crazy.
The disappearance of Fidel Castro and Cuba in this type of publication occurs in the early 1970s. But by then, those magazines were also doomed to disappear. This has to do with the decline of the discourses of the sexual revolution and with the rise of conservative and religious forces, especially since the arrival of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of the United States. During this period, all the nude magazines, including Playboy, began to be removed from newsstands and mini-markets due to pressure from religious groups and the most conservative feminist groups. I don't like to establish causalities, but I think there are connections there that have an impact on the present. If in the 60s and 70s sex became a place of resistance, a place to think about freedom, democracy, today it is not so much.
We don't know if the Cuban political clique knew of these interviews and constant reports of Castro in the U.S. market. But let's say no, they didn't have much idea... After studying this world and after having interviewed some of them yourself (García Buchaca, Alfredo Guevara, et al.), how do you think they would have reacted if interviews like Playboy or Penthouse had circulated around the island?
Very few members of the regime's elite knew of the dictator's affairs with Playboy. That was surely handled as a state secret. Maybe Rául Castro was not even aware of it. Like a short story in the book, Vilma Espín herself was shocked in 1991 when she learned that a team from the magazine was in Havana for another interview with Fidel. That team received VIP treatment and moved in FAR transports and everything. But Alfredo Guevara was a very well-informed man and traveled a lot. It is possible that in one of his trips he ran into the newsstands of some airport with the cover of Playboy announcing the interview of the commander. If he knew, he fell silent as any official or commissioner would have done trying to keep his power quotas. If those interviews had circulated on the island it would have caused a great scandal among the people, but the official speech would have fabricated any justification to legitimize Castro's presence in Playboy's pages.
Could we say that Castro and his image in the West was somehow an American invention?
Fidel Castro is an invention, a fantasy that was built and sold by media corporations such as The New York Times, Playboy, CBS, among others. Castro was a product of the Cold War, a sort of commodity, a product that responded to the specific needs of both liberal and conservative groups. Outside the context of the Cold War, the Cuban dictator is an anachronistic, even ridiculous character. Anthony de Palma awarded Herbert Matthews and The New York Times the production of the fable, but I think that invention was a little more complex. Journalist John P. Wallach picked up that urge long before Anthony de Palma wrote his book. Although it's a bit trite, Wallach said, "it has to be said that if Fidel Castro hadn't existed, we would have had to invent him. That's the fact that we invented it." While this is true, we cannot take away agency from the revolutionary propaganda and its army of writers, journalists, filmmakers and photographers who packaged Fidel and the revolution, turning them into products of desire and consumption.
This is a translation from the interview found on Letras Libres in Spanish which was conducted by Carlos A. Aguilera
(Havana, 1970). Writer. His last published books are Archivo y terror. Operaciones entre literatura, política, teatro y arte (essay, 2019) and Luis Cruz Azaceta. No exit (monograph, 2016). He coordinates the FluXus collection at the Rialta publishing house and is co-director of the in-cubadora platform. He lives in Prague.