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Censorship, Homosexuality and Murder

Comparing Padillas

by SAUL LANDAU

Bush behavior–practicing torture, violating human rights and wrapping itself in secrecy while preaching the opposite–has given deceit a bad name. W didn’t begin the double speak and double standards patter, however.

In 1971, US troops and bombers routinely massacred Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. In that same year, Cuban police arrested a poet, Heberto Padilla without charging him. Hundreds of US and European intellectuals and academics who had opposed against the US wars reserved a special kind of outrage when unsubstantiated rumors spread that Padilla had undergone brutal torture. Petitions circulated demanding that Cuba stop torturing this great poet, although no one had seen or heard any direct evidence of such mistreatment.

After 38 days, Cuba’s state security cops sprung Padilla, who then delivered his notorious speech (1930s Stalin purge style imitation confession) to writers and artists, condemning his "bourgeois" and "counterrevolutionary behavior", and naming other writers as also responsible for their misguided comportment. It didn’t matter whether he invented the speech as a kind of literary ruse to mock state security or the cops had pressured him to deliver this mea culpa. Padilla became an instant pariah–a fink and coward — in Cuban intellectual circles.

His book of poems, Fuera del Juego (Out of the Game), won the UNEAC (Artists and Writers Union) poetry prize in 1968. Cuba published the book with a foreword by UNEAC reprimanding Padilla for his behavior.

Over the ensuing months and years after his arrest, I talked with Padilla who laughed at the campaign to stop his supposed torture. He had suffered a severe nervous reaction to getting arrested, he recounted The cops panicked over his stomach pains and they rushed him to a seaside resort, fed him yogurt and provided on-call doctors.

Throughout the 1970s, Cuban intellectuals would cross the street when they saw Padilla. A few felt sorry for him and his reputation-blanching mistake: making the mea culpa statement. Padilla admitted to me that the security people had behaved considerately. But we agreed they had no right to arrest him–just because he had written and spoken dissenting words in brilliant poems and bad mouthed Fidel and the revolution to foreign visitors. His arrest correctly provoked leading world intellectuals to respond in outrage. Cuba deserved condemnation for having arrested Padilla, but not for torturing him since he wasn’t tortured or threatened with torture.

Padilla lived quietly in Havana for several years afterwards, receiving a good salary from the state. In 1980, he moved to the United States where he taught at Princeton and then at Auburn University. He died of a heart attack in 2000, a lonely man.

Another Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Jose of Puerto Rican descent, holds no claim to the intellectual spotlight. Intellectuals have not rallied to the cause of this former street gang member who converted to Islam. In February, in a Miami courtroom, the world public learned–those few who read about it–that after September 11 US interrogators used "unusual" methods to "break" prisoners.

Unlike Cuban state security who fed Heberto yogurt, the US torturers offered Jose sleep interruption, sound blasting and mind altering drugs. They broke Padilla, but not exactly in the way they wanted. The Bushies had planned to try him as an international terrorist, but his lawyers argued that the long years of torture while in captivity had left him insane and therefore not fit to stand trial. The judge disagreed, but the gruesome details are starting to emerge.

In May 2002 US agents grabbed Padilla at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, classified him "enemy combatant," and threw him into a tiny, windowless cell in a Navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. They shackled Padilla, covered his eyes with goggles and his ears with headphones — for more than 3 years. His interrogators forbade him contact with lawyers or family members, but they did keep bright lights turned on him and blasted his auditory nerves with loud sounds. Padilla claims they injected him "truth serum," or, perhaps as his lawyers believe LSD or PCP.

Two professionals examined him and determined he had been physically destroyed, and thus unable to assist in his own defense. He thinks of his lawyers as interrogators, not as defenders. As Naomi Klein wrote (The Nation, March 12, 2007), in order to prove that "the extended torture visited upon Mr. Padilla has left him damaged," his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the Navy brig. The government strenuously objects, maintaining that "Padilla is competent," that the treatment he received is irrelevant.

Compare the intellectual outrage in Heberto Padilla’s case with the relatively muted response by leading intellectuals and artists to Jose Padilla’s treatment. The outcry of human rights violations around the Cuban poet was literally deafening; the silence on Jose Padilla rings louder still. His case drags on as torture claims from US prisons multiply.

In 1971, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag, led a list of distinguished writers. They held Fidel Castro responsible for directing Heberto’s torture. Do intellectuals not get aroused by what appears as yet one more George W. Bush peccadillo? Is it because most cultured people no longer hold the assumption that the United States holds the eternal torch for human rights and civilized behavior?

Indeed, when US officials use moral hyperbole it seems to mocks the facts of US behavior. In early March, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly likened homosexuality to adultery. The General vibrated his moral outrage over the prospect of having gay soldiers serving alongside straight soldiers. Yich!!!

The military, he declared, "should not condone it by allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces." In 1994, President Clinton instituted his enigmatic "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy on sexuality–which he ironically did not use himself when he got caught in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Pace, the law abiding officer, claimed he of course supported this standard, which prohibits commanders from asking about a person’s sexual orientation.

But, Pace personally believed that "homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts." Pace told a reporter: "I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way." Speaking "as an individual, I would not want (acceptance of gay behavior) to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else’s wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not. We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior," he said. (Pauline Jelinek, AP, March 13, 2007

Wow, I said to myself, it’s a good thing the reporter didn’t ask Pace how he compared his moral standards on homosexual behavior with the morality of killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians–or indeed, if such killing by the US heterosexual military was immoral. Imagine an army that took seriously the Sixth Commandment–You Shall Not Murder!

Given the raging fundamentalism that is sweeping across the United States and the armed forces, it becomes puzzling to see this Commandment become an exception. When it comes to the unborn (abortion) or brain dead — remember Terri Schiavo? — the fundamentalists reach their pinnacle of moral indignation.

Somewhere in their Bible it must say something about how angry God gets when He sees two guys getting it on. This obviously means more to Him than the act of slaughtering hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Iraq, which was the US army’s job. Is there no Commandment that says: "Thou shalt not bugger the neighbor"? There’s one about not "coveting your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." But when US soldiers stole from and raped Iraqis wholesale after they invaded in March 2003, Pace expressed no moral indignation.

In the 1970s, Cuba mistakenly arrested Heberto Padilla, an act that symbolized the restriction of creativity. Subsequently, the government reversed those policies. In the last two decades, Cuban music, literature and especially cinema has offered profound critiques of its social order. Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s "Strawberry and Chocolate" and "Guantanamera" ridicule Party line thinking and bureaucracy.

Bush and company have not taken responsibility for the injustice done to Jose Padilla and thousands more held without charges, many of them tortured. "Mistakes were made!" Bush chants this mantra when his murderous errors in Iraq are revealed.

The Heberto Padilla case still resonates with the notion of censorship, but it no longer represents Cuba cultural policy. The Jose Padilla case stands as the insignia of current US justice standards.

SAUL LANDAU’s new book, BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, with a foreword by Gore Vidal, is now available from Counterpunch Press. His new film, WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE, is available on DVD from roundworldmedia@gmail.com