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Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is hailed as a masterpiece and harbinger of the literary genre, magical realism, a style of writing that influenced everyone from Isabel Allende to Salman Rushdie to Toni Morrison. With more than 30 million copies sold, the book is second only to Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” among Spanish-language novels. And Cervantes had, as one writer noted, a “four-century head start.”
But hours after the Nobel laureate died Thursday, the Cold War debate over his friendship with Cuba’s iconic revolutionary and former President Fidel Castro was rehashed as the singular stain on his otherwise glorious literary legacy.
While Castro’s revolution in its early days inspired admiration from the global left, his movement quickly became characterized by acts of repression and censorship. For the past four decades, García Márquez had been criticized for maintaining his support even after Castro blessed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, with obituaries this week calling that support “scandalous” and a defense of “the indefensible.”
But the nuance of García Márquez’s position was such that while he refused to break definitively with Castro, he never stopped criticizing Castro’s revolution, and even softened some of Castro’s roughest edges at a time when the Cuban leader was constantly under attack from the north.
The first time Castro and García Márquez met was on Jan. 19, 1959, during “Operation Truth,” Castro’s attempt to open Cuba’s trials of the Fulgencio Batista regime to journalists. When García Márquez landed in Havana to observe the trials with his friend Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, he recalled how Castro asked hospitably, “Have you eaten?” The trial García Márquez witnessed was of a colonel accused of civilian murders in a small town called El Oro de Guisa. García Márquez first signed a request for leniency, and when it was denied, deemed the sentence fair.
Apuleyo Mendoza and García Márquez were hired in the early 1960s to launch a Bogota bureau of Prensa Latina, a news service founded by Cuba to counter the power of U.S. media. When García Márquez transferred to the Havana bureau to undergo training in 1960, he met Castro again, briefly. There he spent so much time working that all he remembered of the Cuban capital was the elevator and his office. “If anything is going to sink this revolution,” he told his boss, Jorge Masetti, regarding the long hours, “it’s going to be the light bill.”
In a 1981 article, “Memories of a Journalist,” García Márquez recalled witnessing Masetti intercepting a coded CIA message in early 1961 revealing details of the Bay of Pigs invasion. When they took it to the government with a plan to surprise the invaders, they were told the government already had its own plan.
García Márquez wrote that during the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, he was in New York being menaced by “gusanos,” or counterrevolutionary American “worms.” He called the U.S. the worst place to be at that time. After the Americans threatened his family, he left.
When Communists took control of Prensa Latina, García Márquez and Masetti resigned.
But the Bay of Pigs and the New York episodes left a strong impression of Cuba as an underdog going against a powerful enemy. After the 1967 publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” made García Márquez an international sensation, two events the following year formed the basis for his relationship with Castro. It would last until the onset of García Márquez’s dementia in 2011.
The first of those events was the Padilla affair. While García Márquez was reluctant to publicly support Heberto Padilla — a Cuban writer who had been persecuted and jailed in 1971 for his opposition to the Castro regime — he nevertheless believed he helped Padilla get permission to eventually leave Cuba. When Castro that same year supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, García Márquez expressed dismay, but described the world as caught between “two imperialist states equally cruel and insatiable.”
In the decade and a half between the publication of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, García Márquez, in his public statements about Castro, vacillated between unqualified support and mild criticism.
He described Soviet communism in 1971 as “only symptoms of a system that resembles socialism less and less.” But in 1973 he was so disturbed by the U.S.-backed coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende that he vowed not to write another word while Gen. Augusto Pinochet was in power. (He later recanted, saying this was tantamount to self-censorship.) In an exhaustive 1975 article about Cuba, he cited the lack of free speech but predicted free speech would come; Cubans had enshrined it in the constitution. He also praised Cubans’ innovative adaptation to U.S. sanctions, which he depicted as cruel.
García Márquez’s support for Castro likely prevented him from getting a visa to come to the U.S. until President Bill Clinton lifted the ban in the late 1990s. When García Márquez did travel to the U.S., he met with Clinton and during their talks defended Castro.
“In 1996,he dined with President Clinton and told him that ‘if you and Fidel could sit face to face, there wouldn’t be any problem left,” Mexican author Enrique Krauze wrote.
“After Sept. 11, [Marquez] published a long letter to Bush: ‘How does it feel now that the horror is erupting in your own yard and not in your neighbor’s living room?"’
None of this clumsy diplomacy would protect him from attacks over his politics. Exiled Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante accused García Márquez of “delirium totalitarium,” while Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, a former friend of García Márquez’s and also a Nobel laureate, called him “Castro’s courtesan.” Others called him “Castro’s gopher, messenger and go-between.”
Whatever one’s politics, the consensus is clear: Castro and other powerful men fascinated García Márquez and will remain entwined in his legacy. When writing his 1975 novel, “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” García Márquez is said to have turned to a friend who mentioned Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and asked, “What is power? It’s as if it’s a little ball that some people hold in their hands and they’re constantly caressing it.”
Latin America scholar and University of California at Berkeley lecturer Patrick Iber writes in an email that García Márquez overestimated Castro. But he adds, “It is clear that García Márquez was one of the few people who could speak freely with Castro, to criticize the revolution privately and constructively. If he had broken with Castro publicly, he would have lost that power.”
Stephanie Panichelli, a co-author of the 2009 book “Fidel and Gabo,” thinks it’s important to separate the author from the friend and political ambassador: “His support of the Cuban revolution, even after the Padilla affair ... should not influence readers’ … appreciation for his literary work.
But García Márquez’s translator Edith Grossman doesn’t think the friendship would affect the Nobel laureate’s legacy in the least. “His political loyalties and support of Fidel Castro,” she wrote in an email, “aren't crucial to his books and, in a sense, aren’t anyone's business but his.”