A Week In Books: The tragedy of Cuban cultural life

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Happy the land that has no need of heroes, laments Brecht's Galileo. And happy the literary scene in which risky controversy means merely what novelist A said about telly-pundit B in some sheep-girt festival tent on the Welsh border. A visit to Cuba put such shadow-boxing into perspective. Would I really want to live in a country where the state takes what writers do in such deadly earnest? The Castro regime's deep respect for the written word last month took the form of brutal sentences, mostly of 20 to 28 years, passed on 30 independent journalists and 45 other dissidents. Many had committed the crime of running non-state press agencies or small private libraries.

Fidel's enduring prestige, one soon grasps in Havana, has precious little to do with Marxist theory. It stems from his claim to inherit the nationalist legacy of José Martí, the poet who led the island's independence struggle against Spain. If you've ever heard a karaoke crooner ruin "Guantanámera", you'll know Marti's work. The lyrics always applied to that tune - about the sincere man who comes from where the palm-trees grow - derive from one of the Cuban patriarch's Simple Verses. Imagine that, in Scotland, Robert Burns and William Wallace were the same person.

This country worships a guerrilla poet; and it shows. On the north side of the lovely Plaza de Armas in Old Havana stands the 18th-century Segundo Cabo palace. It houses the Cuban Book Institute. Notices in the flower-draped courtyard announce poetry workshops and competition rules. Poems posted on boards commemorate Mothers' Day in Cuba. Shops inside, and bookstalls on the leafy square, sell battered classics, approved modern works (Umberto Eco's popular) - and endless hagiographies of Comrades Fidel and Che. It feels a long way from the ICA.

Established figures hang out at the Writers' and Artists' Union, UNEAC, one of the smartest houses on an avenue - Calle 17 - flanked with gorgeous mansions. Fidel helped create UNEAC in 1961. Its first president was the great mulato poet (and loyal revolutionary) Nicolás Guillén. In these elegant halls unfolds the tortuous story of Castro's intimate, abusive relationship with Cuba's finest authors.

The poet and journalist Raúl Rivero, a former colleague of Guillén, once worked on Calle 17. Then, in 1989, he cut loose from official patronage. On 6 April, Rivero paid for his independence with a 20-year prison sentence, imposed in effect for running the autonomous Cuba Press agency. A couple of weeks ago, Fidel himself bothered to turn up at a union meeting here. He wanted UNEAC to condemn the "fascism" of the war in Iraq. Naturally, it obeyed. Naturally, it spent not a single second debating the jailed intellectuals. Yet the Open Society Institute has called the 75 victims of the April purge "a Who's Who of Cuban civil society".

This is a tragedy for Cuban cultural life, deepened by the manipulation of dissent by interfering US diplomats. They know that Castro's punitive fury may hasten a collapse into Miami-style capitalism when the "Maximum Leader" (now 76) departs. The writers, reporters and librarians locked up in April represent Cuba's best hope of a liberal government strong enough to prevent the island sliding back into the status of a de facto US colony. Castro's repressions, along with Bush's intrusions, have now made that outcome more likely. Meanwhile, future voters in the BBC's Big Read contest should note that Castro's old friend Gabriel García Márquez - with two novels in the final 100 - has signally failed to condemn the onslaught on free speech in Cuba.