Before Night Falls

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Before Night Falls

by Reinaldo Arenas


An autobiographical memoir set in Cuba and in the United States from 1945 to 1990; published posthumously in Spanish (as Antes que anochezca) m 1992, in English in 1993,


The author reexamines his life in 70 short sections that progress from his childhood (age two) in Cuba to his death in exile (at age 47) in the United States.

Events in History at the Time the Memoir Takes Place

The Memoir in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Memoir was Written

For More Information

Reinaldo Arenas was born on July 16, 1943, in the province of Oriente, Cuba. An illegitimate child in a fatherless household, Arenas was raised in a poor, rural town. He lived with his mother’s family, developing an intimate connection with his grandmother. After Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959 Arenas moved to Havana where he published his first novel, Celestino antes del alba (Singing from the Well), which won him both First Mention in the Cuban Writers and Artists Union literary contest and the distrust of the Revolutionary government on account of the novel’s irreverence and critical stance towards the regime. After years of political persecution for his beliefs and his homosexuality, Arenas left Cuba for the United States, where he recorded his autobiography on audio-cassettes before committing suicide in 1990. (Arenas had actually started to write his memoir in Cuba but it was confiscated and destroyed by the government.) Beyond the sociopolitical specifics that it provides about life under Castro’s regime, Before Night Falls is a vivid testament of what it means to be part of a minority fighting for freedom and self-expression in any repressive society.

Events in History at the Time the Memoir Takes Place

Political struggles under Batista’s dictatorship

On March 10, 1952, Fulgencio Batista led a successful coup d’état against Cuban President Carlos Prio. Although Batista attempted to invigorate Cuba’s economy by focusing on the sugar industry and foreign trade, this strategy, among other effects, resulted in an increase in the number of the unemployed and underemployed in the nation. It also promoted a widening disparity in living conditions between Cuba’s urban and rural areas. While, for example, color television was available in Havana in the 1950s, education, health services, and housing were scarce and inferior in rural areas. “Most of the new housing consisted of multiple-dwelling units and suburban residences in and around Havana” (Suchlicki, p. 136).

Batista failed to build an economic or political foundation that won the confidence of Cubans, resorting to violence and repression as his strategy to remain in power. His main opposition came from student movements and from the youth of the Orthodox Party, who were led by Fidel Castro. On July 26, 1953, Castro led an attack on the Moncada military barracks located in Santiago de Cuba. The attackers aimed to weaken Batista’s power to the point that he would be forced to resign from Cuba’s presidency. Castro synchronized his attack to coincide with the popular Santiago carnival of Oriente province, hoping that security would not be as tight as usual on the army installations. Unfortunately, security was not as lax as originally expected and Batista’s army defeated Castro’s men. The Moncada assault failed, ending in numerous casualties and Castro’s imprisonment. Castro estimated that 70 of his men were tortured and executed a lawyer as well as a rebel, he defended himself at his trial. Find me guilty, he challenged the judges in a now-famous warning; history will absolve me. Ironically the failure at Moneada brought national recognition to those associated with Castro’s “July 26 Movement” and its ideals.

The struggle between Batista and his opponents escalated during the rest of the 1950s. A failed assassination attempt in 1957 by members of the student movement brought with it more repression and violence. Meanwhile, Castro organized a second uprising, this time from Mexico, where he was living in exile. This second Santiago de Cuba uprising, which took place November 30, 1956, also ended in failure. After the uprising, Castro and some of his allies returned to Cuba, where the unwelcome lot sought shelter in the remote mountains of the Sierra Maestra located in Oriente province.

Among Oriente’s peasants, the July 26 Movement found support for its anti-Batista cause. Like other members of society, the peasants had grown tired of their impoverished living conditions and governmental neglect of their needs, and also of the unjustified violent abuses inflicted on them by Batista’s Rural Guards. From the pool of local peasants, the anti-Batista cause drew new soldiers who were very knowledgeable about the Sierra Maestra’s geography and who helped Castro defeat two Rural Guard stations by mid-1957. As a result, Batista intensified his military presence in rural areas and forced numerous families to relocate to detention camps, treating those who refused to relocate as enemies. This failed to discourage Castro sympathizers. In fact, Batista’s relocation policy had quite the opposite effect—more peasants joined Castro in what became known as the “Rebel Army.”

Along with the Rebel Army’s growing power, Batista faced other formidable pockets of resistance. The dictator found himself in a precarious situation when the U.S. government and the Catholic Church, among many other powers, withdrew their support for his government. On December 31, 1958, Batista and some of his allies escaped to the Dominican Republic. That same day, Castro and the July 26 Movement took charge of Cuba’s government.

Castro swung quickly into action. His government organized a literacy campaign that would result in 96 percent of the nation being able to read and write within a couple of years. The government also initiated reforms that divided up large landholdings in rural areas and lowered rents paid in the cities. By 1961, though, the economic situation was perilous; Cuba did not have enough food to feed its people, its consumer goods were being depleted, and it was buying more from foreign countries than it was selling to them. Castro looked to communism for the solution.

Homosexuality in communist Cuba

In 1961 Castro declared Marxism-Leninism to be the Cuban Republic’s official ideology and fused the July 26 Movement with Cuba’s Communist Party. The adoption of this ideology looked to rectify all the bourgeois wrongs said to have been plaguing Cuba for decades, including, for example, homosexuality and art for art’s sake. Homosexuality became a main target partly because Soviet communists, with whom Castro allied Cuba’s communists, described the preference for same-sex partners as a decadent bourgeois phenomenon (Lumsden, p. 65). In 1967 the government instituted camps, called Military Units to Aid Production, where male homosexuals (along with other citizens who were considered “unproductive” or counter-revolutionary, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists) were sent to be “rehabilitated.” These camps involved forced labor, wages lower than those paid to other Cubans for similar work, and military surveillance (workers could leave the camps only with military escorts). The camps were closed by 1968, thanks to the efforts of different national and international groups.

In the late 1960s the Cuban Cultural Council adopted a resolution that encouraged the authorities to harass homosexuals involved with the arts, education, and culture. This resolution was “used to fire homosexual artists from their jobs and force them to do manual labor,” and continued to plague homosexuals until 1975 when Cuba’s Supreme Court abolished it and remunerated financially those who had been affected by it (Lumsden, p. 71). In 1971 the government held a National Congress on Education and Culture. At this Congress, homosexuality was publicly denounced as an “antisocial” behavior that needed to be contained. Formally, the Congress “resolved that ‘notorious homosexuals’ should be denied employment in any institution that had an influence upon youth… [and that] homosexuals should not be allowed to represent Cuba in cultural activities abroad” (Lumsden, p. 73). The Congress also suggested that homosexuals involved in the corruption of minors should be severely punished. Any adult who engaged a minor under the age of 16 in homosexual relations could be sentenced to five years in prison, a law that was most likely to be used against gay men in Cuban society. In the memoir, Arenas’s arrest for alleged molestation of young boys can be understood as part of Cuba’s intense intolerance for homosexuals.

The 1980 Mariel boatlift of exiles from Cuba constituted an opportunity for many homosexuals to escape persecution by leaving the country. Although there are no exact statistics about the number of homosexual exiles, it is significant that “they were numerous enough to be singled out as targets in the mass demonstrations directed against those who had opted to leave” (Lumsden, p. 78). Arenas, who himself escaped this way, adds that “a large number of gays were able to leave the Island in 1980” (Arenas, Before Night Falls, p. 281).

Cuban artists and the Revolution, 1959-71

Under Castro’s leadership new social, political, and cultural reforms were implemented in order to improve the chaos left behind by Batista. As John Spicer Nichols explains, this included “a swift takeover of the country’s mass media,” which had been in Batista’s pocket, until all of them were owned or controlled by Castro’s government (Nichols, p. 219). Under Batista, the government paid large sums of money in monthly bribes to some journalists and forced other, uncooperative newspapers out of business (Nichols, p. 220).

Although Castro’s government helped eradicate these problems, it also established different ways of controlling information and personal expression that included not only mass media, but other forms of cultural manifestations, such as literature, as well. This control emanated from the government’s renewed interest in generating and monitoring cultural activities. Since the Revolution was facilitating artistic productions, it expected artists to create works that would reflect its ideologies. There was a short spurt of cultural vitality during the first years of the post-Revolutionary Cuban republic, due principally to the institution of various organizations such as the literary supplement Lunes de revolución (Mondayday of Revolution) and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industries. By 1961 this energetic burst of cultural activity had come to a halt; the government banned the short film about Cuban night life called P.M. and Lunes de revolución ceased publication. These two events led to a series of meetings among artists, intellectuals, and government officials that climaxed with Fidel Castro’s famous address, “Words to the Intellectuals.”

In this address Castro acknowledges that the rapidity of the Revolution had not permitted its leaders to foresee a number of future questions, such as what role culture should play in the post-Revolutionary republic (Castro, p. 5). When it comes to cultural manifestations, Castro explains, artists must keep in mind that their driving force should be the ideals of the Revolution. According to Castro, to be considered a revolutionary artist, one must be willing to sacrifice his or her own artistic calling in the name of the Revolution (Castro, p. 8). He summarized his position with the now famous words: “Inside the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. Since the Revolution encompasses the interests of the people, since the Revolution represents the interests of the whole Nation, nobody should go against it” (Castro, p. 11; trans. G. Blasini). From 1961 onwards, these words became the model to follow in acceptable cultural creations. The state would eventually became more and more rigid in its dealings with artists and writers until 1971 when the infamous “Padilla case” took place.

The Padilla case

Born January 20, 1932, the poet Heberto Padilla is one of the most renowned Cuban writers of the twentieth century. Although he was supportive of the 1959 Revolution, his attacks against revolutionary writer Lisandro Otero and his defense of dissident writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante in 1967 put him in a precarious position with Castro’s government. In 1968 Padilla won first prize in the Cuban Writers and Artists Union’s literary contest for a book of poems entitled Fuera del juego (Out of the Game). Some of the poems were critical both of Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union and of the island’s contemporary sociopolitical situation, especially of the role that writers were expected to play within the Revolution. Around three years after the book’s publication, in 1971, Padilla was arrested and detained for 28 days for his counter-revolutionary views. Ultimately, the poet was forced to deliver a public apology at a Cuban Writers and Artists Union assembly. Padilla’s incarceration prompted an international intellectual debate: writers from all over the world drafted a letter that denounced the situation as unjust and degrading. Along with prominent international writers, Latin American signatories to the letter included Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez. The Padilla case became “a turning point in relations between the Cuban government and intellectuals, Cubans or otherwise” and led to the irremediable division of Latin America’s literary world between those who supported Castro and those who did not (Valero, p. 261). Like Arenas, Padilla left Cuba in 1980 to settle in the United States.

The Memoir in Focus

Contents summary

Before Night Falls starts with an introduction written in August 1990 that is paradoxically entitled “The End.” In it, Arenas recounts the sufferings he has undergone since 1987 when he discovered he had AIDS. “The End” also provides a brief overview of Arenas’s life while hinting at three of the main issues that informed his days and his literary production (and that reappear through the memoir): his homosexuality, his anti-Castro political views, and the ominous presence of death in life.

After the introduction the memoir proceeds chronologically, beginning with Arenas’s reminiscence of hungrily eating dirt at age two. He describes the material poverty of his surroundings, the bohío (a hut with a thatched roof and dirt floor) on the farm where he lived with his mother and her family (parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, grandmother), who welcomed them after his mother was impregnated and abandoned by her fiancé. Arenas sees his father just once, while at the river with his mother, and it is only after the short encounter that he discovers the man’s identity.

At age five Arenas contracts meningitis and, against all odds, survives it. He starts to attend Rural School 91 in the area of Perronales at age six, where he learns to read and write. Although his childhood is steeped in poverty, Arenas identifies this as the most wonderful period of his life. The absolute freedom of these years allows him to explore his natural surroundings as well as his own sexual desires. For him, nature and sexuality go hand in hand since “in the country, sexual energy generally overcomes all prejudice, repression, and punishment. That force, the force of nature, dominates” (Before Night Falls, p. 19). At this point, the text focuses on Arenas’s early explorations of his erotic desires, which include having sexual encounters with boys, girls, animals—and even a tree.

The deteriorating living conditions on the farm force Arenas’s family to move to the city of Holguin with the hope of improving their financial situation. Although Arenas dislikes the town, a place that thoroughly bores him in comparison to his previous rural surroundings, Holguin introduces him to the magic of movies, which eventually inspire him to start writing novels. In Holguin, Arenas attends a junior high school where he is called a “faggot” for the first time (Before Night Falls, p. 38).

The boredom of life in Holguin as well as the town’s insufferable living conditions under Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship—the town had little food and no electricity—inspire Arenas to join the Revolutionary guerrilla groups commanded by Fidel Castro. Even though Arenas never fights directly against Batista’s men, he becomes a hero in Holguin after Castro and his followers defeat the dictator Batista and establish the Revolutionary government in 1959.

At age 16 Arenas wins a scholarship to study in a polytechnic institute from which he will graduate as an agricultural accountant. While at the institute, he comes to two realizations. First, he must hide any homosexual proclivity since this variety of desire is severely punished by the Revolutionary government. Second, the “free” educational opportunities provided by the state actually do have a price: communist indoctrination. His 16th year is also marked by two major events: for the first time, he visits Havana (the city where he will later live in his aunt’s house) and he takes his first male lover, Raúl, with whom he lives for approximately four months.

After entering a storytelling competition in 1963 and impressing the jury with his literary talent, Arenas obtains a job at the National Library in Havana, thanks to the director, Maria Teresa Freyre de Andrade. This job proves to be a turning point in his life; Arenas not only has the opportunity to expand his knowledge by reading the materials available in the National Library, but he also starts to develop friendships and alliances with other artists and intellectuals who live in Havana. While working at the library he writes his first novel, Celestino antes del alba (published in English in 1987 as Singing from the Well). Arenas submits this novel to the 1965 competition sponsored by the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) and wins First Honorable Mention.

In 1966 Arenas enters the UNEAC competition again, this time with his second novel, El mundo alucinante (published in English in 1987 as The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando). Once again he wins First Honorable Mention, but this time the jury—which consists of Virgilio Pinera, Alejo Carpentier, José Antonio Portuondo, and Félix Pita Rodríguez—decides not to award any First Prize. During the awards ceremony, Arenas meets Pinera, who tells the young novelist that he was robbed of the First Prize by Carpentier and Portuondo. Pinera offers to help Arenas polish El mundo alucinante so that it can


Celestino antes dei alba (Singing from the Welt) is á novel about â mentally challenged boy growing up fa one of Cuba’s many poor rural areas. El mundo alucinante (The ill• Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando) uses â historical figure, Mexican monk Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, to create a fictionalized narrative that examines issues of anticolonialism arid freedom of expression in eighteenth-century Mexico. Cuban authorities considered both of these novéis irreverent, antií-revolutionary, and critical of the regime. In fact, El múnda alucinante was banned on the island (it was eventually published in Mexico). Arenas became a controversial figure not only because he had smuggled his manuscript out of Cuba, but also because he had it published abroad without the consent of Nicolás Guillen, president of the Writers and Artists Union. In 1969 El mundo aluclnante, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, shared first prize as the best foreign novel in France.

be published. From that day on, Pinera becomes Arenas’s mentor, friend, and inspiration: Pinera, also a homosexual, speaks his mind without thinking about political consequences. Arenas also establishes a close friendship and literary affinity with another Cuban writer—José Lezama Lima. One of Latin America’s most renowned novelists, Lima wrote Paradiso, a controversial novel with a chapter on homosexuality.

Arenas’s literary recognition enables him to land a job at the Cuban Book Institute. He meets new friends, some homosexual, and attends literary soirees at which everyone writes poems or chapters of books and shares stories about erotic adventures.

While the 1960s constitute an intense period of creativity and sexual activity in his life, they also see the beginning of State Security’s harassment of Arenas for his ideas and work. His award-wining novel, Celestino antes del alba, is banned in Cuba after being published abroad without the consent of Nicolás Guillen, UNEAC’s president at the time. In 1967 Arenas meets the renowned Cuban painter Jorge Camacho and his wife, Margarita, now living in Europe but visiting Cuba’s Salón de Mayo international painting exhibition. Through the Camachos, who would become loyal friends until his death, Arenas manages to smuggle his manuscripts out of Cuba.

According to the memoir, a period of “Super-Stalinism” starts for writers during the early 1970s; they face forced “voluntary” work on labor camps established in 1969 (Before Night Falls, pp. 124, 126). This kind of environment does not weaken Arenas’s creativity, however; he deliberately meets every Sunday with his friends to read poetry, novels, and plays in Lenin Park. The beginning of the ’70s also marks the intensification of the persecution of intellectuals in Cuba, which reaches a critical point with the Padilla case.

Around the same time, Castro’s government organizes the First Congress of Education and Culture. One of the main purposes of this Congress, says Arenas, is to target homosexuals as enemies. It starts the system of parametraje, in which writers or artists known to be gay receive a telegram informing them that their behavior does not fall within the political and moral parameters necessary for their job and that therefore they must either be fired or relocated to a forced-labor camp.

In the summer of 1973 Arenas and his friend Pepe Malas are arrested for having sexual relations with two young men. Even though these young men agreed to have sex, they now accuse both Arenas and Malas of sexual molestation in order to cover up the fact that they have stolen Arenas’s and Malas’s bags. After being released on bail, Arenas discovers from his lawyer that his case goes beyond the alleged sexual crime to include counter-revolutionary charges. Resolving to flee before his trial, Arenas attempts to escape Cuba through Guantánamo Bay (a U.S. base on Cuba) as a friend has advised him. After this attempt fails, he returns to Havana with a fake identification card and, for ten days, manages to evade the police. Upon his capture, Arenas is immediately transferred to Morro Castle, a Spanish-built colonial fortress that has become one of Cuba’s worst prisons.

While in the Morro, Arenas suffers the atrocities of life as a prisoner: hunger, sickness, violence, loneliness, lack of sanitary facilities. He tries to commit suicide, but fails. A short time later, the authorities transfer him to Villa Marista, the headquarters of State Security, where he is subjected to constant threats from the government. After four months in isolation, Arenas agrees to write a confession in which he apologizes for his counter-revolutionary views (just as Padilla had done some years earlier). This forced action makes Arenas feel like he has nothing left in life: “1 had lost my dignity and my rebellious spirit” (Before Night Falls, p. 207). He is then returned to the Morro to await his trial. A reversal in the testimony of the young men who had originally accused Arenas makes the sexual molestation charges invalid; they now say that Arenas never attempted to seduce them. In the end, Arenas receives a two-year sentence of jail time for lascivious abuses.

Released from prison in early 1976, Arenas must pretend constantly to be a supporter of Cuba’s Revolutionary agenda; otherwise, he will have to face jail again. During the late 1970s his mentors and close friends, Pinera and Lezama Lima, both die. In 1980 history and luck help Arenas leave Cuba in the Mariel boatlift.

Arenas departed from the port of Mariel on a small boat, the San Lázaro, carrying more than 30 refugees. A few miles out to sea the boat broke down, unable to support so much weight. The voyagers drifted for three days without food or water before being rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard. “There were thousands of us wanting to come to [Key West] and kiss the earth,” said Arenas. “That day we became human beings” (Arenas in Garcia, p. 62).

In May 1980 Arenas reaches the United States. Although he finally has the opportunity of tasting the freedom that he has been fighting for most of his life, the experience turns somewhat bitter. His impression is that the exiled Cuban community in Miami cares almost exclusively about generating money and not necessarily about helping others. At this point, he declares that “the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream” (Before Night Falls, p. 288). Nevertheless, Arenas finds friends in Miami: Reinaldo Sánchez, who offers him a position as visiting professor at the Florida International University, as well as the highly respected writers Lydia Cabrera and Enrique Labrador Ruiz. In December, after an invitation to speak at Columbia University, Arenas decides to move to New York City. In New York he continues to denounce the injustices he has experienced in Cuba, in part by founding, along with other Cubans living in exile, the Mariel literary magazine. This magazine not only serves to vindicate some of the literary figures marginalized by the Castro regime (such as Lezama Lima) but also to attack the bourgeois morality so prevalent in Miami.


In 1980 more than 125,000 Cubans left the island between the months of April and September in an unprecedented mass migration, heading especially, but not exclusively, for the United States. This 159-day exodus, known as the Marief Boatlift, started when six Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in search of political asylum. After the embassy’s gates were demolished and Cuban guards left the place, thousands of Cubans gradually entered the embassy in an attempt to leave their country. Once the initial turmoil subsided, Castro authorized the departure of all those who wished to leave Cuba, The port of Mariel became the point of departure for Cubans who emigrated in boats that were allowed to carry dissidents to the United States. This authorization caught by surprise U.S. president Jimmy Carter who, after initially refusing to admit legally any Cuban migrating through the port of Mariel, “was forced to change his policy and announce that the U.S. would accept all Cuban refugees” (Powelson, p. 524).

By the end of the 1980s Arenas discovers that he has contracted AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). After three years of living with the disease and its complications, the writer commits suicide. He leaves a note explaining that since he feels too weak to continue fighting for Cuba’s freedom, it is better for him to end his life. Yet he wants his suicide to be understood not “as a message of defeat but of continued struggle and of hope” (Before Night Falls, p. 317).

You are the heirs of all my terrors, but also of my hope that Cuba will soon be free. I am satisfied to have contributed, though in a very small way, to the triumph of this freedom. I end my life voluntarily because I cannot continue working. . . . There is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished… the loneliness, and the diseases contracted in exile would probably never have happened … in my country.

(Before Night Falls, p. 317)

Homosexuality and Cuban society

In his tribute to Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante (see Three Trapped Tigers , also covered in Latin American Literature and Its Times) states that “three passions ruled the life and death of Reinaldo Arenas: literature not as a game but as a flame that consumes, passive sex and active politics. Of the three, the dominant passion was sex” (Cabrera Infante, p. 412). The notion of “passive sex” might be confusing without an understanding of how Cuban society views homosexuality.


In Before Night Falls Reinaldo Arenas talks enthusiastically about his participation as an interviewee in the 1984 documentary Improper Conduct by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal. The film denounces the injustices perpetrated against homosexuals in Cuba and includes 26 interviews that address different homophobic policies instituted by the Cuban government after the Revolution and up to the early 1980s. Produced with French financial support, this documentary presents the point of view of artists who lived in exile and pitted themselves against Castro’s government.

Arenas humorously proposes four categories of gays in Cuban society: the “dog collar gay” (a boisterous homosexual who was continually being arrested and who lived under constant surveillance by the government), the “common gay” (a homosexual who never takes great risks and has relations with other men who think of themselves as gays), the “closeted gay” (a homosexual whom nobody knows is gay), and the “royal gay” (those who can afford to be openly gay because of their close connections to Castro’s government) (Before Night Falls, pp. 77-78). Even though he proposes these categories, Arenas does not define homosexuality as a preference for relations with someone of the same gender. In fact, for many Cubans, a man who has sex with another man is not necessarily regarded as a homosexual. In order to be considered a homosexual in Cuba a man has to play the passive role in the sexual act. It is not the norm there, explains Arenas, “for one queer to go to bed with another queer” but rather for a “queer” to go to bed with a “real macho” man (Before Night Falls, p. 108). On the other hand, some Cuban men are suspected of being gay if they do not behave in a macho way—that is, if they do not like rough sports or are not physically strong or aggressive.

Literary context

Arenas wrote vigorously in exile, producing novels, short stories, essays, and a long poem, as well as his autobiography. The suicide note at the end of Before Night Falls suggests that he wrote his memoir because literature constitutes a powerful weapon to convey his experiences (in his words, “los terrores”) as someone who does not conform to the norm. More specifically, Arenas wants to provide insight into what it means to be an anti-Castro, homosexual writer living in Cuba (although he also addresses how those same characteristics can make him a pariah in exile).

Leaving Cuba in 1965, novelist Cabrera Infante was one of the most renowned Cuban writers in the first wave of post-Revolution exiles. Arenas emigrated in the next wave, distinguishing himself, in Cabrera Infante’s estimation, as “the only Cuban novelist who could be called a child of the Revolution” (Cabrera Infante, p. 78). In his memoir, though, Arenas gives the impression that there could have been others:

What did happen to most of the talented young men of my generation? Nelson Rodriquez, for example, author of El regalo [The Gift], was executed. Delfín Prats, one of the best poets among us, became a dehumanized alcoholic; Pepe el Loco, the bold chronicler, ended up killing himself; Luis Rogelio Nogueras, a talented poet, recently died under suspicious circumstances, it being unclear whether from AIDS or at the hands of Castro’s police. . . . Guillermo Rosales, an excellent novelist, is wasting away in a home for the handicapped in Miami.

(Before Night Falls, pp. 88-89)

Events in History at the Time the Memoir was Written

Cuban exiles

Like prior Cuban immigrants to the United States, the Mariel newcomers included enterprising writers who founded publications. In 1983, along with Roberto Valero and Juan Abreau, Arenas began publishing in New York the journal Revista Mariel (which later, under different ownership, became Maña Magazine). The journal provided a forum for well-known emigré authors as well as for Latin American and European writers. It also published pieces by writers who had been censored or silenced back in Cuba and so had never enjoyed the readership their work merited.

Ever since the arrest of Padilla in 1971 writers had become more outspoken about human rights abuses and political and economic developments in Cuba. They formed the Comité de Intelectuales por la Libertad de Cuba (Committee of Intellectuals for the Liberty of Cuba), holding meetings in Paris (1979), New York (1980), and Caracas (1987) to discuss Cuban affairs. In 1991, when intellectuals back in Cuba were imprisoned for issuing a declaration that called for democratic reforms, more than 100 emigres rushed to their defense with a letter praising them for working within the system to effect change and urging outside nations to keep a close watch on the prisoners’ future.

Meanwhile, Cuban writers living in the United States complained of being treated poorly by mainstream publishers. They also complained of being denied academic positions because of their anti-Castro (equated to anticommunist) views, arguing that some liberal-minded institutions looked askance at them for this reason (Garcia, p. 193). In his collection of essays, Necesidad de libertad, Arenas observed,

The Cuban intellectual is forced to disappear two times. First the Cuban State erases him from the literary map of his own country; afterward, the preponderant and mighty Left, installed, of course, in capitalist countries, condemns him to silence. … [In certain circles] being anticommunist is in bad taste. . . .

(Arenas in Garcia, p. 193)

Other emigres vocalized their support for Castro’s government. The pro-Castro contingent founded a journal of their own, Areito, which Arenas dubbed “the official organ of the Cuban state police in New York” (Arenas in Garcia, p. 203). It numbered among the more conservative publications put out by Cuban exiles. Arenas’s own Revista Manei (1983-85), which gave voice to anti-Castro intellectuals, occupied the other end of the spectrum. Through these and other journals, the exiles engaged in vigorous dialogue about issues particular to their homeland, status, and identity. They also produced novels, poems, testimonies, and autobiographies (like Before Night Falls) that convey the experience of the more than one million emigres who attempted, with greater or lesser success, to settle in the United States from 1959 to 1994. In Arenas’s case, the writer continued to feel like an alien:

I have realized that an exile has no place anywhere… because the place where we started to dream … is always the world of our dreams. … I ceased to exist when I went into exile.

(Before Night Falls, p. 293)

Homosexuality in the 1980s—from Cuba to the United States

By the 1980s the perception of homosexuals in Cuba started to change for the better. Although homophobia was not eradicated, more liberal philosophies towards sexuality emerged, fostering a different understanding of homosexuals. As Ian Lumsden points out, part of this shift had to do with changes in the government’s institutionalized homophobic practices. More exactly, the 1979 Penal Code “decriminalized homosexuality per se” to the extent that “it is … perfectly legal for consenting adults to engage in homosexual acts in private.” However, other repressive statutes in the Penal Code, such as the prohibition of “private homosexual acts inadvertently seen by third parties,” remained intact until 1987 (Lumsden, pp. 81, 82).

By 1990 the worldwide AIDS epidemic was entering its second decade. That year the United States reported 43,352 AIDS victims, more than half from homosexual/bisexual contact. It was common knowledge that the infection occurs through HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, which travels from one body to another, often through blood or semen. In most cases, HIV slowly destroys the immune system and leaves victims at the mercy of opportunistic illnesses.

A number of drugs have been developed to battle AIDS. In 1987 the Food and Drug Administration officially approved AZT (azidothy-midine) as a therapeutic treatment against AIDS. But the drug had multiple side-effects, such as anemia and impotence. By 1990 Arenas was experiencing some of AZT’s side-effects and so he committed suicide by taking pills. As many as 165 other AIDS victims are known to have opted for suicide by the end of the 1980s. Almost all were men, and 35 percent killed themselves, as Arenas did, through some form of drug poisoning.


Literary critics from Latin America and the United States have unanimously praised Before Night Falls, calling it “one of the great books of our times” (Manrique, p. 17) as well as “one of the most explosive, liberating texts to come from Latin America … a classic that readers of the future will not resist” (Stavans, p. 797). Some critics note that to some degree the book is a combination of different literary styles and categories; at the same time, reviews generally praise it for its straightforwardness. In World Literature Today, Ilan Stavans compliments Arenas’s memoir for its moving content: Before Night Falls is “a testament of Arenas’s indomitable spirit and his confrontational attitude towards the world … a rare, disturbing book with a message that refuses to fade away long after the last breathtaking page is read” (Stavans, p. 797).

—Gilberto M. Blasini

For More Information

Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Trans. Dolores M. Koch. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

Cabrera Infante, Guillermo. Mea Cuba. Trans. Kenneth Hall and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. London: Faber & Faber, 1994.

Castro, Fidel. Palabras a los intelectuales. La Habana: Ediciones del Consejo Nacional de Cultura, 1961.

Cote, Timothy R., Robert J. Biggar, and Andrew L. Dannenberg. “Risk of Suicide among Persons with AIDS.” Journal of the American Medical Association 268, no. 15 (October 21, 1992): 2066-68.

Garcia, Maria Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Lumsden, Ian. Machos, Maricones, and Gays: Cuba and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Manrique, Jaime. “An Exile from All Conventions.” Lambda Book Report 4, no. 1 (November-December 1993): 16-17.

Nichols, John Spicer. “The Press in Cuba.” In The Cuba Reader: The Making of a Revolutionary Society. Eds. Philip Brenner, et. al. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

Powelson, Michael. “Mariel Boatlift.” Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Vol. 3. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996.

Stavans, Ilan. Review of Before Night Falls. World Literature Today 68, no. 2 (Autumn 1994): 797.

Suchlicki, Jaime. Cuba: From Columbus to Castro. 2nd ed. Washington: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense, 1986.

Valero, Roberto. “Heberto Padilla.” Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1996.