A novel approach to detail
WSCV-Telemundo 51 reporter
Juan Manuel Cao's debut novel is the talk
of the town, a tale of betrayal based on
his own experiences as a prisoner in Cuba.
By Fabiola Santiago. [email protected].
Posted on Sun, Nov. 14, 2004 in The Miami
In Miami's Spanish-language TV land, reporter
Juan Manuel Cao is the king of the inside-Cuba
He caught on tape a diplomat at the United
Nations' Cuban mission spying, and the State
Department expelled the diplomat. He obtained
video of heir apparent Raúl Castro,
head of the armed forces, drunk and hitting
on a cadet. He sneaked into a Fidel Castro
press conference in Panama and confronted
the Cuban leader about how long he planned
to remain in power.
Castro tried to dismiss him: "Of course,
you're from Miami.''
''No, I'm from Marianao,'' Cao slam-dunked,
alluding to his Havana neighborhood.
Today, the WSCV-Telemundo 51 reporter stages
another, radically different coup. At the
Miami Book Fair International, he'll read
from Te juro que soy culpable (I Swear That
I'm Guilty) -- Cao's talk-of-the-town debut
novel, published by Planeta, one of Spain's
most prestigious publishers.
Narrated with the pace of a thriller, the
pathos of a love story and the poetic language
of high literature, it's the tale of a betrayal
that sends a young Havana man to prison
for writing a screenplay deemed subversive.
It's a fictional account, but highly autobiographical,
''All I've done is write the story Cubans
of my generation have lived in one way or
another,'' says Cao, 43. "Many people
think what's happened in Cuba in the last
45 years makes great fiction because it's
all so absurd.''
Born in 1961 in Havana to a family divided
between supporters of the revolution and
the skeptical, Cao, like his protagonist,
Serafín, was sent to prison at age
As in his novel, on Jan. 30, 1982, militiamen
burst into his house, searched it and confiscated
several poems, an essay on Poland and the
Solidarity Movement and notes for a movie
They arrested him, accusing Cao of authoring
''enemy propaganda,'' ''subversive literature''
and "inciting the public.''
Cao served three years among the Havana
prisons of Combinado del Este, La Cabaña
and Mazorra, the mental institution he describes
in rich detail in the novel.
''I could have written it all as a testimonial,
but so many others have done that. I preferred
literature -- writing credible lies,'' he
says. "There were more important prisoners
who suffered more than me and have done
a better job of denouncing the régime's
excesses. I wasn't as courageous or as much
of a coward as Serafín. I was just
a mediocre prisoner.''
Cao's own story is quite colorful.
After he was released from prison and started
to make contacts with emerging groups of
dissidents in Havana, his grandfather bought
him a visa for $2,300 from Panamanian strongman
'My family said, 'We are not going to visit
you in prison anymore, and you are not going
to last outside of it very long,' and so,
I thought about it for a while, and off
I went,'' Cao says.
He lived in Panama, working odd jobs in
radio and television, until he came to Miami
in 1988 through a Cuban American National
He got his first job in television writing
promotional materials for WLTV-Univisión
He made his debut on the air in 1992 during
Hurricane Andrew when "the station
needed to be on the air 24 hours a day,
and everyone was sent out and put on camera.''
Viewers reacted positively, and he was
Then came his scoops.
Readers who know Cao's public persona as
an intrepid television reporter, perennial
jokester and father of 3-year-old twins
were surprised at the novel's reach.
''I started reading with great skepticism
and began discovering a magnificent writer,''
says the Madrid-based Cuban writer Carlos
Alberto Montaner. "The topic of betrayal,
the ambiguity of relationships and the role
sex plays in that society is all so intelligently
represented. Cuba is a country with a sick
memory and full of traps, makes for great
The novel's publishing is also significant
because it signals recognition by mainstream
Spanish-language publishers of fiction authored
by the Miami-based exiled writers, says
Alejandro Ríos, a coordinator of
the book fair's Spanish-language program.
Te juro que soy culpable is the first fiction
book and second publishing project for Planeta's
fledgling Miami office, the firm's U.S.
Editors in Colombia approved the manuscript,
and the Mexico team designed the cover because
there's no editorial team here.
NOT A PAMPHLET
''What we liked most, first of all, is
that it's an interesting, well-written story,''
says Eugenio Roca, Planeta's sales director
in Miami. "But it's also a window on
the Cuban tragedy from a literary point
of view, not a denunciatory pamphlet.''
It also helps that the author was a well-known
television personality, Roca says.
But surprisingly, Cao's not too comfortable
with his fame.
At a recent University of Miami reading,
he became red-faced as the audience asked
questions, especially after a grandmother
told him, "My son, do you really have
to have all that sex in there? It gives
me a heart attack to read it!''
Cao promised not to do it again, as if
he were speaking to his grandmother.
''I have a hard time taking myself seriously,''
he says. "Look, to tell you the truth,
I'm just a lucky guy. I don't speak English,
I don't have a university degree. I should
be sweating it in a factory in Hialeah.''