November 16, 2004

A novel approach to detail Cuban past

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 Herald.

In Miami's Spanish-language TV land, reporter Juan Manuel Cao is the king of the inside-Cuba scoop.

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, Cao admits.

''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 20.

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 script.

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 Manuel Noriega.

'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 Foundation program.

He got his first job in television writing promotional materials for WLTV-Univisión 23.

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 hired.

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 fiction.''

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. headquarters.

Editors in Colombia approved the manuscript, and the Mexico team designed the cover because there's no editorial team here.


''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.''


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