When I was a biochemist, in cyanotic laboratories for imported carcinogenic reagents and the local air conditioning (much better than the caverns of the University of Havana, where all research is a joke to obtain scholarships abroad and stay there), among colleagues we were always more aware of Cuban literature than the world’s scientific journals, Zoé Valdés was the absolute best-seller, elbow to elbow with Reinaldo Arenas whom we read, unfortunately, posthumously.
But Zoé Valdés, moreover, survived. She was, in fact, the only living writing we knew in those years of very new authors with very good intentions but such bad anthologies. Zoé Valdés was irreverent irrefutable proof that there was a survival of Cuba in situ, her photos on the book jacket and her uncovered prose embodied a plus of courage and madness before our intranational experience of silences not so much sane as cowardly to the point of complicity.
I remember almost nothing of her early novels, those that we trafficked covered in pages from Granma of the nineties. I remember only the intensity. The magnificent tantrum. The grotesque passed by the pathetic and the pair a touch of the bad girl from her voracious naiveté. The political and the promiscuous, or course, running through it all like a tour de fuck. And also that little prudish word that the paraliterary police of the proletariat have tried to stigmatize: the vile thing (ignorant that the only vile thing has been our drab realism of little posts and conferences at the ministerial level).
Vile Valdés. What imbeciles. What a compliment.
Time has passed. Zoé Valdés, who erupted like a damn whirlwind, as the example and envy of the rest of the Cuban literary camp (the rest of the barren Cuban literary camp: rheumatic rhetoric of the Revolution), accused of being manipulative and lying by the intellectuals of respectable work and repudiable opinions, narrating Fidel like one obsessed (or, more risky yet, like a possessed girl is portrayed sitting with her legs scissored open), far beyond the weariness and the censorship, typing too many novels but each one a daughter of a riotous frenzy (at times hoarse), incorrect with balls, belligerent beast that can make certain paragraphs incandescent, chained in the streets of a country called Paris from where the Despotavana is the only impossible word, signing tomes and campaigns that will prick the lame ass of our highest authorities, “sow” (a word so Lezama-like, though no one suspected it today) as the call hears in more than one official office of Cuban culture, and what’s more, insatiable, undryable.
But she is also living the years of an exile in extremis which already begins to weigh on her work like a life sentence. But she is also a woman very alone in her war stories of best-sellerdom (every writing limit deserves the gift of this distancing).
Recently Cuba offered her another of its repugnance of repudiation, organized with the same script as in Banes and La Sorbona. The arrogance of those who consider themselves paradise on Earth has no measure nor control. And it is logical. Paradise like the concept it is, including God’s paradise. A terminal tyranny. A smiling socialization at the cannon. A blessing to pepe kettledrums. Since I was a boy the idea of paradise terrified me that my mother announced like in games after our respective deaths. My father already died in 2000. Hopefully he is not waiting for us there.
My solidarity with Zoé Valdés before this practice of intellectual stoning organized by those who do it “in solidarity with Cuba.” I’ve collided uselessly with her in the Cuban blogosphere, because in my debutant’s deliriums I think that in her rush to the tribune she has ended up attacking Cubans who serve with the same jargon of political paranoia used here by the Security organs. I don’t ask her pardon for these collisions, nor does she need a damn thing from me. Zoé shines like a dark diamond in this shadow that never will see I am me. But I say now that these outbursts will not repeat themselves.
I don’t want to know even one more post. I don’t need to know her to defend her against the fucking jiribillos who cause trouble (I lived one in the FIL of Guadalajara 2002 against Letras Libres magazine and I trembled that time at the gate and swore I would avenge the crime with my blog). A subterranean Zoé knows me better. That was the start of the Verbum, when the Barbarim of her books penetrated the end-of-century island, and, in the middle of our provincial illiteracy, her novels assembled in our name the radical puzzle of freedom.
The following is a testimony from Abel Lopez Perez who, a few days before the 3rd of December, was transferred from the Provincial Prison of Guantanamo (in his native city and where he served a political prison sentence) to the horrid dungeons of a prison in Camaguey, where Orlando Zapata was also taken.
In that prison, there was a group of more than twenty political prisoners and common prisoners who supported Orlando Zapata in his civic protest — the hunger strike. The situation in the prison became complicated for the jailers, and they resorted to countless vile deeds in order to try to make the prisoners, and Zapata, give up.
Abel Lopez was released months later with an extra-penal license due to his delicate state of health. He returned to his home in Guantanamo, but the police authorities informed him that he now must comply with certain restrictions. Among them, the principal one is that he cannot travel out of his home municipality — and if he does, he will once again be arrested and sent back to prison.
He has still not been able to visit the cemetery where the remains of the Cuban martyr, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, lie.
I leave you all with his experiences, the same exact way in which he told them to me a month after his release from prison.
“I got to see him within the first days. When we saw each other, I was also carrying out a hunger strike. The guards casually made a mistake and walked him down the same corridor I was in. He recognized me by the tattoo of Marti that I have on my arm, and he said, “Abel”. I responded, “Yes, Zapata. We must continue”. Even though prisoners tend to keep silent and harbor lots of fears, deep inside they have a free person longing to see their country in freedom. And they also keep each other informed, and they did the same with me, informing me of everything that would happen with Zapata.
Before Zapata was checked into the hospital, he was regularly taking some vitamins. He was in a weak state of health. A military chief known as ‘Gordo’, who was the one responsible for ordering all of Zapata’s things to be taken out of the cell and to stop giving him water, also took his bottle of vitamins and poured all the pills down a drain. He told him, ‘Those who are in protest here don’t drink vitamins. I think those are pills sent to you by the Yankees so you can continue your hunger strike.’ Those were the exact words said to him, I verified them. His vitamins were taken away, as were any other medications. And they stopped giving him water for a while.
When they saw that Zapata was determined to reach the last consequences, they changed their strategy. They rushed him to the hospital. During Zapata’s stay in the hospital, a security guard visited me and told me, ‘Abel, someone has to talk to Zapata. Would you be willing to go talk to him?’ I flat out told him that I wasn’t. I would not talk to Zapata. Zapata knew what he was doing, and I was not one to try to influence his decisions.
That was a method of operation used by them to try to discredit him, to try to get people, one by one, to talk to him and convince him to leave the hunger strike. Once in the hospital, he and I were finally able to talk.
Many prisoners who surrounded him, like Otero, and Frank Alvarez (a young man with a life sentence who resided in the cell next to where Zapata was being held), told me that a few days before being taken away, Zapata stood up and shouted, ‘People, don’t let yourselves be lied to. Don’t believe anything that they tell you. I’m not demanding a kitchen or any of the things they took away from me. I’m demanding an improvement of treatment for all prisoners, and so you all know, I am going to die for it.’ I remember the day when we received the tragic news of his death. A few prisoners came running to me and told me, ‘Come here, hurry’. We walked into the small room where there was a television*. There, the young man who was telling me this started to cry and told me, ‘My friend, I was there. Abel, I’m a witness of it all, of his death. Zapata was not demanding any of this’.
I must say that the Granma newspaper committed a crime by saying that Zapata was demanding absurd things like a telephone, a kitchen, a personal room, and a television.
But within that prison itself, I am a witness that in the hospital* section there is a “revolutionary prisoner” who stole large amounts from the state. He is treated differently, and exclusively. While they said that Zapata demanded absurd things, which were just pure lies, this other prisoner enjoyed a “suite”. That prisoner was the one who was at the forefront of managing the hospital of Prison 26. For more than 20 years he has been taking money and resources from there. One day, they casually told me to go visit the hospital, and I actually accepted. That same prisoner resided right in front of Hospital 26. He has a room, a telephone, a radio, an electric kitchen, and even a heater. When I saw the State Security Major, Bombino*, I told him, ‘How is it that Granma tauntingly says that Zapata demanded these things. How is it possible that right there in number 26 resides the engineer, the prisoner in charge of the construction of the hospital and he has all of these things?’ He responded, ‘Well, that is the engineer who is in charge of the hospital.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘But he is a prisoner. Isn’t he supposed to be confined to a high security prison, just like the rest of us?’ He simply told me, ‘No, no, he can have all that stuff.’
And while the newspaper mocked Zapata, this was occurring. Goes to show you the differences between a “revolutionary” prisoner and the rest of us, the defenders of human rights.
And I must repeat: those were very grim days, filled with sorrow because of Zapata’s death.
*they told me: Abel is referring to those who would report from prison that they had taken Zapata’s water and vitamins.
*the hospital: Referring to the Camaguey Amalia Simoni Civil Hospital which has a waiting room for those who are sentenced. They check in prisoners from various jails in the province in this hospital.
*the television: Referring to the images played by the Cuban Television in which they discredited the hunger strike of Zapata where Raul Castro, together with the Brazilian president, referred to “some prisoner who died”.
*Bombino: Refers to the political police guard by the name of Julio Cesar Bombino, one of the figures deeply involved with the fate of Orlando Zapata in Camaguey. He is one of the highest ranking State Security officials in that province.
When, on the 6th of September, more than two million children, teenagers and adults began the new school year in Cuba, for their parents it meant yet another problem.
The youngest of them carry schoolbags weighed down with water, buns, sweets and soda. And even food. They look like mountain climbers. As the mid-morning snack and lunch given to primary children is usually little more than garbage, their parents have to spend a considerable part of their salaries buying food for them.
Those who have hard currency can give them something fairly substantial. Bread and tuna, ham or pork. Natural fruit juice and yoghurt. The ones who really suffer are those who receive a salary in pesos, and struggle to make ends meet.
Carmen knows this well. She’s divorced and has three children of 6, 9 and 12. “Their father is a worthless type. He’s never bothered about his children. I don’t have enough money. Every day is a problem. I make them bread with catfish dumplings, but they’ve had them so many times that now they can’t stand them. If I have eggs I make them omelette. To drink there is only squash or sugared water. Sometimes they have nothing”, says Carmen, clearly stressed.
School uniform is another problem. The disgusting state bureaucrats have decided to provide one uniform per child every two years. Just imagine. Many children grow quickly and can’t wear the uniform the following year. Their parents have two choices. Either they buy one on the black market, at 5 convertible pesos (6 dollars, half the minimum wage in Cuba) or they go to school without a uniform.
The other major complaint of parents with children in primary and secondary schools is the standard of the teachers. Their training is abysmal. They are usually young people between 16 and 20 without adequate knowledge or a vocation to teaching.
This means that some families have to pay extra money. There are parents who choose to pay private teachers. And for 15 or 20 dollars a month they reinforce the learning of their children.
Technology and pre-University students are a little better off, as they have older, more experienced teachers. And now they aren’t sent a long way from home, where they had to work on the land and the food was scarce.
The level of education in Cuba is very low. It is fallen alarmingly in recent years. If you are in any doubt about this, ask our teenagers and young people about history, politics or culture and you’ll be surprised by the high level of ignorance. To this ignorance must be added the poor and inappropriate use of the Spanish language.
Fidel Castro can still be very proud of education in Cuba with its more than a million University graduates. This is worthy of high praise.
But we’re going downhill fast. Many people are trying hard not to notice that the showcase of the revolution is beginning to show cracks.
I never knew my grandfather Miguel Coyula because he died on 23 November 1948. But his influence has touched even the Coyulas who came after me, the last of his grandchildren. We grew up listening to the courage that earned him the rank of commander of the Liberation Army, standing in the galaxy of young habaneros, according to Loynaz del Castillo in his memoirs. In the midst of the corruption that erupted during the Republic, my grandfather made honesty his main virtue, he died paying rent on a house in the neighborhood of La Sierra and supported his family with the salary of a journalist.
In the House of Representatives, where he became president in 1917, he was reelected over and over again without having to buy a vote. Known as the “Man-Renouncer” for all the public offices he refused, including to be a presidential candidate. I would have liked to ask him how he reconciled his political life at the side to Menocal. To avoid a painful breakup with his former boss in the war, when Menocal allied with Batista, my grandfather took refuge in journalism. He was self-taught, but nobody asked for a degree to collaborate in Bohemia or Carteles, to have a regular column in El Mundo, or to be founding president of the InterAmerican Press Association. And from Bohemia and without leaving Cuba, in a time of billy clubs and castor oil, he demanded the surrender of Machado.
He shone again in the Assembly, where he served as President for several sessions; there he entered into a debate with the Communist delegate Blas Roca about including an invocation to God in the Constitution. He, a convinced secularist, recognized and respected the religious roots of the population.
When he died, he lay in state in the Hall of Lost Steps in the National Capitol and his huge funeral was only surpassed later by those of Eduardo Jesús Menéndez and Chiba. The people who crowded the street were not summoned there and no one went to check the list of attendees. In his honor, November 23 was named as Day of Citizen Integrity. At 30th and 19th, near his home, on the first anniversary of his death, a bust was unveiled and a park bears his name, like Avenue 19, and in Regla, his birthplace, there is also a statue and an Avenue and school named after him.
But Commander Miguel Coyula is a forgotten patriot. He does not exist in Wikipedia (which I intend to amend) and to read about him one must refer to paper encyclopedias. His civic virtue and his anti-imperialism failed to override his convinced anti-communism. Today, no one knows who he is. In keeping with an image fallen into disuse, the bronze bust in the park at 19th and 30th was stolen years ago, no doubt to produce quality articles; and the letters of the identical material with his name, embedded in stone, were also disappearing until there were none left. They failed to delete him entirely from the monument in the center of the park, no doubt because it’s very high and in a well-lit place.
To write this post I searched the family papers looking for photos. My son was full of curiosity, especially with a picture of Grandpa with Ramón Fonst and Capablanca. I had not noticed it and took me a minute to recognize my grandfather, always identified to me by his image as an old man. A photo from 1915 which shows dark hair and handlebar mustache. I was glad to return to these stories, lover of history that I am; to remember where I come from …
… And my grandfather today would have been an alternative blogger.
In July of this year, a humble Cuban priest received a prize of international scope which, although it never appeared in the national press, became known to us with suspicious speed. Father José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría, pastor of the church “Saint Therese of the Child Jesus,” in Santiago de Cuba, was awarded the Prize of the Community of Democracies, in Poland, for his enormous efforts in the service of freedom and human rights in Cuba.
Up until then I knew little of Father Conrad. I am not Catholic nor do I practice any particular religion, but I try to surround myself with the most varied and different things possible. Getting to know the life and work of this man with a brilliant attitude is a priceless gift to me.
A priest whom the Cuban church had to exile almost by force in the mid-’90s, because they feared for his life. A priest who suffered, on December 4, 2007, a horrible act of repudiation at his parish, which led to pure violence, and had wide international repercussions.
What I am publishing here now is just a snippet of the interview of at least 4 hours that Father Conrado and I enjoyed in Santiago de Cuba, just a month ago. The full text will appear in my book of interviews with prominent personalities in the alternative cultural and public life in Cuba, which will soon be completed.
I must confess to my readers that it was a real exercise of journalistic contortion to summarize an interview of nearly 30 pages, with a rather lengthy introduction, which I offer you here. When an interview subject is so brilliant, it is painful and complex to select some answers and leave the others for later.
In any event, I believe that few interviews published in this blog have so much depth and relevance as this one that the priest José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría was kind enough to grant me from his church.
THE FORMATION OF CHARACTER
For those who know of his priestly office, one of the hallmarks of Father José Conrado is his concern for creating awareness among his people about the reality of our country. This is not someone who surreptitiously, when the opportunity arises, refers in his oratory to related aspects of Cuban politics and life. Rather, José Conrado has shown a particular interest in raising awareness among his followers; giving them arguments to assess in full measure the reality in which they are immersed.
– Father, do you remember when you first became conscious of this? Or do you remember when was the first time you began to define yourself as a religious official with very defined positions on politics?
– From the Seminary I was very clear about the role of the word, in my case the Word of God, implying a serious commitment in this sense. In fact that is the definition of a homily, it is preaching the Word of God and the reality that is before you.
I fully agree with the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, when he said that a homily was delivered with the newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other.
Therefore, the very essence of the work of the Church is to refer to this reality that must change itself in light of the Word of God …
– But while some priests in their masses avoid direct references to the plight of Cuba, you do the opposite …
I question the claim that other priests do not. What I think is that everyone has their own style and their own way of approaching issues.
Look, I always make reference, for example, to the fact that if there had not been a person with a video camera the day I read the letter to Fidel Castro in 1994, it wouldn’t have been known that I read it before 700 people one day in Caridad. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read it just the same. But the fact that it had the repercussions it did was coincidental.
That is to say, what isn’t known at the social level, or not known by those who don’t attend Church, doesn’t meant that Cuban priests don’t have the same principle.
Especially during the hardest time of the Special Period, I think all the priests and bishops had the same feeling. Maybe not always as directly, but there was always a serious reflection on the reality that the people were living through..
We must also take into account one thing: we all feel fear. The essence of the totalitarian system is precisely to provoke this response of paralyzing fear. It would not be honest to say that we are not afraid. We all are. The problem is when you have to overcome fear in the name of a responsibility. That responsibility is what leads you to express yourself and, what you believe, in reality. And that is the result of an ethical awareness of what concerns us all.
My insistence on the political issue in homilies stands out because the totalitarian system always tries to silence the critic, to make disagreement impossible, and this makes it rare for a person to express something which, in the background, is likely shared by the vast majority of his listeners. But not all dare to say it.
However, I think that is precisely the responsibility of a priest in a country like ours. The fact that people are not able to raise their voices for fear of reprisals, or because of the habit of silence (as Eliseo Alberto Diego says: “In silence we became so dumb.”) is one of the challenges a priest faces under a system like this.
I was thinking about the number of letters that still circulate online, signed by him. The letter to Raul Castro, in 2009, his farewell speech when he had to go into involuntary exile in 1996, the text he wrote on the occasion of the retirement of Archbishop Pedro Meurice. I remember the impression his highly narrative prose gave me every time: an absolute fascination.
– I have felt with your words something unique: the vibration of truth. You feel deeply what you say, and whoever hears it or reads it, it is a very vivid warning. When you condemn totalitarianism, not only in Cuba but universally, you do so with a passion that makes an impact. Where does that this strong aversion to totalitarianism come from?
– I would say it was the experience that led me to a very critical position. The experience of the reality I was living every day. This was exacerbated specifically with the Special Period.
No doubt this was a situation that all the people suffered, and it was the humble people who paid a high price for it. I’m talking about people suffering from polyneuritis, the agony of a country that was expressed by those who threw themselves into the sea at the risk of losing their lives. The terrible tragedy of families separated by distance or death.
I saw in the parishes where I was at that time, in Palma Soriano and Contramaestre, how people grew thinner from week to week, how they steadily lost weight. It was an awful thing. There was this horrible despair, and suffering. And that there was no response from those who had the authority, and all the power in totalitarian systems is with those in power, was perhaps what bothered me most.
The essence of this system is to take away people’s responsibility for their lives and give it to the powers-that-be, those who rule. That makes them more powerful and more responsible before History: obviously, there is no possibility for people decide for themselves, to assume that share of power that is the responsibility of each person, and the centralization of all the decisions in every facet of life — economic, political, social, cultural — makes them responsible for everything that can happen in a country.
But I cannot give up my own responsibility, the share that falls to me, and that is why I have taken a clear position and am critical with respect to the form of this country and how it is governed.
GEREMEK AWARD AND ASSESSMENT OF THE CHURCH IN CUBA
– The Community of Democracies gave you the “Bronislaw Geremek” Prize this year in Krakow, Poland, for your well-known and undoubted efforts with regards to freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Cuba. Your speech, entitled “Every generation has the right to dream its own dreams,” should be studied in all universities, should be read before all the good people of this world as a beautiful testament to the commitment of a priest to the full freedom of man.
You also said in your speech that you received the award “on behalf of the Church that suffers, fights, prays and waits in Cuba.” Do these words really describe the feelings of the Cuban Church?
– Of course. I think the Catholic Church in Cuba has made an effort to serve and is dedicated to the cause of man.
When you look at the communities that make up our parishes you see this: people fighting, suffering, waiting, praying from the fact that he lives. These communities are composed for the most part of very simple people who have withstood the difficulties, have resisted even persecution. For over 50 years the Church has not been seen as a good thing Cuba, and Christians have never been “first class” citizens. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but the suspicion has always been political: they are not people who can be trusted. But they are the faithful and it is the Church.
Many believers and even priests have left the country. They saw no way out. Others abandoned the Church. I remember times when the parishes were virtually empty because of the persecution of Christians. But always there were those who stood their ground.
In fact I believe that if today the Church is present and alive in the hearts of this people it is the result of the faithfulness of the institution towards those in need.
– It is impossible not to ask you your views on the current process of releasing the political prisoners, in which the Catholic Church had a role. The controversy was centered primarily on two aspects: 1. Was if right for the church to ignore the opposition in its dialog with the Government, and 2. Was it ethical and humane that those who were released were immediately exiled. What is your position on this?
– We must start from a known fact: the rules of this game were not defined by the Church. It had a mediation role only between the persons directly affected, the Ladies in White, the families of the prisoners, and the Government, which finally ceded to solve the problem.
I think that the Church is not civil society, nor can it supplant the opposition. Nor did it try to do so. Simply, there was a specific problem, a really serious situation with these prisoners of conscience, and the opportunity to reach an agreement was there.
In itself, by definition, it was a very serious thing that these people were arrested for their opinions or for exercising their right to free opinion. There was never any guilt in this sense. On the contrary, the exercise of freedom for every person is the guarantee of justice and the proper exercise of social life.
Then, that they were given long sentences for this reason can only be called an aberration.
That point is the problem that motivated the Government’s response, and among other factors influenced the church in this; it was, first, the serious criticism of the repressive acts against the Ladies in White, and, second, the expression of their disagreement with the existence of these prisoners of conscience, among whom were many Catholics as well. But whether or not they were Catholics, it was an unacceptable situation.
An interesting question would be why the Government chose the Church. In my opinion, it was because they knew that it is listened to by all parties, and this is undoubtedly a recognition of the seriousness of the institution and the church community.
What space did the Church have for this negotiation? That is assuming it was nothing more than a mediation. To get the parties to agree, to counsel them, and to lead them to a positive outcome for everyone.
I agree that unfortunately the prisoners did not get a real release, because what has happened is only a change of conviction: instead of prison, deportation. It’s obvious: in Cuba, where many people see the highest ideal of happiness as getting out of the country, and where it is so hard to do so, some see it as a prize. Like they won the jackpot. But that is a reading as it is seen from here; for the rest of the world it is not the same. Nor is it for those who understand how this process should have played out, since obviously there has not been compliance.
LETTERS TO FIDEL AND RAUL
– First tell me about the letter sent to Fidel Castro in 1994. What was the essence and motivation of this letter?
– It was not really a letter but rather a letter that I read. As I said before, someone took a video and then spread it around the world.
It was, in fact, an act of desperation. I saw the agony of the people, heard the testimonies of those who came to tell me their tragedies, and it filled me with a feeling of impotence at not being able to solve their problems and I saw that, on the other hand, those who were responsible for it did not give them a hearing. That was truly the breeding ground that made this letter possible.
I remember that day, which was of Caridad, when I finished the homily in front of 700 people, I said: “I know that in all my masses there are crazy sheep who come hear what I say when I go to other places. I urge these crazy sheep to forward to its destination this letter which I am going to read now.” And I began to read.
Perhaps the most important phrase, which sums up the feelings of the full text, is where I say “Everyone is responsible, but nobody more so than you.” The reason for the letter was this: to address myself to the one most responsible, who had the largest share of power.
– Did you receive any response from the president, or any official spokesperson?
– No. The answer was silence.
– Then, 15 years later, in 2009, you sent another one to his brother, newly installed as President. This one was a letter, and it had a wide digital circulation throughout the country. Did you have any real hope this time for a response, or that your claims would influence Raul?
– Look, there are times when one acts as a way of asserting your own voice, because you have a commitment and a responsibility. But not because you know that this act will have the desired response.
What I cannot do is remain silent before the reality I see, that I suffer and that so many people suffer. What’s more, my voice represents nothing more than another Cuba, but it has value.
So I felt that it was my duty to let him know what I think, and also to hold him accountable for what happens in this country. And it is not that, as I clearly said in the letter to Fidel Castro, “It is not that you don’t know the reality of Cubans,” because it would be an insult to tell someone so well informed that he didn’t know what was going on in his own country. No. They know perfectly well what is happening. What is missing is the real political will to change it, especially because those who suffer most in this situation are not them.
Raul Castro could not be uninformed about what is happening in this country. But for me to publicly say it to him was a form of compromise, to say something like, “Hey, you know what’s going on, at least you can’t say that you didn’t, because I told you publicly.”
What’s more, when there are few possibilities to make decisions that won’t be final, it gives those who have all the power twice the obligation. Because under a system that puts everyone in a straitjacket, depending on the decisions of the bosses, they must be held accountable for everything they do or don’t do.
So I believe that we have to respect and acknowledge the work of all the bloggers, of the independent journalists, of the peaceful opponents, of people like Yoani Sánchez or the Ladies in White, who have raised their voices and are fighting against all odds. We would be in an even worse position without these people who run the risk that needs to be run to be faithful to a fundamental commitment to the truth.
Clearly, one of the foundations on which the system operates is what Soledad Cruz described as: “There is no one who can bring it down, but no one who change it.” That is: They put in your head the idea that no matter what you do, nothing will change. This concept is the basis of totalitarianism.
And basically, I do believe many things are changing. I think they, the rulers, are assuming their responsibilities. What is happening is that they are admitting it publicly. But if they change something, however minimal, it is because they are realizing the responsibility that they have.
Therefore it is very important that we not remain silent. When you raise your voice, you warn of danger, and that has power. A system with such an absolute power, if there are no restrictions, no compensations, it is a real monster. So, although we pay a heavy price, we must raise our voices.
As Father Varela said to those who accused him of imprudence, “It is imprudent to speak out and warn of the danger? That is the prudence of the weak. My heart does not know it.”
– Finally, father: in your own words you officiated at your first mass citing Marti’s credo: “I have faith in human betterment, the utility of virtue, and in you.” Still today, many years later, do you really believe in a future of reconciliation for our country, despite the great anthropological damage suffered by the Cuban people?
– Gandhi said, the tyranny and wickedness of men does not have the last word. The last word goes to the other side. It’s always a word of salvation, not condemnation.
And I think that when, a hundred years from now, someone writes the history of Cuba, and of this period, many will remember all those things with sadness. But many will also react. In the end the human being is made to be happy. Eventually people wake up to a better, more just, life.
It is real that in any country, under any system, criminal situations can occur, human aberrations, we can also have this evil within us. No one is immune from error or falsehood. But I also think that man is able to evolve and change, and I deeply believe in the possibility of conversion. And conversion for the better is the challenge of every age and every person.
The temptation to be discouraged, hopeless, it is somewhat logical. But for the Christian it has no place. Not that you can not go through stages of despair, what happens is that eventually you have to overcome it. Because life goes on and we all have a responsibility to keep fighting and to build a different future.
In addition, I repeat that we must distinguish between systems and people. Systems pass, but human beings, to the extent they open themselves to grace, the deep love and mercy of God that is capable of transformation, of breaking down barriers, it is capable of reversing any circumstances.
But above all, I believe in the possibility of overcoming, because basically man, by his nature, always wants the best. And the best is certainly not what we have. The best is not this.
When we were so so poor that even our language knew misery.
Not only the anthology of English songs confused us (My Underpants Fell Down… a Micheal Jackson title seemed to say, Happy Willy… in exchange for I’ll Be Waiting by a foreigner, I Really Want To Go… signed in Cuba by a great American band), but we also traded these sad and silly love songs still echoing on the Progressive Radio program Night, although all of their classic speakers are now cadavers (Little Grey House… instead of Almost Too Grey… was perhaps the last straw, but it was a truly precious nonsense).
We lived in nonsense. In a bubble. The barbarism didn’t touch us.
Sometimes someone left the classroom for good. Sometimes because their father was a “refugee” from before my friend was born. And that word, refugee, echoed for me as mysteriously as the long system of socialist education, from primary school to high school, so that many times I watched my parents with disappointment because neither of them had anything to take refuge from, absolutely nothing (I wonder, curiously, if I myself couldn’t apply now for that mythic “refugee program”; in an interview with the anonymous State Security officials the possibility was suggested to me).
I confess I made the music all for me. I lived in a vanguard of the proletariat. The music got me out of the house and I became an adult between the legs of a teenager as heartbroken as my own virginity, there where the Ikarus buses stopped in Lawton. I’m about to type her name, that would be of the Y Generation, but better to keep my mouth shut. It was mine. And if you pronounce it out loud at these post-historic times, I miss the miracle of your private memory. It looks like a pompous verse from Julio Alberto Cadanova: hopefully it would come to be (there is nothing more poetic than bad poetry).
Music protected me from ridicule. If it didn’t make sense of my life, at least it gave a soundtrack to my life in the neighborhood. I was a dreamer among dreamers. This incredible naiveté saved us from the street or the jail cell or the cemetery. They were the proud eighties. We grew up with the first boxes of apples that arrived from CAME, an acronym for another century that no 21st century reader could translate for her children.
In 1989 they executed Ochoa and then the Berlin Wall fell, I think (the dates are a blur to me). They could have killed Ochoa to ensure the Berlin Wall would not fall. My music then was heavy metal, megadeath of all those who returned from their cut-short-careers in Eastern Europe, and also of all those who disappeared in the rapture of the exiled, or in those freak accidents that became popular with the Cubans over glasnost, perestroika in the former Warsaw Pact countries (there are bodies that the earth of Cuba never ate).
When I graduated in 1994 in Biochemistry, Faculty of Biology at the University of Havana, Black Sabbath had almost been erased and other drugloving dinosaurs with their Crown and TDK cassettes of 60, 90 and 120 minutes (the latter were the most fragile of the tapes).
When in 1999 they threw me out of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (April is the most noble month), and the sound began to weaken from the shared taxis, the almendróns. Repetitive choruses of incredible rather than irreverent violence. The tam-tam in the recombinant DNA of fools. All together now, which is another version of the Party unanimity. The mass is aborting a heart. Boring Home. Barring Home.
The zero years were light and super-alternative (I don’t know the significance of this phrase; I don’ t know what this paragraph can signify cut in half).
When the arid Ariel and Caliban cannibals of Status Quo Security kicked me and Yoani Sánchez (in this ungrammatical order) in the ass in a Geely auto imported from Tiananmen Square, I heard nothing. Or in any case I heard the paws bouncing off her meager body. And the snatchers from the car who harried us inside. But I heard nothing new. It was last November 6 and there was a deafening silence from inside the windows. And those lowered glasses marked, in the free air, as in the La Cabaña Book Fair of 2009, the trailing limit of the solidarity of the Cuban literary camp with the Island of indoors.
Nobody hears anything yet. We are megaless. We will never understand. The victims trade clothes with the executioners and then trade back. Carroñita.cu carousel. Our destination is decrepit. We are more lonely than the first characters of Zoé Valdés, who for me, in the nineties in Cuba, incarnated the hard-core rage of all true freedom.
This post is, moreover, self-conscious anthology. Do Re Me, dolor remix. Fa Sol Sharp and Fe very very minor. La Si Do, sorry for the lazy flat. Almost as grey as the winter sea. Grey little house like death in winter.
On the overcast morning of September 28, the historic leader was in his favourite environment. Public events. The adulation of the masses. His natural state. It is in big gatherings where Castro has given speeches of up to 14 hours, true Guinness records, and where he whipped them up into a state of delirium.
The 50th anniversary of the CDR (the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution), an organization he founded, on the 28th September 1960, on returning from a 10 day trip to New York, where he had attended the 15th group of sessions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, was a date that the old warrior could not let pass unmarked.
The CDR is one of his monsters. Created originally to keep an eye on people labelled “worms and counter-revolutionaries”, it has lasted five decades. As well as having a social function, its prime purpose is still the same: to watch out for dissidents.
The balcony was installed in the old Presidential Palace, today the Museum of the Revolution, 300 m from the Havana promenade, on one side of the Spanish Embassy. Castro spoke after the national coordinator of the CDR, Juan José Rabiloero, had read an inflammatory text in which he warned that the “counter-revolution would not be allowed to take over the street, squares and parks”, in a veiled threat to the Damas de Blanco.
Beforehand, the singer of the moment on the island, Haila María Mompié, sang one of her hits, and as she finished, she wished him good health, said she loved him, and kissed him. Then the aged leader, in his trademark clothes — the olive green jacket and starred cap — read for 42 minutes excerpts of the speech given 50 years ago on the same spot.
Seeing that the heat was not overpowering, Castro spoke on what has become one of his favourite subjects, the possibility of nuclear war. Local observers had hoped the occasion would be an opportunity for a U-turn in his political discourse.
Up until now his public appearances have always been about international matters. Some predicted he might speak about the failure of parliamentary elections in Venezuela, or about the new economic reforms already under way, which require a great sacrifice for the average Cuban, with a million workers unemployed and high taxes for the self-employed.
But it was not to be. In this, his second outdoor appearance, he went on raving about things that were of no interest to Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast and eat one hot meal a day. Those who hoped for a dynamic Castro were disappointed.
For the sole Commander the harsh reality of the country is an insignificant matter. Somebody else’s problem. He holds himself to be above right and wrong. And that’s how he behaves.
I don’t think capitalism is the model of a perfect life. But it is more logical and possible at this stage of human development. Communist ideologies removed at the stroke of a pen competition and discrepancies.
We already know what that has meant. Material poverty, lazy people with no motivation to work. It discourages individuality. What counts is collectivism.
Closed systems such as Cuba and North Korea go against human nature. In their attempt to design a New Man, perfect, docile, who works for a pittance and venerates his leaders, they have demolished the institutions of modern life.
It’s the hideousness of people like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung… In theory, the concepts of communism are attractive. Societies without police or armies. One lives according to one’s needs. And there is no money.
To reach this hypothetical paradise you must first go through hell. That is making the nation mediocre, restricting essential liberties and “educating” the masses to respect their leader.
These nations that have embarked on this chimerical project, have always had to face a dictator, a caudillo, a visionary…
Totalitarian regimes are the cradle of nationalists, egomaniacs, and personalities who are not always in their right mind. When power goes beyond reasonable limits, it can become monstrous.
Examples abound. To maintain your monsters you use prisons, gulags and firing squads. In this type of society there are no checks and balances. Everything is controlled by a group of men. Or one alone. The choice is the supreme law.
But man is a weirdo. Like some bacteria, he develops resistance to certain antibodies. Citizens emerge who have no desire to continue applauding the country’s daddy.
And the battle begins. Silent. The natural reaction of a human being with respect to his right to be different. To be able to talk, shout, write, opine, and disagree at his leisure.
Cuba is one of the societies where there has been a long war of ideas and concepts among an elite that is sure that Marxist Socialism is the best, and a group of intellectuals, opponents and independent journalists who try to show that the Cuban model is broken.
Let’s leave aside the figures that confirm the country is sinking. While Fidel Castro walks as the prophet of nuclear conflagrations and world apocalypse, those on the island who dissent know that democratic change in Cuba is a daily struggle. Extremely peaceful.
Yunia Palacios, 30, is a potential suicide. You can tell by looking at her. She and her three children live poorly and eat worse. She is a mulata Indian with mild mental retardation and an almost animal life.
Her history is an ordeal. For the official media there are no people like Yunia. But there are. And the number is growing sharply.
She was born in the steep and hot city of Santiago de Cuba. She has always been unhappy. Typical. Daughter of alcoholic parents who abandoned her to her fate. At age 12 she embarked for Havana — the Miami of those living in eastern regions — and fell into the clutches of a guy who while she slept while poured his semen on her child’s body.
She escaped. Running away is her natural state. Wandering dirty and hungry along the National Highway she stumbled upon a bastard, three times her age and evil. He beat her at will and impregnated her three times.
The guy, a low-class thief, went to prison for killing cattle. Obediently Yunia visited him in jail. When he was released he threw her and their three children out of their home. Well, not exactly a home.
They lived in a hut of palm leaves with a dirt floor. They slept on a filthy mattress between cockroaches and mice. Yunia returned to spend the night, trapped. This time with an additional charge, their three children.
The girl has gone to different levels of government to seek a shelter or a room to live in. She always gets the same answer: wait. Desperate, she thought of jumping off a bridge 40 meters high.
If she died, she thought, state institutions would take care of the children. But her blood did not flow into the river. Lawyers and independent journalists visited her and reported her case in 2009.
As usually occurs in Cuba, the situation is aired outside the island. And on occasion they give an official response. But there is still an ordeal for Yunia: The authorities said they could stay at the home of the father of her children.
The ideal would have been to provide her with a modest apartment or room. “The economic situation,” replied the officials. And she had to return to the hut of her executioner.
When at night the children’s father violently beats her, Yunia runs to a small hill surrounded by marabou bushes. There, in silence, she thinks about the best way to die.
When the sun shines and shows the green of the countryside, among the songs of mockingbirds and morning dew, Yunia reverses her suicide plan. Hope is reborn in her.
She begins to daydream. One day she will live in a house with their children be able to eat enough to satisfy hunger. It’s all she asks.
Her dream end when she returns home. With each new beating, again her head is filled with the option of suicide. Yunia has never discarded it.
In a society where people are cataloged, principally by the political and ideological profile, grouping an entire population into two groups — the good and the bad — it is very difficult to talk.
From this primary classification, everyone who is part of the good embodies the highest human qualities: patriotic, civic-minded, intelligent, honest, austere, brave, tender, humane, caring, and so on. Those who are part of the bad, embody the greatest defects: a traitor, antisocial, crude, dishonest, pompous, cowardly, cruel, inhuman, anti-solidarity, and so on. All in black and white, no shades.
The stubborn reality, however, has often proved quite the opposite: the good ones are not so good nor the bad so bad. In history there are plenty of examples. Nothing is absolute and the qualities and defects are mixed in every human being.
I prefer to accept people as they are: individuals with different political, ideological, religious, sexual, sporting and artistic preferences. Who judge for themselves. This allows me to talk with everyone and have many more friends than enemies.
I don’t pretend to propose any recipe, they don’t work. It’s just a path to coexistence, one that has given me good results.
The question is not if you believe in Afrocuban religion or in Catholicism, if not in the Revolution and its leaders. In Cuba, you never know if the last thing they say is what they are really going to do. They’ve carried on more than 50 years talking, but in practice there are not many tangible results. Or they have been limited.
As has happened in agriculture, livestock, fishing, the sugar industry, transport, among other sectors of the economy. Or in health, education, sport and culture. To mention one example, who remembers the ten basic cultural institutions, that great project of the 1980s?
“The Revolution has lived by the force of slogans, pamphlets and speeches. In a word, improvising. So the latest statements of Raul and Fidel slip by some people. Their credibility has fallen a lot, above all among the poorest Cubans, for those who watch one year pass and start the next one the same or worse off,” says Ernesto, 46.
You already know. Man doesn’t live by politics and propaganda alone. And when it is hard to eat, clothe yourself, fix the house, catch a bus, know the news, that abroad they can make headlines, but ordinary Cubans are rarely interested.
“One is very cujíao (chastened). And it’s a joke that at this point they tell you, ‘now we are going to construct socialism.” We’ve had 52 years with more of the same,” says Mario, 65 and retired.
Also lacking are individual liberties. The Internet is not for everyone and if you want to travel to another country you need a government permit. Realities that few Cubans mention, unless they are dissidents.
“What matters to me is if Fidel is going to continue at the head of the Party. I’m not moved by his too-late regrets. He and his brother spend too much time making mistakes. And they still try to make you continue applauding them,” opines Alberto, 18 and a student.
Things may be about to change on the island. But if people only read and hear promises, and don’t see facts, they’ll continue not to believe. Trying to resolve their own and their family’s problems. And the nation? Good luck.
The Castro government could use a vote of confidence. But they would find it difficult among ordinary citizens. Where they are assured of getting it is among the more than one million Party members and the members of the armed forces and the ministry of the interior.
A power sufficient to carry forward the envisaged economic reforms. Believe in them or not.
On the 25th of October, 2010, almost four months after the beginning of the release from prison of political prisoners in Cuba, the Council of the European Union (EU) considered insufficient the steps taken by Havana and decided to maintain the Common Position. In its place the European Commission was granted a mandate to negotiate and explore, inside the framework of the critical dialog, new forms that might stimulate its Cuban counterpart to continue more deeply on the path it set out upon.
The Common Position adopted in 1996 — when the member nations of the EU had bilateral relations with Cuba — was reaffirmed in 2005. In it is stated that the goal of its relations with Cuba “is to encourage a process of transition to a pluralistic democracy and towards the respect of human rights and of fundamental freedoms, as well as a sustainable recovery and the improvement of the living conditions of the Cuban people”.
Despite the opposition of the Cuban government to the aforementioned measure, the events on the Island between February and July of 2010 caused a turn that lead to a compromise to liberate all the political prisoners of the Cause of the 75*. A little before this decision, the government itself had recognized the inefficiency of the Cuban economy, classified the production of foodstuffs as a national security problem, and announced a reform baptized as an “update of the model“. The relation between these events lies in the fact that this reform requires foreign sources of financing, access to which must pass through the demands for democratization of those who have the money, among them the EU.
The failure to meet the deadline given to the Government by the Catholic Church for the liberation of those imprisoned in the spring of 2003 demonstrates that the Cuban authorities remain bound to their totalitarian vocation. In this complex context the European Commission has the mission to search out some formula that permits the completion of releases and undertaking new measures. The final decision, be what it may, will have to consider some aspects that remain crucial — from the Common Position or from bilateral relations — to contributing toward the democratization of Cuba:
– Three characteristics of the present moment.
One, the Cuban Government is the same one that debuted in 1959, such that in addition to the interests it is disposed to defend, it is responsible for all the good and all the evil that has occurred in this half century. Two, despite being almost the sole owner of the means of production and of the absence of an autonomous, juridically endorsed civil society, the government ignored the role of time in social changes; thus it lost the opportunity to undertake limited reform in a specific social sphere such as the economy, and to decide the starting point, the speed, the depth and direction of that reform, which would have permitted them to introduce partial changes without opposition from private interests. Three, as a result of the delay, along with the structural character of the crisis and citizen discontent, the changes have to be integrated.
– The absence of a true political will.
The revolutionary government, in its zeal to impose state property in absolute form, to eliminate small and medium property that offered production and services that the State never managed to supply, generated disinterest by the producers; adding to this, the fact that salaries never corresponded to the cost of living meant that the results was economic inefficiency. Nonetheless, through totalitarian control over society, reinforced by the almost total absence of an independent civil society and by the ideological solidarity with the Soviet Union, first, and with Venezuela later, the Government managed to save an exhausted, obsolete, and nonviable system for decades, despite a galloping rate of deterioration, until finally facing a profound structural crisis.
– Limited and contradictory character of the measures in the process of implementation.
Not only can the government keep in prison those who refuse to accept its terms and be exiled, by not effecting changes in current legislation the government can refill the prisons with new prisoners charged with the same offenses as those who now leave them. Adding to this the non-existence of human rights and civil liberties, the two work together to impede the resurgence of an autonomous civil society. In short, the anti-democratic and totalitarian mentality hasn’t changed. Labor reform, the consequence of a mistaken policy of “full employment” imposed against all economic logic, began to be applied after approving “majority employment” and increasing the age necessary for retirement: two means that suppose the need of labor, when it really exceeds 20% of what is used. The expansion of Self-Employment, which with few exceptions is limited to the legalization of activities that formerly occurred on the margins of the law, comes accompanied with high tax rates imposed in a country where no fiscal culture exists. Not to mention the lack of a wholesale market, bank loans, and the basic right of independent association.
Such measures cannot make up for the incapacity of the State to produce, being ignorant of the necessity of small and medium businesses, the formation of a business community, and the payment of salaries that correspond to the cost of living. But the worst of all is that these transformations are being applied to a society disarmed of rights, liberties, and civic institutions for its defense.
The interesting thing about the present scenario is that, as opposed to earlier times, the decision to change emerged from the need of the government itself, which makes it much more difficult to retreat, in a context in which the international community is paying attention to the state of civil liberties in Cuba and citizen discontent accelerates. Nonetheless, by the contradictory characteristics of the sociopolitical situation in Cuba, the change process — although zigzagging — is probably irreversible. In this sense, as much for the external agents as for the internal ones, the road to democracy will depend on critical dialog, which must build itself on a departure point, an essential concept, a governing principle, and permanent strategy.
In order for the projected changes to have a positive effect, besides completing the liberation of political prisoners, they have to ratify the Treaty of Civil and Political Rights and the Treaty of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights — in effect since 1976 in other nations and signed by the Cuban Government since February of 2008 — as well ensure that internal laws conform with these documents. Therefore, in the agenda of critical dialog with the Cuban government the urgency of its ratification cannot be absent.
Havana, 7 November 2010
* Translator’s note: The “Cause of the 75” is the release of 75 political prisoners who were arrested, tried on trumped-up charges, and imprisoned in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003.)
In 2003, 75 Cubans were arrested in four days. Their crime? Being pro-democracy political activists, fighters for human rights, or simply journalists independent of the hegemonic line of the only Cuban political party, the Communists. Pedro Argüelles Morán was one of them.
Seven years later — in the same arbitrary way as the imprisonments — we learned through a communication from the Cuban Catholic Church that the government had agreed to free them within — an unfair paradox — four months.
This November 7, the long period the Cuban government allowed itself to restore freedom to these innocents expired, and we are faced with a sad certainty: of the 75, the only ones who have been released are those who agreed to accept a painful condition: exile. Of those who dream of returning to their homes, only one is in his house. The eleven remaining in prison are witnesses to the dripping of a lie, the unfulfilled promise of a government that does not keep its word.
1 – Pedro, you are sixty-two years old, you have spent seven years in prison and been sentenced to twenty. The Cuban government agreed to release you but did not keep its word. You are recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, and you are one of the independent journalists who wants to live in Cuba and you demand to leave your cell for your home. Tell me what you did in 2003 before being arrested.
I would like to correct an error: I have been a prisoner for seven years, eight months and two days. I practiced as a freelance journalist in the province of Ciego de Avila. We had a tiny new agency, “The Avila Independent Journalists Cooperative” (CAPI). And we were several brothers: Pablo Pacheco Ávila, my friend and companion; Oscar Ayala Muñoz, from Morón, a tremendous person, economist, professor of economics at the University of Ciego de Avila, and some other brothers.
We tried to write about reality, we denounced the Human Rights violations, and wrote about those issues the official press would not touch with a ten foot pole. In short, we did independent reporting.
2 – What were the publications?
We put packets of information on the Internet, particularly on Nueva Press Cubana and Radio Marti and other media, especially on-line. We had no particular purpose nor exclusivity in the news we issued: the information was open to all the media who wanted to use it.
3 – It seems essential to know the details of your arrest. When was it, what time, what happened? Were there irregularities?
I was kidnapped and help hostage by Castro’s Political Police on March 18, 2003. Days earlier I had half-locked myself in the house to read some books that had arrived (banned by the dictatorship, of course, and classified as “enemy propaganda”). They were the memoirs of Huber Matos, When the Night Comes; Narcotrafficking: Revolutionary Task, by Norberto Fuentes, and at the moment I was kidnapped I was reading, The Secret Wars of Fidel Castro, by Juan Francisco Benemeli. I had only read 80 or 90 pages when I was taken. That day my wife went to Havana to spend a few days with her son. About a quarter to four in the afternoon I was going downstairs — I live on the third floor — to go to the supermarket when an invasion of thirteen or fourteen agents from the Political Police were coming up. They intercepted me on the stairs, I didn’t make it to the second floor. I was told I could not go anywhere, I was under arrest, and they searched the house.
One officer had a video camera and another a still camera and they were taking photos the whole time.
The search began after four, because they put on this act of looking for two witnesses. Something that struck me was that none of my neighbors wanted to participate and they were slow to get started. Finally they found two people and when one of them showed his ID card to assent to the act, I could see that his address was in Havana, he wasn’t even from here in Ciego de Avila; the other one was from SEPSA — Specialized Service for the Protection of Society Anonymous — that is from an agency of the Ministry of the Interior that watches over the hard-currency stores and those things. He, of course, could not refuse and he did live in my building but on the other staircase.
I was very worried. They told me I was arrested and my wife had gone to the capital. I was alone in the apartment with my two dogs (two dachshunds) and I was worried about leaving them alone. I had to get someone to take care of them.
A little past five someone knocked on the door and when I opened it it was my wife. She explained that they came to look for her at the bus station and told her that her house was being searched.
Everything ended around eleven at night because they found my archive. Not that it was hidden, it was just in a room that I used as an office that didn’t have any light because the bulb was out. They found two or three bags filled with writings, denunciations, and the one in charge of the search said, “If we had to read them one by one we would be here until tomorrow, we will count them all.” There were about nine documents.
At that time they took me to the cells at State Security.
4 – Before concluding on the search. Was the order signed by the relevant institutions? Did they meet the legal requirements for it to be valid?
They never showed me the search warrant. I asked, “Do you have a search warrant, an arrest warrant?” They said, “We have a search warrant,” and went into the house. They showed me neither the search warrant nor the arrest warrant.
There was a State Security official who supposedly made a record and wrote down what the others found. They found no bombs, nor revolvers, nor pistols, nor grenades, nothing. They found a typewriter, a video camera, pencils, pens, office supplies for carrying out independent journalism. In addition to books, magazines, literature, poetry. Nothing more. They presented this at my trial to say that I was a mercenary.
5 – Your family, how did they take the collapse of their lives?
Imagine it, my wife left for Havana and was intercepted: Your husband is arrested, they are searching your house. For many years I had been involved in pro-Human Rights activities and the independent journalism. Somehow I was used to it, I had already been in prison in ’95 and ’96. It wasn’t the first search nor the first arrest.
She knew there was a sword of Damocles hanging over my head, possible imprisonment, but it always comes as a surprise. We did not know that they had started a crackdown that would last four days. For example, that same day, the 18th, Pablo came to the house in the middle of the search. A State Security agent told him, “Pablo Pacheco, get out of here, Argüelles is under arrest.”
The following day, in the afternoon, I was in the cells, and I heard someone calling and calling me. It was Pablito, they had just arrested him and brought him to the cells. He knew, because he had talked to Raul Rivero, that the arrests were nationwide.
6 – Under what specific charges were you convicted and what was the procedure of the court? What evidence did they exhibit at the trial? Did your lawyer defend you?
When they were still in my house, I asked the captain, “Why are you arresting me?” And he told me, “For violation of Law 88.” The trial was on Friday, April 4, at the Court of Ciego de Avila Province. It lasted from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon. There was a large police deployment, the car in which I was brought there was guarded by police patrols. They closed the streets around the court. An official from the prosecutor’s office asked us days earlier for a list of relatives who would attend the trial and if they weren’t relatives they could not attend.
When we arrived the room was full of people from the Communist Party, from the Army (FAR), the Interior Ministry (MININT), labor groups … their people, pro-Castro. From my family only my wife and my sister attended, and from Pablo’s, his wife, his son, and I can’t remember if one brother came.
I did not have a lawyer and they assigned me one from the office. A girl who had just graduated, I was her first case. We only saw each other once before the trial, for half an hour, in the same room where State Security had interrogated me. Ultimately she, who was my defender, defended nothing because she couldn’t.
Pablito did appoint a lawyer. It was very amusing to me because when she referred to us she would say, “the counterrevolutionaries,” and I was thinking, “if this is our lawyer calling us counterrevolutionaries…” A curious detail: the same lawyer Pablo hired, a few years later she won the visa lottery and went with her husband to the United Stated. But my attorney played a much better role and never called me a counterrevolutionary. When I went to testify the president of the court torpedoed me, she wouldn’t let me say a single word and my lawyer even protested. During the lunch break she told me, “I’m going to keep on protesting. I’m going to complain because you have not been allowed to speak in your defense.”
The trial was completely rigged, they knew what was going to happen. There were no witnesses on our behalf. The prosecutor brought people from Pablo’s CDR because in my block there weren’t any. At the request of my prosecutor — that is, in the provisional findings of the prosecutor — two prisoners from the Canaleta Provincial Prison here were supposed to testify at the trial, as a complaint, that I had talked to Radio Marti about their medical care. They weren’t there and then they presented a doctor from the Medical Services of the Ministry of the Interior, a dermatologist. She said that the consultation was Thursday or Friday at the prison and the medical care was very good.
The prosecutor asked for 26 years and they sentenced me to twenty years. The provincial court clerk gave me the sentence the morning after the trial.
7 – The Cuban jails are unpresentable. The rapporteur for torture and ill-treatment was unable to visit Cuba last year because the Cuban government would not allow it. Tell me about your life in prison, the journalist behind bars, how you managed to hold onto your morals and principles in such terrible conditions.
I always speak for myself and also my brothers, but in this case for myself: I am very convinced of what I’m doing and since I began this fight in 1992 I knew everything that I was exposing myself to. I knew the risks I would run and the sacrifices that I would have to make. They could expel me from my workplace. They would monitor me and I would be declared an official non-person for denouncing human rights violations. Because Cuba is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In here we live in appalling conditions, incredible overcrowding, poor nutrition and medical care. The snitching — speaking in popular terms — is enormous, the police informers are in the thousands. I am constantly observed, there are many eyes on me because every time there is a violation of human rights I investigate and denounce it, at the risk of what might happen.
To work and write in prison is not easy. Life here is hard: this is not a day care center or a school in the countryside, nor an urban school. It’s a prison with a series of psychedelic elements, psychiatric cases, mentally retarded, dangerous people who have murdered, raped, who have committed all sorts of crimes. People who will never leave prison. It’s a social dump and you’re forced to live with it. There are, of course, normal people, good people who never should have come to prison or who were punished excessively for some nonsense.
All the time the police tell you what to do, who you can talk to, who you can meet. But we have to carry on even though the environment is hostile.
The sanitary conditions are appalling. I am in a cubicle with room for two people and there are six people here, there are two triple bunks. The bathrooms are holes in the ground and we get water twice a day. The water isn’t drinkable and it’s for everything: drinking, bathing, cleaning.
Health care is terrible. For example, there is a boy here who from the tenth day had X-rays ordered and he still hasn’t had them: either there’s no guard to take him or there is a guard but the technician didn’t come. There are cases where the doctor will come and prescribe a medicine and then you’ll wait eight or ten days and the medicine doesn’t come. There’s nothing. Sometimes you make it to the infirmary and there’s not even any pain medication.
Generally, if you go to the infirmary it’s for your amusement — they themselves say that — because you see the doctor and he ignores you. There have been many deaths here in the prison for lack of medical attention. I’ve reported a few.
The prison staff always justifies the deaths in some way. In short, the system is one thing: everything belongs to the State and responds to the government. The doctors are young people who have just graduated and this is their first work experience as part of their social service obligation. Before they start work they meet with the director of the prison and he tells them the prisoners pretend to feel ill so they can go to the infirmary to traffic in drugs or to look at the nurses. Then the doctor sees you as a faker and treats you like one. On the other hand the doctors, the women, start to have sex with the prison director and then they feel protected no matter how bad their professional work is.
8 – Do you think you will finally be released? What is the first thing you will do when you are a free man again?
I would speak of my release, though I feel free even though I’m a prisoner. I think that yes, some time, some day of some month of some year, I will be released. The first thing would be to call my brother Guillermo El Coco Fariñas and tell him I’m at home with my wife. And my first outing would be to go to Santa Clara and give him a hug.
Then I will continue my struggle peacefully, civilly, for the respect for rights, freedom, and the dignity of the human person.
But even if I am not released, from here in the Canaleta prison, or from any other prison where they confine me, I will continue defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.