Canaleta, Year Seven

I present to you Canaleta.  Not the famous fountain in Barcelona, where the fans gather to celebrate the victories of their soccer team.  No.  This is the Cuban prison, located in the province of Ciego de Avila, some 280 miles east of Havana.

Inside the Cuban Canaleta, in a narrow cell, dirty and poorly ventilated, in triple bunks, they have crowded 20 common prisoners and one prisoner of conscience: Pablo Pacheco Avila, independent journalist, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment during the crackdown of March 2003. His crime? Writing without government authorization.

A pen without mandate. A free electron. A humble man of the 9th of April neighborhood, Ciego de Avila, a degree in physical culture, who wrote sports commentaries and notes about the daily life in his city. A typical Cuban, a sip of coffee in the morning and a little tobacco to round it off.

Pablo Pacheco expiates the unjust sentence in that cell block, number 43, Canaleta prison. Next April 4 he will be 40. Far from his wife, Dr. Oleidys Garcia, a doctor by profession, and his son Jimmy, 11, who enters adolescence without the advice of his father.

In cell block 43, at eleven in the morning they lunch on a repugnant menu: rice not even cleaned, with a hint of fish stretched with soy made for animals. At four in the afternoon, the same disgusting thing for dinner. Pablo eats what his stomach and eyes permit. Or if he has it, the food his wife brings when she visits, every three months.

Pablo prefers to concentrate on writing. And taking advantage of the telephone minutes the regime allow to read his chronicles, news, and complaints to blogger colleagues or alternative journalists, who record the texts written in his cell.

In August 2009, Pablo Pacheco opened a blog, Voice Behind The Bars. A great chronicle of the hard conditions in Cuban prisons. In his articles he details the life of his unfortunate comrades. The bad treatment of the guards. And the rampant corruption of the militants in charge of the Canaleta prison.

Everything is there, in his blog. He tells us that in four years, 18 common inmates have committed suicide, desperate from the extreme conditions in the Ciego de Avila prison. And how dozens of the inmates mutilate themselves and make attempts on their lives, finding themselves in a dead-end street.

Pablo Pacheco has made journalism a priesthood. When friends read or hear his stories, sometimes they can’t help crying. And no wonder. The boy who slept under his bunk, unbalanced, suffering from Schizophrenia, he cut off his ears. He was taken to a punishment cell. Pacheco things that many of the convicts of Canaleta should be patients in a psychiatric hospital.

In cell block 43, a motley crew of convicts enjoys talking about baseball, politics and women. All have sinned, in some cases forced by necessity. Others knew what they were doing. His cellmates are a human trafficker, a pair of murderers and petty thieves who, in the dark of night, knife in hand, slaughtered cattle to sell its meat.

In the prison in Canaleta, in other cellblocks, also filthy and stifling, suffer four other prisoners from the Black Spring. They are Antonio Díaz Sánchez, Félix Navarro Rodríguez, Pedro Argüelles Morán and Adolfo Fernández Saínz. Recently, they have started to write and send their tapes also to Voices Behind the Bars, now a collective blog.

The poet and journalist Raúl Rivero Castañeda spent more than a year in these cell blocks; now thanks to pressure from the civilized world he lived in exile and Spain and writes for the daily paper El Mundo.

A few days ago, from cell block 43, Pacheco called me and told me that March 15 to 21, the prisoners of conscience of Canaleta will unite in a fast to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Black Spring and the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. They, and the common prisoners, are following the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas, now in the intensive care ward in a hospital in Santa Clara.

The prisoners in Canaleta prison know that, in the face of any abuse or maltreatment, there are 5 political prisoners who will fearlessly disseminate their cases. The prison directors know that there are five pairs of watchful eyes to report any signs of corruption among the prison guards.

Pablo Pacheco and the rest of the prisoners in the cause of the Group of 75, not only call for their unconditional release, but also demand respect for the integrity of the common prisoners. Although from chilly Europe no advocate for human rights is allowed to visit the prisons on the island, the political prisoners are doing everything possible to overcome the abuse and excesses in Cuban penitentiaries.

Prisoners like the deceased Orlando Zapata frequently passed up the chance to talk to their families and instead they used their telephone minutes to call an independent journalist and report abuses, committed against them and the other prisoners. Pacheco and the other political prisoners of Canaleta have done the same.

If you would like more information about how life is lived in a Cuban prison, please click on Voices Behind The Bars.

Iván García