Combinado del Este Prison / Yoani Sánchez

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Nine in the morning outside Combinado del Este, the largest prison in Cuba. Dozens of families are gathered to listen to an stern guard shouting out the names of the prisoners. Immediately, they order us down a narrow stretch to the sentry box where they search our bags and run a metal detector over our bodies. They also inspect the sacks of food the families have been filling for weeks with crackers, sugar, powdered soft drinks, cigarettes and powdered milk. They are the result of the unselfish efforts of the families who deprive themselves of these foods to bring them to the prisoners.

One woman cries because the guard won’t let her bring in the ripe mangoes she brought for her son. People hang along the fence around the entrance without any protection, all those not allowed to enter. There is a bag with a mobile phone, a young woman’s wallet, some deodorant that the official says could be made into moonshine within those walls. Me, they search the magazines I carry, give a pull on the zipper of my jacket, and run their fingers through my hair. Ahead of me there is someone trying to bring in a cake for a birthday that surely happened months ago. A young man grips his pants because they won’t allow his belt inside. It would appear we are plunging into hell and–in some ways–it’s true.

The place where we spend the visit smells of sweat, sweat and enclosure. The two Italian prisoners in front of me desperately put words one after the other. They have been arrested for the murder of a minor in Bayamo, but assure me that they hadn’t been on the Island on the days of the crime. They’ve spent more than a year in prison without trial and I try to reconstruct, journalistically, the course of the case. One of them Simone Pini, talks to me about police irregularities and and I agree to investigate. “I can’t do much,” I tell him, “nor do I have access to the investigation record, but I will find out.” I haven’t finished my sentence when a guard shouts my name through the bars of the room. And leads me to the other side of Combinado del Este. To the immaculate, air-conditioned and wood-paneled office where the Chief sits, located in a different part of the same horror. Meanwhile, a lieutenant colonel warns me that they will never ever let me enter this prison again. When I try to leave, I note that the door has a lock with four combinations. “So much fear…” I think to myself. They escort me to the exit and I see a line of family members for the next visit that starts at noon. They carry sacks scrawled with names, and someone groans because they won’t let him bring in a present. I discover in this moment that something sad has established itself in me, like the weight of the bars which, since then, I carry everywhere.

26 June 2011