EFE (via 14ymedio), Federico Segarra, Madrid, 16 August 2021 — A book lover decides to create a literature and narrative workshop in a Cuban prison nineteen years ago, out of sheer altruism. A few months ago, he met a Spanish editor on a terrace in Havana. This is the genesis of Cuadernos Carcelarios (Prison Notebooks), a collection of biographical experiences of Cuban prisoners that naturally reveal the prison idiosyncrasy on the Island, real and raw stories that pass between drama and humor.
It all comes from Ernesto Arcia and his literature workshop in Combinado del Este, a maximum security penitentiary near Havana. This 39-year-old Cuban, who currently also teaches poetry lessons, has spent almost half his life helping to stimulate the art of reading and writing for prisoners, giving classes to all those who “wish to train,” without distinction.
Through the workshop “many prisoners have been trained for when they are released,” Arcia explains to Efe proudly from the Malecón, hidden from prying ears and looking for a decent internet connection, especially coveted these days in Cuba. “Some discover a hidden appetite for learning and end up in college,” he adds.
The human stories of people with problems and the harsh conditions of Cuban prisons are the main axis of the stories, but for the director of Hurón Azul, the Spanish publishing house that published this book last July, Nacho Rodríguez, perhaps “the balance between what you can talk about and what you can’t” in today’s Cuba is the central reason for these.
There is hardly any transparent information about Cuban prisons. It is known that there are 200 prisons on the island. In Belgium, with a population almost exactly the same (11.4 million), there are only 35. In addition, Cuba is the country with the fifth largest prison population in the world in proportion to its inhabitants, according to the World Prison Brief study, of the Institute of Crime and Justice of the University of London 2013. Cuba is one of the few countries where updating the data since then has not been possible.
The illustrations by Luis Trápaga, a Cuban artist living in Havana vividly accompany the stories, but they also provide their own chapter that tells a visual history through drawings, an acid criticism against repression and submission entitled the ’Decalogue from Prison Island.’ “Before, you had to ask for permission to leave Cuba, and it was a kind of jail in that sense,” Trápaga told Efe. And nowadays?
“It has been the artistic piece with which I’ve worked with the greatest freedom (thematic), I have been able to draw whatever I wanted.” However, Luis reveals that “many of my artist friends have problems on the Island” and recalls how he also spent a couple of nights in jail for “attending a performance in the Plaza de la Revolución. That seemed offensive to them.”
For Trápaga, “violence and eroticism among the prisoners (all men) is the common element” of most narratives, where homosexual sex abounds in the stories.
An open eroticism that results in a total uprising against the slogan of “work will make you men,”,a lapidary phrase that welcomed the forced labor camp that Ernesto Che Guevara built in the Guanahacabibes peninsula after the victory of the Revolution in 1959, and that in its beginnings housed Cuban homosexuals, enemies of the State because of their sexual condition.
Another of the stories in the book, details the stay in prison of Pablo, an inmate who was sentenced to 40 years for killing a cow. Cuban writer Jorge Carpio, who edited the prison accounts, explains that this sentence is “hyperbole, but it reflects with humor the severe punishments that prisoners faced for common crimes,” and adds that the penalties for stealing livestock were harsh in the early years of the Cuban revolution.
The only account of a political prisoner is by Ángel Santiesteban, a well-known Cuban writer and dissident. His brother tried to escape from the Island three decades ago, and he was sentenced to fourteen months when he was just 17 years old for not betraying him.
Santiesteban, hiding in a house in the Cuban capital, explains to Efe, anxious about an arrest that he considers imminent due to his participation in the demonstrations of July 11, that his story was written during his long imprisonment on a hunger strike, already from adult and for political reasons: “They mistreated me by giving me a perfidious liquid when I was already on the verge of starvation, and they showed me photos of my son, also detained and tortured.”
The story came out because some prisoners, “friends who gambled it for me” took him out to the streets. And he also denounces that now he only “wants to live, write and create in freedom. Period”
Carlos Montenegro, a pioneer in Cuban prison stories, and whose narration is the first of the stories in the book, written from prison and published in 1929 of the last century, opined: “Think of a country under tyranny, it is a prison.”
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