14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 29 March 2020 — The phone rang early this Sunday and I came back from a dream. I was sheltering in a parallel reality and the ringer brought me back. On the other end of the line, a Cienfuegos inmate was reeling off his troubles. He has been sentenced to four years for “illegal slaughter of cattle*” and fears that the Covid-19 will catch him behind bars.
Right now, a Cuban prison is the worst place to experience this pandemic. In addition to overcrowding, there are problems in the water supply, poor food and difficulties in communicating with family members. A country with so many absurd prohibitions has overcrowded correctional facilities and many prisoners who should never have been behind bars.
The voice on the other end of the line tells me that he was sentenced because someone linked him to the attack on a “yearling”; the calf did not die, but the court locked him up for 48 months. All those who call me from some prison say they are innocent, but in addition to the true culpability, in this case I maintain that these are times for pardons and amnesties.
Going to jail in Cuba is not just a matter for criminals. The penal code includes the charge of “pre-criminal dangerousness,” which — in the worst style of the Minority Report movie — sends you to prison just because authorities believe you might violate the law, in the future. If the crimes of opinion and opposition are added, we are looking at a cage anyone can fall into.
Opening the bars, softening the sentences that are handed down in the coming days and eliminating so many disparate crimes from the Cuban Penal Code could be a first step. Let no one else go to prison because he is predicted to become a future criminal, either by sacrificing his own cow or by carrying a couple of pounds of shrimp* in a briefcase.
It is a time to rectify and to open the bars.
Today, the Ministry of Public Health updated the coronavirus figures in Cuba. According to official data, there are 139 positive cases and more than 2,300 people under surveillance. Behind each number there is a life. Like that of Pastor Saúl Díaz, from the small city of Remedios, in the province of Villa Clara, who was the first Cuban included in the list of deceased that has been released by the national media.
In my neighborhood, the news of that death has paralyzed many. Until recently, the coronavirus seemed like something for foreigners, a disease that came from outside but would not make a dent in nationals. Giving a name, face and voice to one of the victims has a devastating effect. “I’m not going out anymore,” a neighbor told me after I showed him the most recent video of Saúl Díaz on Facebook, as he was coughing and waiting to be hospitalized.
Today, I continued with my plantings on the terrace. Garlic and some peppers were added to the self-consumption garden. As I work the earth and prepare the seeds, I keep thinking that a few yards from my balcony stands the Ministry of Agriculture, a mass of concrete whose size is inversely proportional to the efficiency of the land in Cuba. One day, those floors will not be full of bureaucrats but of entrepreneurs… At least I dream of that.
I insist on what my hands can give because what cost five yesterday today is worth ten. Prices go up and up. If on Friday some residents of my building still survived on the online food purchases made from abroad by their migrant children, it is no longer possible. Most of these commercial portals have closed or warned that they will not be able to deliver on time.
We have all returned to the same starting line. No matter age, race, social status, access to remittances or education. We have entered the territory of survival, where nothing is written in advance. An inmate and someone who walks the streets equally frail, serving an identical sentence.
*Translator’s note: In Cuba cows belong to the State and cannot be killed by the people raising them (or anyone else) without authorization. Carrying shrimp, or cheese, or other such items is also illegal. See “Male Heifers and Cow Suicide”