House Arrest

The morning of Monday March 1st in Havana was like any other.  After spending the night with my girlfriend I returned to my house at around 6:30 AM.  There was no sign of abnormality.

The only warning sign emanated from a small portable radio next to the bus driver.  It was a song by Silvio Rodriguez.  Upon getting off of the bus, a line from the song reached my ears:  “Freedom was born with wings/ And who am I to cut each of its dreams…”  At that moment I was not aware that it was a warning.

For the most part the city was awakening to its habitual routine.  A group of bored women were waiting in line in front of the State Agro-Store.  They were waiting for the doors to open so they could buy their rationed quota of sweet potatoes.  In order to soften the long wait, they commented about the latest happenings in the Colombian soap opera, “Coffee with the Smell of a Woman”, which keeps Cubans in suspense and has more power than any revolutionary act.

Along the path of two blocks to my house I noticed the fast past of those who were arriving at their jobs.  Right on the corner of Carmen and 10th of October a group of secondary students chatted about baseball and their new idol, the baseball player Michel Enriquez.  I said hi to them, they were well-known throughout the neighborhood.  I was about to join their conversation when a tall well-built mulatto called out to me.

He introduced himself as Misael, from Counter-Intelligence. He asked me if I knew the whereabouts of my mother, Tania Quintero, also a journalist for Cuba Press.  I told him I was ignoring him.  After that, he suggested that I walk towards my house because he had orders that I should remain in my house until further instructions.

I refused.  Another official, who apparently was heading the operation (and introduced himself as Roldan), then began to speak to me for more than an hour.  We initiated an extensive conversation.  We touched upon various subjects:  the politics of the government, the embargo, the exile community in Miami, the dissidence, the free press, the gag law (promulgated in February of 1999), and the future of the country.

I manifested my disapproval of terms such as “annexationist” and “traitors of the country” which the regime frequently uses in reference to independent journalists.  Because no one in their right mind, I told him, wishes to lose our sovereignty.  With frankness I told him that “country” was not synonymous with “Fidel” and “revolution” and that I consider myself as not having betrayed anyone and I defended the idea of remaining on good terms with myself.

In silence, he accepted my criticisms.  The future of the country concerns all Cubans.  I reminded him that, precisely, Vladimiro Roca, Martha Beatriz Roque, Rene Gomez Manzano, and Felix Bonne Carcasses were all imprisoned just for wanting to open up a space.  They owe most of their prestige to the government because in its pathological fear and jailing of those who have different ideas, they have elevated their status to that of giants.

I shut up.  He then told me that he was there to carry out an order:  I could not move from my house.  If I violated that order, I’d be detained.

Upon arriving at my residence I felt satisfied.  I had expressed my points of view.  With my phone lines cut, I began to follow the news by radio.  Thanks to BBC and Radio Marti I was informed that the foreign press had not been granted access to the trial and that the police operation had been disproportionate.

I also found out that the presence of regular citizens was not permitted within 150 meters around the court.  Due to the strong military operation it felt like we were in Rome awaiting the trial for the head of the Sicilian mafia, not of four peaceful dissidents, all of them older than 50 years old.

The international press echoed the repressive situation.  From the balcony of my house, where I spent most of my temporary prison sentence, I watched the coming and going of people, with their indifferent faces, clueless as to what was going on in their city and in their country.

The State press did not publish a single word.  As if in Marianao there wasn’t a trial of such complexity taking place.  Officially, the four dissidents were ghosts.  In my neighborhood people continued their daily struggle to survive.  With a mix of curiosity and fear, some neighbors stared, out of the corner of their eyes, at the odd mission taking place at the bottom of my building.

The momentary restlessness did not stop them from continuing their customs: buying bread daily on the ration, taking their kids to school, cleaning their deteriorated homes, or trying to communicate with their family in Miami.

It was almost 8 PM when my captors allowed me to make a few phone calls to a friend from the public phone in the corner.  It was then that I found out that my mother was not home because she was detained at the police station at 7th and 62nd in Miramar.  A pair of “escorts” had followed all of my steps.

An hour later, Ariel Tapia, a colleague of Cuba Press, arrived at my house with a bottle of fourth category rum, that which is sold to the population for 20 pesos.  There was nothing to celebrate.  On the contrary.  But drinking rum is a national pretext to consume the boredom and to “unload” about the future, that bad word which Cubans only feel courageous enough to mention after drinking a bottle of alcohol.  Cubans spiritually undress themselves after consuming such intoxicating drinks.

Neither Ariel nor I escaped the ritual.  Like that, between drink and drink, we dress our desperation in dreams and reaffirmed our purpose of working for an open, plural, and democratic society.

That’s what we were doing when, at 10:30 PM, my guards informed me that I could now return to being a normal citizen.  They told me not to worry about my mother, that she would be back the next day.  At that moment I once again became Ivan Garcia Quintero.

Ariel and I left the house and walked with that exclusive joy that is attached to the freedom of movement.  We wandered about the streets of La Vibora, our small country, until the early morning hours.  We ended up stopping at the staircase of the Pre, which is how the former Institute of La Vibora is now called.  At around 4 a strange sensation invaded me before going to bed.  It was the joy of knowing that it is worth it to have opinions in life and being able to express them.

If from this fateful March 1st I extracted some sort of benefit from my house arrest, it was the conviction that I was not going to give up on the determination of contributing to idea that the country truly belongs to everyone.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: El Pre, formerly Instituto de la Víbora.

Published in Cubafreepress on March 5th 1999.

Translated by Raul G.