Interview of Cuban writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats by Amir Valle – Part 4 of 4

Public spaces

In a recent column I published an anecdote with which I’m sure you agree: our meeting in 2004, by chance, on the corner of Palacio de los Matrimonios in Vedado, after months without seeing each other, in which, very concerned about the political and cultural pressures you were under, you told me, “You’re wrong, brother, this isn’t the way. Your way and mine is to write. They have to respect us for what we write. And besides, let the politicos take charge.”

My wife, Berta, who was there, reminded me a little later, whispering, after hearing your words: “What’s happening to Angel is that he still hasn’t been shocked like you”. But I knew by our conversations that already you were disillusioned by everything you saw, the censorship, the lack of liberties, the fact that most of our group had been forced to emigrate.

But I’d like you to tell me, how did that change happen to convince you that there was a need for your voice as a social individual to be heard, as well as your writing, and when did you decide to definitively jump into the search for liberty that had been taken from us and that they’re still trying to take away from many writers in Cuba?

It was forced on me. Now I would like to tell you it’s the same, but the reality is different. First we had to prove ourselves as writers, maybe that was the idea, for them it was easier to leave us “outside the game” taking advantage of the fact that we didn’t have a tangible presence in Cuban culture. Formerly you had to earn that place, that right that literature itself grants you. So we were educated to be teachers.

Heras always told us that there was a moment where the pupil killed the Teacher. I never understood him. He said it about the literary plane and he expressed it with sadness, because at the same time he accepted that it was a part of the natural process of the ascent of the writer. I never saw that moment arrive. I always accepted him as the Teacher. But I experienced that death in part, let’s say, as a citizen, because of deviations from the social and political point of view. There I killed the Teacher. And the Teacher killed the pupil. It was an assassination on both sides, something for which I was not prepared.

In any event I jealously keep a dedication that he wrote to me a few years ago, where he assured me of his admiration, because I’ve been upright in my position, in my honesty, and I never wavered in spite of official inducements.

My need to express myself, to communicate, to say what was inside me and which I also think is an essential part of being a writer, was an unconscious motivation, like the act of writing. I never intended to be a writer, it was a bitter and necessary need that quietly arose. Perhaps it pushed me to be a communicator of my circumstances. That also happened unexpectedly. Many times I said I would be happy if I could find a little corner on the last page of any periodical where I could express my point of view, however mistaken, superficial, personal, but definitively my way of seeing life, opinions I would assume in the face of history with all the responsibility that goes along with that. Then on a trip to the Dominican Republic, certainly my last trip outside Cuba, I learned from a Cuban writer friend, Camilo Venegas, and Zilma, his ex-wife, that something called a “blog” existed. That word meant nothing to me. And they taught me what it was and it seemed to me a great invention of the 21st century. And I could read for the first time the posts of Yoani Sanchez.

I went back to Cuba wanting to have a blog, but at the same time I wasn’t naive, I knew every thing that it would open up and bring about. I had several months of conflict and internal struggle. Finally I decided to do it. And I called the Book Institute and spoke with the President, Iroel Sanchez. I told him what I intended to do, and I asked him for a national space in order to anchor myself, I was thinking Cubaliteraria. After asking me what the subject matter was, I told him that I would take a cultural and social view, something different from the usual, with the intent of driving debate and prompting opinions. He told me that he didn’t have the famous “band width” (the title of an unpublished book I have written).

Then Cubaencuentro offered me the chance to be included with them and without asking me what my blog would be about. It was the first big find. They still support my statements and writings. To appear blatantly in the Cubaencuentro magazine was unacceptable impudence for the establishment.

I remember everything they did to Antonio Jose Ponte for having been part of the editorial staff of this magazine. In one of my first posts I referred to a delegation of writers that attended a book fair in Mexico, and I talked about their having to beg for funds. That image stayed with me.

When I attended an event in Martinica with a poet who won the National Literature award, I saw him asking for pocket money and saying that we Cubans were poor and they should help us. I remember that I fled from his side. It was obvious that this poet was used to these denigrating scenes. Before leaving I warned the organizers that he was speaking on his own behalf.

I remember writers who traveled to the same Guadalajara Fair, who at the end of their days of participation, had to stay wherever someone offered because otherwise they would be out on the street. I also remember the Cuban ambassador in the Dominican Republic fleeing, aghast, from the airport because he might have to take charge of two young writers whom the organizers hadn’t gone to pick up. And a lot of other things that people talked about.

Then, when I wrote the post, it caused a scandal. They branded me as a traitor. And even those writers in the delegation, knowing I told the truth, asked me why I wasn’t afraid that the possibility of traveling outside the country would be taken away with me, although they were among the ranks of the poor.

But that rejection was a promotion. You remember that they intercepted me in plain view of the public and beat me. They fractured my arm, after warning me that “being counter-revolutionary didn’t suit” me. The latest was that petition from 15 years ago that now joined another accusation of assault.

In summarizing all these stories, they haven’t left me any other choice but to take my time with all the force and energy of my soul.

Amir, you always were precocious; in literature and politics you had more clarity than the rest. You always came in first. And that expression of mine at the time was a strategy andeventually a naivety on my part. But I’m happy that things happen, at least in my case, through my own need. That they’re natural, not provoked or hurried, least of all thought out.

And here you see me, assuming responsibility for my acts and their consequences.

One of the methods of the dictatorship that exists today in Cuba has been to introduce the virus of fear in all citizens, whatever position they’re in, whatever their origin or training, whether they live on the island or in exile. Recently in an open letter you wrote that now it didn’t matter to you to go to jail for your ideas, to die. I know, because I had to live this also in 2001, which is a hard, difficult process, but how was it in your case?

It’s been two years of waiting. Everything started like a game. I start and you continue. I resisted it for two years. Continued detentions, acts of repudiation, scorn. I continued with the game because it embarrassed me, although my conscience was clear, from those shameful accusations that still weigh on me to write them here. But the game turned serious. They started to give a serious character to the case file, an instrument of the system, and Captain Amauri Guerra Toyo, with the dirtiest violations, has created a file without proof, from top to bottom, in conspiracy with State Security and the public prosecutor’s office, where they managed to forge my signature, to change documents that my lawyer and I had seen before.

Finally, in the presence of my attorney, I signed a document and made marks with the ball point pen so they couldn’t add other words that would incriminate me, and even so, after the period I put and on top of the marks that I demanded they make, this man added a comma and a sentence that I didn’t say, according to the testimony of my lawyer. The whole file is very ambiguous, as is the Prosecutor’s petition that plays with what they don’t have or don’t know, and only a third of it is readable.

My position is to be conscious and honest, so I can continue to live. There is no way of making me change my ideas or of stopping me from making my present situation better. There is only one way out of the quagmire, and it’s that the Counter-Intelligence officials accept that they should drop the judicial proceedings. And as we know, although times are different, they don’t want to lose, above all because they fear that later other intellectuals will try the same thing. They don’t want to permit this precedent, and they will try any way they can to make an example of me.

Finally, as I put in my open letter, I’m prepared for the worst. In that case, I will resist by conviction and innocence, even go on a hunger strike.

Tell me how you yourself see something that is very delicate but very important to understand: What is happening today with Cuban writers? Is there a difference between what they think privately and what they say in public? Is it true, as Barnet and Abel Prieto say, that the immense majority of artists and writers are on the side of Fidel, Raul and the Revolution?

For me, perhaps more than anyone, writers have given me proof of their real position on the system. Sometimes, when I listen to them, they make me feel closer to the politics of the system than they are. They have two speeches, the official and the critical, which they hide from the officials. Because they want to travel, as I said before, like poor people, but they can travel, because they resolve something, besides breathing free air. But I don’t believe most of them are honest. They pretend to be “traveling companions”, it’s a cynical status that both sides accept, and they use it and take advantage of it with the goal of remaining human for some and being part of the social system for others.

Writers wave the famous little flag, at times faster than others, according to the free gifts offered, and they silence their true feelings about the system. In this way they invent the history that infallibly garners hypocrisy for each one of them.

What about the powerful Cuban culture that has been created these past five decades in exile, in many parts of the world? How do you believe it can contribute, from outside Cuba, to the need for social change on the island?

Without trying to be an analyst, a political strategist, a philosopher or a demiurge, and someone taught me to avoid subjects I know nothing about, but it’s my opinion, more as an artist who humbly offers his point of view, I am of the opinion that the intellectuals in exile should remain very attached to Cuban culture, to defend it first as art and later from their own political position. They shouldn’t forget anything, first the culture, then everything else.

I’m sure that this artistic pressure will create conscience and respect for a national dialogue that will produce a political change for the rebirth of democracy and free will for Cubans, although some of them, as usually happens, will find themselves in the minority. The sentence I like so much and that surely I don’t quote exactly because I have repeated it so much I have it inside me and have made it mine: I will die for your right to think differently from me. Therefore, continue to take advantage of the space that freedom gives you and its methods of communication with advanced technology, and you can’t be persecuted or suffer direct repression like the confiscation of computers.

In some way, creating a space for national complaints will be the voice for those who are on the island. Refining esthetic rifts, attitudes of personal convenience, in order to advance unity. The strengthening of the diaspora offers us who remain here security, we who directly demand the rights of all to live together in a future free and democratic land that opens its arms for the longed-for reunion of its children who are now dispersed throughout the world.

So yes, I don’t have any doubts that Cuban intellectuals, inside and outside, are called on to contribute profoundly to a future political transition in the country.

So much emotional disequilibrium, so much psychological pressure, so much direct repression against you, so much responsibility for your blog, “The Children Nobody Wanted,” do they allow you to write? And if so, what could we offer that is new to a writer interested in your books?

Writing is an escape; it’s a space of sanity that protects you, when it should be the opposite, since being creative is the closest thing to being demented. But reality, as has been said so many times, surpasses fiction. And that’s true. On the outside everyone seems crazy to me. They know what they are looking for but even so, they walk in other directions. People I respect and with whom I agree on the facts.

In spite of everything, I try to write. I have several unpublished books, around 10, that are waiting for their moment patiently. I’ve never been in a hurry to publish, because writing them takes away that distress of residing on the cultural plane of the country. I know that they are there; I sense that they are of an acceptable quality, strange and moderately original, as far as subject matter and form, and that gives me peace. It hurts to write from your conscience because it’s not for your time, so it can be for a future in which you won’t even be present. But it’s not important; it’s a way of discharging a debt from your time and leaving a mark.

An obvious question comes up now about an old polemic, which started when Sartre and Camus discussed the role of the writer in society. Specifically in the case of Cuba, with its singular circumstances and from your personal experience of the last years, what should the responsibility of a writer be in regard to his society, his country?

My responsibility is to assume my conscience and feelings honestly and carry this over to my acts and position in life, whatever bitterness and harm follows. In my case it means fulfilling this need to communicate, to state my opinion and that of those who don’t find the way or the form of expressing themselves.

I try to be a voice for my people, who always will be those who suffer the most, the innocent ones. I know that confronting the system carries a high price, but I don’t have a choice. I always wonder what the formula is for shutting up, to think one way and speak publicly with another. How can you accept gifts at the price of seeing your country under a dictatorship, its people in poverty, and remain silent? How can history ignore that you are a hypocrite, an ally of a manipulative system that in more than 50 years knew only how to censor, muzzle personal opinion and fill us with a degrading sacrifice, full of sadness and ravenous hunger?

To be direct, the responsibility of Cuban writers, more than ever, is to protest, to make their disagreements public. To insist on their rights as independent artists and accept the consequences. It is the artists’ responsibility to be the echo of their time, their people and their conscience. And they will then be doing enough to say they follow in the footsteps of Marti.

Translated by Regina Anavy, AnonyGY,Rafael Gomez, and William Fitzhugh

Interview was conducted in December 2011

Posted on Angel’s blog on: April 5 2012