14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 9 May 2019 — As journalists we must follow up on the issues we publish articles about, and that effort took me, this Wednesday, to a school in the municipality of Rancho Boyeros. Dozens of people who lost their homes when a tornado destroyed several neighborhoods in Havana last January now live crowded together in one of the school buildings.
Some of them met me while I was searching for testimonies among the ruins of Luyanó, one of the areas most affected by the winds. That’s why I was not surprised when my phone rang yesterday morning and a woman’s voice gave me the directions to get to the Villena Revolución school, next to the José Martí International Airport. In her words you could feel the despair.
The route is complicated and, to reach the shelter, you have to walk more than two kilometers on foot from Rancho Boyeros Avenue until you come across the entrance to the school. There were several women waiting for me, one of them pregnant. The site is controlled by several watchtowers with guards.
Later I understood that my presence there did not go unnoticed by the custodians who control the entrance, perhaps because of a “leak” of the telephone call from the morning which could have alerted the security personnel. Hence, the hostility with which I received by the man stationed in the second sentry box.
A rope was strung across the street to prevent passage and the guard, with imposing authority, asked who I was. The people living in the shelter tried to say that it was only a relative who was coming to visit them, but I preferred to say that I was a journalist and that I was making a brief visit. The man stuck to the group like a shadow, something that provoked demands from some of the hurricane victims for privacy and the right to receive visits. “We’re not in jail, right?” one of them said.
At the door of the shelter there was another “surveillance fence” made up of three men whom nobody had seen before and who said they were school workers. One specified that he was a member of the Communist Party in the school. The situation became very uncomfortable, because they blocked access to the door. The victims began to demand loudly that they let me in and the three men responded by appealing to a regulation that they were unable to quote.
That’s when technology came to my aid. As I could not access the place to take photos and know the conditions of the room where everyone sleeps crowded together, I asked one of the people sheltering there to take pictures and pass them to my mobile through the application Zapya, widely used in Cuba to transfer files via Wifi. I stayed outside compiling the testimonies, something that did not please the party militant.
Visibly upset, the man asked another of the guards to call the police. I thought he was just saying it to scare me and I sat at the foot of the shelter entrance doing the interviews.
A few minutes later the police patrol arrived with two uniformed officers. They asked for my identity card and I told them I was a journalist. Then they asked me if I had a credential, something impossible for an independent reporter, because the authorities do not recognize or issue permits for those of us who work in the media who do not join the official state media. “You have to accompany us to the unit to clarify this situation,” the officer said bluntly.
I tried to calm the group of shelter residents, among whom the outrage had grown, as they shouted at the policemen not to arrest me and said that if they took me they had to “take everyone.” At that time I internalized the importance of my presence there for these people. I was the voice that could tell a story that would never be published in the Granma newspaper or come out in in the discussion on the Roundtable TV show.
One of the young people in the group filmed the entire arrest with the cell phone and the policeman was so upset that he spit out some swear words, snatched the cell phone from his hands and demanded that he erase the video. A women interceded and managed to return the cell phone to the young man without losing his witnessing. Before entering the police car I managed to give them the phone number of the 14ymedio newsroom so that the residents could notify my colleagues.
They took me to the police station in Santiago de las Vegas, where I spent almost an hour sitting on the reception bench. A very emotional moment was when a group of the women from the shelter arrived to demand my release. The minutes passed and, when I inquired about my situation, they answered that I had to wait for the “specialist” from State Security for an “interview.”
They put me in a cell for the “classification” process. There they take the data of the newly arrested. While I was in that cubicle with grille and padlock I heard stories that bordered on the absurd and others worthy of a meticulous report, like that of a young Cuban girl recently arrived from Chile and arrested at the airport because she had once lost a cell phone, made a complaint and was left with a notation “involved in a theft case,” although she was the plaintiff. Her impeccable white clothes clashed with the gray shabbiness inside the dungeon.
It was my turn. I handed over my earrings, my ring and everything I had in my backpack. I waited another hour. The telephone rang and I knew, from the reaction of the policemen that it was Camilo, the alias of the Political Police officer who has been harassing me for months, summoning me for interrogations and threatening me and telling me that I can not cover public events.
The reaction of the officers of the National Revolutionary Police was very curious. It was clear that they were not happy with the situation and the one who answered the seguroso’s call said to the other: “the skinny guy will not come, because he does not have gas,” for his motorcycle. My situation was in a limbo, I was still under arrest but the police did not know what to do with me because it was not their “case,” but rather State Security’s.
So, they looked for a formula to get rid of the problem. The head of the unit sat down nearby and for more than 20 minutes he explained to me why I can not practice independent journalism. “You do not have a credential,” and that “violates the Constitution,” he reiterated several times. Actually, the first blow to the Constitution had been my arbitrary arrest. “Without authorization you can not go around doing interviews,” he remarked.
They returned my belongings and, after five hours there, I enjoyed the Havana sun on my skin. Only once I was outside did I learn about all the solidarity raised in social networks by my detention. It was the second time that day that technology came to my aid.
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