14ymedio, Camila, Havana, March 14, 2021 — One afternoon I was summoned to the principal’s office. The teacher at the front of the class looked confused. I was his best pupil. I had not failed a single test. I had even been head-of-detachment the year before. In short, a puntualita, a well-behaved student. And puntualitas never got summoned to the principal’s office. My teacher was perplexed by the accusatory tone of the other teacher standing in the doorway. “Leave everything here and go see the principal,” he ordered.
“Did you say there is no freedom of expression here?” she asked.
Suddenly I realized the gravity of my situation, not because of what I had said but because of the consequences. They would write up a report on me — a “stain,” as they called it — and attach it with a clip to my school file.
In a matter of minutes, I was overcome with the fears of a typical 14-year-old. I worried my mother would scold me for saying such things (though not for thinking them) as she does to this day. I would not be going to ’La Lenin’, the [country’s most prestigious] high school which she hoped would be my stepping stone to a college degree. I realized I had just lost nine grades, nine-years worth of perfect conduct.
“You say these things because your family lives overseas,” the principal added. “You don’t know what they mean. It’s what you hear them say when they come here.”
I remembered a comment I had made a few days earlier. It was not in response to anything someone had said. It was not part of a discussion. I said that in Cuba there was no freedom of expression in the way someone might say the bread at the corner store smells like stale flour.
At that age I had a naive understanding of what freedom of expression meant: to say what you want, where you want, without fear of reprisal. I knew the meaning of what I had said but not its implication. And right there, standing in the principal’s office, with both hands clasped behind my back, I understood that in Cuba there are definitely things that cannot be said. The principal explained why.
The call came one night last summer as I was listening to the news. I had earlier put a voice, a face and a name — a fake name but a name nonetheless — to the officer in whose presence I suddenly felt. I had been waiting for his call for a long time. Not because I thought I was guilty — nothing could be further from my mind — but because I saw how journalists who work for independent media were being treated. I assumed that at some point it would be my turn but in my naivete, and I say this with all sincerity, the prospect did not scare me.
But a bit more than a year earlier, arbitrary arrests of journalists were happening more frequently. There were stories of being blindfolded, heads pressed to the floor, of being interrogated for hours, placed under house arrest, summoned to a police station where they took your statement as if you were a criminal.
It was then that I began feeling uncertain. What would the experience be like? What would they ask me? Would my hands shake? Would my voice crack? Would I break down in tears? Would I give in to extortion out of fear? No matter how much I tried to prepare myself psychologically, no matter how much I played out possible scenarios, only in the moment, when I was face-to-face with them, would I know my limits.
I have an image in my head of a Cuban journalist who locked herself in the bathroom when she came home after an interrogation. Until then, I had thought only about the moment itself, of the desperation for it to end. The image lodged itself within me. An interrogation in a house of detention or a police station eventually comes an end but the anxiety never ends.
The new dilemma becomes whether to base your behavior on the fact that you now have “a ’compañero’ who watches your every move” (and by this I mean anything from buying food in the underground market to wearing the surgical mask correctly, any detail for which you are nominally committing a crime in this country), or letting everything go to hell because, if you choose the first option, there is no chance of having a healthy life.
It is the rage you feel after the interrogation that really gets to you, not the interrogation itself. In the moment, you feel no emotion. You focus on what they are saying to you, on what they want you to say versus what you are saying. How to respond when you do respond. What they deserve to hear and when to say nothing. In the end, it does not matter what you say because nothing will convince them to end the questioning.
“You are a pingúa,” was the reaction of the friends I told. By pingúa — a term derived from pinga, slang for penis, connoting manliness — they mean brave. Bravery is saying yes when you have have the option of saying no, without consequences, and that is not the case.
In an interrogation we do not have that decision-making power. Missing one appointment leads to missing another, and another, and another. The same as agreeing to be questioned and disappointing them because they expect the perfect conduct you displayed in your early years. It is a loop that you only get out of by leaving the country or by giving up independent journalism.
A friend stayed with me the morning of my first interrogation. We talked about different things, nothing important, anything to distract me from the seriousness of the situation. I ate something. I prepared my bag, taking out the keys, the cell phone, the tiny photos that I always keep in my wallet. I was surprised at how calm I felt. I went through the exercise of recalling in detail the afternoon in the principal’s office, when I was in high school. I was comforted in the knowledge that now, almost two decades later, I was still right.
I adopted the mantra that it was not about me as an individual. To State Security we are just weeds to be yanked out by the root to prevent us, at all costs, from disrupting the balance of power that props up a government and a system in which fewer and fewer people believe. We are just tools they use to achieve their ends.
“We don’t want you to lose your job. You need some of that to survive but it can’t be all there is,” they suggested.
State Security did not care, or did not seem to care, if you, the journalist, were investigating how much the president got in salary and benefits, or where the money was coming from to build the Fidel Castro Study Center in the middle of a pandemic.
They didn’t care if you were reporting on how the children and grandchildren of high-ranking military officials acquired properties, businesses and Cuban-owned companies registered in offshore tax havens, or how many people have contracted and died from Covid-19. All they cared about was finding out where the money you earned as an independent journalist came from.
They use this bit of information, which they share with gossipy neighbors who ask how much you earn or if you now spend in US dollars, to allege that the US State Department is subsidizing independent Cuban journalism. It also allows them to continue playing the victim. They remind you that they can also use this information to open a criminal case against you, which could result in fines or imprisonment under the Law for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy. The gag law.
As far as they are concerned, we exist, think and live by their grace. They constantly convey the message that we are subject to their power — a ludicrous kind of power but power nonetheless — with the capacity to screw up our lives. They use their revolutionary yardstick to measure our fidelity, our loyalty, our submission to their government. Not only journalists but anyone who does not fit within their scheme of things. By that logic, to State Security we are all potential dissidents.
What could be more closed-minded or intransigent than that?
Editor’s note: A version of this article was published in English by the UK-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which supports independent journalism in countries without freedom of the press. In this case, the journalist has not been identified for security reasons.
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