They Lost their Homes and Freedom Because of ‘Maria’

The life of Yuris Gabir Garrote Rodríguez was turned upside down when he was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2015 for carrying a cigarette with 0.38 grams of marijuana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 22 July 2017 — The future could only bring good things. His son grew up and his passion for photography allowed him to rub shoulders with numerous artists. But the life of Yuris Gabri Garrote Rodriguez was turned upside down in 2015 when he was sentenced to ten years in prison for carrying a cigarette with 0.38 grams of marijuana. The strict Cuban legal system destroyed all his projects.

The incessant controls and an inflexible penal code make the island one of the places in the world where drug possession and trafficking are judged with greatest severity. Cuba also ranks sixth in terms of number of prisoners per inhabitant, with an estimated 60,000 people living behind bars in the country.

Garrote was very unlucky, say friends and family. He had already had problems several years earlier when police found in his house two issues of the magazine Cannabis, a Spanish publication dedicated to the culture of cannabis. They also confiscated a poster with the drawing of a leaf of the plant that adorned his bedroom with its defiant silhouette.

Not a single gram of weed was found during the search, but he was tried because he was “acquiring enough culture about marijuana to successfully engage in” a business, according to court records. His detention occurred in the middle of the so-called Operation Coraza, a turn of the screw against “illegalities” that allowed the courts to apply exemplary sentences.

In Cuba the law tends to be as flexible as circumstances and power require. The independent lawyer Amado Calixto Gammalame, member of the Legal Association of Cuba, recognizes this. “The judicial treatment given to each person can be a bit capricious.”

For decades, the fight against marijuana has also been an ideological issue and official propaganda described republican Cuba as a place where vices such as prostitution, gambling and drug addiction proliferated. Maria, as many on the Island call cannabis, was a symbol of capitalist decadence.

This battle with political visions has remained to this day, despite the fact that other Latin American countries, such as Ecuador and Paraguay, have decriminalized its use in public spaces for personal consumption, although without fully liberalizing it.

If Cuba is the extreme of intransigence on the continent, on the other end is Uruguay which, after the definitive legalization of marijuana sales and production in December 2013, this month began to market small envelopes of 40 grams in more than a dozen pharmacies.

This decision has not done the government of the island any favors. Recently the authorities affirmed that the liberalization of cannabis in some countries of the region is nourishing the drug traffic.

The secretary of the National Drug Commission of Cuba, Antonio Israel Ibarra, said that so far this year they have seized three times the drug that was confiscated in the same period of 2016. For those who expected a relaxation, the official delivered a strong phrase: “We have not legalized it (marijuana), nor will we legalize it.”

This statement is in line with comments by Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) held in Chile in 2013, when he remarked that on the island the drug would be fought “with blood and fire.”

Tourist guides warn that the island “is not a good place to smoke a joint” and murderers and rapists live in prison alongside inmates convicted of carrying a few grams of cannabis in their pockets. The “stain” of this criminal record on the history of anyone is a serious stigma when it comes to seeking employment.

Despite the severe punishments and controls, the consumption of the herb has not been eradicated. Marijuana has become common in the festivals of artists, successful entrepreneurs and the ruling class itself. But few of them dare to cry out in public for its decriminalization, for fear of being considered criminals.

A good part of the weed arrives aboard ships that land in the coasts. Its cultivation is also a juicy business for those who dare to plant the elongated herb, especially in the eastern part of the island.

In September of 2013 the young musician Roberto Carcassés improvised controversial verses in the middle of an official act: “I want to free the Five Heroes, and free Maria. Free access to information, to have my own opinion,” he sang in an unforgettable chorus whose reference to marijuana was clear.

Two years after that rhyme, the penal code remained just as tight and Yuris Gabir Garrote Rodríguez returned to jail.

For Iraiz Piña Gutiérrez, a 64-year-old from Holguin, the punishment was not just to be incarcerated for six years. The court also ordered the seizure of her home, a penalty that applies to anyone who “produces, traffics, purchases, stores or consumes” illicit drugs.

In a search in her house the police found ten chocolates “stuffed with marijuana,” says the former prisoner.

Aged and with only the clothes she wore, Piña left the prison after serving her sentence but still seeks justice for a case she considers “fabricated” against her. She has traveled to countless state agencies to get them to give her back her house and her “reputation,” but few want to hear or help a “marihuanera”, she tells 14ymedio.

For Lorenzo, a resident of Timba who prefers to change his name to tell his story, the feeling of helplessness will not let him sleep. He lost the house he inherited from his father because his brother kept several pots of marijuana in a room that was under the same roof that had, for years, a separate entrance.

“We did not get along and split the apartment so that everyone had their share,” he explains. Lorenzo had a thriving cafe but it all ended when a police raid found his brother’s little plants. After submitting several complaints, he has been told that the confiscation of the property is an “unappealable” decision because “that’s how it is with marijuana, there is no middle ground,” ​​a lawyer said.