"They Managed to Gather All the ‘Despicables’ in a Concentration Camp"

Pablo Milanés talks about his time in the UMAP camps in the 60s in this Pin Vilar documentary. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 4 April 2019 — “I’m waiting for day someone is going to offer Pablo and the other people an apology.” This phrase, from the recently deceased Sergio Vitier, is part of the documentary Pablo Milanés, which addresses, among other topics, the time in the 1960s that the singer-songwriter spent in Cuba’s forced labor camps known as Military Units of Production Aid (UMAP).

The film was screened yesterday at the 23rd and 12th cinema in Havana in a room with a large audience, despite the odd scheduling: 3:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, in the special presentation of the documentary, in the context of the Cuban Film Institute’s 18th Young People’s Show. Its director, Juan Pin Vilar, was present and thanked the programmers for their arduous work to show the film.

The only previous screening in Cuba took place during the Gibara Film Festival, where it won an award. “We made it [the documentary] because we have to apologize to the victims sometime, we made it always thinking about the man who had a bad time there, not the ones who put him there, and we thought it our duty to tell the story,” the author explained to 14ymedio.

During almost an hour of footage, the film alternates between interviews with artists and relatives close to the musician and selected archive materials to frame that era for the viewers. The testimonies attest to the strength of Milanés when facing the difficult times that came with the year 1966, as well as the talent of the renowned artist.

Pablo Milanés points out that in those times in Cuba “he was operating under a certain repressive order (sic),” one he did not like and to whom he expressed his criticisms.

The artist recalls the day he received a telegram in which he was summoned to fulfill his Military Service, although in fact he had been chosen to go “to a concentration camp” located in another province. “That was brutal for a 23-year-old boy, that was brutal,” he says.

He did not have time to say goodbye to his mother or his wife. There were guards with bayonets around the buses that transported them to the forced labor camps.

Although his preference was to continue with his music, Milanés acknowledges that at first he felt happy and satisfied to be going to fulfill his duty, but as the days passed, when he realized where he was, he thought it was a mistake.

Throughout the film, Milanes reviews moments such as the arrival of common prisoners in the camp and his worry about that, or his running off with the money collected in a recital for the inmates.

“Yes, I ran away, I ran away because we were waiting for news that there was going to be a meeting and it was going to be determined that this was a mistake.” There were already scandals at the UN, the U2s, the spy planes had already taken pictures of the camps and the only thing they did was, instead of 23 strands of wire, they went down to 14 strands [on the perimeter fence], nothing more.”

At that moment, Milanese’s voice bursts into a verse that now makes sense: “14 strands and one day separate me from my beloved, 14 strands and one day separate me from my mother and now I know who I will love.”

“I finally gave myself up because my mother was in anguish that I was going to die because I was a fugitive. I presented myself to Commander Almeida, who was my second cousin, and he did not understand anything, he said: ’I am the boss because Raúl is taking a course in the Soviet Union, and even if you are my relative, I can not do anything for you’.”

He was then sent to the La Cabaña prison where he stayed for a short time and, from there, to a “camp for escapees” in Camaguey. The trip “was a horrendous parade” because the train stopped by day, in the center of the city, and from there to the camp they went on foot. “Everyone shouting things at us on the way, and on top of that I was lame because I’d hurt my foot.”

However, in his memoirs, he highlights a group he considers the most abused. “Actually, those who had it the worst were the homesexuals, they had it even worse. One afternoon trucks came with a list, some officers named people in a lightning operation, that happened in all the Camagüey camps on the same afternoon, it was timed, they took everyone and they took them to ghettos, you can say,” he recalls.

Several decades after that unfortunate episode that the Government has never acknowledged in its real dimension, and Milanés describes the facts as macabre. “They managed to gather everyone they considered despicable in a concentration camp.” In his personal case it was for his opinions on the Revolution. “I was liberal enough to say it wherever I liked.”

In the documentary we also hear the voice of Marta Valdés, composer and performer, who remembers that at that time there was “a frightful tendency” to address political issues in music, which many resisted.

“There have been very crude people,” says Sergio Vitier. And the audience laughed.

Pablo Milanés was not able to be at yesterday’s screening. Pin Vilar apologized in his name and encouraged the audience before turning off the lights. “I hope you enjoy it because I can not guarantee you it will be shown again.”

To this day, Pablo Milanés sees things from another perspective. “As time goes by you’re gathering your own wisdom that allows you to live and survive, but you are not changing the world, which is what you thought when you were young. (…) You are already more skeptical and you do not change anything, you simply survive and do what you know how to do.”

When the screen goes dark there is a minute of silence and then applause accompanies the rolling of the documentary’s credits.


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