The Inferno on the Other Corner

I want to talk about breathtaking scenery, as Cuba has a ton, of people in solidarity with the traveler, of which there are also thousands on the island, but it fell through. In those moments the journey beat me, short and dry, it’s about a scary place. I went once, only as far as the entrance, and because a stranger I never knew asked for my help.

On the road that goes from Camaguey to Sierra de Cubitas and the north of the province — the Lesca highway — past the International Airport and the Albaize neighborhood, on the second entrance to the left is the 26th. This is the common name for the maximum security prison of Camaguey, one of the most fierce with the human beings of so many that populate the island that transformed barracks into schools. From an airplane you only see the suspicious uniformity of the enclosed buildings.

There are inmates who, for having committed crimes related to politics, were judged unfairly. So, they are political prisoners. And there are also common criminals, who probably deserve to be in jail. But everyone, the misjudged politicals and the common prisoners guilt or not, share a condition: all are condemned not just to lose their freedom, but the human condition, which is ultimately what is lost there.

Why serve them rotten food? Why are they cheated out of medical care? Why can some barely talk to their families. Why do some people sleep with their legs bent because there’s no space for a bed. Why are there so many suicides there? Why was one prisoner’s television lacking sound and another had sound but the screen faced the wall? Why aren’t the guards brought to trial for the crimes against the prisoners? Why so many questions without answers, in the Camaguey prison, as there are in so many others in Cuba?

In the United States there are five Cubans imprisoned. Prisoners for violating U.S. law, although it is true that, as I don’t sympathize with who spy on those of their own country, whichever side they are, but I haven’t followed the case much. I know that a little bird landed on one of those who senses the loneliness of the prisoners, and that the photo, real or not, was famous.

And a young prisoner in The 26th also has his history with a sparrow who chose him to befriend. A sparrow who managed to get into his cell, live with him, eat his food and sleep in his uncomfortable bed. A sparrow that besides feathers, feet, beaks and the freedom to fly, had the inexplicable urge to accompany this man in his suffering, just as other human beings were responsible for increasing or ignoring it, or avoiding any sign of support. A simple sparrow.

February 23 marks the third anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo. The one who died for fighting, with his body as weapon and battleground, against those who mistreat Cuban prisoners. What a problem for this country, that the only thing the enters the prisons to ease these subtle cruelties upon prisoners, are sparrows.

21 February 2013

Travel to a heart of Cuba

eloy gutierrez menoyo y henry constantinAfter giving a lot of thought to Cuban mountains I realized that I have a tremendous obsession with the Escambray, in the center of the island. It fascinates me far more than the famous Sierra Maestra, the mountain range that helped end a dictatorship and start a new one. I really don’t care that Pico San Juan is slightly smaller than Pico Turquino. None of that makes a difference. I’ll stay with the Escambray, which is where I’ve felt more freedom. Every time I think about how hard is to obtain permission to visit the Sierra Maestra or the warning of how militarized the Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa mountains are I feel like those mountain ranges are prisoners, but the Escambray, even though it lost its war still feels free.

Every time I visit Guamuaya — the ignored but official name of the Escambray — I feel between its mountains a certain frustration for all the freedom we finally lost there, for the dead on both sides, for the guerrillas and the workers in the Cuban Literacy Campaign, for those who collaborated with the “Revolution’s” army and the government’s informers, for the farmers kept captive against their will — not in the Mambisa war, but in the 1960’s- and for the militia who fought for the cause of the little bread and no freedom. I don’t think they’re equivalent in goals or ideas, nor do I now try to understand them or forgive them for their mistakes, I wouldn’t dare. I’m just in pain.

Certain too cruel sites hurt me with the truth. Years ago I visited with indignation the Trinitarian Museum of the Struggle against those rebels that the enemy called bandits because the fought for their freedom with the same intensity with which they’d fought those of the Sierra, a museum full of manipulated history and hate. I  should take a walk in La Campana, the old camp, and now a museum where they show so many Cuban prisoners, how many in the end? Will they ever publish the figure here some day?

el escambray desde el cieloAnd I owe many pages to commander Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, who was a military man before becoming an affable man of peace, and I met him, already an old man in his little apartment in San Agustin in La Lisa, full of ideas and hidden gaps of our history, entrenched in his iron will of change with respect and dialog.

Although the ease with which the men of this island have gone to war astounds me, and I look with a certain suspicion at so much of our ancient violence converted into respectable myths; what a bad example for our children in school if we want to teach them to resolve problems peacefully; what a bitter pill for us who want to change the country without beatings and we have no Cuban history we can grab hold of — what happened in the Escambrey confuses me.

Of course it was a war, and as always happens, all sides had stains. Surely there were victims, for not being anti-communist enough, or for not being communist enough. That’s the trouble with wars, it doesn’t matter what idea you’re defending, blood is always spilled. But at least the evidence is left of so many people who understood the word freedom, and who launched an almost suicidal battle to get it. In the Escambrey, looking at the hills and the stream valleys, relieved a little of my shame at loving a country accustomed to keeping its head down, saying yes when it thinks no.
Maybe in other posts I talk about the infinite cascade of Guanayara — the highest in the region and most beautiful in Cuba — a temple made by nature itself: El Nicho — just staying near there I would fight for these mountains — of how they discriminated against me for being a Cuban photographer before the Jibacoa reservoir, and the 5 CUC the State and La Gallega wanted to charge me just to put up my tent. Maybe another day. Today I don’t want to talk about the nearness of nature. Today I want to talk about the nearness of freedom.

February 16 2013

Happy Anniversary, Camaguey

camagey-desde-iglesia-del-sagrado-corazn
This time I will talk about Camagüey, after many trips to my city, trips that are always of return and obligatory because with it, without my neighborhood of La Vigia, without the alleys, the dilapidated rail, the vibrant Republica Street, the thousand church domes bowing to the heavens wherever you look, the Casino Campestre park, the most insistent love poems in the world — courting Dolores Rondon even after her burial — and the statue of Ignacio Agramonte showing me how a man must walk, without all this, I can’t live.

And I speak of Camagüey because the State, always the State, is celebrating its 499 years — even though history says it’s not so — and because there are brave people and brilliant artists there, confirmed lately, in the midst of so much exile by plane or of the soul.

What we from Camagüey celebrate this week is the founding of Santa María del Puerto del Principe — which did not happen in February 1514, but in the summer of the following year — in a remote part of the north coast, tens of miles from the current city. At the site of today the great-great-grandparents of our great-great-grandparents didn’t come to live until January 1528, so we are celebrating 23 years in advance.

But there is little point in showing off so many centuries with no reasons, if the local people live disgusted with their reality, sheltered in their corners, disinterested in or fearful of what happens outside their walls, or having lost faith that life will be better tomorrow.

There is not much to celebrate when some children stand in endless lines to get a passport and leave, and others elude the gaze of the coastguard to launch themselves on the sea. Not when there are the poorest of slums, prisons, pockets and stomachs, leaving such a sad echo.

Rather, these are reasons for the city, between the music and the beer, to stop a moment and say, loudly, “This has to change now.”

And to scream it at every corner, like at the 1514 Restaurant — what a symbolic place to celebrate Camaguey’s birthday — where some guys, this February 1, some guys filled the air with  shouts of “Long live human rights!” and “Down with…” before being overwhelmed by State Security.Without even knowing them I like these people who protest, simply for taking the risk of saying loudly and in the city center what thousands of Cubans whisper, with fear and hesitation.

Because Camaguey was always marked on the map of Cuba for its women and men of rebellious and lofty heart, for Joaquin de Aguero being first to free his slaves, Ignacio Agramonte of the army, Ana Betancourt and Amalia Simoni taking to the jungle not to look in the faces of the henchmen making themselves comfortable in the city, Ignacio Mora publishing his paper even from the Nasaja caves where he could share his ideas without pay.

In Camagüey all Cespedes desires for command ended, in Camagüey Huber Matos from Manzanillo found a quorum to tell him Communism was his boss, Camilo Cienfuegos left Camagüey with his head full of different ideas and was never heard from again, in Camagüey… In Camagüey.

On February 2, the Day of our Lady of Candelaria — Camagüey’s patroness — when the city began its anniversary party, some very kind and loving officers dragged me from my house, with cops and without the law, and hid me in an office for four hours to try to terrorize me, to try to buy me — “every man has his price” and I answered “mine is a free Cuba” — trying to dirty me, even grabbing me to receive their effusive kisses and hugs, the more they tried and tried in vain, so naive, it only made me laugh inside. Such desperation in them made me think about their fears.

Two days later, at City Hall, in front of the picture of the Commander-in-Chief diffuse and decomposing on a podium, I smiled again. Maybe next year, for the five hundredth birthday, Camagüey will feel more free. May the Virgin of Candelaria hear us and help us.

February 7 2013

Najasa Votes Against Itself

ro carrasco

My travels to Najasa — southeast of Camaguey — were marked by my first impressions on arriving. The first time, I was amazed at the hills with cliffs that followed the highway from Cuatro Caminos — the sunny capital — to Manolin, as if the truck had come from Camaguey to bring the mountains of the Oriente or Pinar del Rio; another impression was the incredibly green farms and very few cows. I remember other first images: the oft-repeated that this abused and very straight road leads to some beloved farm; the view of the wide river that crosses Najasa and gives its name to the city; and Artola’s house, built of wood, that was once a command post of the guerrillas and today is more useful — as a museum. But the first impression of this last trip was different: more irritating and laughable.

carreteras destruidas y campesinos esperando hasta las 10 am por la recogida de la lecheI entered the terminal cafeteria. They sold various snacks: mortadella, sausage, croquettes; some soft drinks and, obviously, cigars, tobacco and rum. But this time there was another product: a rectangular carton with four papers stuck to it, each one with the photo and biography of one of the municipal candidates to the Provincial and National Assemblies, for the February 3rd elections.

The most striking was that of a woman, probably a good person, who is the parliamentary candidate, although in Najasa I asked around and no one knew her; they hadn’t seen her at nine in the morning waiting on the road to Cubanacan for lack of transportation to get to her job, nor getting up in the morning with a farmer to see the conditions in which she milks the cow even though it’s prohibited to eat it.

Her election is assured, although I may have been the only reader of her biography. This candidate for Najasa was born in Havana and educated at military schools there, she was the military prosecutor and director of the legal counsel of the Council of Ministers, and the only thing that makes me mention her in this blog is to show evidence of how the people who are placed where they should be and are deciding the present and future of Cubans, are precisely those least suited to defend it.

todava quedan vacas y atardeceres

The other candidates of the troubled township are Communist Party cadres, those will fill the seats of Olympus; we know they will not change anything in the lives of their constituents. I’m sure there are better people than those who post their dry resumes, but what are the the needs of the people of Najasa?

Because none of the biographies tell me which of those candidates will desire and have the courage to take the floor in the Assembly and rail against the inefficient state monopolies — ECIL, Acopio, and the Meat Collective at the head — that absorb the milk, crops and meat produced by farmers.

Nor which of them will tell the commander Guillermo Garcia Frias, director of the deeply in debt National Wildlife Company, to ask permission and pay for every air conditioned night by the pool for himself — about 40 CUC for other Cubans — on his visits to the La Belen (un)Protected Area; for every State pig — or is it the people — that he orders roasted for his pleasure, when tons of children all around the school that morning have half-empty stomachs; for every half-gallon of gas he burns on his family excursions.

Where does the promotion of these candidates announce which one is interested in what and explain them to the thousands of farmers who in 2013 still don’t know what the Internet is and how it can change your life, and then go to collect their signatures and throw them on the table of someone who can’t even log off to get them?

Anyway, how do I know if any of these candidates prefer to be true to the people they represent rather than to their political leaders? Their biographies don’t tell me, nor do their faces. And it seems the same all over the country, that has passed across our TV screens lately.

I think all this sitting at the stop heading toward the mountain, where we waited almost 3 hours without transport — we being a pregnant girl, a high school boy, an old woman with two children, a drunk man, and another who became desperate and went to drink beer or rum — is something that we don’t need. Like us, like Najasa, this February 3rd Cuba still waits, and votes against itself.

But with less and less patience.

31 January 2013