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Finding freedom in a Cuban cell

Freed Cuban journalist Ricardo González Alfonso, center, speaks in front of the Subcommittee on Human Rights at the European Parliament in Brussels on September 13. (AFP) There exists a sensual, amorous liaison, almost felt and seen, that binds poetry, journalism, and freedom together. Examples of such affairs abound, their protagonists transcending short-lived fame and bursting into history and onto the pages of encyclopedias. They are the greats, the masters, those worthy of veneration. But intellectual stature is not always required of the protagonists of such liaisons. Sometimes history, written with a lowercase "h," concedes us the privilege of participating in those passions of ink and paper, as they say, of flesh and blood. The paths are varied. In fact, paradoxically, prison can lead to freedom.

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On March 18, 2003, Cuba's state security forces committed a crime against tolerance and carried out a countrywide raid. The detentions went on for three days. They arrested 75 members of our forbidden civil society; 26 of us were independent journalists. The so-called "Black Spring" had begun. But the government failed in its attempt to silence voices capable of screaming and singing through prison bars and walls, past guards and terror.

I was sentenced to 20 years in prison for practicing journalism outside the control of the state. Days later I was transferred 330 miles (533 kilometers) from where I was staying, and put into Kilo 8, the Camagüey prison known as "I've lost the key."

In this penitentiary I was placed alone in a minuscule cell. In length, the cell was barely longer than my rickety bed, leaving room only for a hole that clumsily provided sanitation services, and a crestfallen pipe that fancied itself a shower. The width of the cell, also stunted, had symbolic value: It was just as wide as a man with outstretched arms.

Nine of us comrades for the cause lived under these conditions, distributed cell by cell along a small hallway, so that we could hear, but not see, one another. This is why I titled my book of poems, written clandestinely in that prison cell, Men without Faces. Some of my accomplices were my very jailers--naturally, without suspecting it or even imagining how the rigor they imposed facilitated the furtive labor of my poetic creation.

During the first three months we had no electricity, which obliged me to write by day. But since there were so many bars between the guards and ourselves (for example, I passed through 11 padlocked doors to see visitors), the opening and closing of those large, iron doors alerted us to the location of the guards, and gave me time to conceal my verses, prohibited and free. I wrote drafts of my poems on a common-sized sheet of paper, but afterward, I transcribed them with tiny letters on slips of paper of just a few centimeters in size, which I hid in my slippers. Then I would burn the originals, disposing of the ashes in that awkward and sanitary hole.

Our cells were inspected three times a week. When they got to mine I would get up (I was always lying down, no space for anything more), put on my slippers--my secret cache--and leave the cell since the two guards and I wouldn't all fit.

Later I asked my wife to bring me some very thin sheets of paper along with two packages of envelopes for mailing letters. These clear, cellophane packages were sealed with an adhesive that was easy to unstick and reseal again without revealing they had been opened. In one of the envelopes I hid my poems, written in script a bit larger than the originals, occasionally accessing them to revise one or another of the verses. To fool the guards, I roughly scratched open the other package of envelopes so that my jailers wouldn't discover the ruse of the false seal. When they searched my cell, they inspected only the envelopes in the torn package, believing the package containing my forbidden verses to be pure. When I finished writing the 45 poems in Men without Faces, I needed to find a method to get them out of the prison without arousing suspicions. 

I availed myself of a pack of cigarettes, carefully opening the bottom of the cellophane packaging so that the industrial seal was left intact. I extracted half of the tobacco and inserted the rolls of poem-inscribed paper. Afterward I refilled each cigarette and replaced them from the bottom of the pack. Then, I delicately closed the cellophane. All that remained was the visitation inspection. The last frontier.

That day arrived. During the inspection, my lighter, which had a discrete compartment to put who knows what, was meticulously examined. On finding it empty, the guards relaxed and were less diligent with the rest of the inspection, overlooking the false seal on the cigarettes. During my wife's visit, I handed her the pack of cigarettes, and, in a whisper, informed her of the poetic content of each cigarette. Later, she circulated Men without Faces on the Internet. My book of poems would be released by publishing houses in Spain, the U.S., and France.

My audacity had its price. I was sent to a punishment cell, also minute, where the bed was a concrete bench and the floor was carpeted in rodent excrement. For 16 days in that cell I went on hunger strike, demanding to be treated just as badly as my friends, not worse. Thanks to the international campaign that my wife launched, I was taken out of the punishment cell.

Sometime thereafter, in need of a surgical intervention, I was admitted to the National Prisoners Hospital at the Combinado del Este prison in Havana. The medical center was less strict, and I managed to write and publish features, articles, a report, some testimonies, and another book of poems: Human Purposes.

They could never silence my voice or those of my comrades for the cause. We had remained faithful in that sensual, amorous liaison, almost felt and seen, that binds poetry, journalism, and freedom together.

(Translated by Karen Phillips)

This entry is part of an ongoing series of first-person stories by Cuban journalists who were imprisoned in a massive roundup of dissidents that has become known as the Black Spring of 2003. All of the reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials, accused of acting against the "integrity and sovereignty of the state" or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of "destabilizing the country." Seventeen of them were recently released and exiled to Spain as part of a deal between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government; however, three arrested in 2003 still remain behind bars.

Encontrando libertad en una celda cubana

Por Ricardo González Alfonso

Existe una relación sensual, casi tangible y visible, de pasión y de amor, entre la poesía, el periodismo y la libertad. Los ejemplos abundan. Muchos de sus protagonistas trascendieron la fama fugaz e irrumpieron en la Historia. Sus nombres aparecen en las enciclopedias. Son los grandes, los maestros, los dignos de veneración.

Pero no siempre se precisa de semejante estatura intelectual para ser protagonistas de esas relaciones. La historia, así, escrita con minúscula, a veces nos concede el privilegio de ser partícipe de una de esas pasiones de tinta y de papel, como quien dice de piel y de sangre. Los caminos pueden ser muchos. Incluso, paradógicamente, la cárcel puede conducir a la libertad.

El 18 de marzo de 2003, cometiendo un delito de lesa tolerancia, la seguridad del estado de Cuba realizó una redada en todo el país. Las detenciones se prolongaron por tres días. A 75 miembros de la proscrita sociedad civil nos arrestaron, de éstos 26 éramos periodistas independientes. Comenzaba la llamada Primavera Negra. Mas el gobierno fracasó en su intento de acallar voces capaces de gritar y de cantar más allá de las rejas y de los muros, de los guardias y del terror.

A mi me conderaron a veinte años de cárcel por ejercer un periodismo libre del control gubernamental. Días después me trasladaron a 533 kilómetros de donde residía, y me internaron en la prisión camagüeyana de Kilo 8, conocida como "Se me perdió la llave".

En esta penitenciaría me encerraron en una celda solitaria y minúscula. Casi concluía con el largo del camastro, pues sólo había espacio para un orificio, que torpemente hacía la función de servicio sanitario; y para un tubo cabizbajo con vocación de ducha. El ancho, también breve, poseía el valor de los símbolos: el de un hombre con los brazos abiertos.

En estas condiciones permanecimos nueve compañeros de causa, distribuídos celda a celda en un pequeño pasillo, de modo tal que podíamos oirnos, mas no vernos. Por esta razón titulé "Hombres sin rostro" al poemario que clandestinamente escribí en aquel calabozo.

Algunos de mis cómplices fueron los propios carceleros. Naturalmente, sin sospecharlo, sin imaginar siquiera como el rigor que me imponían facilitaba mi labor furtiva de creación poética.

Durante los primeros tres meses permanecimos sin luz eléctrica, lo que me obligaba a escribir de día. Mas como habían tantas rejas entre los guardianes y nosotros, (por ejemplo, once puertas con candado para salir a las visitas), el abrir y cerrar de aquellos portones de hierro nos avisaban de la proximidad de los carceleros, y me daba tiempo a esconder mis versos prohibidos y libres.

Los borradores de los poemas los escribía en un pliego de tamaño común; pero después los transcribía con letra diminuta en unos papelitos de pocos centímetros, y los ocultaba en mis chancletas. Entonces quemaba la cuartilla grande, y me deshacía de las cenizas arrojándolas por aquel orificio torpe y sanitario.

Nuestras celdas las registraban tres veces por semana. Cuando llegaban a la mía me levantaba (siempre estaba acostado, pues no había espacio para más) me ponía las pantuflas - mi escondrijo secreto- y salía de la celda, pues no cabíamos los dos guardias y yo.

Después solicité a mi esposa que me trajera varios pliegos de grosor muy fino; así como dos paquetes con sobres para enviar cartas. Estos paquetes de celofán transparente poseían una pegantina fácil de despegar, y que al cerrarse parecían que nunca se hubiesen abierto. En uno de los sobres escondía mis poemas, transcritos a unas tiras un poco más grandes que las originales, donde podía extraerlas ocasionalmente para corregir algún que otro verso.

Para engañar a los guardias rasgué chapuseramente el otro paquete, de modo que mis carceleros no descubrieran el ardid del sellado falso. Cuando requisaban el calabozo registraban los sobres de este paquete, creyendo que permanecía vírgen el que contenía los versos proscritos. Cuando terminé de escribir los 45 poemas de "Hombres sin rostro", debí buscar el método de sacarlos de la prisión sin levantar sospechas. Temía perder en un instante mi labor creativa de meses de sigilo.

Me valí de una cajetilla de cigarrillos. Cuidadosamente abrí por el fondo la envoltura de celofán, dejando intacto el sellaje industrial. Extraje la mitad de la picadura, e introduje los rollitos de papel con los poemas. Después los rellené uno a uno los cigarrillos y los guardé de nuevo por el fondo de la cajetilla. Entonces, con mucha delicadeza, pegué el celofán. Sólo faltaba la requisa de la visita. La última frontera.

Ese día llegó. Durante la inspección revisaron meticulosamente mi mechero, pues tenía un compartimento discreto para guardar no sé qué. Los carceleros, al verlo vacío, se tranquilizaron y fueron menos diligentes en la revisión, de modo que no descubrieron el falso sellaje.

En la visita le entregué la cajetilla a mi esposa, y en un susurro le informé del contenido poético de cada cigarrillo. Posteriormente ella divulgó "Hombres sin rostro" por internet. Una editorial española, otra estadounidense y otra francesa publicaron el poemario.

La osadía tuvo su precio. Me enviaron a una celda de castigo, también diminuta; por camastro, un banco de concreto; y el suelo alfombrado con escreta de roedores. Allí me mantuve 16 días en huelga de hambre, exigiendo un trato tan malo como el que recibían mis compañeros, no peor. Gracias a la campaña internacional que realizó mi esposa me sacaron de la celda de castigo.

Tiempo despúes, como debía ser intervenido quirúgicamente, me ingresaron en el Hospital Nacional de Reclusos, en la prisión Combinado del Este, en Ciudad de La Habana. En este centro médico el rigor era menor, y pude escribir y publicar crónicas, artículos, un reportaje, algunos testimonios y otro poemario: "(Con)fines humanos".

Nunca pudieron silenciar mi voz ni las de mis compañeros de causa. Habíamos permanecido fieles a esa relación sensual, casi tangible y visible, de pasión y de amor, que existe entre la poesía, el periodismo y la libertad.

Este artículo es parte de una serie de historias escritas en primera persona por periodistas cubanos que fueron arrestados en una redada masiva contra disidentes conocida como la Primavera Negra de 2003. Todos los reporteros y editores fueron condenados en juicios de un día de duración, acusados de actuar contra la "integridad y la soberanía del estado", o de colaborar con medios extranjeros con el propósito de "desestabilizar el país". Diecisiete de ellos fueron recientemente liberados y enviados al exilio en España como parte de un acuerdo entre la Iglesia Católica y el gobierno cubano. Tres periodistas detenidos en 2003 permanecen todavía tras las rejas.

November 16, 2010 9:30 AM ET | | Comments (3)

Comments

Thanks to CPJ for this powerful and necessary testimony of the horrific conditions in Cuba's prisons. Much of the world's attention has focused on Cuba's prisoners of conscience, but it's important to shed light on the terrible suffering of thousands of Cubans serving long years of prison. Many are guilty of so-called "crimes" such as trying to escape the country or being considered "dangerous" to the socialist state. These people don't have the protection that being known in the outside world affords. A frightening number is dying in prison of medical negligence, murdered by guards, or committing suicide in despair. We have documented 138 from 2003 to 2010 in a small fraction of the island's many prisons. Since 2003 the brave prisoners of conscience had been reporting on these horrible abuses and their victims. We are relieved and happy that most are now free, but concerned that we have lost the only window into the tropical gulag that we had to help us raise awareness of this terrible suffering.

On national televion in Spain, one of the so called dissidentes spoke about his days in prison... He had a gastrite !! Other ex prisioner adresses the spanish authorities because he needs insuline and the only one he has is the one Cuba has given to him... Just watch on the media their testemony in their own voices.. RTVE24 and other. Search for information and knoweledge.

First off I would like to say excellent blog! I had a quick question which I'd like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing. I've had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out. I do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Many thanks!


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