Manuel Vázquez Portal’s Prison Diary
Writer and poet Manuel Vázquez Portal is one of the 29 independent journalists who in late March and early April were detained, prosecuted, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 27 years.
Having joined the ranks of the independent press in 1995, in January 1999 Vázquez Portal and other journalists founded the independent news agency Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, where he worked until his detention. His articles regularly appeared in the Miami-based news web site CubaNet.
The journalist’s prison diary was smuggled out of prison by his wife, Yolanda Huerga, on one of her visits.
Vázquez Portal, one of CPJ’s 2003 International Press Freedom Award winners, was released without explanation in June 2004. Upon his release, two state security officers suggested that he leave the country. In October, he was given a document indicating he had been granted a medical parole.
Manuel Vázquez Portal, sentenced to 18 years in prison. Boniato Prison, Santiago de Cuba. March 19: House search and arrest.
April 4: Summary proceedings. Haven’t met or talked to my defense attorney.
April 24: Depart Villa Marista [Department of State Security headquarters in Havana] for Boniato prison.
April 25: (Before dawn) Arrive at Boniato prison. Put in isolation cells. Cell No. 30. Latrine backed up. No running water. Dirty mattress on the floor.
April 25: (Afternoon) Transfer to Cell No. 31. There’s a latrine and running water. The cell floods daily with residual water from the hallway. High blood pressure. I’m taken to the hospital chained hand and foot. Stuffed mattress is dirty, torn, old and hard.
April 27: Strong rain. The roof leaks. Plenty.
April 28: Alone in isolation cell. They cut off my hair and beard. Later I shave. Food, as in other days, indescribable. They take us out to take the sun together (Normando Hernández, Próspero Gaínza, and myself). They fingerprinted us.
[Hernández is a journalist; Gaínza a dissident.]
April 30: Visit. Yoly, Xiomy. [Wife and sister.] 30 minutes. We are not allowed any privacy.
May 5: Today my son Gabriel goes in for surgery. The days go by slowly. I read a lot.
May 8: I witness something terrible; on top of a 25-foot wall, the brothers Agustín and Jorge Cervantes cause a near-riot, shouting slogans against the government. The guards are not able to bring them down. They send inmates who knock them off the wall by force. They must have hit hard. I couldn’t learn anything else about this.
May 12: Photographs, fingerprints, again.
May 14: The warden, along with the chief of Re-education [political rehabilitation] and the chief of our cell block, came by to tell us that, by mandate of the State, we will be kept in maximum security (first phase). We were given the calendar of visits, packages from home, and nuptial visits, as follows: Visits May 31, August 30, November 29. Packages June 30, October 30. Nuptial visits June 18, November 17.
May 15: HIV blood test. No disposable syringes.
May 15: (Afternoon) A visit from a State Security headquarters lieutenant colonel, accompanied by a State Security major from Santiago de Cuba, and by Arrate, who “looks after us” on behalf of State Security in the prison. An ugly argument. They complain about my wife and try to threaten me. The lieutenant colonel called me a liar. I answered that I don’t work for Granma [the official Communist Party newspaper].
May 16: High blood pressure, 100/150. They injected me with a drug known as “furosemida.” Still no access to newspapers. No access to TV. The food is still hellish. They haven’t changed my mattress despite the fact that I have asked every chief several times. They have installed magnetic card phones in our cell block.
May 17: We are still in isolation cells in maximum security. Weekends we get no yard privileges. Blood pressure normal.
May 19 I have spoken three times with the chiefs so about allowing me to telephone to find out about my son Gabriel’s operation. They haven’t allowed me to call even though they all promised. I did not accept the evening meal.
They took us out to the yard separately. Normando with a lifer; Edel and Juan Carlos; Villarreal and Nelson; Próspero and myself. They say it’s an order from above.
[Normando Hernández, journalist; Edel José García, journalist; Juan Carlos Herrera, journalist; Antonio A. Villarreal, dissident; Nelson Aguiar, dissident; Próspero Gaínza, dissident.]
May 20: (101 anniversary of Cuban independence) [Holiday not recognized by the present Cuban government] I did not accept the breakfast I was given. I went out on the yard. I told my mates about the call to my family. I did not accept the medications (Vitamins C and E). I did not accept lunch.
Immediately, “re-educator” Sabino called me to his office. He told me he had spoken to my sister Xiomara. The child’s operation is postponed to June. I don’t know why. Then, we talked, supposedly about politics, for two-and-a-half hours. It’s too bad about his indoctrination. He doesn’t seem a bad sort.
At about five in the afternoon a nice, placid, silvery rain shower fell (the first one of the month here in Boniato; I stuck my hands out through the bars to get wet). It was as if Nature were saluting the 101 anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic and at the same time were crying for its imprisonment during 44 years.
I recalled my wife’s grandfather’s hardware store, taken over by Castro’s government. It was called The 20th of May. Normando gave me some candies. I thought of writing some chronicles from jail, but the diary is better.
May 21: I feel more at ease. Knowing that Gabriel and the rest of the family are all right comforts me. I managed to hold back the flooding. I rolled up two plastic bags and stuffed them between the floor and the lower bars of the door. A little water comes in occasionally. During the rainshower yesterday, I had some leaks. They haven’t changed my mattress. I hurt all over. I can only sleep a little. But I’m not going to complain. When I finally take a decision it will be definitive. The food remains hellish.
Today a psychologist interviewed us. The poor thing is the type that believes in manuals and somewhat presumptuous. A provincial! She put us through a very elementary test. She asked me to draw a person of each sex. I drew some childish scrawls. She wanted to do a personality profile by having me free associate to phrases given me. I had a lot of fun. I made up sentences that sounded like philosophical proverbs (pseudo-philosophical, I mean to say) and, even though I was sincere, I was also making fun of the whole situation. They are going to have to bring back Sigmund Freud, or at least Pavlov. She is also one of the Interior Ministry’s little robots, a lieutenant. If they don’t know how to think with their own heads, I don’t know that they are going to be able to know, or find out, about others people’s. Their thinking is static, on account of indoctrination and fear. They are incapable of any analysis that deviates from whatever they believe to be unmoveable and that’s upheld by the pitiful power that protects them. I’m going to have a lot of fun in the future. Shrewd mockery is now my only weapon. I have discovered their weak spot; they want to appear cultured when they talk to me. They don’t know what they are getting into.
I have little in the way of news; we have no access to newspapers, radio, or TV. Nothing. I’m getting used to it. I read all day, although it’s impossible at night; there is no light in the cell. I still think “War and Peace” is a monumental novel. I liked “Bomarzo” again. I read “The Perfume” and thought it was all right. I laughed with “Games for Mortals” and “The Heart of the Serpent.” They are science fiction stories dating from the time when the Soviets believed the fiction of the globalization of Communism. I never read anything funnier in my life. History demolished those writers. Poor things! Who knew it would happen so suddenly? I read the Bible a lot, one in very poor condition that someone lent me. I’m reading “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” It’s a shame that I’ve already seen the movies. I also read a very interesting book about the Christian vision of the origin of the universe and of man, “There Is a Creator that Is Concerned about Us.” Although it’s directed to Jehova’s Witnesses, I found it interesting. I learned things that are also good for a Catholic. I have read other things, but I’m not taking inventory. Afternoons, before I bathe, I exercise. In spite of the poor diet, I’m keeping in shape. I have tanned from the sun. For almost a week they have been taking me out on the yard at noon. Between the UV and the infrared, they are going to give me skin cancer.
Thank God my family brought milk, otherwise I would have died of hunger. My family also had to bring sheets, a blanket, a towel, toothpaste, a mosquito net, etc. Inmates here are only supplied with a pair of shorts and a sleeveless, collarless shirt.
But it’s not all bad. At night I see the stars through the bars on the window, although in the daytime I also see stars. I think about César Vallejo, who wrote “Trilce” in a jail in Perú. Best of all, when our jailers let us borrow the sun for an hour and we see birds in flight. I refused the food. Pshew! The pigs would throw up!
May 22: Very interesting; today they took me out to the yard with Edel García. I have become his personal psychotherapist. I refused lunch. Phew! Again. Normando Hernández gets another bout of diarrhea before he can shake the previous one. Próspero Gaínza and Antonio Villarreal remain strong. I have not been able to speak with Nelson Aguiar. We haven’t been to the yard at the same time as Juan Carlos Herrera, the Guantanamero. If Joseíto Fernández [the composer of “Guantanamera”] met him he would write a song about him. I have only been able to talk to him through the bars that look over the yard. He is a fun type. I wonder how are the other 68 who are spread throughout Cuban prisons? I’ll know something when next I have a family visit. The other inmates, even though we have no contact with them, have expressed solidarity and attack the system more than we do. We have chosen to let the world defend us. Under pressure in prison, almost anything is impossible, although there’ll always be something one can do. The guards remain respectful. They are poor devils who take orders and I sense they are scared.
I discovered a way to suppress the stench coming out of the latrine, with a plastic bottle that used to contain oil. I filled it with water and stuffed it into the smelly hole; the diameter of the bottle matches that of the hole. What relief! Let the nose rest some, although at certain times, not even my improvised stopper can stem the sickening vapors. What would the illustrious “colleagues” of the Round Tables [nightly TV programs with heavy propaganda content] if they discovered a prison in the U.S. with similar magnificent sanitary conditions? We must not forget this prison was built more than 60 years ago. Fidel Castro, Yndamiro Restano, and myself have slept here. It’s a miracle it hasn’t sunk in the Puerto Boniato valley without leaving a trace.
I refused the evening meal. Double phew! I ran out of books. At least I have the Bible somebody lent me and the latrine stopper keeps rats out of my cell.
May 23: I went out to the yard. I took my vitamins. Normando again gave me some candies. Captain Vázquez (?) is worried because I refuse food. I told him it’s very poor. He said I should make an effort. I told him that I find it nauseating, that he should speak to someone to improve it. He tried to explain the situation the country is in. I told him I am in prison precisely because I wanted to improve the situation the country is in. The food (?) problem could become more serious between him and me. I am not willing, nor is my stomach prepared, for such slop. I refused lunch. Must not forget my previous description of what they call food. Then again, it’s no wonder–if out in the streets, supposedly enjoying freedom, the food is horrible, what can we expect in here?
In the evening they “reinforced” the meal. I accepted the bread, already described, and a small piece of chicken. Hallelujah, they provided some cold water! Why wouldn’t they provide it every day and instead make us drink out of the faucet? They also gave us swill they called coffee. I have thought of the inevitable reprisals when these pages are published. I’m prepared. If for simply doing journalism they sentenced me to 18 years, nothing now can be more unjust or out of proportion. I wondered at the expulsion of the Cuban “diplomats” from the U.S. It would seem they don’t want to follow Castro’s example, by jailing opponents and journalists. One would think they have room for those who write with different opinions.
May 24: (Saturday, overcast) Grey, humid day. It rained last night. I finished reading “Till Death Do Us Part” by John Dickson Carr.
[Taken from the CubaNet web site, www.cubanet.org]
May 31: By morning, I was waiting for my family’s visit. It would be the first time that I could really talk to them. My daughter Tairelsy and my son Gabriel came. They are beautiful. The truth is I exercised good taste in choosing their mothers. Yoly is the real hero. What a great woman! Gabriel brought me photographs of all the people I love. Someone by the name of Moisés, from the Department of State Security, was by the house bothering Yolanda. He threatened to imprison her and to have Gabriel declared “a son of the fatherland.” They would hit a wall. Yolanda is made of stern stuff. I never wanted to get her mixed up in my beliefs and my activities, but the government stooges are not going to realize that now she is only defending her husband from injustice. It’s good that the world know. Tyrants’ cruelty has no limits.
The visit was stimulating. And, surprise, by the time I went back to my cell, I found they had changed the old, torn, dirty mattress for a foam rubber one. My bones will appreciate it. I didn’t sleep well. Too much heat, too many mosquitoes, too many ideas, too much to remember. I shared my food, the one my family brought, with Próspero and Normando. Our morale is high. The common prisoners still show solidarity and the guards are still respectful.
Tomorrow I’ll try to write letters to my brothers Darío and Arturo, to my friends Ernestico and Oscar Mario, Anita, Betty, and Maité. Writing letters keeps my love for people alive in the midst of all this misery. The guards check every letter I send.
June 1: Now that I have photographs, in the mornings I say hello to those I love. Then I pray and read a passage from the Bible. Then literature. I’m finishing Personal Matter, by Kenzaburo Oe, an existential novel in the way of Camus about the fallout of the atomic explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s good, if sordid. Thank God, Yoly brought me some books. I have enough to read for at least a month. Among other things, she brought Yeats’ complete works. Too bad I have nothing by Quevedo.
Today I wore the sexy underpants Yoly brought. It’s almost good enough to perform a strip-tease to the music of Perez Prado’s Patricia. Another advantage to the visit: I can have coffee, (Yoly brought instant) I can fend off the odors, I can clean my cell, (she brought me a mop) I can write (she brought me paper) I can eat (she brought plenty of food) I can live (she brought her love and my children). It it weren’t for Castro, I could say I’m happy.
June 2: I woke up with longing. I remembered my first words in the morning: “Dear, let me have some coffee.” When I realized Yoly wasn’t here, I made my own coffee. I drank it and smoked. I prayed and read a passage about Jesus from the Bible. I finished Personal Matter. It has a beautiful ending. The love of man for his succession triumphs. The novel is a good pamphlet about the struggle against nuclear proliferation. I refused the prison food. I don’t think I’ll accept it while my new supplies last. They took me out to the yard under the noonday Sun. Today they photographed us again, and the military doctor examined us. I still have high blood pressure. We were vaccinated against leptospirosis and meningoencefalitis. It’s about time. Rats are all over and the insects too. I hope the vaccine doesn’t cause any unpleasant reaction. The only thing left now is for them to sew a number on our butts. We are dangerous indeed! It rained. The hill I see from my west window looked beautiful in the mist. I say west window as if I had another one. My cell has only one eye on the world, and the world ends at that bare hill, where the trees have been cut down mercilessly. The electrical storm was worse than the rain. After, there was a drizzle that refreshed the afternoon. It had been hot. The morale of us seven politicals remains high. Nelson and I ran into each other at the photographs and medical exams, and I was able to embrace him. With Villarreal, Normando, and Juan Carlos, we manage to shout conversations across the prison yard. That night, I had a headache. I took Tylenol and didn’t fall asleep until late.
June 3: My arm is sore, it must be the vaccine. It’s good to have coffee. Too bad I don’t have hot water, it would taste better. I prayed and read a passage from the Bible. Later I started re-reading Carpentier’s short stories.
The day is long, tedious. If only I had a typewriter! Sometimes I become impatient waiting for the Ministry of the Interior to let me borrow the Sun for one hour. The yard is a good interlude to the boredom of the small lodgings.
Norges Cervantes, a blind man who’s been in prison for more than four years, roars against the guards. Alberto Díaz Sifonte, a 24-year-old from Morón who’s sentenced to death for his involvment in a jail break in Ciego de Ávila in which several guards were killed, yells he wants to be taken to the hospital. The homosexual confined near Normando (he’s in cell 2) sings out of tune trying to imitate Shakira as he bangs on his cell door trying to get the guards to bring him a pain killer. I have to make an effort to read. How many prisons in Cuba? How many prisoners?
Officer Sabino brought me the magnetic cards for the phone. Yoly gave him the money to buy them for me. He told me he still didn’t know the date for our conjugal visit, which we wanted to accelerate due to Gabriel’s upcoming operation. The day of the visit, May 31, I told Yoly that she and the boy should go to the United States for the operation. Neither one would agree. They don’t want to go without me. The boy said, “Papi, I’ll burn here with you.” I held back the tears. His eyes had watered when he first saw me, and I made a joke about some dirt in his eye.
At night, I thought about the methods of the Cuban political police. I had learned they went around the neighborhood, and by Gabriel’s school. Whatever they learned, won’t be any good in the demoralizing show they put on against the dissidents. I know in my block everybody spoke well about me, and in the boy’s school they found more of the same. How far would they go in the effort to show the world that government opponents are people of dubious morals and social misfits?
June 4: It’s been two months since the farce in which they sentenced me to 18 years in prison. The courtroom looked like a TV studio. It’s too bad they weren’t able to use the video tapes in their propaganda. The manly attitude of the independent journalists is not what they wanted to show. I think I messed up their script. Someday I’ll tell the story of the “trial.” It’s wasn’t even a fixed trial; t was a military order that they wanted to legitimize through flunkies who tarnish the name of jurisprudence. Any government that has to stoop to these tricks is not going well. I actually felt sorry for the defense attorneys, trying very hard to make clear their allegiance to the “Revolution” so they wouldn’t end up being tried themselves. It was evident they were more concerned with establishing they were Revolutionaries than in defending us. Now I can, like T. S. Eliot, say “April is the cruelest month.” April 4 is a bad day for me. On April 4, my mother gave me 18 knocks on the head for joining the Young Pioneers [government youth organization] without her permission. This last April 4, they gave me 18 years for writing without permission. The first time I was a child, this second I’m an old man. It seems repression does not work; either that or I’m very stubborn. By now I should be an anarchist. Instead, I believe in democracy, even though I haven’t known it all my life. Maybe before I die, I’ll be able to help establish it in my country.
I obtained, for the small price of a pack of cigarettes, the list of prisoners with whom I share the cell block. From it, one can draw some conclusions.
Cell 1: Alfredo Rondón Duarte, 29. Murder. Death. Pending.
Cell 2: Normando Hernández, 33. CR (counter revolutionary). Independent journalist in real life. 25 years.
Cell 3: Norges Cervantes Doscal, 36. Murder. Death. Pending. He has been blind for four years.
Cell 4: Fernando Núñez Guerrero, 37. Murder. Life.
Cell 8: Francisco Portuondo Medina, 37. Murder. Death. Pending.
Cell 13: Lamberto Hernández Plana, 34. 12 years
Cell 14: Próspero Gaínza, 44. CR. Peaceful government opponent. 25 years.
Cell 10: Lorenzo Boll Reliz, 36. Murder. Life.
Cell 17: Urbano Escalona Borba, 26. 8 years. Infected with HIV.
Cell 18: Andrés Núñez Ramos, 41. Life.
Cell 19: Juan Carlos Mores Figuerola, 41. Life.
Cell 21: Miguel Quirot Gerón, 20. 8 years. Infected with HIV.
Cell 16: Yanier Osorio Hernández, 26. Life.
Cell 23: Carlos Luis Díaz Fernández, 33. 8 years for trying to leave the country illegally.
Cell 25: Jorge Ochoa Leyva, 37. Murder. Life. Pending.
Cell 26: René Mustelier Savigne, 32. Murder. Death. Pending.
Cell 28: Alberto Díaz Pérez, 24. Murder. Death. Pending.
Cell 31: Manuel Vázquez Portal, 51. CR. 18 years. Independent journalist in real life.
Cell 32: Antonio de la Cruz Argote, 37. Strong-arm robbery. Life.
Cell 36: Ovni Bárzaga Garrido, 29. Murder and strong-arm robbery. 38 years.
Every one of them, except myself, is younger than Castro’s Revolution, that is to say, a children of the Revolution.
This cell block is for the most dangerous criminals and also serves as death row.
We are mixed in with AIDS sufferers.
With these people we share an hour in the yard. Every day with a different one.
Our name for the cell block is Boniatico or little Boniato. It’s maximum security; hands and ankles cuffed at every turn, to go out to the yard, to make a phone call, to go to the hospital, to take a medicine, etc.