Desconfianza . . . (episode 43)

Blue containership with containers 7

October 28 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

Querida Mama

I am just about as far as it is possible to get from the container ship ‘Sugar Cane Sue.’ And I never got to see the Havana Botanical Gardens. I never really got out of the city. I met Edgar in a wine bar while consoling myself, in my loneliness, in a wine bar. And, like Austen, he exuded intoxicating sexual warmth in the way that only a man of beauty and charm can. I won’t go into the (predictable) details, but it seems that I must be the type of woman who never learns.

Ultimately, we ended up at Havana International Airport – having spent a week in New York – and I was the recipient of Edgar’s earnest entreaties to get about 100g of marijuana past customs. I didn’t want to mum, but he looked at me through his exuberant lashes and said, ‘Come now carissima. It will be alright.’ Excuse me if I’ve got the Spanish wrong here; I never was much good at languages. So I ended up taping this stuff behind both of my knees with duck tape and, speaking of knees, they were both knocking so hard all the way through the concourse, that they must have sounded like castanets at customs. Of course – I’m sure I must have looked frightened – I was detained, while Edgar sailed through with barely a backward glance. In fact, I’m sure I heard him say, ‘I hardly know her’ when asked if he knew me. That sounds like something Austen would have said doesn’t it?

The long and the short of it mum, is that I have been sentenced to a year in a Cuban women’s prison, at the end of which my visitor’s visa will have just about expired. I’d heard of ‘desconfianza’ of course – the fear of state surveillance which permeates the heart of every citizen – but it was considerably muffled behind the walls of Edgar’s casa, and even more muffled by the cases of wine that we consumed. I can feel the sweat of fear now, on my face and my fingertips, because the writing of letters is prohibited in here. It is only the courage of Ana-Maria (Edgar’s housekeeper) – who has brought me in paper, and a pencil, which has enabled me to write to you.

The physical conditions are only just bearable. I share a 4m x 3m cell with three other women and there is no electricity. At one end of the space is a 20cm hole in the ground into which we urinate and, above it, is a 5cm pipe through which water to drink, and to wash in, comes when the guards turn it on (which is not often). There is just one, high window, through which I can just about glimpse sky. The air is hot, and oppressive, with humidity and – perhaps the worse, and most feared, thing of all – is the mosquitoes, which whine in our ears all night. My skin is red and swollen with their bites. One woman has just been returned to our cell from the punishment area and her skin seems to have been bitten. I asked one of the other women what this was and she told me it was the rats which come up through the pipes in search of food, and human warmth, in winter. She is very thin, the newcomer, and can’t seem to stop coughing. She is a political prisoner, so they say, and they get the worst treatment of all.

I’m going to go now mum. This little scrap of paper is all used up.

Hasta siempre

Harriet

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