The punishment cells . . . (episode 49)

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November 28 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

THOUGHTS IN ISOLATION

My mind crouches in the filth and darkness Mum. I imagine this to you, repeatedly, to keep madness away. There is no light and barely any water. I sit by the pipe, at the end of the cell, waiting for it to be turned on. My tongue bakes in my mouth. I have only been here for three breakfasts and, already, my thoughts chatter.

I pulled a guard off of Catalina; I saw his buttocks push above his trousers, the slick black of his hair. I heard her cry. I got hold of his rubber cane and whacked him across the shoulders. I have never seen a man’s face so convulsed, convulsed with its own power. They can do anything to you here. Nobody sees.

I have learned a lot in the time I have been here Mum. You told me that perhaps now, un-weighted by Austen, I would start to learn – start to think – and I know you are right. In the weeks I spent in the shared cell, I listened to Catalina talk. She told me things that you just don’t realize sitting about, drinking cocktails, in a hotel in Havana. She told me that, here in Cuba, in 1998, it is not possible to vote for a political party different to the one in power. And that, even as a school teacher, or as a patient visiting the doctor, you have a political file in your name. And it’s one which assesses your conformity to the ruling power. People are frightened to speak in case they are imprisoned for ‘enemy propaganda.’

She told me about ‘El Bloqueo’ – the blockade – which represents America’s determination to end the crushing of human rights in Cuba, by blockading free movements of trade. As things stand, not even food, or medicines, or medical equipment, can enter the country from the States. Ships can still come, from other countries, to offload these things in Cuba, but they can’t then call in at an American port for 180 days. And this must be why the water is cloudy, and swimming, with a life of its own. There just can’t be enough tablets to purify it.

I was shocked to hear Mum, that thousands of Cuban citizens tried to leave the country – on boats and rafts – as recently as 1994. They couldn’t leave by any other means because Cuba wants to keep its citizens in. Apparently, many of these ‘balseros’ died in the struggle to reach the shores of America. Their crafts were just too frail to contend with the sea. I hope none of this will be so in twenty years’ time, say, in 2018. I hope the two countries will agree on some quota for migration by then.

Other than that, I keep hearing cries through the blocks of cement. A woman is crying the same thing, over and over again. She is crying, ‘I’ll cut, I’ll cut, I’ll cut . . ‘ She was here before me. I could hear sounds coming through faintly. I have heard about this too. These are the sounds of a woman gone mad, a woman who is cutting herself, and who may go unheard, until it is too late.

I don’t think I’ll be here much longer Mum. I am a British citizen still, after all. And we live in a democracy.

Hasta siempre

Harriet

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