Tag Archives: Cuban prisons

Guantanamera . . . (episode 46)

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November 14 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

Querida Mama

I have just had a bundle of mosquito netting (and a rather cross note from Ralph) delivered to our cell. He says he doesn’t know why you thought he might have such a net – and that he’s had to ask someone called Hortense to run one up from some, rather florally-decorated, net curtains!

The days wend by slowly here. We seem to spend many hours standing at attention, and in full uniform, out in the compound and I have seen women faint and simply left to lie where they have fallen. We have to recite endless communist sayings, whose intended effect is presumably to brainwash us into believing that the regime is good for the people and that all comrades will flourish. But I feel mainly brainwashed by the sight of the fronds of a distant palm tree skirmishing in the wind.

One good thing is that I have made a friend of one of the women in my cell. Her name is Catalina and she has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for shooting her husband dead while he was sleeping in their bed. This sounds terrible, I know, but she tells me that he had beaten her, and the children, for many years – and that both her bones (and her spirit) became broken over the years. She tells me that she simply could not conceive of a way out of it, for she had nowhere else to go, and that she became apathetic and helpless. It was only, in the end, when Juan kept on whispering – at night – that he was going to kill both her and the little ones, that she, dead-eyed, reached for the gun.

In Cuba, apparently, domestic violence is not a crime in and of itself. it falls under the broader category of ‘assault’ and penalties relate to the severity of the injuries caused. Catalina tells me that the issue of ‘machismo’ is a serious one in Cuba and that men may ‘want to acquire you like an orange, to be enjoyed, or thrown away . . .’ A man called Jose Marti – he is a national icon – came up with those words I think. Well I should know what that feels like Mama, shouldn’t I? After all, I was only ‘an orange’ in Austen’s eyes, for such a long time.

So, last night, the four of us women in our cell, sang the song ‘Guantanamera’ (Girl from Guantanamo) in the light from candles in the dark. And we ate the crumbs of bitter chocolate that one of them had received in a visit from her relatives. Catalina leant her head against my shoulder and her dark hair fell against my skin. I could feel her heart fluttering against my ribs, and I think this sensation will remain with me long after I (hopefully) am freed from this place and leave her still locked inside. I think perhaps that the sound of singing voices here, represents the sound of a woman’s pain.

I remember hearing this song sang by Jose Feliciano and it has always haunted me:

‘Yo soy un hombre sincero
(I am an honest man)

De donde crece la palma
(From where the palm trees grow) . . .

Con los pobres de la sierra
(With the people of the earth)

Quiero yo mi suerte le echar
(I want to cast my lot)’

Those aren’t such bad lyrics are they Mama? I think Marti had something to do with them also.

Hasta otro dia

Harriet

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