People say the city of Baracoa is one of the prettiest corners of this country, especially for those who are fanatical about nature or feminine charm. That’s why one summer about two or three years ago my friend Onel and I headed out to the highway to hitchhike our way to the island’s “hot land.”
We had spent a semester dreaming about the trip and squirreling away the all-important pesos. The plan was to climb one of the mountains in Guantanamo Province and to then go hiking along a river heading toward the country’s “first city.”
Everything went as planned until we got to the control checkpoint at the Guantanamo border; that’s where things stated to get a little complicated. For no other reason than our looks, the police ordered us off the bus, directed us into a squad car and drove us to their infernal hellhole of a police station.
We ended up in separate cells that were already filled with “nagüitos” (that’s how people from Guantanamo refer to themselves). They turned out to be some great folks, though in the beginning they were just some dark lumps on pallets scattered around on the floor.
Both of us had our own panic attacks: Onel started hallucinating, and I freaked out from claustrophobia and the lack of fresh air. The only oxygen coming into the room was from a slot at the edge of the ceiling and through the crack under the door, which was just that. To get my nose closer to that space, I ended up sleeping in a puddle of bathroom water, and even in that position I was still suffocating. All I wanted to do was scream…to call for help, but I was afraid how the other detainees would react. Would they hit me? Or would they pull me away from the door? – in which case I’d really suffocate.
Eventually I fell asleep, or lost consciousness. The following day I was ecstatic when I found I could breathe with no problems in any corner of the tiny cell. My body seemed to have adapted quickly to the lack of oxygen, but anyone with marginal health would have died, I’m sure they would have died.
The dark lumps turned out to be a “veteran illegal killer of livestock” and a young pickpocket. Both had spent weeks there being “softened up,” though without their being softened (meaning they hadn’t admitted to the crimes they’d been charged of).
The deserved description of this holding tank as a place to “soften people up” was owed to it being so closed and hot that it is like a pressure cooker on a stove – a place where the hardest wills usually weaken.
Plus there weren’t any beds to sleep on and everything was always dark, which was preferable because when they turned on the light you’d fry. Men in that atmosphere give off an acidic stench that I’d never smelled before and that I’ll never forget.
My cellmates were sociable types. We had no problems sharing our meager belongings (toothpaste and soap) and we passed the time away talking about nothing and singing, though we would sometimes go for hours in absolute silence or other hours crying and trying to beating the wall.
Even still, they would try to cheer me up: “Havana-man, they’re kicking you outta here tomorrow. We’re the ones who are screwed.” But tomorrow didn’t come. From them I found out that many independent backpackers were being given the same treatment.
Two times they took me out into a brightly lit, air-conditioned interrogation room (on the way there I could see that there were nearly 20 cells like “mine”).
Between goading and threats, just for the hell they tried to pressure me into admitting that our real destination was the Guantanamo Naval Base. I was filled with rage, a rage that didn’t leave me, not for a single second during the time I was held.
Out of that anger I refused to eat starting on the first day, but they acted as if they hadn’t noticed. Nor did they allow us to make telephone calls. We had each promised to call home before going into in the countryside, so by then our mothers were beside themselves.
On the fourth day, freedom finally came along with an “invitation” to immediately leave the province. I naively began arguing with one guard – me protesting against the violation of my rights and him defending the indefensible; but he ran out of patience quickly.
He got fed up with gesturing to me and I’m sure he would have attacked me or thrown me back in the cell if another guard hadn’t intervened – one who was no less a son of a bitch but was more cool headed.
On top of all that, since we had to leave the province at once, we never made it to Baracoa.
While there in jail my skin became covered with bumps and a rash. Afterwards I couldn’t get rid of the reeking jailhouse odor for several days, and our mental disorientation recovered slowly.
But the worst thing was and continues to be the fact of having been abused and humiliated in our own country. That’s why I’m hardly surprised when I hear a horror story and secrecy perpetrated by some agent of the Interior Ministry.
I filed a legal complaint, but six months later I was called in for them to explain to me that there hadn’t been the slightest violation on their part and to notify me that if I planned to ever put another foot in Guantanamo again I would have to notify them immediately or be prepared to be arrested once again. It was like reliving the torture.
I know that for years the Guantanamo Naval Base has been a torture center administered by the US military, with its victims lacking any legal assistance. This diary entry is to call attention to the whole picture of what’s happening in Cuba’s eastern most province.