What I Experienced During and After Hearing Obama’s Speech Live

“You’ve Been Watching Too Many Movies”

Erasmo Calzadilla

Illustración: pijamasurf.com

HAVANA TIMES — As Obama was landing in Cuba I got a call from the US Embassy. They invited me to attend the speech the US president would deliver at Havana’s Gran Teatro, before members of civil society, on March 22. Incidentally, my beloved and only grandmother would be turning 89 that day.

Witnessing this historical event struck me as a magnificent opportunity and I accepted immediately, but there was one obstacle to overcome. The invitation, designed by a Cuban institution, it said one had to wear a suit. Why would members of civil society need to put on a suit to welcome Obama?

I don’t own any suits and I don’t like wearing them. I decided to put on a pair of jeans and a Latin American styled nightshirt. If they didn’t let me in looking like that, I’d write a post complaining about this.

The morning of March 22, an extraordinary security operation was underway in the vicinity of the theater. Several surrounding blocks had been secured by thousands of agents. After a long walk, I finally found the official entrance. No one said anything about my clothes and I headed straight for my seat to have a nap there.

A short time later, I began to notice much tension around me. There were State Security agents everywhere, as was to be expected, but they looked nervous. The entire row behind me was occupied by agents and, from there, they kept an indiscrete eye on each of our movements, filming us with the cell phones openly. It was clear they weren’t only concerned over Obama’s and Raul Castro’s personal security, that they were worried about more than this.

Some rather odd ushers approached me to ask if I needed anything. “Could I have a glass of water?” Finally, they sat next to me a fellow who wouldn’t take his eyes off me and would constantly point out details, such as “look, you dropped a bit of paper.” All of this made me nervous, so much so that I was barely able to follow the historical address.

Also, the apparatus had handed out the bulk of the invitations among its flock. These people gave Raul Castro an extremely warm welcome and Obama’s words a rather cold reception (with the exception of those moments when Obama acknowledged the regime’s achievements, of course).

Fearing I would not be let in, I didn’t take my camera with. I would later be very glad about this.

Act Two

Up goes the curtain again. I’m in Havana, a few blocks up from the theater, trying to catch a bus that will take me back to Alamar, the neighborhood on the outskirts of the city where I live. Some streets are still closed off and public transportation has practically come to a standstill. I bought a bag of bread to have a snack and headed for a bus stop near the Parque de la Fraternidad, to start my patient wait. Everything seemed calm about me.

Suddenly, I see a large crowd and people shouting and running. I thought Obama might be touring the area and ran over to see for myself. What I found, however, was something altogether different: a group of women sprawled on the ground, clinging to one another, shouting desperate, unintelligible things, while some brawny men dressed in civilian clothes tried to separate them, hitting them, arm locks and tugs. There were many people around, filming the incident with their cell phones and murmuring, but no one intervened.

I got to the scene of the crime with both hands occupied: one hand held the bag of bread and the other the Latin American nightshirt, which I’d taken off just before because of the heat. Instinctively, I dropped everything and grabbed one of the hands of the abusers. The guy swung around as though to punch me in the face, but what he did was wrap an arm around my neck and shove me all the way down to a bus that was parked nearby. I was able to hold on to the door and resist a few minutes, until they finally subdued me. Right at the door of the bus, in the manner of a spectacular finish, they hit me on the head with the bag of bread. They put other people who had taken part in a demonstration (I was able to gather all this little by little) inside and the bus took off.

Some thirty strong-looking men kept us under control. Some of them threatened to beat me to death and shouted phrases like: “You think you own the streets, but the streets belong to Fidel and revolutionaries.” They were awkward, ignorant people, as though pulled out off a construction site, the types of characters they typically use in public reprisals. One of them noticed the papers I was carrying in one of my pockets and, thinking these were political pamphlets, struggled with me to grab them. It was my agenda and the invitation to Obama’s speech. They never returned these to me.

They took us into the police station on Zanja Street entering through a back door, without an official reception. We were not officially there. The women who had been “captured” continued to scream non-stop and would not cooperate. One of them was named Sonia, if memory serves me right, and I think she was or is a member of Cuba’s Ladies in White.

The men were thrown into a cell next to common inmates. It was five of us, in total, and we sat close together. One of them, Alberto, is a man around 70 who has ties to the dissident group UNPACU. There was another fellow around 50 and two young men around 25, relatives of Alberto and Sonia. They all looked very humble, with little education but extremely brave.

The young men combined a tough-guy attitude with political rebelliousness. They were mad as hell. The old man was trying to calm them down, telling them the struggle was for a noble cause and couldn’t become violent. He spoke to them of Ghandi. That scrawny, almost haggard black man wearing work boots and showing an injured rib and knee from previous beatings, speaking of Gandhi in a jail cell in street lingo, made a deep impression on me.

There were around ten other men in the cell. Some had been there for several days. There was no drinking water and one had to ask the guards, to see if they would let you out for some. I didn’t see the guards deny anyone water, but the situation lends itself to police abuse.

A short time later, they brought in a shady character they had arrested out on the street. This is a common practice in these crisis situations. The police use these people to keep people frightened and separate. The man hit the wall with his fists and seemed to have a bone to pick with the dissidents. He would say he was a criminal, not a counterrevolutionary, that dissidents had complicated everything and he still wasn’t earning a cent. I was afraid that it would end up in a brawl.

They called us in to interrogate us, one by one. The members of UNPACU went in first and came out quickly, bragging of not having cooperated. One of them shared the response he’s prepared when they ask him his name: “You want to know my name? Jot this down. Got your pencil ready? My full name is Down with Fidel Castro. You got that, or should I repeat it for you?”

Four hours later, it was my turn. The man who interrogated me was a young security officer, with long hair and tattoos. He asked me what organization I belonged to and why I was yelling anti-government slogans out on the street. I replied that I belonged to no organization and that I didn’t yell anything. They insist and I set my foot down. “I won’t say another word without a lawyer.”

A female officer lets out a hearty laugh. “You’ve been seeing too many movies!” “I’m aware it’s crazy to expect a lawyer,” I reply, “but that’s how things should be, so you can’t trample the rights of the detained.” “Sure,” one officer who looked like a superior said, “you’ll get one right over there.” They cuffed my hands behind my back and put me in a van with the rest of the gang. The oldest among us thought they were taking us to Vivac, a political prison.

Traveling like that was extremely uncomfortable. One of the young men complained constantly. The more seasoned of the lot passed their hands under their buttocks to place them in front of them. We conversed, trying to distract ourselves so as not to suffer too much. All the time, particularly inside the van, I was thinking about Huber Matos. At one point, Huber Matos had a lumbar crisis and they took him to the doctor with his hands tied behind his back. It must have been horrible.

Vivac is located in Calabazar, a peripheral neighborhood in the municipality of Arrollo Naranjo. It covers about a hundred square meters and is made up of several facilities that resemble plastic containers. The place is relatively distant. If someone screams, no one in the surrounding neighborhoods is likely to hear them.

When we got there, they uncuffed us and took us into a large room. They called us one by one. The members of UNPACU know they’re going to be detained there, they are perfectly aware of this and are talking about starting a hunger strike.

I wasn’t afraid of being locked up. I ached from all the struggling but I felt happy to be a witness. I had a privileged perspective which I tried to take advantage of. The one thing I was worried about was my family. They didn’t know where I was and I wanted to tell them I had left for another province, see if my grandmother bought that. To find out I’d been arrested on the day of her birthday would have given her a heart attack.

I was interrogated several times by different people. The last to do so was a State Security officer, another young person. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him. Then, he tried to find out about Havana Times, other aspects of my life, my visits to the US Embassy. They wanted to know if “they” had instructed me to take part in the counterrevolutionary demonstration.

I refused to answer any more questions, I wanted a lawyer. “I’m a lawyer,” he said to me. “and you can’t have legal assistance until charges have been pressed. Have you been accused of something?”

He continued to ask me questions, trying to earn my confidence, exploring my weaknesses. I stayed quiet, but he did manage to affect me psychologically, to get me to the point I was about to cry or shout. They study those techniques.

They let me go at around seven at night. Public transportation was still bad but I was able to get to my grandmother’s house and give her a kiss on her 89th birthday, as though nothing had happened.
—–
Notes:

  • If anyone comes across my shirt at Parque de la Fraternidad, please bring it back to me. It’s a keepsake.
  • I would like to ask Sate Security to give me back my agenda, after they’re done analyzing it. I have all my phone numbers there. Is it too much to ask?

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.

7 thoughts on “What I Experienced During and After Hearing Obama’s Speech Live

  • These women being smacked and detained were just expressing anti-governmental points of view pacifically. Do you aprove of the way they are treared?

  • Thank you for sharing your story, Erasmo. I think it takes a lot of courage to step in and try to help strangers whom you believe are being harmed.

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