Cuba: Poetry Behind Bars

Isbel Diaz Torres

Mario Castillo during the 2010 Mayday march.

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 18 — The saddest thing was seeing how they took Mario Castillo away in handcuffs. But then again, it was also the most beautiful: seeing the firm look on his face, with no hatred for those men who couldn’t understand.

On Friday 17 people read poetry in a bar on a corner of Old Havana. It’s one of those poor bars that don’t show up in the “Rutas y Andares” (Routes and Walks) issued by the City Historian’s Office. The reading was sponsored by Critical Observatory in a salute to the Poetry Without End Festival – and it was beautiful.

Mario improvised some moving verses to the sound of a reggaeton rap and a libertarian spirit. Daisy read “El burocrata” by Roque Dalton, and Marfrey brought his own poems, which shocked everyone.

All this was done while being careful to remain properly seated, four people per table, as we were repeatedly requested by the suspicious but friendly manager of the watering hole. All of this went on while we fulfilled the obligation to “consume” (drink rum) so that they would let us read poetry there.

At around 6 pm we left the bar, since some people wanted to conclude the day watching the sunset from the Malecon seawall.

As we said goodbye to the other group out on the sidewalk, a handsome young police officer came up to us asking for our documentation. With no desire to make a scene, we all began handing him our ID cards – except for Mario, who had lost his.

There began the second part of our day.

The officer had been told (we don’t know by whom) that we were having an “unauthorized conversation.” Moreover, according to this rookie cop, non-Cubans were breaking the law by consuming in a facility not designed for tourists.

Mario Castillo during the first “Leer Poesia” (read poetry) meeting presented by the Critical Observatory.

Of course it was futile trying to explain that our comrades who were visiting us didn’t have the kind of money to pay for drinks in an “establishment for tourists.”

The officer didn’t even ask for everyone’s documentation; the fact he had found just one undocumented individual was enough to satisfy him. Therefore he called for a patrol car to come and pick him up and take him down to the police station. The rest of us remained there with Mario on that same corner, where we waited around for two hours.

During that time we ended up drinking the last of rum, while Mario read a little more of his poetry and even talked at length with the officer, who after an hour was replaced by another one.

The second police officer explained to me that the first one had only been on the job for a few days. This first policeman had called the station several times to cancel Mario’s arrest, but his higher-ups didn’t accept your request. On one occasion he was heard sighing saying “oh, Cuba…Cuba.”

Our crew had been joined by Javier, a local resident who during our readings had become curious about what we were doing, not to mention his attraction for the rum we were drinking. He stayed with us the entire time, giving us recommendations on how to deal with the police.

People from the Critical Observatory organization who weren’t there also followed the events over the phone and made calls around in search of assistance.

It was dark by the time the patrol car came. After two hours of talking and laughing on the corner with the officers, it was still necessary to frisk and handcuff Mario. Such a ridiculous and embarrassing spectacle filled me with pain. One of the most respected, wise and revolutionary youth I know was being publicly treated like a common criminal.

We walked over to the station on Dragones and Agramonte streets and waited, as a fine rain sprinkling us intermittently without getting us wet. For more than two more hours Mario remained in a cell, unjustifiably held behind bars, waiting for them to give him a simple fine.

Mario Castle together with leaders of the Abakua fraternal order during this year’s tribute to the men who died on November 27, 1871.

Every 20 minutes one of us persistently requested information about our partner. We were never attended in the lobby of the main entrance, where citizens are received; instead, we had to knock on a dark iron door on the side of the police station.

Finally, Mario came out. We hugged and laughed as each of us went back to their home. A simple arrest for being undocumented had caused our poetry reading to take a totally unplanned turn.

Our solidarity was tested for four hours, but it was strengthened. This had been a little training. We came to understand that poetry is not as harmless as it seems, especially when sometimes some people need to put it behind bars.

2 thoughts on “Cuba: Poetry Behind Bars

  • Let us not be naive – ANYWHERE in the world if the police stops you and asks for your documents, and you don’t have them in your hands, you’re going to spend some time in a police station.

  • Quite a story! I’m glad it had a happy ending. You are right that “poetry is not as harmless as it seems.” It can be culturally critical (in both meanings of the word) and a powerful yet entertaining educational tool.

    Canadian poet and artist Patrick White wrote a book of poetry entitled “Homage to Victor Jara.” It was published in 1985, complete with Spanish translation by Juan O’Neill. In case you are not familiar with Victor Jara, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called him “a great poet, singer, social justice activist, actor and a man essential for understanding Chile’s national identity,” during a 2009 ceremony to honor him.

    An online news article (People’s World) I found also noted: “Jara is revered as a champion of Chile’s working people and a national symbol of resistance during the dark years of the Pinochet regime. He came from humble rural roots and rose to become one of the country’s beloved musicians and well-known theater director in the 1960s and early 1970s…Many believe Jara helped pave the way for Allende’s democratically elected rise to power.”

    Sometimes poetry is harmless but, more often, it is essential.

Comments are closed.