HAVANA TIMES – A friend who is leaving asked my husband and I to meet at the National Museum of Fine Art to say goodbye.
In front of the entrance, of huge glass windows, what should have been a hug became an unexpected greeting:
“Nobody outside of Havana knows what Law 349 [that criminalizes independent art] is and they don’t want to know. Just so you know what you’re mixed up in.”
Somewhat uneasy, I chose to smile, I don’t know whether that was a conditioned reflex or a defense mechanism. I don’t expect to have to defend myself.
Sitting in the cafe now, he tells us about his latest run-in with State Security. Involuntary, of course. Out of fear of losing his upcoming trip abroad. Luckily, everything went well. Because of what he told State Security agents, or better yet, what he didn’t tell them.
He isn’t a life-long friend, and we haven’t shared hard times together. But, we have shared (and put into practice) the dream of creating artistic projects. Of defending alternative art. The right to defend minorities who are discriminated against, to speak out about what we feel is unfair.
We have shared the dream of seeing change in Cuba. Of creating the society we want. Of not being forced to emigrate.
He touches his cellphone screen: he shows us photos of a friend’s exhibition, in the country’s interior. He speaks about the importance of approaching officials who have real power. Not only over allowing an exhibition to take place or not, but of being able to buy a piece of art. You have to work them over, invite them for a drink, insist.
Then, he suddenly says:
“Enough about me already, tell me about you guys.”
I suggest that my husband talk about his meeting with State Security. He says, with no enthusiasm whatsoever:
“You tell it instead, you were also there.”
I begin to talk about the “interview” at the police station in Old Havana.
Our friend leans back in his chair. He agrees like someone who is willingly listening. He turns his gaze towards the window, where you can see the street, cars, people walking past. Old people, young people, pretty girls…
I don’t know whether it’s worth carrying on with the story. I don’t know whether it’s worth trying to get his attention.
With bloodchilling details? There weren’t any. He suddenly interrupts me to speak about his “interview” again.
I feel like everything I say is a push. I have to try really hard to get a word in. I turn to my husband and I understand the expression on his face. A combination of exhaustion and sadness.
The friend tells us: “Ask for whatever you like.”
Oh yes, an ice-cream, a soft drink, an expresso coffee.
Savoring his drink, he touches his cellphone screen: he shows us photos and photos from his latest trip. Streets, churches, museums… in Holland, Germany.
“These people invented everything,” he says with admiration, flicking through pictures from his trip to Berlin.
“Yes, they also invented Fascism.”
I realize that the phrase escaped my lips, like a kind of cough.
He takes out an incredible piece from the museum which he bought for 8 euros: a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The wall that was knocked down there and clumped together here. The wall that hugs onto silence, around the island, in its institutions and homes, the open sky and inside every Cuban.
I don’t know how we ended up talking about Decree-Law 349. My husband and I livened up for a moment. We wanted to tell him about happy times, about small victories.
Once again, I had to fight to get a word in. Once again, exhaustion.
“I can’t get mixed up in that, you understand don’t you?”
“Of course,” we said in unison.
We wanted to say that everyone has their time. That everyone is free to do or not do as they please. That such doesn’t determine the value of a friendship.
“I don’t aspire to change the government,” I tell him “just…”
“But do they know?,” he interrupted me.
I finished the sentence in my head. “I don’t know if they know, I just know that too many things aren’t right. Things that you also know about… And of course, the government will need to be changed. Not so much the people but concepts. The messed up thing is that these people won’t change concepts. They refuse to change: everything they have destroyed and everything they have yet to destroy.”
“It doesn’t make sense to fight against them,” he said, “these people have tremendous power.”
He opens up the laptop and shows us pictures of the scan of his unborn child.
An idea floats about in my head.
“And who gives them this power?” I ask.
Pictures are just moving points. The embryo protected in that warm uterus, safe.
“You haven’t answered my question,” I insist, “who gives them power?”
The moving points make out a girl.
“She will be born in March,” he says full of energy.
The daughter of a European woman and Cuban man. She will be born in a country with comfortable homes and full Internet access. With efficient transport. With immaculate streets which sick animals don’t travel down, victims of abuse. A country where stoplights make a sound to help guide the blind and visually-impaired to safely cross the street. Where old people don’t have “symbolic” pensions.
A democratic society, without a cultural law. Without Decree-Law 349, of course.
“You have to make a pact with them, otherwise you don’t exist,” he says, while he closes his laptop and pays the bill.
Before leaving, I go to the bathroom. I feel dizzy, confused. Sad.
Crossing the yard illuminated by the sun via the glass roof, I see a visual arts instalation on the other side and a phrase by Marti in capital letters:
“One just principle from the depths of a cave is more powerful than an army.”
I take a deep breath. I feel a burst of energy, relief. It’s a shame I didn’t have a camera to take a photo.