By Alfredo Fernandez
HAVANA TIMES, March 20 — It was back in 1998 when I met him. As fate turned out, we were both there in the Caracol room at UNEAC (the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) for a course on “Erotic Cinema,” which was being given by the recently deceased critic Rufo Caballero. From there was born a friendship that has continued through today.
There’s no doubt that Peteco was one of the most colorful characters in Havana’s intellectual life of the 1980s and ‘90s. Back then he was finishing his degree in mathematics, lacking only his thesis. However that final step was never taken due to his projects that went beyond Cuban academia, in addition to many other problems he encountered.
Because of this, Peteco had his two graduating papers rejected: “Rebuttals to Demonstrations of the Existence of God in St. Thomas Aquinas” and “Mathematical Ideas Expressed in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland.”
It’s worth highlighting that the fact that Peteco never graduated from the university has never prevented him from presenting himself to everyone as a mathematician, and therefore we all recognize him as just that.
Outside the walls of the university, the life of Peteco also had an animated existence. He was closely bound in friendship and, on more than a few occasions, in work with a group of artists who in the ‘80s revolutionized Cuban art in such a way that many critics identified them as playing a leading role in international visual art.
It is enough to recall that in 1989, after the officialdom shut down several youth art exhibitions of the time, artists carried out the most famous Cuban performance of all the times: “Juego de pelota” (the Baseball Game). This consisted of a baseball game in which the members of both teams were the members of that generation and had as their motto the political slogan of the moment: “Ready to Win.” As a curious fact, the star pitcher of the famous encounter was Peteco.
The majority of these artists ended up leaving Cuba.
This interview becomes a personal homage to an ingenious friend: Peteco, always full of astute answers and brilliant comebacks (like when years ago, when he was accused of being a philanderer, he replied, “I’m not a womanizer; I’m a womanologist”).
I think the greatest period in the life of Peteco was during his student years. The prestigious Lenin High School and later the University of Havana turned out to be vital spaces for him. It was to such a point that today, in the most unlikely places, one still hears about his feats, always recounted by his old comrades or friends who invariably remember him as an atypical student.
HT: Peteco, when were you born and when did you get the nickname “Peteco”?
Peteco: I was born here in Havana on June 26, 1960, in Vedado, where I’ve lived all my life. I got the nickname “Peteco” early, when I was about two years old. It was given to me by my aunt, who had studied philosophy and had learned about how in Greek history the government had divided the members of the society into patricians, metecos and plebeians. In ancient Greece the metecos were considered the seeds of future society. These were almost always merchants, artists, and especially, very irreverent types. In colloquial Spanish, the noun “meteco” is a synonym for “atypical.”
So, my aunt called me that when she saw how I acted among the other children. She said, “You’re the meteco of the family.”
But it turned out that the word “meteco” was beyond the understanding of my cousins. What came out was a word they could pronounce: “Peteco,” the nickname that I’ve had up until today, and which has never failed me because I continue being the same atypical guy that my aunt first recognized.
HT: When did you enroll in the University of Havana?
Peteco: In September 1979, where I majored in mathematics.
HT: Why did you study mathematics if you’ve always associated and hung around with artists?
Peteco: It’s because I consider mathematics a peculiar case of conceptual visual arts, a true aesthetics of thought, meaning that for me the study of mathematics was almost the same thing as if I had gone to ISA (the Superior Institute of Art) to study visual arts, or even better.
HT: What opinion do you hold about the university during your days as a student?
Peteco: I generally have a good opinion, although at times I found the instruction very poor; it was too specific. While I studied, it wasn’t difficult to feel more like an engineer than a scientist, because the training was in pure mathematics. Contrary to what you might think, this left very little space for the imagination. Even still, I also have to tell you that I had very good teachers.
There was, for example, Celiar Silva, a Uruguayan mathematician who taught functional analysis. I remember one day, during the middle of the lesson, we could hear the tolling of the bells from the church on Infanta and San Rafael streets, near the University. Someone said those bells sounded because they were celebrating Easter, which served as an opportunity for Dr. Silva to explain to us how the date of that Christian holiday was calculated…how, as you know, it changes from year to year.
HT: Do you know if this situation continues in the teaching of mathematicians nowadays?
Peteco: I don’t know, since I became detached from the faculty a long time ago, although now there’s a subject that I believe should avoid an excessive technical nature in thought: The History of Mathematics, which relates this science to other branches of knowledge.
HT: Do you feel that the university endowed you with true autonomy as a thinking person?
Peteco: The training back then was very limited and compartmentalized. It lacked anything to do with autonomy. Education was limited to preserving and reinforcing a student who was in agreement with the official thinking. I remember that the slogan was, “The University is for the revolutionaries,” and the worst part was that such instruction was situated in the center of the educational plans. They demanded a high level of agreement with the official thinking in order for you to stay in the university.
HT: Do you agree with that?
Peteco: Of course not. The university should be a classroom that welcomes everyone, no matter what their ideological position or political views. The university has to be a space with its arms open to everyone, just like the statue located on the university stairway, “the Alma Mater.”
HT: Peteco, your stay at the university was really long. You enrolled in 1979 and, as far as I know, you remained there until 1989, but without graduating. Tell us about some of the problems you suffered during your student years?
Peteco: I had many. The first was in 1980; they kicked me out of the university for a year for not attending classes. The second was in 1984; due to a cartilage operation I couldn’t attend school for almost another whole year. Then the biggest problem came, the one that caused my expulsion. In December 1989, several posters supposedly appeared in a classroom reading “Down with Fidel!” The immediate reaction of the university’s administration was to have a mural drawn up at the faculty to repudiate what had happened. Whoever wanted to could draw on it could express their support for the Revolution and Fidel. So, I took my pen, and right beside where it said “Viva Fidel,” I wrote in a similar size something like “Viva ?????!”
HT: What did that mean?
Peteco: With that I wanted to request, from my language of mathematics, a new notation for Fidel, a new posture. I wanted to say that I wasn’t satisfied with the traditional approach of repeating slogans mechanically. Those were times that demanded a different type of leadership. I also wanted to say that we could not be satisfied with repeating the “Viva Fidel” slogan if we were true revolutionaries. I was saying that it was the time for us to participate in the decision-making in the country, that we assume a posture in line with the present. At the same time I was also asking for a new style of work from Fidel, the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party.
To express myself at that time I used five letters from the Greek alphabet, ones used in mathematical equations. It had the same number of letters as Fidel’s name. That was in December 1989, a few months before the country would be shaken by “Cause Number 1″, which concluded with the firing squad execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez. Likewise, weeks earlier the Berlin Wall had “fallen,” which spelled the imminent beginning of the economic crisis that hit our country and continues today. That’s why I believed it was prudent to express myself in that manner.
HT: So what was the process in your being expelled?
Peteco: Not much. Someone reported to the party that I had written what I did on the mural. Then an assembly was held at the faculty with all the students, where they informed us that the group called the “Followers of Mella1” would be permanently expelled from the university. They went after them directly, while I had to go before a disciplinary commission for the administration to analyze my case. Later, when I explained my reasons before the “disciplinary commission” (which consisted only of the secretary of the party at the faculty and a clerical secretary who took down the conversation between this man and me), things only got worse. When hearing my explanation, the party secretary exploded with rage and decided that under no reason could I continue at the university.
HT: Who were the “Followers of Mella” and why were they expelled?
Peteco: They were four mathematics students who wanted to start an organization that would turn into something like a new FEU (Federation of High School and University Students). I remember they had conversations for several weeks with the leaders of the FEU, until those leaders got tired of “conversing” when they failed to win over the rebels through discussion. The head of the group, whose name I don’t remember, ended up spending seven months in jail. Later they all left the country.
HT: After they expelled you from the university, what did you do?
Peteco: After they expelled me, the hierarchy of the institution realized the abusiveness of the measure and asked me to appeal the decision. This appeal was drafted by Professor Castenada, who was the vice dean of the law school. I should tell you that the initiative came from the university’s president himself, Fernando Rojas. He had known me personally because I was a friend of his son (who today is the deputy minister of Culture). Moreover, to me this president was also a good person, and he found the sanction to be excessive.
HT: What happened after that?
Peteco: The appeal was presented to the Ministry of Higher Education. The final outcome was something like my having to make a “pact” with that ministry. It was as if that institution didn’t want to stop punishing me, but they figured that had already gone far enough with me.
Therefore, what they proposed was to sanction me with a three year expulsion from the university. However, when there’s an expulsion for a certain time period, halfway through that time a reconsideration of the measure can be made. Even still, I didn’t find the proceeding honest, so I asked them to either sanction me or not. Nevertheless I presented the appeal, which went in my favor, meaning that officially I was expelled for three years but with the possibility of returning after a year and a half.
HT: You’re the son of Arnol Rodriguez Camps, who during the struggle against the Batista dictatorship was the head of National Propaganda for the July 26 Liberation Movement, which had as its most well-known action the kidnapping of the world champion race car driver Juan Manuel Fangio, an Argentinean. Do you think this might have influenced the appeals panel?
Petco: No, I don’t think so, though it could have weighed on the decision of the university president to help me, though like I said he already knew me personally and was also a good person, at least to me.
HT: After the year and half, what happened?
Peteco: I returned to the university, but I no longer found sense in anything I was doing there. I dropped out at 32, and what was worse was that I had lost all the dreams that had brought me to the university in the first place. I had lost the hope of doing pure mathematics, which is what I had waned to work on. On top of that, I had to look at too many faces who had been involved in that whole dirty process. So, one fine day I got up and decided not to go to school anymore.
HT: Do you want to mention the names of the teachers and students who plotted your expulsion?
Peteco: No, I won’t tell you them. I haven’t forgotten anything about what happened, but I’ve now forgiven those people. That’s why I don’t believe it would be ethical on my part to tell you their names.
I should also say that while I was having that problem I noted how people who I had believed to be my friends stopped even greeting me. However, to tell the truth, at the same time I never felt so much support at the university, because the problem extended to other faculties and to students who I didn’t know but who would stop me to cheer me up and show their support for me from the shadows.
In particular, of all the support I received, I would like to highlight my professor of mathematical analysis, Alfredo Gomez, who has lived in Chile for years now. He was indignant over what was done to me, and he acted bravely, to the point of offering me his testimony. He stated that he was in the dean’s office when someone entered who identified themself as an official from State Security. This person then ordered the then dean to expel me from the university though any means possible, even if they had to make up an excuse.
Professor Gomez went further still and asked me to use his statement as the last resort in my defense. Though I never needed to allude to what he told me, I’ll never forget the courage he showed in the face of an injustice.
HT: Peteco, why the interest on the part of government security agencies to expel you from the university?
Peteco: Because not only had I been a difficult student in the faculty, at the same time I was studying my major I had several jobs, and I had problems in almost all of them for demanding my rights as a worker and especially for letting the rest of my co-workers know that they were entitled to the same rights and that the managers needed to respect them.
HT: What were the jobs and problems that you had?
Peteco: There were several of them. For two years I was the guard at a Youth Computer Club facility, and I worked on the loading dock at a cheese factory for one year. I didn’t keep my mouth shut in either of those places in the face of any of the absurd rules. For example, one time they wanted the workers to approve a law whereby if you were considered what today is called “available” (redundant), you would be offered two other job positions (generally in construction or agriculture) and if you didn’t accept one you would find yourself out on the street.
In that meeting I explained my reasons for not agreeing with the measure. This was in front of all the workers, mind you. So then, when the show of hands came up, there occurred a miracle: the vote wasn’t unanimous. Many workers had agreed with my position. In fact someone said that because of that we were going to see the first worker’s march under the Revolution. Later some comrades even wanted to propose me as the head of the local.
As you can imagine all of that hurt me. Although I knew it, as a revolutionary I felt I couldn’t avoid protesting. I couldn’t remain quiet before what was wrong. Around that same time I also had a job as a civilian worker for the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) in a computer center of a military unit. I was a programmer there.
Due to my arguments with the bosses, I was given less and less work, to the point that I was left with hardly anything to do. I then asked to resign. The young woman who at that time was my girlfriend, Alida Morales, worked at the Institute of Hydrology, which was also under FAR. She was fired from her job for being involved with me.
The two of us then left to work as street sweepers. We did it for 45 days to highlight what had happened to us. We swept Zapata Street, between 8th Street and 26th Avenue. We began work at 5:00 a.m. and finished at 11:00 a.m. On the street we would see many people who showed us their heartfelt support when seeing two youths doing a job that back then was viewed as the last resort for Cuban workers.
But the saddest moment as worker was when I taught mathematics at a high school. Imagine, with the love I feel for mathematics, my having to support a mediocre system for passing students to the next grade; it was one that operated against educational quality and was counter to the students’ creative learning.
Still, I had to pass the students at any and all costs. Therefore, I was forced to give reviews in which I almost had to tell the students what would be on the exam. This wasn’t the worst though, it was surpassed when a 12-year-old girl in the seventh grade made sexual advances toward me in an attempt to exchange favors for a passing grade. I called her attention to the fact that she was just a little girl and my pupil. But that was for nothing; the following day the girl appeared with her mother, who herself made advances toward me. I was so disappointed with teaching classes in such a place that I quit.
HT: Peteco, on par with your stay at the university and your jobs, you also had strong ties of friendship and collaboration with a group of artists in the ‘80s, a revolutionary group in art at the world level. Do you miss that group, since its members have all left Cuba?
Peteco: Let me explain something; there are very important artists of that generation who didn’t emigrate and who work here today. These are people like Rene Francisco, Lazaro Saavedra, and Ponjuan, among others, although it’s true that the majority left. Now, what I miss most about that generation and what I haven’t seen from any of those since is the SOLIDARITY. Artists of the ‘80s generation wound up creating a family. They were very united and they helped each other out.
Now artists don’t. Today’s artists go around more concerned about achieving “personal merits” and reaching a certain level of economic comfort.
HT: So in terms of what’s happening with today’s Cuban artists, couldn’t that be a reflection of current Cuban society overall?
Peteco: I can’t answer that one. For a long time I’ve lived practically isolated in my house, so I lack the elements to judge Cuban society today.
HT: Peteco, don’t you have a certain affinity towards the cinema, one comparable only to those of Guillermo Cabreara Infante’s or Rufo Caballero’s. Where did such an inclination come from?
Peteco: I remember the first movie I saw in my conscious life was Moby Dick. I saw it at the Amber Cinema on 15th and 14th streets in Vedado. It was a neighborhood cinema but it no longer exists. I was eight years old and impressed by the light that a projector reflected onto a white sheet. This stirred up an insatiable thirst to see movies; one that exists into the present, although now I no longer see as many movies as I used to. The medicine I take prevents me from holding my attention very long. That’s why it’s difficult to watch a movie at the cinema or on television.
HT: What illness do you have?
Peteco: The medical diagnosis they gave me was a personality dysfunction.
HT: What opinion do you have of today’s Cuban cinema?
Peteco: Well, at least they’re making movies, which is something good. The new digital video technologies have reduced the costs of cinema and that has made it possible for many youths to work and advance their projects. If every year we’re now able to celebrate something like the “Young Directors Showing,” it’s thanks especially to technological progress.
HT: Are you working on something at the moment?
Peteco: I’m working with the artist Sandra Ramos, who has been my friend for many years.
HT: What are you doing with her?
Peteco: I help her with what I can and she helps me with what she can.
HT: How would you like the Cuban university of the future to be?
Peteco: I would like it to be very autonomous and truly rigorous in being aware of the advances in science and technology at the world level. I would like for education not to have demagogic ends. For example, computer science that is taught today in the country is done with great propagandistic fanfare, something that no one who thinks even a little finds it difficult to realize the demagoguery behind this. But why are we denied free access to the Internet?
Returning to your question, I would like to see the Cuban university of the future as a place that truly creates people of science…people of thought.
HT: Peteco, you’re a creature of the Vedado neighborhood. This has been your natural space where you’ve lived for 50 years. Let’s suppose some divine power gave you the possibility to fix something here. What would you like to save?
Peteco: I would like to fix all the semi-destroyed houses.
HT: But doesn’t that seem like too much?
Peteco: Didn’t you tell me that you gave me “divine power”?
HT: Well Peteco, would you like to say anything more?
Peteco: No, thank you for your questions.
HT: Thank you for your talking with Havana Times.
1 Julio Antonio Mella (1903-1929). This young Cuban founded FEU during his time at the University of Havana (1923-1925). He was expelled from that institution in 1925, the same year that he founded the Cuban Communist Party, of which he was its first secretary. Pursued by the dictator Gerardo Machado, Mella was forced into exile in Mexico, where agents of the dictatorship murdered him in 1929. Although there are various versions concerning his death, the most authoritative identify his ultimate murderer as being the then first secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, Joseph Stalin.