Luis Rondon Paz
HAVANA TIMES — The paranoia of the State Security agents who apprehended me in the town of Mariel surpassed all limits. Since when does one need to ask for permission and notify the Public Administration Council to take pictures of a public area? Apparently you do: that’s one of the first things I was personally told by the counter-intelligence officers who spoiled my brief stay in the locality.
What happened? I’ll try and narrate the facts exactly as they took place.
I’d been interested in visiting the town of Mariel for some time. Though I was tempted to make the trip down there, I saw no real reason to do so without knowing anyone in the town. Sometime later, I found out an old, childhood friend was living there and I immediately got in touch with him. I suggested we met in Havana, but he couldn’t come down here because he was preparing for a trip abroad.
We agreed to meet at noon, on October 27, near the Mariel bay area. There, we’d chat a while, take some pictures and remember the old times.
The next day, I got to the industrial part of the town quickly. I’d arrived rather early and felt somewhat bored. To pass the time, I decided to take a stroll around town and take some stills with my camera.
I reached one of the highest points of the locality and took pictures of the Rubens Palace, a building that, according to some of the locals, is in rather poor shape.
A little later, I enjoyed a delicious serving of rice, chicken and a salad for the price of 10 Cuban pesos at a private cafeteria.
After leaving the cafeteria, I continued to take pictures of the streets and houses. As I crossed one of the town’s main streets, I saw the façade of a building that caught my eye and took a picture of it. I then noticed that a person standing at the entrance of the building in question was calling me insistently.
When I approached him, he invited me to go into the house. I was distrustful at first, but went in after seeing a neighbor make a gesture indicating it was ok.
I took some pictures of the interior. The owner then insisted I went further into the house to take more pictures, but I replied I was done and got out of there as quickly as I could.
When I came out of the house, I was suddenly intercepted by two individuals who identified themselves as State Security agents.
The older of the two, whom I assumed was in charge, treated me in a way I couldn’t understand. He constantly showed me hostility and treated me as though I were a foreigner or an enemy. I kindly replied I was passing through the town and that the pictures were merely a keepsake of my visit.
When one of the agents – the hostile one – said that the photos I had taken could be used by the enemy, I felt like laughing in his face. I opted not to do that and to be the good boy that I am. It was futile, because, in the end, they took me to their headquarters, allegedly to verify my credentials and ask me a number of official questions.
It was a quarter after eleven – I still had time to see my friend, I thought, kidding myself that, in less than an hour, they’d see I was clean and that they were wasting their time with me. But no, I was in for the long haul!
I was detained in that place for more than three hours. To make matters worse, no one explained to me anything. Occasionally, someone would show up and ask me the same questions, time and time again: whether I was a journalist, why I was taking those photos, where I was from, etc, etc.
At three in the afternoon, another person took me to a room where I was asked the same questions the others had asked me before, in addition to some which I felt were out of place – but well, someone who has nothing to hide has nothing to fear, I thought. I wanted to get out of there, I was tired.
As the minutes went by, I felt the atmosphere start to get a bit sordid.
I was forced to lay all of my belongings on the table. My personal documents were also inspected. When I asked if what they were doing was legal, the agent replied:
“Would you rather we did this at the police station?” He used a threatening tone.
“Go head, check everything out,” I replied with a smile on my face. What choice did I have, anyway?
I was forced to erase some pictures I took and then had to show them my cell phone messages.
I had sent out an SMS some hours before explaining what had happened, and he asked me why and who had been informed of my detention. I replied that, for my own safety, it was important for someone to know where I was. I didn’t know what could happen to me or what time I’d be able to leave the town.
He then insinuated I could lose my cell phone, and I replied that was quite unlikely.
“Don’t underestimate the enemy,” he replied, again with a threatening tone.
“That’s what you’re here for, to protect me from that enemy,” I said with a smile on my face.
At the end of that “interview,” my belongings were returned to me.
I left Mariel in a lousy mood: humiliated and frustrated over having been unable to meet with my friend.