One woman describes how censorship has been a constant presence in her life, from school days to her work as a journalist.
HAVANA TIMES – One afternoon when I was 14, the principal summoned me to her office. The class teacher was perplexed. I was the most disciplined student in our class; I had not failed a single exam and always complied with my duties. The principal never called people like me to her office. My teacher could not understand the accusatory tone he sensed in his colleague’s voice as he told me, “She says you should leave everything and come to see her.”
When I entered the principal’s office she immediately asked me: “Did you say there is no freedom of expression here?”
I quickly realized how serious the situation was. They would draw up a report against me and attach it to my school record, a stain on my file.
At first, my only thought was how I had managed to ruin nine years of an immaculate record. Then all sorts of fears flowed through my mind. My mother would scold me for speaking up, for not thinking before talking. I would not be able to go to the Lenin school, the place I had always dreamed of studying before university.
“You don’t know what it means; that’s what you hear your family saying,” the principal suggested.
I recalled the comment I had made a few days ago. It wasn’t a reply to anybody in particular or to engage in a discussion. I said that there was no freedom of expression in Cuba in the same innocent way someone would say that the rationed bread rolls sold at the bakery smelled of rancid flour. I naively expressed what I felt without any fear of reprisals. I knew what the phrase meant, but I wasn’t aware of the implications.
And there and then, standing in the principal’s office, I understood that in Cuba there are things one certainly cannot say.
It all came back to me
Nearly two decades later, I remembered that moment as I waited for my first interrogation at the hands of Cuba’s state security apparatus. A friend was at home with me. While I ate something, we chatted about ordinary things, anything that could strip the situation of its significance. I prepared the hand bag to take with me with just a handful of things. I left my keys, telephone, photos and a bunch of small pieces of paper I always have in my purse. She was surprised at how calm I was. I felt like I did that afternoon at the principal’s office in junior high school – but I knew I was still okay.
I had been waiting for the call from the authorities for some time. Not because I thought I was guilty of anything – nothing could have been farther from the truth – but because I knew that journalists working for independent media outlets were being arrested, one after the other.
Police officers would take them away blindfolded to interrogations that lasted for hours. I found myself imagining what such an encounter would be like for me. What would they ask me? Would my hands shake? Would I cry? Would I yield to pressure out of fear?
I knew that no matter how much I’d prepare psychologically or how many times I would rehearse potential scenarios, I would not understand my limitations until the time would come.
But then, when you are in the moment, you only pay attention to what the agents are telling you, trying to understand what they mean, listening to your responses. You say what you think they deserve to know; the rest, you keep to yourself because, in any case, none of what you tell them is going to make much difference.
They are convinced we live, think, and survive because of their grace. They measure us for our allegiance, our loyalty, our submission. Under their logic, anyone not in line with their scheme of things is a potential dissident.
Not only that, but they also want to recruit us.
“We don’t want you to leave your job; you have to make a living, but this can’t be one-sided,” they insinuated to me.
State security officials don’t seem to care if as a journalist you want to write a story about how the children of high-ranking military officers obtained properties and Cuban enterprises registered in tax havens, or about the real figures of people sick or dead from Covid 19.
The only thing they want to know is where the money you earn as an independent journalist comes from. The government needs to play the victim and rally their supporters around the argument that the US State Department funds independent journalism in Cuba.
“You are a pingúa,” my friends told me after the interrogation. This term is typical of macho culture. It comes from the word pinga, the colloquial expression for the penis, and it means being brave or courageous.
But one is brave when, having the option to say no you choose to say yes, without fearing the consequences. During interrogation, we don’t have the power to decide.
What is most disturbing more than the actual questioning is the anger one feels afterwards. Do you adapt your behavior and stop the simple, daily acts that the authorities consider a crime, things like buying food in the unofficial market. If you do that, you cannot remain sane.
I came up with a mantra: I am not the target, this is not personal. For those within the state security apparatus, we are all bad weeds that need to be uprooted to prevent us from destabilizing the balance of power that holds together a system and a government that ever-fewer people support.
In Cuba, there are things one cannot say. But this is a lesson I refused to learn as a child, and still refuse today.
*Camilla is the pseudonym of an independent Cuban journalist.