HAVANA TIMES — The controversial case of writer Angel Santiesteban, sentenced to five years in prison for “physical assault and trespassing” committed against his ex-wife, remains the subject of comments among many Cuban intellectuals, people opposed to violence against women, and political dissidents inside and outside the island. Today we present an open letter to Santiesteban written by literary critic and essayist Jose Miguel “Yoss” Sanchez.
Throwing political stones and glass houses
(An open letter to Angel Santiesteban Prats)
Jose Miguel “Yoss” Sanchez*
Brother, friend, Angelito… A few weeks ago I wanted to write about you, about your case, but Havana’s vicissitudes and the Cuba Book Fair forced me to postpone it until today. However, I won’t deny, you were also part to blame for my natural reluctance to jot down some painful truths in black and white.
A trial and five years of imprisonment, Angelito, for assault and battery committed on your wife… Honestly, at first glance it seemed like a lot, too many years, for an offense which — with apologies to the feminists in our country — is extremely common in our macho Leninist country.
If, though, in our rarefied and sometimes simply arbitrary penal system, people are thrown into jail for between 10 and 15 years for theft and/or the illegal killing of a cow, how can one be surprised if, for once, someone is also sentenced harshly for gender violence?
I learned that since February 28 (were they waiting for the end of the Book Fair at the Cabana to avoid an international scandal? I wouldn’t be surprised) you’ve begun serving your sentence. To my joy, you’re not exactly behind bars — neither in the Combinado del Este facility nor in one of those prisons in the provinces where they often send inmates (probably to make it harder for family visits) — but relatively comfortabe, on a farm.
Moreover, if you demonstrate good behavior (and I trust that your stubbornness won’t lead you to do anything else, but that you’ll become an “up-standing” prisoner, an attitude I respect in any case…) in maybe two or three years you’ll deserve parole.
What’s more, you shouldn’t be afraid that your fellow inmates will treat you too badly or sexually abuse you, though it’s known they tend to do such things to pedophiles and rapists.
So, after all, they haven’t been so hard on you – right? What a relief for all of us who care about you. Now we can only wait and hope.
I say this because — since I’m going to dot the “i’s” (and also on “j’s,” so there’s no discrimination) — what cannot be disputed in your case — whatever the dissidents might say — is that YOU ARE GUILTY.
I’m not talking about being guilty of thinking differently or your blog Los Hijos que Nadie Quiso or you refusing to be quiet… which would be crimes for which you could walk into your cell with your head held high. For the record, I agree with you that many things don’t work like they should in Cuba. We need drastic and big time changes, and that things must be protested against because whoever’s silent becomes a tacit accomplice.
In my blog I try to do the same — without hate, without resentment — turning myself into what an intellectual in any society is supposed to be: a conscious critic.
Thanks, Angel, for showing us that the path that Yoani opened with her now arch-famous Generation Y isn’t forbidden to writers here on the island, even to UNEAC and Casa de Las Americas award-winners like you, the writer of two books rather “uncomfortable” to the system: on Angola and Cuban prisons.
I’m taking this opportunity to state for record here that — given your courage, your hard work and your generosity — you’ve always been a model narrator and person to me. As I’ve admired you, like any good Cuban, and I recognize that I’ve even envied you occasionally, your talents — though occasionally tending toward commercialism and “hustling” — which in troubled times like these have turned you into a real self-employed magnate… something no longer seen as enemies of the people as they were previously, but the seeds of small scale entrepreneurialism.
After all, in Cuban street philosophy it’s always better to cheat a little than be cheated, right? It’s better to be the hammer than the anvil, and if someone has to lose, it’s better than it’s not you, right?
And speaking directly about politics, I can also say that if sometimes I haven’t agreed with your degree of commitment to dissidents, factions and US Interest Office, I’ve never criticized you for any of that. It’s your choice, your personal path… and the key to democracy, as was said by one illustrious figure whose name doesn’t come to my mind right now.
The problem is that though I don’t agree with everything you say, I defend to the death your right to say it.
But… oh, Angelito, why didn’t you have in mind that popular saying: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones”? What’s more, you know better than me how our vaunted State Security forces sometimes work.
Many dissidents have ended up behind bars the first time they were charged of criminal offenses as absurd and insignificant as receiving or selling illicit and dangerous goods such as…as milk, before starting their real history of imprisonment as opponents of the regime.
So if you were throwing political stones, if you knew they were hunting you down and if still that never clarified street assault a couple of years ago cost you a fractured arm, then all of that should have demonstrated that you were in their crosshairs. So why were you so negligent like this? How could you let your passions blind you so much?
Felix Dzerzhinsky, the notorious founder of the Cheka, which later became the sinister KGB, said that to fight, one had to have a cool head and a warm heart. I don’t know if he wrote somewhere that it was also necessary for the first to control the second.
You screwed up, brother. Everyone falls in love, and they occasionally argue angrily with their loved one, even losing their temper and coming to blows… but you took it a lot further.
We all knew about your obsessive character, bordering on psychopathic, and that you were given a good warning by those who cared about you most, people like El Chino Heras and Sacha, your great friends, almost your fathers, those for whom you had done so much for and who had done so much for you. They wanted you to stop. They wanted you to stop chasing behind the mother of your son. They knew nothing good would come of that.
But no, you kept on and kept on, maybe with that strange sense of invulnerability that sometimes overwhelms those who cross all the lines… until the shit hits the fan.
Assault and battery? Spousal abuse? Come on, Angelito. You know there were more charges, many more. You know, the persecution, the vigilance — let’s call them by their real names — you harassed and hounded your ex-wife Kenia to the extreme. It’s even ironic: How could you criticize State Security so much and then put yourself on the same footing, compadre?
You know that the threatening letters, the intrusions and the destruction of her apartment, the shouting matches and the beatings occurred on several occasions. What were you thinking, man? How could you treat the mother of your child like your property even after you separated? How could you decide what she did or didn’t do with her life? How could you expect her to put up with all that without reporting you?
According to popular macho Cuban wisdom, no one should get in between a husband and wife. So I’m guilty of doing just that, just as I’m sure all your true friends are guilty of not having intervened more…of not having brought you around to your senses more convincingly…of failing to prevent you from going to the extremes to which you resorted.
I say this because hard words don’t break bones. But slaps and punches do… and they end up sending to jail those who use them.
Oh, Angelito, my brother… there’s another popular saying that goes: “If you break it, you buy it.” Like the fabled womanizer Chacumbele [killed by a jealous lover], you did yourself in exactly like him. You threw yourself under the horses’ hoofs. You asked for it. State Security was looking for a reason to jail you, and you served yourself up on a silver platter – clearly.
You stepped in it up to your neck, and you know you did. Hopefully these coming years will help you to reflect and teach you a lesson concerning your error – without you drowning in hate.
It doesn’t make sense for dissidents or the exile community to now start stirring up a fuss in support of you, saying that everything is a crude ruse, an evil ploy of Castrismo, the tangled web of State Security, etc… Surely the hands of our G2 (State Security) are in this? Who has any doubt of that? But the truth is that this time you’re anything but innocent.
In fact, Angelito, you’re as guilty as the Cuban Five, those poor Cubans in the Wasp Network who were sacrificed on the altar of politics after the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes.
If it’s ridiculous and shameful that our government is still clamoring for their freedom — despite the unwritten golden rule of espionage (if agents are successful, no medals can be given to them publicly; if they fail, the government has to deny any involvement so as not to implicate or discredit itself for having engaged in dirty operations) — it’s equally silly that half of Cuba’s dissidents want to hold you up as an innocent victim of the machinations of our government.
They are guilty, you are guilty.
Your cause, my brother… the common one, not the political one, was indefensible from the beginning. You turned to lawyers and public statements, of course… that was your right, sure… but let’s be frank, it was never anything but the pathetic right to protest at the feet of the hangmen. Was the trial rigged? I don’t think so – that wasn’t necessary. For once, let’s be frank, justice was done.
So now what?
Hang on, Angelito… you don’t have a choice.
But even knowing you’re guilty, I’m still your friend and much less will I refuse to greet you. I didn’t stop greeting Raul Capote when he revealed himself to be State Security operative “Daniel” after so many years pretending to be a dissident writer and fooling everyone. Therefore, much less would I ever turn my back on you. For me, friendship and culture are above politics.
So, if I have to go see you on that farm, in jail, or wherever, you can count on me. And it will be the same when you get out. Anybody can be a friend in good times. It’s in the bad times when you know who’s heart is really with you…in the bad times like what you’re going through now, whether you deserve it or not, brother.
Nothing has happened between us Angelito. I continue admiring you and being your friend. Anyone can go to jail, right? I hope when you are released that the rest of society doesn’t stamp you with the stigma of a convict, like the people you portrayed so well in your book that won the Casa de las Americas Award.
I’m an incurable optimist, you know? I can’t resist thinking positively… Who knows, maybe, like Anton Arrufat recommended in the title of one of his books, you can make virtue out of necessity. Maybe from your time in prison will come your next novel, maybe winning you the Alejo Carpentier Award in a few years?
From here we’ll see what happens. What’s important now, brother, is to look to the future… and to keep writing. Because if those who cry are blessed, those who are blessed even more are those who write, don’t you agree?
(*) Originally published in La Llaga on March 14.