Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Out of Prison, Still Not Free

Op-Ed Contributor

Out of Prison, Still Not Free
Published: July 16, 2010

I NEVER imagined I would be born at the age of 60, at an altitude of
several thousand feet above the Atlantic. That isn't gibberish; it's
what I felt when I was released from jail in Cuba and exiled to Spain
last Monday.

My debut as a prisoner of conscience came early in 2003, a period
subsequently characterized by the world's press as the Black Spring. I
was just one of 75 Cubans imprisoned for our belief that freedom is an
achievable miracle and not a crime against the state.

They say prison is a school, and it's true. I did my best to be a good
student and kept back my tears. I succeeded so well that my prison
companions still think me a brave man.

Within a few months I could find my way pretty well around the
labyrinths of shipwrecked souls. I learned the secrets and legends of
killers for hire, crimes of passion, traffickers in illicit powdery
substances, would-be emigrants whose clandestine departures had been no
secret to the state — even thieves who'd share their teaspoon of sugar
on days of hunger.

Zoology was one class we had every day. I learned to live with rats, and
even came, on certain nights of our tropical winter (which is winter,
nevertheless) to stare at them with an urgency not unlike what people
call appetite. I was a solitary friend to the deft spiders that
sometimes freed me from the torturous buzzings and blood-shedding bites
that accompanied my insomnia.

I became well versed in cosmic solitude and silence. I remember being in
a cell no wider than a man with outstretched arms. I also grew familiar
with fetid overcrowding and unceasing clamor. Months of unending
darkness, months of eternal light.

I was only an auditor in certain courses, in which I learned that some
prisoners were specializing in self-injury as a crude solution to their
despair. I was witness to mutilated hands and other wounds as mortal or
venial as sins. A man cut off his own penis and testicles in a desperate
attempt to become a woman. Others, more radical and exhausted by
perpetual existential tumult, turned to various methods of suicide, all
of them extremely effective.

A large part of the program of study consisted in the defense of one's
rights. There was no theoretical option, only the very Cuban practice of
the hunger strike. I carried one out for 16 days, until part of my will
felt satisfied with my victory. That long and voluntary fast vindicated
the enforced daily fast of imprisonment.

As in any school, there were periods of leisure. Packs of cigarettes
were wagered on the outcome of chess matches, card games or soccer
contests. I knew sellers and buyers of recreational drugs who were very
good at evading or bribing both prison guards and informer inmates.

There was no lack of expertise in armed aggression. Pitiful, decaying
knives that were nevertheless sharp-edged and skillfully wielded left
trails of blood and rage behind them. (But I never signed up for that

I've always had an aptitude for subjects that have to do with dreams,
and I dreamed of my wife and children with such fervor that I know they
felt my caresses as they lay asleep.

I was almost an exemplary student, and received only one failing grade:
in hatred. Despite certain zones of memory, I bear no rancor against my

And now, after this senescent birth of mine, I'm contemplating the
future with all the hope of the newly unveiled. Ever the optimist, I
even dream of returning to a Cuba where freedom is not an impossible
illusion. I know that, in the next 60 years, I won't have to be reborn

Ricardo González Alfonso is a journalist. This article was translated by
Esther Allen from the Spanish.

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