HAVANA TIMES — In my last post, I talked about “express detentions.” In this one I’ll talk about my own first experience with this phenomenon.
We had all gone through the difficult time of August 1994, and I had just finished my military service a few days earlier. Although the streets were blazing hot (with stampedes of rafters into the sea, a mini-uprising on the Malecon boardwalk, blackouts, assaults, pervasive hunger), it was essential for me to have a little fun, or to at least mentally escape all that.
One night I went out with my friends to just hang out. Everything went fine and we didn’t run into any problems. But when it came time to go back home, there weren’t any buses around, so we decided to sit on a curb talking crap until something showed up.
And something did show up – a police van. The officers then charged me with having a beat-up ID.
These police were out on their own that night, some of them drunk, others out of uniform and all of them having a good time. Why not, they were human just like us.
They took a motorcycle away from one old man started chasing around the Mantilla barrio. Occasionally they would make one of the people under arrest get out of the van to push them around a little, but it wasn’t anything serious.
That’s when things turned ugly.
They began to hear distant cries of “Down with Fidel!” and “The end is near.” This wasn’t a typical dissident demonstration as such (with CNN journalists, cameras etc.); rather, this is what excess drinking almost naturally led to back then.
The police then ran after them and caught one, who got not only his own beating, but one for each of the others who got away. When they had enough, they threw him on the floor of the truck, where he laid curled up and moaning. Even still, every time now and then a law enforcement officer would come up and hit him again just for the hell of it.
I was horrified.
At around 2:00 a.m. they took all of us to the Parraga police station in handcuffs and everything. While we were being taken in, a policeman who didn’t come in the van punched the alleged dissident in the stomach. The guy, who was already tottering, fell to the ground and they dragged him inside. I never saw him again.
Once inside, they had us sit on benches and an official from the Ministry of the Interior gave us the “welcome speech.”
With the tone of someone advising an old friend, the bastard was trying to convince us to leave the island on rafts. “You guys are assholes? That’s why you’re having problems? You don’t have any future here. The only thing you can look forward to here is jail time.”
Even today, I wonder what could have been the motivation of that scumbag. Was he trying to clean up the neighborhood of screw-ups? Or was he following some dark and sinister order from his superiors?
They finally searched our “possessions” and put us in a narrow stinking cell with no beds or light. It was full of young guys, overwhelmingly black.
“Now it’s going to start,” I thought to myself. “Here is where we’re going to have problems. I can’t let anybody fool around with me.”
I simply thought about dematerializing through the bars. Later I found an empty corner and dozed off there until dawn.
What did I find at dawn? Actually it was a pretty cool and relaxed environment. The guys were cracking jokes and stories nonstop… No one said anything to me and I didn’t open my mouth, but I was feeling like I had radar.
I didn’t want to miss out on any of that festival of jokes, gruesome stories and personal anecdotes told with that energetic dancing-around jargon that’s so typical of Havana neighborhoods.
There were two guys who were leaders, not because of their fierceness or hypertrophied muscles, but for their age and talk. Coincidentally, both had served in the military in Angola, and from time to time they brought up their “exploits” on the Dark Continent.
At lunchtime, no one bothered anybody else’s meager rations. On the contrary, they organized a system for passing trays to the person behind each person before taking their own. The atmosphere remained lively until late afternoon.
That’s when an uproar broke out. They opened the cell door and threw in a young guy who was covered with bumps. He seemed like a nut: crying, screaming, swinging and punching at the walls, apparently trying to knock them down. It was scary; they had to hold him down because he was hurting himself.
Periodically, between sobs, he talked about his misfortune. The night before, he had robbed a neighbor’s house to pay for a spot on a boat. As dawn came, he was going to peddle his stolen merchandise and discussed the matter with his father.
The old man got on his bicycle with the supposed intention of taking this young guy to see a buyer. But when they got to the Parraga station the father threw his son on the curb and started yelling “arrest him.”
What hurt the newcomer most — which seemed incredible, impossibly inconceivable — was that his own father had turned him in.
When it was almost dark, the cell gate opened and they muttered my sweet and beloved name. They returned some of my belongings to me — just some, but who’s to make an issue by that point? I didn’t even think about it, I just shot out of there like an arrow.
I didn’t even wait for a bus. I went on foot – though filthy, dead tired, sorry for those who I left behind and with my head spinning.
The idyllic world of my childhood went to pieces.