“On 19 March we ate lunch, and I had my siesta. At three, four in the afternoon a strong thumping on the door informed me that my moment had come. My wife opened the door. They showed her a badge of the political police, pushed her aside, and a whole horde of them charged into the flat – a large number of officers of the political police. My wife said: ‘What’s this about?’ ‘We’re searching the house.’ ‘Do you have a warrant for that?’ ‘No, no, we’re from the government, we’re the political police. Call your husband.’ They called me. I came. They said: ‘Sit down here!’ And they started a thorough search of the whole house. When they went into the yard, I told them: ‘Watch out where you’re searching there, I’ve got some C-4 stashed away there.’ Instead of laughing, they were aghast. I said: ‘Come on, you’re raiding my house like I was a terrorist. I’m just a poor journalist and poet, a poor author who begs to differ with you.’ ‘Be quiet! Stay where you are!’ They searched the house until ten, eleven in the evening. Seized everything except perhaps the toilet paper, because they think you can’t write on that.”
“The prison is made of concrete and has walls have a metre thick. Inside the prison there’s a section with solitary confinement cells. It’s a kind of prison within a prison. And this section is called Boniatico. The cells are upwards of two metres wide and roughly seven metres long. There’s a squat toilet in the corner and a bit of pipe for washing. Except you could never wash because there wasn’t any water. To call it a shower would be a euphemism. And an iron-framed bed with a dirty, hard mattress on it with bumps where the filling lumped up. It was disastrous! It was like being in a drawer where we were supposed to rot. And here, in Boniato, was where we started serving our sentence.”
“They took me to neither the prison nor the hospital, but to Department 21, which is the department of the political police in charge of independent journalists. There I was told by another lieutenant colonel: ‘You are to be conditionally released for health reasons.’ ‘Don’t you fucking joke with me! I have problems with my lungs, but of the seventy-five of us, Chepe and a number of others have really severe health problems, and I don’t see them here.’ ‘No, that’s not how it is. As far as you’re concerned, we’re sending you home.’ He started to give me a sermon. He told me: ‘Understand that you cannot get tangled up in anything because you’re conditionally released. As soon as you start something, you’re going back in the cooler. You’re not free, it’s just a conditional release for health reasons because you’re ill.”
“The report was widely received. During the same holidays, about a week after the report was published, I went to Morón to visit my daughter, who was a Pioneer. When I arrived, my daughter told me: ‘Dad, I’m ashamed to tell you...’ ‘What happened, daughter dear?’ ‘I’m ashamed to tell you that you’re a liar.’ ‘But my daughter, how could your dad be a liar?’ ‘You are, Dad. Everything you wrote in the Pioneer is a lie. Come have a look at the Explorers’ Centre where I was.’ So I set out with her to the Explorers’ Centre in a little village in the province of Ciego de Ávila, which is called Majagua. The children there were bitten by mosquitoes, the huts weren’t pretty like in Lenin Park, the food was awful, they lacked water, the children couldn’t even wash themselves properly. It was terrible. I said: ‘Daughter, you are completely right. I’m a liar. But I didn’t lie on purpose but because they deceived me.’ When I returned to Havana, I requested to be allowed to write a new report, so that children like my daughter would know that not all Explorers’ Centres were made equal.”
The best counter to a dictatorship is a sense of humour
Manuel Vázquez Portal was born on 9 October 1951 in the former province of Camaguea in the northern part of Cuba. He comes from a peasant family that owned a small farm. When Manuel was 7 years old, Fidel Castro came to power. He belongs to the “enchanted generation”, which was initially enchanted by the newly arrived messiah, who was to solve all the problems of Cuban society. Manuel shed the enchantment during and after his university studies because he began to recognise what the Cuban regime was really like. In 1995 he became active as a dissident via the independent Cuban press. Some articles were also published abroad, and so the Cuban political police began persecuting the independent journalists. It all culminated in March 2003 in an event known as the Cuban Black Spring. More than 70 journalists were arrested. Among them was also Manuel Vázquel Portal, who was sentenced a month later to 18 years of prison for crimes against economic and state stability. He spent several months in Cuba’s most feared prison, Boniata, in horrendous conditions. He was then transferred to a different prison, but he suffered from health problems from 2006, which finally led to his release. His stay in prison did not break him, and he continued to write and managed to create a diary that was published and translated into eighteen languages while he was still serving his sentence. It garnered an amazing response. Despite all the horrors Manuel had to endure, he maintained his sense of humour and attempted to take the whole matter light-heartedly. He believed he would survive. After his release, he and his family moved to the US, where he worked as the production manager for Oscar Haze’s show.