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 class.)
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 jailers.
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 again
Ricardo González Alfonso, a journalist. This article was translated by Esther Allen from the Spanish.