THE PRISONER AND THE LIGHT

He preferred to sit on a bench at the back. He never missed the Sunday Mass. He had a habit of narrowing his eyes, but his face was serene and emanated a sense of security based on the truth coming from the inner strength. His humble and energetic appearance was clearly perceptible and couldn’t be overlooked by those who knew him and were aware of where he had just come from. Yet, hidden behind the clarity radiating from his ethics was his imprisonment. Not any imprisonment, but one that was twice as hard: imprisonment on political grounds, a trap designed by the regime to catch and isolate people who follow the dictates of their own conscience.

Pedro Arguelles suffered imprisonment as a punishment for his ideas and activism as an independent journalist. He spent in prison an uninterrupted period of 8 years and 28 days (adding up to some 2,948 days and devastating nights, which would be counted as 70,752 hours by prison guards and which he would feel in his flesh, one by one, as 4,245,120 minutes, which would further shatter into the derisive sum of 254,707,200 seconds tattooing in his eyes a hard, empty shadow).

Grito Rito / Francis Sánchez
Grito Rito / Francis Sánchez

His release wasn’t any easier. They wanted to shame him by forcing him to opt for a future they themselves have prepared for him, the very people who picked him up in the street and locked him in a dungeon, telling him that it was for his own good. A high-ranking member of the clergy called him repeatedly, offering him a “way out” – a solution that Shakespeare once described as “another name for death”: going into exile. Pedro kept refusing and one day he even asked the cleric not to call him any more if he wasn’t able to offer him real, simple freedom. And so it went on until one afternoon, when most of the other political prisoners arrested during the so-called “Black Spring” had already been expatriated, they put Pedro in a car and dropped him off without a word right in front of his house.

He lived in a sort of a poor and humble bunkhouse – a “home” which one always puts in quotation marks when using it in a sentence; a “home” where you prefer sitting outside on the porch when the heat sets in. When I heard he was back, after so much time we hadn’t seen each other, I hesitated for a second whether I should pay him a visit, because I knew that he would be under constant surveillance. But at least I could give him a hug, I thought. We sat side by side at the busy porch of the house, talking as if we just picked up on a conversation we hadn’t finished the day before. There was something I had brought him and I hesitated. What would they think (those who were watching us) if they saw me take a piece of paper from my bag and put it in his hands?

On that afternoon I was scheduled to attend, along with my brother, the International Book Fair in Ciego de Ávila, where there was a presentation of a book with an article of mine about the Special Period. When I came there, I saw the result of the welcome visit I paid to Pedro: the room, which was already full of young audiences, was now crammed with hostile-looking men. We were only able to overcome the tension during the presentation and the readings thanks to the spontaneous reactions of the young people laughing at our stories of how we manage to live and survive.

When I came round to see Pedro that morning, he didn’t recognize me at first, nor was he able to read the piece of paper I put in his hands. He had to wait for a few days until his glasses were made. Also, he had to get used to reading again. The prison had deprived him of the sight and he was almost blind. As soon as he was able to, he gave me a call and I was honoured to hear the following words of praise: “After I read your text, I felt that the 12 years hadn’t been useless.” I don’t think there is anything more satisfactory than helping somebody get back the lost years of his life, over 8 years shattered into seconds, by giving him hope (or certainty) of finally being understood. Pedro was referring to an article I published in my blog Hombre en las nubes (“Man in the Clouds”) while he was still in prison in which I showed my support for his ethical attitude which made him refuse (self)deportation in exchange for his release.

When walking the streets of his town again, he could see little of it (although he was seen and noticed a great deal). Some people joked about there being nothing much to look at any more, nothing to regret. The Red Cross offered to arrange a surgery abroad if he only agreed to leave the country for some time. Yet, he knew and he told me on several occasions that they would never allow him to get back if he left, it would be once and for all. On the other hand, he said that he didn’t want to undergo a surgery in Cuba for lack of trust – not because he feared that they would definitely hurt him, but because he knew that if the surgery went wrong, he would always harbour doubts. As time went on, the darkness grew and he finally decided to make the trip abroad, accompanied by his family. It was a journey of his own volition, yet, against his will at the same time.

Let there be some light, we have have always prayed to the mother of Cubans before and after each of our illegal or permitted processions, carrying lighted candles as a symbol of our wish that our homeland once becomes a “home” for all of us, a “home” without quotation marks.