The immigration officer took my passport and told me to stand aside and wait. The pandemic era had begun. Inside the face mask my breath condensed, misting my glasses. That was an acceptable metaphor for Cuba: a country in a mask, its breath constrained, its gaze blurred by the breathy fog. Everything that can be simplified stems from an unfair order. The night before, we had gotten a friend out of jail. I stayed up into the early hours, drinking too many beers as we celebrated in a club on 25th Street, while the fingernail of freedom opened a gash of amazement in the mud of our bodies.
A woman appeared and took my passport. They had been waiting for me. A few weeks earlier, they had called my phone to interrogate me. I rejected the call. Later a police officer had been seen prowling around a friend’s house. He asked several of the neighbors about me. They were like the shadow of the medieval wolf. They slipped behind walls, slithered under a cart, emitting a hoarse growl. You longed for them to appear, so you could finally stop feeling scared.
Fear had settled into us like an icy prosthesis, like a screw buried in flesh. The social body had no voice, subjected as it was to a medical experiment by the political police. We were accustomed to the dearth of shock, the bureaucratic expression of fear. As a result, a primary way to escape this dictatorship was to embrace it, to go looking for it. When power is forced to show itself, it is invariably weakened.
Some minutes passed. Stretched out by a kind of sadness, the historical sadness of the ultimate absurdity. Why were things as they were? The woman came back with my passport and told me to follow her. An officer in a military uniform, curt, unflustered. She seemed aloof to everything, but I knew that once even she had danced to reggaeton, watched pornography, eaten frijoles negros.
We walked past Immigration and Customs. My passport was stamped, they were going to let me leave. Havana was far behind.
Though we had created a future for the city, scrawled on the air with a delirious pencil; though we had moved in lockstep like automata, it was here that the city had finally run aground and been left behind. But behind what? Behind life, perhaps? There was no map of time, no future path, not even in the escape or flight in which Havana once again appeared as it had formerly been: the promise of rescue, of temptation, of personal discovery. Havana had become a city perched precariously between the mists of melancholy and the snare of indifference. Havana still made sense to me only through the salt line of its stifling political situation, one that at any other time would have prompted disgust or contempt. A situation that was contingent, fragile, but now felt like justice deferred.
In an hour and a half, my flight to Mexico City would take off. I desperately wanted to go back. I had spent six months away from that superstition that Lucia Berlin describes as ‘fatalistic, suicidal, corrupt. A pestilential swamp. Oh, but there is graciousness. There are flashes of such beauty, of kindness and of color, you catch your breath.’
The woman led me to one of her superiors. He was a tall, athletic man, with green eyes; he was holding a clipboard of some sort. I was interested to note his affability – here was a genuinely personable man thrust into an arbitrary situation. We said little; I appreciated that. He told me it was just a matter of a few questions; they would not take up much of my time. He was lying, of necessity. No man in his official position, who had no opportunity to resign his post, could possibly be my ally when the entire country had made itself my enemy. A good man in a bad situation becomes a bad man who pretends.
I walked past the toilets and the trinket shops of Terminal 3 – a tacky theme park stocked with symbols of the Revolution: the boxes of Cohiba cigars, the bottles of Havana Club, the faces of Che Guevara. A pop-art patchwork of tattered ideology, a tapestry of dreams so often patched with terror that the patches had become the whole tapestry.
I passed another checkpoint and the official left me in a cramped, soulless office. Two men were seated at a desk. I had to sit facing them. Finally. I wanted to see who they were. I stared at them. Their faces were half-hidden by green masks, that sinister dark green of the public hospitals. So, this was who they were. I had seen them so often before, I ran into them on every street, every day of my life in Cuba.
Any Cuban prepared to stare into a crowd, to look along a line of people waiting outside a bodega, to watch the popular national video clips of ragged, boisterous masses would instantly recognize these two men. Any Cuban had only to look in the mirror and, if he did not put his fist through the glass, did not gash his hand, did not take a hammer to the mirror, he would see them there, too.
They were not the classic good cop/bad cop partnership. One, the senior officer, was short, squat and spouted drivel. The other was broad, powerful, almost too big for his chair, and did not seem to have any particular role in this scenario. Perhaps, as Barbara Demick describes in her book Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, they were assigned in pairs for the same reason that foreign journalists in North Korea are assigned two guides, so that each can monitor the other, thereby ensuring neither strays from the official script. All things considered, as far as these two officers were concerned, I was a foreign journalist, from the specific subspecies of foreigner comprised of Cubans who have renounced the native soil of Castroism.
I suspected the second officer was here in order to observe and learn. A rookie officer supporting a veteran officer, thereby rounding out the inquisitorial process to the totalitarian machine whose cruelty stems not from intelligence, but from stupidity.
I asked their names. They were called something like Carlos or Alejandro or Jorge. Fake names, the same old names, the names of dead kings. They didn’t have the names Yasmany or Yasiel, real names, the names of real people who sweated real sweat. I felt sure that they answered to Maikel or Yandro when they stepped out into the street, and people could see them struggling to get by, enduring the same harsh sun as everyone else.
They always used aliases, and nothing betrays a person more than an alias. A number of other journalists who wrote for the magazine I edited were also interrogated during this period, in the midst of the global pandemic. Since the word belonged to history, it was the oppressor who was forced to hide. It was the oppressor who could not reveal his name, who had to move like a phantom through this room of the Last Judgment, an unassuming yet decisive room where we were gambling with the value of that curious creature, freedom.
From whom is the oppressor hiding, since it is he who oppresses? He is hiding from some future moment, from a time that some of us had launched ourselves into, which was precisely why we were being interrogated. Beneath the mask of some present guilt, what the oppressors were really asking was how it would work, this moment of ours, this moment they could not comprehend. It’s fragile, we would have told them, it is not a closed time like the one in which you live. But those who ask lots of questions have no wish to listen, only to defeat the other.
In this country I was fleeing, people died at the age of eighty and existed only from Wednesday to Thursday, constantly tiring themselves out over short distances. One day at a time for a whole lifetime, this was all that had been allocated to us. What was devastating about totalitarianism was this oppressive, unchanging, endlessly recurring moment.
The senior officer had a Havana accent, gruff and more prosodic; the other had an accent from somewhere in the east, softer and more cadenced. The junior officer did not say much, but in what little time he was granted succeeded in highlighting his particular gifts. I had met a lot of men like him during military service. Over the years, most of them ended up pickled by booze, smelling of gasoline, desperately waiting for August so they could grab life by the balls, spend a weekend in a ramshackle campsite on the northern coast.
His boss spat words, while he felt uncomfortable in the mask that shifted and stifled him. Every time he tried to say something, the words, like flecks of spittle, caught in this fabric muzzle. There they died, unintelligible, a series of flattened sounds that neither I nor his boss could untangle. Extracting any sense from his babble was like picking up grains of rice. The chief looked on patiently, never reproaching him. The junior officer pushed the mask away and spoke out of the side of his mouth.
When his words finally reached me, the gist and tone of the question was one that his boss had already asked. I’ve already answered that, I said repeatedly. Maybe he too was being assessed. He had to ask a question and couldn’t think of one. He was like a student who joins the last class of a particular course without having had an oral assessment and feels they have to say something just to avoid being failed.
If he didn’t have any ideas, his superior had one. An idea that was fixed, absolute and reserved for him alone. It is something we’ve all seen once. The notion of a boorish man in a position of power who believes he is right. ‘How much do you get paid for your Facebook posts?’ he asked. ‘Who pays you?’ ‘How do you know the people that you know?’ And so on. Ad infinitum. The rhetorical snail of his questions spiraled in on itself. They believed that everyone acted as they did. According to orders, for a meager pittance, governed by obscure hierarchies.
They made my head spin. The official who brought me here suddenly burst into the room and said that the flight would be taking off soon. Then he left, cordially complicit. I could not think of a way to respond to this hilarious outburst with a minimum of honesty, a shred of dignity, or even mild sarcasm, which was how I had somewhat condescendingly imagined I would react when the situation first arose. They had ensnared me in their slug-like logic. We could use a phrase from Robert Walser: ‘There are limits in life to any attempt to rise above vulgarity.’
They questioned me about my friends, about my family. They showed me photos of people I didn’t know, or had briefly encountered. What kind of connections and conspiracies had they dreamed up in their delusional minds? I thought. If all of this sounds vague, that’s because it is. They were looking for something that wasn’t there. Something about which I knew nothing and they knew even less, something that existed in the past only inasmuch as they that had put it there. They dredged the memory of the crime in the breadcrumbs of nonsense, smearing everything with sticky logic, making me dirty.
I tried as hard as I could to drive out the thought that they were producing in me the thought of the answers, and every time it happened, I realized what I was actually trying to do was not betray anyone. Not that I could, of course, since there was no one to betray. But my interrogators were not interested in such details because they did not want me to betray people; they wanted me to try not to betray anyone. To them, it was proof there existed someone behind the scenes who could be betrayed.
But the crime did exist; it was Cuba itself. The only way that these two officers could save themselves was by pretending to investigate me. Late totalitarianism, as I experienced it, could not be seen as a metaphor for the total destruction of the individual, but, on the contrary, as a process by which the individual acquired antibodies in order to deceive Big Brother. He did not love Big Brother, he cuckolded him, but he served Big Brother, because not only did he realize that he was being deceived, he wanted to be deceived, thereby eventually creating the sort of dishonest, dissembling individual who was unfaithful to himself, and whose antibodies were just another symptom of the disease.
At the end of the day, in totalitarianism there can be no infidelity that did not already exist within the marriage, but if my interrogators did not stick to this marriage contract, and carried on investigating who had set about destroying Cuba, all that awaited them was exile or civil death, the fate suffered by almost all those before them who had unraveled this simple crime.
In Leonardo Sciascia’s novel The Knight and Death, the unnamed Vice Chief of Police, known only as il Vice, is investigating the death of a famous lawyer, an investigation that leads him to none other than the president of United Industries, another temporary placeholder for power. Meanwhile, newspapers are persuaded to write stories pinning the blame on an anarcho-terrorist group of dissatisfied youths called the ‘Children of Eighty-Nine’. The same year I was born. Il Vice only pretends to investigate this purported group of anarchists to keep his boss happy, but, despite the plausible new stories, he is not convinced. When he persists, and begins to get close to the truth, he is shot dead, in one of the most beautiful final scenes ever written.
It is not as though the political corruption and general frustration in Sicily described in The Knight and Death could not have prompted a group like the ‘Children of Eighty-Nine’ to rise up. After all, I had risen up, together with many others. It was the fact that power had committed a specific crime, one that they deemed manageable, necessary and unavoidable for other reasons, and then pinned the blame on a predetermined enemy, an enemy seemingly rooted in domestic terrorism. This was one of the greatest historical successes of Castroism. We had to deal with the exhausting task of not becoming a credible enemy, one that fitted the only story they knew how to write, and instead commit our own crime.
On page sixty-four of my edition of The Knight and Death is the following bitter exchange:
‘Have you heard the latest? This country is never boring. Now we’ve got the Children of Eighty-Nine.’
‘Yeah, the Children of Eighty-Nine.’ Ironically, maliciously.
‘So what do you make of it?’
‘I think it is all so much hot air, pure fantasy. And you?’
‘Glad to hear it. From what I read in the papers, your office is taking the whole thing pretty seriously.’
‘Yeah, of course we are. Do you really expect us to miss out on such a juicy fantasy?’
‘That’s it. The whole thing sounds like something made up over a cup of coffee, as a game, a ruse . . . What else can they do, the poor bastards, the dumb fools who need to carry on believing in something after Khrushchev, after Mao, after Fidel Castro and now Gorbachev? You have to throw them a crumb of cake, something that can be popped into the oven after two hundred years and reheated, something bland and flavoured with revelries, rediscoveries and revaluations: and inside the same hard stone for them to break their teeth on.’
The cake reheated after 200 years is the French Revolution, and one slice of that cake is the notion and the structure of the republic. In a free interpretation of The Knight and Death as non-fiction novel, maybe the ominous ‘Children of Eighty-Nine’ could bite into the cake and avoid the stone.
The officers asked me about Luis Manuel Otero. An artist friend of mine they had arrested on trumped-up charges and been forced to release the night before. They asked how long we had known each other, what had brought us together. This had all been written already. It was they who had brought us together, obviously, though I’m not sure I told them that.
The third officer reappeared. Ten minutes to takeoff. At this point, they adopted a clumsy tactic. They suggested we could have coffee when I came back to Cuba. Just something informal, they didn’t want to issue a summons. For an instant, I freaked out, as though I’d already agreed. I remembered that while doing military service, a counter-intelligence officer had called me into his office to ask me to rat out other soldiers if they absconded or slept during sentry duty. Such offers triggered in me a particular kind of revulsion.
I said no. The only way we’re going to talk is if you get a summons, I blurted out. They asked what date I was coming back. I didn’t know. They told me they would see me when I got back. I told them to do whatever they had to. Then they resorted to a little sophistry. My decision not to come in for interview after they called me on my phone demonstrated a defiance that was unlike me, they said. I told them they had no idea what I was like. In all honesty, I had no idea either, but it was a phrase that, however clichéd, came in useful at that moment – it might slow them down and it sounded good.
They spoke as if it was they who had called my phone. They were right. Although we were in Havana and the call had come from Matanzas, a completely different province, I was dealing with a single creature that, according to time or place, could manifest itself in particular individuals without being fragmented. There was nothing to differentiate between them.
The interrogation had gone on for more than an hour. It is tempting to see such encounters as Kafkaesque. They’re not; they are unworthy of the term. There had been too much talk. In Kafka, officers don’t ask questions, they have no need to uncover anything. Their actions are brutal, their speech is terse and peremptory and has the dual effect of closing one door only to open up a dizzying network of pathways, and it is in this labyrinth, rather than behind the closed door, that the miserable prisoner is trapped.
By the time the interrogators tried to pressure me, it was already too late, they had run out of time. The third officer reappeared to say that he could no longer hold the flight. Before I left, there was a panicked pause in which they explained that that was why I should report to them as soon as they called my phone, allowing us to have a relaxed conversation and avoiding the need for them to send a patrol car to pick me up. This wasn’t a conversation, I said, it was an interrogation. An interrogation, they informed me, was something much worse. They spluttered something else, but by now I was no longer listening, we were all completely numbed.
The whole encounter seemed utterly anachronistic. This was 14 March 2020, a time when Stalinist aesthetics could be seen only as folklore. Outside, the news was all about the pandemic. Before long, tens of thousands would be dying all over the world. Three days earlier, Cuba had identified its first cases of coronavirus.
I rushed onto the plane and looked for my seat. The passengers looked at me disapprovingly. They probably assumed I had left everything until the last minute. In my seat, with my seat belt buckled, with no battery on my phone, I collapsed. It was as though I had sat down twice, or as though I had left a part of me behind. But this was not the only part of me that had lagged behind. Over the following days in Mexico City, various parts that had been lingering in the interrogation came back to me.
It was understandable. There had been a rift in reality, such that you arrived at a place as you were leaving it. The flight took off. I closed my eyes and soared into the lofty darkness of nowhere in particular. What had been was outweighed by what was yet to come.
Artwork © Ricardo Miguel Hernández, from When Memory Turns to Dust, 2018