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Inside a Cuban Prison: The Sequel

Miguel has a court date.

Finally.

Regular readers of Here is Havana are likely haunted still by my friend’s unfortunate tale of incarceration in Havana’s roughest prison. Unfortunately, after more than six months behind bars, his – and Esther’s – saga continues its tragic trajectory. It doesn’t help in the slightest that Miguel is still awaiting sentencing for his crime – being caught with 10 tabs of Ritalin, all for personal consumption, but which the cops determined were for sale. I’ve just returned from another visit to the Combinado de Este across the Bay and a certain fatalistic tenor as settled over him. In short, Miguel is caught in a living nightmare, his Locked up Abroad – no matter that he’s Cuban.

Miguel isn’t a drug dealer. He’s a young-ish Cuban who doesn’t drink or smoke or swear, but does enjoy raves and electronic parties which often go deep into the pre-dawn hours. Like many youth the world over, he enjoys a little bump every now and then while getting his groove on. Now he’s looking at six years with Havana’s hardest criminals (worst case scenario) or two if the voodoo we’re working proves to be any good.

Luck has not favored Miguel – or Esther – throughout this torturous process. If it seems like I’m mentioning Esther a lot, I am, and on purpose. For every 10 people who ask her how Miguel is doing, she’s lucky if one asks after her; it’s extraordinarily rare for someone to ask how she’s doing. Miguel told me he wouldn’t be surviving behind bars if it weren’t for his wife of four years. She’s working two jobs to be able to visit him every 15 days (with an additional conjugal romp each month) hauling 20-pound sacks of cigarettes, socks, hot dogs, powdered fruit drink, cookies, olives, and other goods for sustenance and trade on each and every trip. It also falls to Esther to deal with the lawyer and paperwork, track down potential witnesses, and visit her trusted palero so he can work his magic; it’s important not to leave any stone unturned. Esther is fortunate to have sympathetic bosses: the time off and money required to turn over all these stones are not insignificant. Despite the financial support her family, friends, and aforementioned bosses have provided throughout this ordeal, it’s a terrible struggle and Esther has dropped so much weight a day doesn’t go by without a friend or stranger commenting on how rail thin she is. I attributed it to stress but it’s not just that as it turns out – Esther has a thyroid problem. But that’s a different story.

The financial and physical toll of this whole experience is appreciable, but nothing compares to the psychological effects it’s having. The mind games incarceration and the judicial process play is no joke. Miguel’s first lawyer, to give you one example, stopped answering his phone after working on the case for six weeks. Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless couldn’t answer his phone. Not because it was lost or broken, but because he fled the country – with all his clients’ money. Worse yet, he never even opened Miguel’s case. My friend had been inside a couple of months already when the treachery came to light. Back to square one. Esther, feeling the financial pain and pinch acutely now, contracted another lawyer. He discovered that Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless, in addition to stealing his clients’ money, hadn’t done jack shit and to his chagrin and our horror, Miguel’s second lawyer couldn’t even locate his case file. It was lost in the system, MIA in the Cuban bureaucracy, a place to which you wouldn’t condemn even your worst enemies.

About the time the missing case file came to light, I visited Miguel again. The guards and checkpoints were stricter this time, less relaxed and gregarious, less Cuban, vaya. Seems someone had tried recently, unsuccessfully, to smuggle in some pills in a bag of powdered milk. They had laid a fart in the middle of the fiesta as Cubans say and now the visiting process was more tedious and longer. Worse however, is the fact that they wouldn’t let me enter with the Time magazine dedicated to new technologies (Miguel is a certified nerd) because the advertisement with a woman in a tank top had spank bank possibilities, disqualifying it as appropriate penitentiary reading material. Rather than letting me rip out the offending ad, they stored the magazine for post-visit retrieval. I didn’t really give a whit for the magazine, but I knew it would have occupied Miguel’s overworked brain for hours and kept his day bright long after we concluded the visit. What really grated, however, was the guards also prohibited me from carrying in the most recent B&H catalog, Miguel’s preferred porn with all its new gadgets and high-tech geegaws. They also wouldn’t let me carry in the four-page letter I wrote him the night before. Is there anything more stimulating and stress-relieving for a convict than a personal letter? The conjugal visits, I suppose, but that’s not my job.

This visit was different from those previous and not just for the revision of our provisions. For one thing, I was starting to recognize repeat visitors and their prisoners. There was the dyed blond mulatta with the three inch nails; the guajira in her visiting day dress, the same one she wears every time; and the 72-year old inmate, shrunken and wrinkled, chain smoking uncut Criollos. This time we could have played footsie or passed contraband under the table since the ones in this pavilion were open below rather than blocked off with cement. After initial hugs, kisses and a fair share of ass grabbing, female visitors started setting out tablecloths and Cuban feasts – congris, pork steaks perfectly cooked and seasoned, salads and fritters and flan. Daughters hung on their fathers’ necks, babies nuzzled against chests, and hands were held tenderly across the expanse of table. Voices ricocheted off the cinderblock walls and laughter filled every corner like cobwebs. That room overflowed with love. It was palpable, tinged with sadness of course, but authentic, positive emotion ruled the afternoon.

On the outside, this wasn’t so: Miguel’s central (Cuban for family/support system) was losing energy, our upbeat outlook turning dark. Then by some miracle – or more banal and earthly reasons like money – his case file appeared. Esther snapped into action, amassing documents and paperwork, compiling photographic evidence and contacting potential witnesses. She needed photos of Miguel’s apartment – a nearly condemnable 1-BR affair in Centro Habana – because the investigators accused him of living ‘beyond his means.’ Police-speak for ill-gotten goods or being involved in illicit business. Wait until they see the photos: mildew-stained walls, crumbling counters, doors so termite-infested they’re soft and splintery to the touch, the chipped tiles and floors, and windows so far off true they haven’t shut right in years. Witnesses are an especially important part of the evidence equation – just one person from the group present that night on the Malecón could make all the difference. Any one of the half dozen “friends” who were with Miguel could testify that he wasn’t selling the pills. Bastards. To a one they declined to appear on his behalf. The older I get, the more indignant I am about pussy people – those who refuse to raise their heads above the parapet to defend who or what they believe in.
“Cuba Libro. Buenas tardes.”
“CONNER!!”
“Who’s this?”
“Miguel!”
Say what?! Miguel only gets one 10-minute phone call a week. I couldn’t fathom why he’d call us instead of Esther. But he was phoning with positive news: he got a good jail job, distributing three hots to his cell block. It was a plum job, for which Miguel had to make periodic payments to land and keep, but it improved his life exponentially. Moving between kitchen and cell blocks provide him a freedom enjoyed by few and also gives him regular access to the payphones. He was now calling Esther several times a week, often for 30-minute conversations. The buckets of beans and rice and stew were heavy and his shoulders and arms ached painfully because of them but chow time was a welcome break in the routine and Miguel’s personable, chatty style is making him popular with the other inmates. He told me all of this on the phone, but buried the lead: he finally had a court date for sentencing: more than 7 months after being hauled in, Miguel was going to learn his fate. He warned us: “it’s going to be frightening. I will be in handcuffs and leg shackles. You have to prepare for the worst. Dealing drugs is considered a crime against the state.”

We’re thinking positively, Esther is off to do some intense “work” with the palero and Miguel is hanging tough. About a dozen of us are going to the sentencing. Hopefully I’ll be back here soon with good news.

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