Havana: The Black Spring

July 14, 2010


(photo by Kaloian)

In the spring of 2003, I was living in Old Havana, in the Cuban capital’s historic colonial sector, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s an ancient city, almost 500 years old, with narrow and winding streets that would make Daedalus jealous.

Because the neighborhood grew haphazardly out of the old Spanish settlement, it defies the orderly grid of the rest of Havana. In Old Havana, the street names can be very literal, like Tejadillo, where I lived, which means tiled-roofs, or Oficios, trades, where the tradesmen had their shops in colonial times. But they can also be odd and even ominous: There’s a street called Salud, or health, and another Amargura, bitterness. Porvenir – future prospects – is eerily only one block long.

Old Havana – Habana Vieja – is a portrait in contrasts: the city’s most exquisite, expensive and exclusive hotels lure foreigners from every corner of the globe. They sit side by side with old baroque mansions turned ruinous slums where the natives live. In the mornings, the foreigners pour out to see the sights, and the tenements dwellers stream out to hustle enough to get by.

To me, the early morning hours in Havana, when the skies are still black and blue and just opening up, are a kind of wonder. It’s cool, footsteps echo on the cobblestones, the smell of fresh coffee is still unrivaled.

But in March 2003, many an Old Havana dawn was disrupted by the unmarked cars of state security blocking streets, the swift and brutal tossing of a home, confiscation and sometimes arrests. We would wander around our neighborhood and hear how somebody’s computer was taken away, that state security agents had broken a refrigerator in the process of a search, the vile insults hurled at suspected dissidents, and about the occasional beating. Everyone was terrified.

News reports outside of Cuba detailed the eventual arrests of 75 freelance journalists, independent librarians, human rights and democracy activists. In Cuba, the official media – that is, all the media – maintained a cool silence about these events. Inside the island, information traveled exclusively by word of mouth.

The dissidents’ crimes included working for foreign interests against the state, running illegal libraries, distributing banned materials. The evidence against them included testimony by men and women they’d thought were friends and allies who turned out to be spies for the state, and had been reporting back to the authorities for years, even decades. The sentences were crushing: from six to 28 years, with most of the accused getting more than 20 years of jail time. Few people expected them to survive.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because, in the last weeks, the Cuban Catholic Archbishop Jaime Ortega brokered a surprise deal between Raul Castro and the Spanish government to free the men and women arrested in what has become known as the Black Spring and allow them to go into exile in Spain.

For many of the 75, this is a good thing, a marvelous and miraculous turn of events – they get out of jail, they receive desperately needed medical care. Some of those who have been scheduled for release have elected to remain on the island, though the conditions for their parole are still to be determined. And of those who are going to Spain, the archbishop says, some will be allowed to return to Cuba after they’ve been treated (I’ll skip over the irony of Cuban political prisoners having to leave the island, so proud of its medical prowess, to get treatment in Europe…).

But many, in fact, will not be allowed to come back. They will be forced from the cayman, from the labyrinth streets of Old Havana, from Salud and Amargura and Porvenir, forever.

And I can’t help but wonder, for how many of the 75 is banishment from their native land a different kind of prison sentence?