Q: You were released on June 21, 1984, after more than 20 years of incarceration?
A: Twenty years and 40 days.
Q: Why you were imprisoned so many years?
A: In 1964, in the month of April, a trial of extraordinary importance took place in Havana. A friend of mine, like a brother, a comrade-in- arms against Batista from university days, was accused of a vile crime that he had not committed, of a breach of trust and of having sent four companions to their deaths. I was absolutely sure of his innocence, objectively certain, with proof of his innocence. I had thoroughly investigated the case. I tried to do something about it, tried to testify on his behalf at his trial. I was unable to do anything.
My friend was condemned to death, executed, and, several days later, I was arrested at the home of some friends. My arrest takes place when the secret police arrive to arrest a gentleman in their house. I am in that house. I have no identification, which happens to be required for obligatory military service. I had decided not to register for mandatory military service because I wasn't ready to take up arms on behalf of a totalitarian power. That's what I told State Security, so I was taken away by State Security.
I was accused of offenses against state powers and of being an anti- government agent. I was tried behind closed doors without a lawyer, was sentenced, but never informed of my sentence. I never did receive my sentence in writing. The ministry told my wife orally that I had 20 years. That's how prison began.
The cellblock of La Cabana where we were locked up was intended for 60 inmates; there were 304. We had violent confrontations with the guards every three or four hours. A firing squad was set up and five or six were executed each night. We had no water, were beaten, abandoned, filthy, stinking, alienated, crazy. I saw guys go mad, try to kill themselves.
My treatment in prison consisted of the worst physical and moral excesses imaginable, constant and unending destabilization. The worst part of it isn't the physical mistreatment. In the last analysis, the spirit survives. But constantly being put off balance, being harassed, has produced many madmen, many idiots, many suicides.
After 20 years, 40 days, I was in Boniato (a maximum security prison in eastern Cuba), in little Boniato, more specifically, which is a prison within a prison, along with the group of political prisoners called plantados ("diehards" or "rooted ones") who had been taken there. I didn't know what was going on outside or anything like that. I heard State Security had arrived and that it could have something to do with my freedom. But I had no idea I would be released because in Cuba, when you complete your sentence, you aren't released. My own companions warned that I could be taken to Security for a "treatment." That's what I think when I'm taken to State Security. But when I enter the director's office, I'm given a change of clothes.
Q: Did you have any idea of the tremendous campaign being waged on your behalf?
A: I don't know anything about that. I'm sent to the director's office and told I will be freed. But that same day, I'm taken to State Security in Santiago (a city in eastern Cuba near Boniato) and told I will be freed, but I am not. The next day, I go to Havana and State Security treats me like a recent arrestee, which makes me think this is a further harassment, that they are playing around with me to push me off balance. But then they call me to an interview in the State Security office and I begin to believe. On the 21st (of June) they propose that I take a look at various accomplishments of the revolution so that I won't go away with a bad impression. I agree and am taken to Lenin Park, Almeijeiras Hospital, the university, a cafeteria, etc. And, on the 21st, at 3 p.m., they set me free in a room in the Riviera Hotel. I spend 48 hours seeing what's left of my family after 20 years. To arrive at a house where seven lived and to find only three -- .
Q: Did you think you would ever get out?
A: Well, in Cuba, he who completes his time, doesn't get out. We were resigned to staying in prison forever, or until something happened, or to die there.
Q: What have been your impressions of life outside, especially since coming to this country?
A: Well, the first thing is that I've arrived from Mars. After 20 years in prison, coming into the world is like arriving from another planet. The most notable impression is the loss of a sense of continuous time. Especially since coming here to the United States, I've run across friends, comrades, and relatives ranging from when I was four years old to new acquaintances. For me, time doesn't go 1, 2, then 3, 4, 5; rather, it's like spreading out the whole deck of cards at once. The same scene encompasses a comrade-in-arms from 20 years back, a university classmate, a fellow prisoner and someone I've just met. I haven't matured. Maturity in this world is achieved by accumulating successive landmark events. People grow up by adding to their lives. Since my life has been interrupted, when I refer to something, it makes no difference if it's 30 years or two weeks ago.
Q: You've traveled a lot lately.
A: More than I ever dreamed of. I left prison en route to Caracas. I wanted to go to Caracas because I wanted to touch down on my own land, on Hispanic soil, on Spanish- American soil. It's one of my most beloved cities.
From there, I left for Europe, for Rotterdam, to receive the Rotterdam Prize awarded by a Dutch international poetry contest.
From there, I go on to Paris, then to Frankfurt, to walk in the forest and to know the land where Goethe was born. I go to Copenhagen; it has to do with Soren Kirkegaard. I go to London. London and the whole country have too much to single out any one thing. And I go especially to Barcelona because it's my father's country. One day, my father left there and crossed the Atlantic so I could be born in one of the Antilles. I went back to pay homage to his land and to my roots. I went to see the house he had lived in and what was left of my family there.
Then, on to Madrid. Madrid is like a prior extension of Havana. Then to Miami where my mother lives, 81 years old, very frail, warding off death until she could see me and have me a little while.
Q: Are you bitter about your long imprisonment?
A: No, of course not. Prison is a form of living and you lived with intensity there and fulfilled a role, played a part in life. You can live anywhere. There's joy, pain, anguish, exhaltation wherever you are. The psalm says: "Thou knowest neither humiliation nor exhaltation" and that's true any place. A prison cell is only the stage, the backdrop for a set where the actor interprets different roles. That's what we do, play our roles in different theaters.
Q: But hasn't it been difficult to adapt to the outside world? It's a very different stage.
A: I think it's impossible. I've always been poorly adapted. I never adapted to prison and I won't adapt to the world. Adaptation is a form of mutilation, of self-contradiction. I simply believe that just as prison tolerated me, so the world will have to tolerate me.
Q: You are a poet.
A: So they say. Whether I am a poet will be known 400 years from now, if any of the lines I've written are still read and considered poetry. It's a bit presumptuous to call oneself a poet when the world considers Homer and Dante poets.
Q: When did you begin to write poetry?
A: I first began writing at age 10 or 11. My father copied down my verses. They weren't religious as they are now. I've been writing continuously ever since, with very little that's ever been published. As a youth, I had a poem published in Mexico and some prose also, along with journalism and fiction in Mexico. After that, my whole life was spent in revolutionary activities and patriotic agitation. I kept writing in prison. Most of my work has been lost. I tried to get as much out as possible and never knew what had been salvaged. I heard in prison that some of my material had been published, but I didn't know what. I have a fair body of work that has been saved and not yet published -- poetry, fiction, theater, philosophical essays.
As for conditions for writing in prison, for a time, you couldn't read or write at all. It was practically all forced labor under insufferable physical circumstances with no time left for writing. Every minute was dedicated to living or surviving. If the whole 20 years had been like that, we couldn't have lasted. There were ups and downs, periods when you could write, when you could read. The truth is the most important thing in prison, and what took up most of my time, was thinking, then translating this thought into transcendental form. To write is to converse with eternity, to converse with the future.
Since leaving prison, a new need has come about: I have to live. To live means the bus, a car, shoes, a home, an office, lunch, restaurants, travel, all those things. I haven't written a line since I got out.
Q: How many books have you published so far?
A: I've published "Donde Estoy No Hay Luz y Esta Enrejado" (There Is No Light Behind These Bars), which is in its fourth edition. A second book, "La Paloma Nocturna" (The Nocturnal Dove), is a canticle to the assumption of Mary, published in Miami, a few days before my release.
Q: How were these books produced, how written, logistically speaking?
A: The first book represents the period 1967 to 1969, a time of great repression, great violence. We were kept incommunicado, denied visitors, and were obligated to wear the uniform of common prisoners. When we refused (because the common prisoner's uniform denied their status as political prisoners and signified political rehabilitation), we were left naked, without any personal possessions, in a cellblock of La Cabana (a Havana prison). We had nothing to write with, nothing. Every so often, we were able to acquire a little toilet paper for our hygenic needs. Someone might find a pencil stub and, at times, we came across pieces of newspaper, also intended for hygenic purposes. That's how those verses were written. They were hidden for a time and so some of these scraps were salvaged until they could be transferred to more substantial paper and sent out of prison. The chances were 999 to one that they wouldn't make it, yet they did. Those verses were never intended for publication, they weren't taken care of, nor did they represent anything beyond the need to write, because you cannot stop writing since writing is your way of life. Once they got out, my wife and friends gathered up the poems, typed them, and put them together, despite all the defects of an illegible script and of manuscripts barely preserved.
Q: What are your immediate and long-range plans?
A: After many years of having my life planned out by others, I have no plans for my life. I like to improvise, invent with each moment the risk of success or failure. What am I going to do? What I've already been doing, living. How am I going to do it? Just as I've been doing up to now.
Q: What's your daily life like now?
A: I have to create my own itinerary as I go along. I have to decide and put together everything I'm doing without being tied to any daily routine. Actually, I'm not wedded to any one routine because I've lived different lives under completely different routines and have had to change them every so often. That's been valuable for me. I think every human being needs to learn that while habits are useful, they are only that and can be changed like tools when they are no longer workable and need to be replaced by new ones.
When we have lived a long time without seeing a city, within four walls just thinking, we realize that the nub of reality consists of thought, of the relations between thoughts, and of the relationship of man to man. For instance, when I go out on the street, I am struck by fashions and fascinated by colors, finding similarities with the clothing of the Renaissance. But I immediately understand that current fashion is only one of many possible expressions of the human spirit and that it really doesn't matter if men wear narrow or bell-bottomed trousers, wigs or no wigs, whether young people have long hair or short. Man is always the same being for whom fashion is a constantly renewable esthetic expression being created and mirroring his values. Houses, buildings, streets, all of which seem so important, even atom bombs, missiles, and silos seem to me only the playthings of humankind. They're decorated cardboard cutouts without any signficance, because man has been man since ancient Egypt. What is important is this: truth or falsehood, love or hate, indifference or warmth, acceptance or rejection, existence or non-existence.
Q: Is it difficult for you to write?
A: When I am able to write, it's exceptionally easy and I go right on to the end. However, at other times, I can't write. In order to write, you must enjoy perfect internal harmony, that is, be at one and not dividing life into four alternative possibilities, into four different versions of a life. Esthetic production, like prayer, is not a sideline, an embellishment, an add-on, it is your very existence. I would explain it in terms of a jazz trumpeter who improvises as he plays, who while improvising musical phrases lives, perceives, and exercises his intelligence, his passion, his emotions, everything to the fullest. It is an existential moment. In the same way, when we write, it isn't something separate from our being. It is our very being, progressing along in our journey, showing the way.