A Slight Pressure on the Lower Back

Close to the waist. Like someone who invites, with a certain extra push, to advance confidently and without a shadow of a problem, before jumping into an obligatory abyss. That was the last physical contact I had with the officialdom in Cuba. The unpleasant and bitter sensation of a “Go away, we don’t want you here.”

“We don’t need you,” he had declared, in one of his usually hysterical and historical perorations, he who set himself up as the master of the lives of all Cubans for more than half a century, since 1959.

With camouflaged cynicism (perhaps it is just me, but, in a country where distrust is encouraged, nobody knows the true intention behind the actions or the simplest and most common attitudes), the young Migration officer advanced quickly towards me when he saw that I was last in the line of people. With his gun on one hip and his walkie-talkie on the other, he quickly, confidently and decisively asked me:

“Is the gentleman going to travel?” As if you would go to the airport to buy groceries. “Come on, come on, come this way.”

Luckily, he did not call me “compañero,”[1] that beautiful word turned into a Caribbean communist slogan, instead of “camarada,” Slavic and out of place. Ignoring everyone in front of me, the officer offered me the use of a booth where no one was queuing to have my passport checked. I was leaving Cuba for good. There he resorted to that little forced caress.

I know of those who have received much more, no doubt. And real mistreatment. Kicks, blows, imprisonment, shots, eggs, stones, repudiation, shouts, ignominy, humiliation and even gobs of spit just for thinking differently or for wanting to live in a different place.

I had entered and left my country on many occasions and no official had ever approached me to speed up any kind of procedure. In fact, only a month before, I had represented Cuba in what are considered in China the equivalent of the Oscar awards and no one lent me a hand. Not even the ICAIC, the organization to which I belonged and had sent me the invitation since my film was partly produced by them.

Very few people knew of my decision to leave. You could count them with the fingers of one hand. But the information somehow leaked and reached the evil ears of others. It’s so hard to keep a secret on that island!

I still have with me a copy of the document that a lawyer from the Ministry of Culture made me sign, in which it was decreed that, “for life,” I could not direct theater in my country again. And, consequently, I could not make films either.

In fact, I was able to film, with difficulty, and even half clandestinely, a short film —the fourth and, so far, the last of my Crematorios— and part of a feature film entitled Semen that I still have not been able to finish and do not know if I will be able to someday. On the sly, without permission. With inquisitive eyes on me all the time and one foot beyond that iniquitous “legality” imposed by tyrannical dispositions and daily repeated lies.

I was condemned to ostracism, to silence and to death in life, without any concrete order issued by anyone in particular. Or, at least, no one ever showed their face. Vilified and buried up to my neck, with only my head free. By “orders from above.”

Then, employing the usual discrediting campaigns against anyone who dissents, they brought to the public eye, as if I had hidden it, my condition of being HIV positive and, because of that, my deep ingratitude and selfishness with “the revolution that had made me.” They even accused me of working for the American embassy or as a CIA agent.

With the Cubanized version of a classic of the theater of the absurd, Exit the King, by Eugene Ionesco, I had disrespected the Maximum Leader, the Caribbean Mao, the Kim Il-Sung of the marabou and the globalized lie.

They accused me of being a “traitor”, and I still do not know what did I betray, because, although I was born there and they were continuously indoctrinating me, I never agreed with their arbitrariness and absurdities, simply because they are neither rational nor fair. I became a vestige, a piece of scum, a reject, a persona non grata, untrustworthy, and even avoided by many who before the “scandal” showered me with praise and sought my favor.

“Get out of here!” a drunken journalist shouted at me at the door of the Mella Theater. “Culture is for revolutionaries!”, he shouted with the smell of old cheap beer from the now defunct Piragua in his breath.

The blatant censorship —which does not cease to chase me today, as I often lose my voice— threw me into the arena of incriminations, suspicions and resentments, anointed by those who believe that “they know how things really are” in their dark, kitschy, Manichean minds.

I left it all behind. Like so many others.

Years of education and career, successes, excessive dedication, endearing places, ever-living loves, essential books, music, art collections, crafts, photographs and icons from various parts of the world, travel memories, shared environments, local colors, unforgettable friends.

A daughter, for whom I suffer and breathe. And my mother, my rock, whom I knew I risked not seeing again in this world, but thanks to whom I still survive, knowing I am safe under the mantle of her inextinguishable protection and overwhelmed by her ever present memory.

The story of every exile.

But not the one who leaves to pursue a dream, but the one who escapes from an old, deep-rooted, tangled and stagnant nightmare of more than 60 years. Of which I had to swallow my more than 56 years.

I never thought of leaving Cuba. Never before.

Having had the possibility, having lived many years abroad, I always came back. To give the best of me.

Until they denied me the right to create, which is the only way I know how to breathe. And anyone who lacks air goes out to look for it. If I had stayed there, I would have died from asphyxiation, without even hanging myself.

The will to be a martyr doesn’t agree with me, nor does inspire me or get me excited. It is not my trade, nor my style.

Nor can I stand the chauvinism of that same old story, full of bureaucratic national heroes and mournful anniversaries that coexist with more macho celebrations, that excess of vulgarity on a platter and institutional embezzlement.

None of that pays my bills, or even interests me. I had it in spades, from all sides. Fed up, I escaped from so much pretense disguised as historical truth.

I emigrated in my middle age, it is true. When I lack the strength, the desire and the energy of my youth. That is a disadvantage. But I know that damn well that I did not went into exile to start a career, but to try to live whatever is left of my life without hiding who I am, or having to give reasons for what I think or do.

When the plane took off, the lies, the indolence and the emasculating outrage were also left behind. In front of me another life opened up. Another movie began. As bad as things may go outside Cuba, I always feel that, if I were there, I would be horrified.

This is confirmed by the enormous fear that I feel at the thought of going back. Something I should not feel if we lived in a normal country. Sorry, I should have written “if we had a country.”

I long to return one day, I hope soon, to say goodbye to my mother’s ashes. And to give, at least, the most heartfelt hugs and kisses to the daughter I idolized.

But… I am afraid. I am so afraid. I am terrified to go back. There are no guarantees to protect you from anything that could happen there. What an intense and inexplicable pain is this mixture of pride for having created a film called Viva Cuba and feeling a political exile from my country!

I carry on myself marked forever, like a hot iron on cattle, that slight pressure on my lower back that reminds me of it. Although I’ve been kicked out of better places. And I have return!

[1] (T. N.) “Compañero” was chosen during the early years of the Revolution as a substitute for “señor” (mister). In that sense, it is usually rendered into to English as “comrade”. But in Cuban Spanish “camarada” was seen as a Russian term and was rarely used by the speakers. Translating both these words as “comrade” will miss the contrast the author is trying to establish between these two terms.

Juan Carlos Cremata (Havana, 1961). Filmmaker. Graduated in Theater and Dramaturgy at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) in Havana and studied at the International Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. He was a professor at the University of Buenos Aires and at the Centro de Experimentación en Cine y Video de Buenos Aires. Among his best known works are the feature films Nada (2001) and Viva Cuba (2005) and the short film Oscuros rinocerontes enjaulados (muy a la moda) (1990).


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