Chronicle of another interrogation

Once I got home, I spent about three hours locked in the bathroom. I wanted to be in a confined space. I wanted to shrink. I would have liked to be the size of an ant and enter, along with dozens of other ants, into a crack between the tiles and the door frame. I stripped off my clothes, leaving just my panties, and sat down on the floor. I stayed there for a while, and then started phoning my friends to talk to them. I shared with them, as best I could, what I had just experienced. What had I experienced? I recounted myself the story.

There is no more effective way to heal a pain than to tell its story, even several times, until the pain loses its aura, wears away, and its only memory lingers like a dry water stain. I have always applied this principle to my work as a journalist. Almost invariably, I tend to write about other people’s pain: I seek it out or it finds me, it is entrusted to me, I suffer it and shape it into a story. Some people find relief in telling me about their lives, their problems, their afflictions, either because they believe there is some justice in helping a hidden truth come to light, or because they need someone to sit for hours and lend them a sympathetic ear.

In the interrogation I was subjected to on April 17, the agent from the State Security Department of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) who questioned me, having identified himself as Major Ernesto, asked me if I paid my sources to grant me interviews. That was probably the only question of his I found offensive. I said never. I should also have told him that if he knew a little bit about the country he lived in he would have rather asked me whether my sources paid me to tell their stories.

If Major Ernesto knew how many stories are waiting for me, how much my parsimony when it comes to writing them down costs me, and knew of my need to be thorough, to poke into everything it’s within my reach to poke from my precarious position as an independent journalist, then perhaps he would not consider me threat. Perhaps. If he knew.

I picture myself half-naked in the bathroom and ask myself this: How have I become, me and my writings, me and my truths, a threat to my country?

* * *

An interrogation with a State Security officer is not, as the agent in charge often claims, an interview. It is not a dialogue; it is not based on horizontal power relations. You don’t choose the date, the place, the conditions, or who to talk to. The only thing you can choose, at the time, is your reactions. If an interrogation were an interview, the questions would not maliciously induce the answers — an unforgivable sin in journalism.

In an interrogation the questions are attacks. They do not seek comprehension but confession. From each question, explicitly or not, hangs an accusation. There is no room for disagreement. If you don’t tell the officer what he wants to hear, if you don’t please him, your voice is void. In an interrogation you don’t talk, you defend yourself.

If there’s one thing an interrogation looks like, it’s a fight. I haven’t been through many interrogations (apart from this one on April 17, I went through two during an arrest in October 2016 in the province of Guantánamo). Nor have I fought anywhere. I despise violence in all its manifestations. But every interrogation I’ve been through has felt like a combat, because I have been treated as an enemy, an enemy of my country or of an idea of my country.

My most recent interrogation took place from beginning to end with masks, because since March 11 the first cases of the new coronavirus were reported on the island, and on April 17 borders and schools had already been closed, and urban public transportation suspended. Several times I felt like I was part of a play and we were all in character. I came to believe that at any minute Major Ernesto would suddenly take off his mask and start laughing as he said, “This is a joke, Monica. The State Security Department does not exist. The pandemic is a drill.”

The whole story was very theatrical indeed.

First, on April 13, a man who identified himself as “Jorge from MININT” called me on my cell phone from an unknown number and said he wanted to meet for an interview about something that might interest me. He did so without offering me any evidence that he was indeed a MINIT official and not just some depraved guy who had found my number in the ETECSA [Cuba’s Telecommunications Company] phone book.

“No,” I replied. I demanded an official summons and asked whether the matter was so urgent as to make me go out into the streets in the middle of a pandemic that was forcing a large part of the world to isolate itself at home. Jorge from MININT answered that I should know I could be summoned by phone. “Yes, I know, but you must at least tell me the reason,” I managed to add. But Jorge from MININT did not say, and insisted that the interview should take place as soon as possible, despite the pandemic. He agreed, however, to proceed with the “official” summons, as I had requested.

On the 16th, around mid-afternoon, a female officer in a police uniform knocked on my door and handed me a piece of paper with the following heading: “Republic of Cuba, Ministry of the Interior, National Revolutionary Police.” Everything looked jumbled, as if those formulas belonged to the same set of meanings. And further down: “Summons notification”, with an underline. The officer asked me if I had filed a complaint. I said no. She asked me if I had lost a cell phone. I said no again. I smiled at her. Poor thing, she doesn’t know what she was sent to do, I thought.

When I received the summons, I noticed that it did not comply with the provisions of the code of criminal procedure, for it was signed by “First Lieutenant William”, when it should have been issued and signed by the instructor, secretary or prosecutor of a court. I could have refused to accept the summons, or declared it null and void. But then I would have had to wait for days, days in which the number of people infected with the new coronavirus could increase. Or I would have had to receive, instead of a proper summons, a police patrol on my door. So I accepted it, said goodbye to the officer and closed the door.

The next day, at 2:30 p.m., I arrived at the police station where I had been summoned. The station is far from my place, so I had to find a taxi to take me there and pick me up later. The taxi driver wanted to know what time he should come back for me, and I said I would let him know. You expect this kind of issue to take no more than two hours, but you never know.

I didn’t think it was a good idea to walk into an interrogation alone, so I asked a friend to accompany me. I would rather not involve anyone in situations like this, but the sensible thing is to have someone with you so that you can notify your family in case you are detained or transferred. Besides, it is comforting to find a friendly face when you get out of the interrogation room.

The station was almost deserted. Because of the pandemic, I assumed. I figured that’s what the interior of Cuba would look like if suddenly everyone who wished so could migrate. How many agents would migrate if they could? How many would not be agents if they could leave? All people leave the country more or less for the same reason: because they cannot have the life they want here. How many would choose — really freely choose— to live on the terms that power imposes? When I was 24 or 25 years old I wrote a book of poems that now seem dreadful to me, except for one verse: “to stay is to return”. The problem is what to return to, which leads to the same point that prompted the departure.

First Lieutenant William was to be found on the third floor, at the door on the right. A policeman I passed at the entrance gave me those directions. Each floor was decorated with framed pictures of historical figures. I found portraits of José Martí, Mariana Grajales, Camilo Cienfuegos. I prefer to forget the others. I asked Pepe and Mariana for strength with the same intensity I ask the saints of the Catholic Church, the Orishas, the spirits, and everything divine. Had he lived in this era, Martí would have been a regular here, I thought.

At the door on the right on the third floor there was a sign that said Office or Department of Counter-Intelligence. I don’t remember it very well. There were some letters missing, and only a dirty trace of glue remained.

A few seconds after knocking, a man in civilian clothes — who would later identify himself as Major David — came out of the door across from mine and asked me what I was looking for. I identified myself and explained I had been summoned. He didn’t ask anything else. He told my friend to wait for me in a room and went back to the second floor so that a female officer could pat me down. She wanted to make sure I didn’t carry any hidden recording devices on my body.

This time, unlike my previous experience in 2016, the officer did not demand that I take off my clothes. Just my boots. In less than five minutes, I was ready for the big moment.

* * *

There was a time when I often used to think about the chances of a patrol car coming to pick me up at my house: I would picture several policemen handcuffing me in broad daylight in front of a crowd of neighbors and onlookers. I was not afraid then, but I felt ashamed, ashamed of being treated like a criminal. That feeling disappeared. I don’t know when exactly, but at some point it was gone.

Nothing endorses the work of a journalist like being considered a threat by a totalitarian power. My arrest in 2016 and my last interrogation, far from humiliating me, due me credit. One does not seek to be repressed, detained, run over by authorities, something not exactly hard to achieve in Cuba (a journalist’s skill lies in getting the best possible story without being imprisoned, giving up journalism’s high standards, and violating the profession’s ethical codes). But when you are a journalist in a totalitarian country where freedom of press and speech is not respected, and power does not show its repressive side at some point, then you are not doing something right.

That’s why I now think the April 16 citation was, in a sense, good news. It was confirmation that I was on the right track. I’m the kind of people who tries to find the bright side of everything, or makes it up. It makes me feel lighter, helps me focus.

* * *

The interrogation room was long and narrow, dimly lit, hot. It had only one fan. In the background there was a desk with a computer monitor on it. A little further back, to the right, was a door leading to another room. Through that door Major Ernesto burst in.

I had been waiting a few minutes, so his entrance reminded me of a bad gladiator movie. I felt that he had been thrown into a fight, and that we were being watched by spectators hiding behind that door.

The chair assigned to me was set in front of the desk, five feet away. Major Ernesto sat behind the desk. Major David, a few years younger than Major Ernesto, stood to the side and didn’t say a word during the entire interrogation. He held a pen and a wooden slat with a blank sheet of paper but he didn’t write anything down. Twice I tried to make eye contact with him to no avail. He would immediately look down. I assumed that this was a boring training session for him.

I even came to think that my interrogation would be recorded on the monitor, whose dark screen stared at me, and broadcast on all national TV channels, which are no more than five or six, because we only have one TV network, the state’s television, since before I was born, and only one party, and only one ideology, and only one sexual orientation, at least officially. Anyhow, the fact is that I got to think about it, and I said to myself: “Monica, you talk as if all of Cuba were listening to you, as if Greenland itself were listening to you.” On Greenlandic television, that’s what I thought.

I’ve been advised not to speak in interrogations. I myself have advised friends against speaking when they have been summoned for questioning, because the code of criminal procedure states that a person accused of a crime cannot be compelled to testify against him or herself, and one must use the few resources available in one’s defense. I should point out, however, that independent journalists who have been questioned in recent years have not, as a rule, been formally charged with any crime. There were no accusations against Carlos Melián, Yoe Suárez, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, Luz Escobar, Maykel González, Abraham Jiménez, Darío Alejandro Alemán or Camila Acosta. Neither was I accused of committing any crime.

From the legal point of view, the wisest thing to do is to exercise one’s right to silence, but from the moral point of view I cannot find reasons to be silent during an interrogation. I know that I am not going to change anything in Cuba by talking to agents who have already condemned me before they hear me, but I act on what makes me feel good about myself, even though it is not usually the most advisable thing to do.

I don’t want to play the game they propose. I have nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t want to be the journalist who “collaborates”, nor the journalist who keeps silent so as not to incriminate herself, nor the one who lowers her head and is intimidated by threats. That is not me. I think it’s absurd that the practice of basic human rights, which are not granted by any government because they come from being human, be something that incriminates me.

Major Ernesto repeatedly stressed out that I was there, in front of him, not because of my work as a journalist, but because I had violated the laws of my country by publishing in independent media supported by international cooperation, as if one thing had nothing to do with the other. That was, in short, his speech during the entire interrogation. That was what had me sitting five feet away from the desk of a Cuban State Security officer, miles from my home amid a global pandemic: my work as a journalist in independent media, the exercise of my freedom of expression.

When in order to exercise my universal human rights I must violate Cuban laws, the problem is not me but the laws. The history of mankind could be told through unjust legislation and revolt movements that opposed it. The African slave trade was legal, just as the slaves’ uprisings for their freedom were illegal, illegal and strongly repressed. That is what I replied several times to Major Ernesto in the course of our interrogation.

Slavery was legal.

Slavery was legal.

Slavery was legal.

This ended with him banging his fist on the table. He said he regretted my attitude, that he hoped I had acknowledged my mistakes, that he thought I was smarter. I was puzzled at this, and surprised by his desire to turn the last five years of my life into a mistake, his obsession to make me accept that the stories I have written have been a mistake, stories that so many people have entrusted to me along with their pain, their misery and their hope.

I don’t blame him. Major Ernesto doesn’t know what those five years have meant to me. Besides, I asked him if he read El Estornudo [The Sneeze], the magazine I collaborate the most with, and he answered, with a carefree tone, that he hadn’t read it for a long time. I gathered that, regarding Periodismo de Barrio [Community Journalism], El Toque [The Touch] or Rialta Magazine, where I have also published, his attitude would be the same. Perhaps, had he read my articles, his expectations would have been different, and he wouldn’t have gotten upset to the point of hitting the table.

Before he let me go, he called some inspectors from the Ministry of Communications, who fined me with 3,000 Cuban pesos — about 120 USD dollars — under the terms of Decree Law 370. The reason: my postings on Facebook, on my personal profile, disseminated “information contrary to social interest, good customs and people’s integrity.” I did not sign the fine. I thought about not paying it, filing a complaint. But I would not waste my time and energies on that fight.

By the way, at the police station I didn’t find anyone identified as First Lieutenant William.

* * *

The following weeks were intense. From April 18 onwards, several fake Facebook profiles started harassing me, posting misinformation about me, sending intimidating messages to family, friends and sources that appeared in my work. Privacy infringement has always been one of State Security’s preferred methods in Cuba. They hurt and intimidate those labeled as enemies in their private life in order to destabilize and put pressure on them.

This wasn’t something I hadn’t prepared for. Since I decided to become an independent journalist in 2015, which for me means nothing but be a journalist — just that —, I began to get used to the idea that I could be publicly exposed in many ways. My body, my life, my destiny, have not belonged to me for a long time as they should to a free woman, if they ever did.

It hurts to acknowledge that the State Security Department and its agents can dispose of me at will with total impunity: they can prevent me from leaving the country, they can interrogate me, fine me, arrest me, strip me, imprison me. They can, I have come to think, even shoot me, because the Cuban penal code contemplates the death penalty for the crime of “mercenarism”, and they, that is, state security agents, never get tired of saying that we independent journalists are mercenaries.

I try to protect my privacy, but I worry about handling the fear of being exposed. If I think about it too much, I can end up distrusting everyone I interact with, and I find that unhealthy. I don’t want fear to turn me into someone I’m not, to stop me from living a full live. I will not give the State Security Department such power over me.

Mistrust isolates you. It can save you from those who seek to harm you, but at the same time it can deprive you of meeting extraordinary people. This has been one of power’s most effective tactics to perpetuate itself for several decades: breaking your ability to trust other people. Without trust there is no social fabric, and without social fabric there is no chance of changing anything.

During the interrogation, Major Ernesto played that card of planting the seed of suspicion in my mind. Not even five minutes after his entrance, he was saying that X had told him that I had once said such and such a thing in such and such a place, that X had collaborated with them, had given them a document. But I only felt sorry for X, especially because they did not protect their identity.

I don’t hold a grudge against anyone who “collaborates”. I can never trust that person again, but I try to understand the circumstances and fears that led him or her to take such a step. My best friend often says, “One is not the measure of the world.” Because it is important not to judge another person’s actions by what you assume you would have done had you been in their shoes, but neither do I overlook the fact that it is in these exceptional circumstances that you really get to know someone, or yourself.

“The ultimate measure of a man,” said African-American leader Martin Luther King, “is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Sometimes, of course, one feels lonely. It is hard, not so much to be subjected to an interrogation but to live always confronting a totalitarian power, to do your job and defend your right to it. Not a few dear people turn away from me, avoid me to stay out of trouble, and although I don’t reproach them for their actions, it still hurts me. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” Martin Luther King also said. No way.

But there are always people who choose to stay, and new people who come to offer their support, and one ends up thanking these very telling silences.

The three hours I spent locked up in the bathroom last April 17 I was answering messages from friends in Cuba and around the world. I got out of the bathroom and only put my phone away when I could no longer stand hunger pangs.

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MÓNICA BARÓ
MÓNICA BARÓ
Mónica Baró (b. Havana, 1988). Journalist and writer. She worked for the state magazine Bohemia from 2013 to 2014 and then for the Cuban Institute of Philosophy. In 2015 she was a founding member of independent environmental magazine Periodismo de Barrio [Community Journalism], working as a reporter and part of its editorial team until 2018. She has published in OnCuba, Univisón Noticias, El Toque, Cuba Posible, Hypermedia Magazine. She writes mostly about communities vulnerable to natural disasters, lead poisoning, housing problems and gender violence. In 2019 she was awarded the Gabriel García Márquez prize for her text “La sangre nunca fue amarilla” [Blood was never yellow]. She currently works as a journalist for El Estornudo magazine [The Sneeze] and lives in Havana.

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