Raúl Rivero: A Cuban Through and Through

Raúl Rivero was imprisoned in Havana and never lived in freedom again. The punishment cell in which Fidel Castro locked him up after the spring of 2003 accompanied him forever. The lock of the bars, covered with a metal plate, also creaked in exile, Canaleta’s imprint in Madrid as well as in Miami.

Isolated, Raúl abandoned himself to the point of prolonging, later on, the habits to which confinement led him: he stopped moving and grooming himself, he lived with his swollen feet and ankles, he gave up plans, friends and doctors, he did not look treatment for the wart that, with the appearance of cauliflower, sprouted under his left eye, a consequence of the latrine through which rats visited him every night, and of the trickle of rotten water that he was given five minutes a day, along a filthy wall tattooed with desperate messages.

As the wart grew, he gave himself up to waiting, to the attitude that each day was, in reality, a time that no longer belonged to him (“Nothingness is this knife / without blade and without hilt”).

Only his generosity prevented him from losing interest in those around him. Broken inside, I know the moments of joy he gave us left him exhausted. Without ever saying anything out loud about it because he belonged to that now almost extinct world in which complaining was not what was expected of men.

In April 2005 we met again in the protocol area of Madrid’s Barajas airport. International pressure had forced the regime to release him on “special license” for health reasons. State Security harassed him until the last minute. He left Cuba secretly. He asked the Spanish authorities for me to be at the airport. I saw him arrive with his wife Blanca and his daughter Yeni, pushing the wheelchair in which his mother was prostrate. A fragile, battered and frightened group. Their first steps in exile as insecure as those of Father Varela in the New York winter of 1823, although in that Barajas hall there was no ice or danger of slipping.

The press showed up. There were the usual questions and statements. Then we went to a discreet aparthotel, on the corner of my street, where they could rest and recover, phones disconnected, precise instructions at the reception desk. We had ham and fruit for lunch the next day. In the evening we went to eat at a Madrid restaurant with several members of the Spanish executive. A waiter came to the table and recited at great speed the dishes off the menu. Blanca jumped in her chair.

“A madman!” she said in my ear. I had to calm her down, explain to her that the Pedro Ximénez reduction or the hake a la Donostiarra were not part of an absurdity.

On Saturday, November 6, at the exact time of Raúl’s death in Miami, I was in that same restaurant, to which I had never returned. I had to leave. I cried while I walked aimlessly through the Madrid built by the Habsburg, trying to remember that poem of his he dedicated to Milena, Violeta Rodríguez and me, when we were born. “Los hijos de mis amigos,” I think that was its title.

Pablo Díaz Espí and Raúl Rivero in Madrid, in 2006. DIARIO DE CUBA

A heavy smoker, in love with the Baroque and the Spanish Golden Century, I always saw Raúl Rivero as a kind of archetypal Cuban.

His memory and his experiences contained the whole island. Journalism and poetry made him bilingual, gave him tools for the tangible and the intangible; he knew the republic and the revolution; the countryside and the city, the tales of the guajiros and the nights of partying; the lights of show business and the darkness of the tenements; radio and TV; the sonnet, the décima and Cuban country-music; the nocturnal jokes of the young news and literary editorial staffs; communism and the relationship with Moscow, where he worked as correspondent for Prensa Latina; the life of Nicolás Guillén, in the intimacy and as an apparatchik who hid and excused himself when the power called him for some abject act.

Until 1991 when he said enough was enough. Then he signed the Letter of the Ten, which demanded freedom for political prisoners and democratic changes, and accepted the consequences.

(“Eight policemen / in my house / with a search warrant / a clean operation / a full victory / of the vanguard of the proletariat / who confiscated my Consul typewriter / one hundred and forty-two blank pages / and a sad and personal archive / that was the most perishable thing / I had that summer.”)

In 1995 he founded the CubaPress news agency, and became a pioneer of today’s independent Cuban journalism. Stigmatized, cut off from institutions and abandoned by friends who did not want to become guilty by association, he guided the first reporters and began to air a reality that very few dared to denounce.

In the spring of 2003 they went to look for him at his home in Centro Habana, in the midst of a repressive wave that ended with 75 journalists and activists arrested. There is a photo of the patrol car that took him away, surrounded by shabbily dressed neighbors. Like the rest, he was tried in a matter of days. He thought it was the end when, during the trial, in the dullness of a room full of henchmen, without foreign press or guarantees, the judges nodded off and the prosecution spoke of treason (“the dreadful thing about the matter / is not that I wanted / to give my life one day / but that now / they want to take it away from me”).

Finally, the sentence was 20 years.

Then began Blanca’s trips to the prison, our messages in code.

Besides the punishment cell, the worst thing was the huge screw that, every night, closed the door to that wing of the prison. An adjustable spanner was needed to open and close it. Sometimes the spanner got lost. “The day there is a fire in here, we die,” he once told me.

There he saw prisoners inject themselves with oil and excrement, slit their veins, swallow wires and gouge out their eyes.

But his imprisonment was a tactical mistake by the regime. His presence among the Black Spring prisoners made it easier to campaign internationally for the release of the 75. We then spent a week on the phone, calling non-stop to intellectuals, artists and politicians around the world, asking for their signatures and support. I remember with special gratitude the involvement of the journalist Rosa Montero, the unqualified support of people like the film directors Fernando Trueba and Pedro Almodóvar, or the writers Günter Grass and Antonio Tabucchi, who called me in the early hours of the morning, as soon as he heard the message I had left him hours before.

When Raúl arrived at Barajas we hugged each other, and his release added new strength to the fight for the freedom of the rest, which was finally achieved by the activism of the Ladies in White and the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas, both winners of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize.

The years that Raúl, Blanca and Yeni spent in Madrid we were very close. Those were the years when Diario de Cuba was conceived and born, when we visited Segovia and Sigüenza and drank whiskey and sang at Tony 2. However, since Raúl found it increasingly difficult to go out and have people around him, we never materialized plans to go to Moguer, the hometown of his beloved Juan Ramón Jiménez.

Finally, it would not be fair, in a biographical sketch about Raúl Rivero, not to mention the most marked trait of his personality: his wit, his humor.

I have never met anyone so funny, and this is an opinion shared by many of those who met him.

The anecdotes would be endless, so I will only mention one:

A few days after his arrival in Madrid, we were invited to a literature festival in Molde, Norway. We made a stopover in Amsterdam. With his olive skin, his white hair, cut in the style of Prince Valiant, his reserved attitude, the gold chain always visible on his chest, his silver suit, his rotundity and his short stature, Raúl stood out in the line of Nordic people waiting to board the plane like a gypsy patriarch returning to his clan. Some policemen approached and discreetly invited him to step aside.

Immediately one of them began to frisk him, so emphatically that I had to turn around, looking for the hidden camera of a television program. I had never seen anything like it. The agent, young and thin, had to hug Raúl’s barrel-like immensity while he groped him, putting his hands inside his jacket and shirt.

That was not all.

Then he knelt down in front of him and put his hands and arms down his trouser legs to the height of his thighs, moving them with fruition, in such a way that a very particular gale, in the calm atmosphere of the air terminal, seemed to be blowing exclusively around Raúl. Then, this Aeolus in uniform, still kneeling, unfastened Raúl’s belt, which was at the level of his face, took it off, and went on to frisk the waist area, hugging him once more.

We almost missed the plane. We had to run to get there in time. I was somewhere between embarrassed and annoyed by the mishap. I did not speak.

It was Raúl who, as soon as we sat down, very serious, said: “And he didn’t even give me a little kiss. Nor his phone. I miss him.”

That afternoon we arrived in Molde, and in the evening he would read, among other conversational poems, these verses:

Homeland can also be
the snow on your window
not because it is snow
homeland because you look at it!

* This text was originally published in Diario de Cuba.

Pablo Díaz Espí (Havana, 1972). Cuban journalist, writer and editor. He studied at the German Film and Television Academy. He left Cuba in 1991 and since then has lived in Berlin, New York and Madrid. In December 2000 he founded the digital newspaper on Cuban affairs Cubaencuentro, of which he was director until 2009. That same year he left the project and founded Diario de Cuba, which he still runs.


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