The Ten Days in Mazorra of Damaris Betancourt

1

Although the use of “psychological profiling” was common practice in the European communist parties of the 20th century —including those carried out by the Stalinist Popular Socialist Party (PSP) in Cuba during the years of the Republic— as historian Julio César Aguilera recalls in a recent interview about his book El soviet caribeño. La otra historia de la revolución cubana (2018),[1] it is also true that it was not until 1959 —at least on the island— that psychiatry became a state device, a functional fold of the punitive machine.

The latter is not only supported by The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (1992),[2] the excellent study by Brown and Lago on the horror that twenty-seven political prisoners had to live through between the 1970s and 1980s at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital (popularly known as Mazorra, having been founded in 1857 on land that bore that name), but documents such as those of the National Conference of Psychiatric Institutions in 1963, where the role of the new institution and its submission to the hygienic-ideological model that Castroism was struggling to put into practice is made clear:

[…] it is necessary to work together with the comrades of the Ministry of the Interior on this aspect, in the proposed law, in the future articles on the mental hygiene thing, of how these issues should be foreseen; first foreseen, and also how they should be dealt with, how these issues should be defined, so that the Revolution has a defined criterion, not the criterion of the Ministry of Public Health or the Ministry of the Interior, but a criterion as a whole of the Revolution on these issues […]. We believe that at least it should be remarked that we are going to work together, with all the factors involved in this, in the treatment of these issues. And, furthermore, in the matter of mental hygiene, which undoubtedly mental hygiene cannot be, in a socialist country, considered apart from living conditions; that is to say, there is no mental hygiene without overcoming living conditions. So, mental hygiene is being carried out, in any case, when making the Revolution and building socialism. But even that has to be included in the Law.[3]

A model which —as is well known— not only acted against the “dark areas” of society, that is, where crime affects the majority, but against homosexuals, dissidents, “elvispreslians,” “sons of bourgeois,” people who did not want to work, “sick people,” and against all those who did not fit in the sacrificial territory, in the pure image of the pure (and revolutionary) man that was demanded.

Had not Fidel Castro made this same demand very clear in his well-known “Closing speech for the VI anniversary of the assault to the presidential palace,” delivered in March 1963, where he not only asked for more production, but also imposed a sort of horizon of offering, of guilty devotion before the Moloch-revolution?

To work with enthusiasm always, no matter the obstacles, no matter the action of the enemy, no matter the ignorant! Reason is with us, we are in the right, we have the energy, we have the initiative, we have history with us![4]

Moloch that would have among its main virtues the one of showing the way to the “people” through punishment, voluntary work, null gratification, precariousness, collective vigilance and censorship…

Through applause.

Reason that, if we look at the countless number of people escaping by sea since the seventies, plus Camarioca (1965), Mariel (1980), the Rafting Crisis (1994), or the individual and massive defections in different countries…, Cubans never fully grasped (on the contrary, all these escapes will eventually become one of the great economic and symbolic tragedies of totalitarianism), although in some areas or communities it has apparently been imposed.

One of these areas will be precisely mental health.

An area managed in Cuba from the psychopolitical sphere —to use one of the terms in vogue in Cuba in the sixties— something that, as can be inferred from the above, started much earlier, much, much, much earlier even than that National Conference of Psychiatric Institutions organized by the Ministry of Health, inaugurated only two years earlier, the medical services of the MININT and the —already by then— very well structured Cuban State Security, built from the old Stalinist center of the PSP and the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) created by Raul Castro on the Sierra Maestra; it began —it could be said— with that feature in Bohemia in 1959, “El hospital de dementes de Mazorra: una vergüenza nacional,”[5] and its narrowing of the whole past (the whole republic) to a locus occupied by evil, a compromise of “incapacitated men without conscience.”

Story that, as Pedro Marqués de Armas rightly qualifies in Ciencia y poder en Cuba (2014), was nothing more than the “old discourse of the Cuban frustration, now with particular emphasis on the opposition shamelessness/cleaning up, a duet that had been gaining strength since the 1940s”.[6]

(By the way, in the editorial of that same issue of Bohemia magazine, Batista’s “totalitarian regime” is compared to the concentration camps of Dachau and Lidice).

Is it not precisely this blank slate, this ideological-mental hyperbole that Castro’s terror takes advantage of to impose its vision, its identity vampirization?

This is what can undoubtedly be seen in two very different pieces that happen to have been created around the same years:

—Jesús Muñoz’s documentary, La revolución de Mazorra (1999); an agitprop film by the regime to show the “excellence” of its psychiatric institution, with distressing fragments of slavery and caricature, where patients receive constant orders and look like fake Stakhanovs.

—And Damaris Betancourt’s photographic series, Diez días en Mazorra (1998); a project of about one hundred images that with almost the same people and under very similar conditions achieves a very different punctum to Muñoz’s La revolución

2

The first thing that should be said is that Diez días en Mazorra, more than a tour of the Havana Psychiatric Hospital (its surroundings, its “monsters,” its technocracy, its wards…), is a tour of those areas where Damaris was allowed to take pictures, where she was not forbidden to enter.

A prohibition that extended not only to the well-known wards[7] where historically Commander Ordaz, the guy in charge of the psychiatric hospital until his death and doctor and anesthesiologist by profession, locked up and disturb the mind of anyone who came to “his” clinic through the State Security, that is, because of political problems, but also to those areas where the patients received electroshocks, the harnesses, the syringes, the hoses, the cold water, the cells.[8]

Even the cafeteria, where she was barely able to take two or three photos and from where she was immediately removed, could hardly be documented, since it was considered a restricted-access area by the management of the place.

To this end, the psychiatric hospital management assigned her a “shadow”: a person —the psychiatric hospital historian— who guided her through the hospital during those ten days and let her know where she could take pictures, which places could be seen and which could not.

Can you read a hospital in the same way you go through a blueprint, deconstruct a map, censor a text?

I think so.

And perhaps what I like the most about this reading of Damaris Betancourt is her habitat, her eye-laboratory, her “odontology.”

Those teeth that in some of her photos the patients show, filling the image with great intimacy; or a certain visual, corporal, playful, nicotinic contact, as if the photographer were another patient, someone who, more than documenting, lives with them.

Those teeth that do not bite, as Deleuze said of some of Artaud’s characters, who laugh for the sake of it, outside of all ideological bullshit (compare them with the seriousness of the patients in Muñoz’s film, where they all look and talk as if they were union bosses).

Those teeth —almost all of them broken— that open up from their great obscenity.

Don’t these images of Damaris Betancourt contrast with all of those we are used to seeing of asylums, both those from the 19th century, so well interpreted by Didi-Huberman in Invention of Hysteria (2007), with those female patients like dolls who Dr. Charcot liked to “grab by the womb,” or from Manicomio (2014), by Raymond Depardon, one of the star photographers of the Magnun agency, who for four years was taking pictures in the hospital on the island of San Clemente (near Venice) and who in a text accompanying his extraordinary book classifies them precisely as places of pain?

Damaris’ patients seem to have rather escaped from the bureaucracy of madness, if such a thing can be said.

From the psychotic and crazy bureaucracy.

Her patients —some of them with a lifetime of crises and admissions behind them— belong to that category that could be classified as exportable madmen. That is to say, patients who can always be exhibited as they respond positively either to the occupational therapy used on the island since the 1960s —including classic ergotherapy— or to the slave work to which they are subjected.[9]

So these are the patients that not only the Cuban health institution used as an image in brochures and propaganda films, but also those sent to compete internationally or later placed in shelters, territorially separated from the hospital but under the surveillance of the big public health-political brother.

Aren’t these patients roughly speaking the true socialist New Man, the ones who work tirelessly without hardly being ordered to do so (as one of the heads of these reception centers says in Muñoz’s documentary), who demand nothing (except their medicine), who repeat uncritically all the despotic slogans they are taught, who worship the leaders of the Cuban revolution and who never (never, never, never, ever) complain?

A man, as Che Guevara wanted, without “the need to satisfy his animal needs through work?”[10]

3

Diez días en Mazorra is a book of direct photos.

Not of photos that try to illustrate through atmosphere or the accumulation of minute details, as Roland Schneider did in Zwischenzeit (1988), the Swiss photographer who documented his own tempo next to the psychiatric machine.

Nor is it a book of hysterical spasms.

Its point of value —one of them— is precisely its frontality: to make a face “collide” against the camera without many adornments, in a natural way.

Showing not only certain gestures, a certain look, a certain mouth, a certain routine, a certain attitude…, but the pose.

The pose that sometimes suggests calmness or repose, but also the anger-pose, the gesticulating-pose, the artist-pose, the snotty nose-pose.

In fact, when we think of the mentally ill, what we almost always think of is the energy of that body; the way the jugular vein and the face swell and deflate.

In Damaris’ photos, beyond this energy (which is also a short circuit), madness is projected above all from that posed or re-posed I was talking about before, from a certain complicity.

As if madness were also a kind of calm or enjoyment.

In her Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2019), Élisabeth Roudinesco says that there are “several ways of thinking about madness,” and she points out three —for her— fundamental ones: the psychiatric way, which is the one that names, that designates, that forces scientific concepts (schizophrenia, paranoia, etc.) to match with behaviors and conducts; the cultural one, which reasons from differences, from beliefs and peoples, as an anthropological approach we could say; and the third one, prone to “listen to the madman to unravel his experiences, his language, his expressive modalities,” which is what we all do, exemplifies Roudinesco, with Artaud, Hölderlin or Van Gogh.[11]

The short-circuit of Damaris’ characters has to do above all with the second and third phases.

Her madmen —actors of the spectacle revolution, converted by the grace of the Comandante Ordaz’s clinical dramaturgy into patriotic dolls— are madmen who speak; who even speak ad infinitum.

Crazy people who keep on chatting.

And that is why they raise and lower their hands, place their cigarettes in a theatrical pose —as if they were on a movie by Resnais— and they laugh.

Crazy people who could even tell you a story.

Crazy people who study, who stand in line, who go to school, who paint, who work, who put on glasses and take off glasses; who love to have their picture taken next to the flag.

Patriots.

Who even look like the employees at a cigar factory.

Crazy people who connect and disconnect by themselves, or after receiving an order, as if vice were also one of their control zones, one of their important commands.

Mechanical crazies, who draw a skeleton Che but dream of becoming that Che, and to go to Africa and fly and come back.

Or who play with dolls, because nothing is as important to a madman as childhood, that luxury that we once had and many times is only a blur or a nomadic feeling inside our heads.

Madmen where sexuality or flirting or sex-violence in the end could not be annulled, neither by surveillance, nor by drugs, nor by psychiatric repression.

Least of all by the cage.

As Nelly Richard writes about El infarto del alma (1994), the renowned book by Paz Errázuriz and Diamela Eltit about the psychiatric hospital in Putaendo, Chile:

The insane minds of the inmates at the psychiatric hospital of Putaendo, which operates as an indigent place of confinement for the terminally ill, surprisingly find in love a sensitive correspondence to their lack of logic, to their unreason. From psychic disturbance to amorous disorder, a doubly incoherent, de-structuring force shatters the centered unity of the person. However, in P. Errázuriz’s photos, love puts together the pieces of the self that passion and illness have torn to pieces through the photographic armor of the pose.[12]

Something similar, we could say, occurs in this series by Damaris Betancourt. In most cases the portrait (and the operation that connects memory with technology) releases them from their unreasonableness to offer them a new air.

An air where the hospital or the memorandum of a “broken” life will not be involved, as it would be easy to write in the case of an asylum.

One where there will be only face, eye and flash.

That eye that in the crazy-man and the crazy-woman never rests: multiple.

An eye that sees everything and interprets everything, like a fly.

An eye that tries everything and flies over everything, like a fly.

An eye that resignifies everything.

And watches.

And breaks down.

And stalks.

Especially when the psychiatric bureaucracy is there to prevent you from giving up control.

That eye, we could say, is the true protagonist of Damaris Betancourt’s portraits.

At the same time, its nemesis.

The eye that from so much vigilance watches itself.

4

Is there a psychiatric institution without order, without punishments, without beds, without pills, without stalking?

Possibly not, and this has a great deal to do with what we could perhaps call —sacarstically— pabopticon, that is, that complex of blocks and/or wards where, as Deleuze wrote in his book on Foucault about Bentham’s invention, an attempt is made to “impose any behavior on any human multiplicity.”[13]

Or what amounts to the same thing: therapies, punishments, games, jobs, straitjackets and chemicals.

To this end, Damaris not only photographs the hospital perimeter (that “warehouse of the sick, where dreadful scenes took place and patients often died of hunger and mistreatment, to the extent that some directors did business with funeral homes,” as the hospital’s current website cynically reports about the pre-revolutionary period),[14] but always closely followed by her “shadow” she includes in her documentation the murals of the most prominent patients, the classrooms where the patients received classes (including a fifth grade book), the ergonomics chair, the drawings made by the patients, the rows of beds, the lines to enter the cafeteria (inside the cafeteria —as I mentioned before— she could only take two or three pictures before she was told it was “forbidden”), the pictures of the leaders of the revolution on the walls (or of the hospital itself before the revolution), the workplaces and, of course, Ordaz’s office, with all his diplomas, his medals, his telephones, his hats.

An office that, on closer inspection, has little to do with a doctor’s office.

In fact, with all those pictures of Che, those low-quality handicrafts and those little medals of the Ministry of the Interior and the Council of State, this office reminds you more of the office of the Cuban consuls in the embassies of the former socialist countries than of the office of a doctor or a chief physician in a hospital.

It reminds you —and this is not a minor detail— those rooms that in the first half of the 19th century all the madmen who wanted to look like Napoleon built at home with military fetishes.

Is there an exaggerated subjectivity in the subjects of power that at a certain scale makes them equal to the narcissist, the hallucinated, the exalted, the catatonic?

Possibly yes, although what I can be sure of is that both these images and those I remember of Bernabé Ordaz in some documentaries, with his white gloves and his beard always trimmed in black, always seemed to me closer to some kind of clinical disorder than to someone focused on his factory-hospital.

To the loony of the moment.

A loony who would not have been so dangerous if he had not been a military man himself, if he had not turned the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana into one of the torture chambers of Villa Marista since 1959, and if he had been less omnipresent in the heads of the sick and in Mazorra’s pabopticons.

To see the patients venerating Ordaz and cleaning his portrait with particular attention, as shown in the Muñoz’s documentary, is, to say the least, embarrassing.

You feel embarrassment and fear.

All the fear that you lose —fortunately— when looking at this series or illustrated feature or photographic document by Damaris Betancourt, who already, in the early nineties, had made an excellent series of portraits in some of Havana’s slums.[15]

Neighborhoods that, if we are going to be serious, are not that different from Mazorra either. In both, life is hard, scarce and with little light. In both, as Piñera wrote, everything is reduced to “taking pills and keeping quiet.”


* This text is the epilogue to Diez días en Mazorra, by Damaris Betancourt, published by Rialta Ediciones, 2021, a book of the series on contemporary visual arts FluXus, coordinated by Carlos A. Aguilera himself.

[1] Cfr. César Reynel Aguilera: El soviet caribeño. La otra historia de la revolución cubana, Ediciones B, Buenos Aires, 2018. Aguilera says in an interview with Felipe Lázaro: “However, when I started researching for the book I discovered that there was always a deep relationship between Cuban psychology (and psychiatry) and the PSP [Popular Socialist Party]. To begin with, one of the founders of the Party in 1925 is none other than Alfonso Bernal del Riesgo, the father of Cuban psychology. I once read a colloquium dedicated to Julio Antonio Mella in which Bernal del Riesgo established a comparison between what he called Mella’s ‘radical profile’ and that of Fidel Castro. That was the first time I suspected that the PSP might have had the capacity to make psychological profiles, a suspicion that I later confirmed when I read in Jorge Risquet’s memoirs that, when he was very young, the Party created, through Dr. Aelia Dou (a disciple of Bernal del Riesgo), a psychological profile of him that showed, among other things, ‘that despite being an adolescent he clearly projected the need for change and was a true leader’. Yikes!” (Felipe Lázaro: “Las cadenas vienen de lejos”, 14 y medio, December 31st, 2019).

[2] Cfr. Charles J. Brown and Armando L. Lago: The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey, 1992.

[3] Dr. Abdo Czanasí: quoted in Pedro Marqués de Armas, Ciencia y poder en Cuba. Racismo, homofobia y nación (1790-1970), Verbum, Madrid, 2014, p. 312 (italics are mine).

[4] Fidel Castro Ruz: “Closing Speech on the Sixth Anniversary of the Assault on the Presidential Palace,” 1963, [07-09-2020].

[5] The feature by Fabre and Carbonell (“El hospital dementes de Mazorra: una vergüenza nacional”, Bohemia, no. 5, year 51, February 1st, 1959, pp. 54-57), with photos by Miralles. Article inserted in the trilogy (from January to March) of the so-called “freedom editions;” editions that had a circulation of one million copies —according to the magazine— and were in charge of manipulating all the civil and political information that was known up to that moment in the country.

[6] Pedro Marqués de Armas: ob. cit., p. 175.

[7] The Castellanos and Carbó-Serviá de Mazorra wards are generally considered to be under the control of the State Security (See Miguel A. Faria, Jr.: “Psiquiatría en una utopía comunista”, Análisis Latino, May 25th, 2002).

[8] Journalist Juan Manuel Cao told in an interview with Abel Sierra Madero about his experience in Mazorra: “The Carbó-Serviá ward is a prison inside the asylum. There they lock up patients who have committed crimes. In the Castellanos ward are the punishment cells. At night, from that wards, screams came out that were so terrifying that they would chill your blood […] I also witnessed a session of electroshocks given to half a dozen patients. It was frightening. One could imagine that this was something they did in a room set up for such a thing, but no. They administered the shocks in front of the others. Some of them would run and the nurses would chase them around the room, they would tie them up any way they could, and they would put an object in their mouth: a plastic mouthpiece or something like that. So, in front of everyone, without the slightest scruple, they dragged them, then connected the device to the wall and made them writhe like inanimate dolls. Then, they would leave them lying on the floor, bleeding from the corner of their lips, foaming or drooling. The other crazies would approach with morbid curiosity or fear. There were two that were hard to catch, some patients participated in the hunt, they cornered them in the bathroom, and there, on the wet floor, they gave them the shocks. I swear I saw sparks flying in the water. I am not exaggerating even the smallest detail” (Abel Sierra Madero: “Hasta hoy, no sé quién me delató: Juan Manuel Cao,” Hypermedia Magazine, August 21st, 2020).

[9] One of the reasons why the patients, as part of a so-called therapy, are involved in cleaning groups or other tasks in different parts of the city, is because the State does not have enough labor force at its disposal. A chain of poor wages, terrible conditions and individual frustrations, among others things, have made people prefer to get involved in illegal activities rather than perform certain tasks. Hence, under a supposed education plan, high school and pre-university students are used free of charge in specific areas of agriculture, prisoners are employed in communal jobs or psychiatric patients are enlisted in work that requires considerable physical effort (such as cleaning several kilometers of beach, for example). In the same documentary by Jesús Muñoz —mentioned above— we can hear how one of the brigade chiefs of these colonies says he prefers to work with the mentally ill because “no matter how hard the work is, the psychiatric patient never protests.”

[10] Ernesto Guevara: El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba, Ocean Sur, Mexico D. F., 2011, p. 12.

[11] Cfr. Élisabeth Roudinesco: Diccionario amoroso del psicoanálisis, Debate, Madrid, 2019.

[12] Nelly Richard: Poéticas de la disidencia: Paz Errázuriz, Lotty Rosefeld, Polígrafa Ediciones, Barcelona, 2015, p. 19.

[13] Gilles Deleuze: Foucault, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 1987, p. 60.

[14] Havana Psychiatric Hospital “Comandante y Doctor Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz”: “Reseña histórica”, [02-10-2020].

[15] I refer to the series Gente que no conocí (1990).

CARLOS A. AGUILERA
CARLOS A. AGUILERA
Carlos A. Aguilera (Havana, 1970). Writer. In 1995 he won the David Poetry Prize, in Havana, in 2007 the ICORN Scholarship of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in 2015 the Cintas in Miami. His latest published books are: Umberto Peña. Bocas, dientes, cepillos, restos (monograph, 2020), Teoría de la transficción (anthology, 2020), Archivo y terror. Operaciones entre literatura, política, teatro y arte (essay, 2019), Luis Cruz Azaceta. No exit (monograph, 2016) and Matadero seis (nouvelle, 2016). He co-directed the magazine Diáspora(s) between 1997 and 2002. He coordinates the FluXus collection at Rialta. He lives in Prague.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related posts

Advertisment

Latest posts

Havana on the tip of the tongue

Over time, Eloy Rodríguez (Havana, 1997) has become a collector. He has had at some point more than twenty cameras on his shelf and...

Prague, Havana: Round Number

The ultimate dullness From the window of my room at the Pushkin Hotel, at 14 Husova Street, I could witness the parade of tourists who...

The Photofiction of Joan Fontcuberta

Perhaps Joan Fontcuberta (Barcelona, 1955) is the least literal of photographers. And he is probably the most literary of them all. His aversion to...