Taken from Baracutey Cubano

12 04 2010

EMIGRATE TO THE SCAFFOLD

Ricardo González Alfonso

To live together in a cell with a man condemned to death entangles you in the labyrinth of another’s life, which starts to belong to us, to hurt us.

When they opened the cell door and I saw for the first time Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, I never imagined he would be executed by a firing squad in a week, after one of those summary trials in the Spring of 2003.

Lorenzo was black and thirty-and-some-years-old, nice looking, walking with a limp from the beating they gave him when they arrested him at the Port of Mariel, to the west of Havana. He had black shoes without laces stained with salt residue, and his eyes reflected the exhaustion of the shipwrecked, of those who still smell of the sea.

He greeted us with a two-part smile: both his lips and his eyes. He lay down and was immediately asleep with the immobility of the dead.

Me and my cellmates — “El Chino,” a young man accused of selling drugs, and a boy convicted of murder and involvement in the trafficking of emigrants — felt disappointed. We knew by memory our respective stories and legends and had the newcomer’s expectation of release. In the cells of Villa Marista, national headquarters of State Security, there is no space to walk. The only option, between one interrogation and another, is to talk about anything at all, but not to think.

In the morning, we discovered that Lorenzo was a criollazo. He told us, like one narrating a film, that at midnight he and several friends, men and women, boarded the ferry Baraguá, one of those that carries passengers across the Bay of Havana. The group of beginner pirates had hidden containers with fuel in their backpacks, and also had an arsenal of despair: a revolver and a knife. Lawrence acted out his story with dramatic gestures. “I got up to the cabin and I fired twice, once toward the bow and another toward the sea. Then I shouted, “This is fucked up, we’ll go to Miami!'”

At first, everything turned out like a dream. Among the passengers were two foreign women — magnificent pieces of exchange — and a couple of Rastafarians. In all, they had thirty hostages. The Bay of Havana was falling behind, and they were heading out to the endlessly wide Straits of Florida.

Lorenzo closed his eyes to better enjoy his words. “Listen, we were already on the coast of Key West showing some signs we’d made with phrases against communism, so the Americans would give us political asylum.” Lorenzo smiled, like a kid remembering a prank. On opening his eyes, he woke up from his dream adventure. His expression changed into that of an adult in danger.

He told his story to us, always with his wild criollo gestures, like the sea, an hysterical sea, its mood rapidly changing. I imagined the waves continuously cascading, the boat at the mercy of their sudden ups and down, harsh and constant. I saw in the face of the black man the terror felt by those novices at sea — kidnappers and hostages — to know in this situation the fear of the fuel running out, even the reserve.

A Cuban coastguard board neared. Through a megaphone one of the coast guard urged them to surrender. “But to us, it was nothing. We shouted at them we had two foreign women. They better give us fuel or the thing was going to end badly.”

They reached an agreement.  The coast guard would tow the ferry to the Port of Mariel. There they would give them provisions to get to the United States, in exchange for their not hurting the hostages.

Lorenzo, trying to force a comforting, but erratic, smile, sighed sadly. “It was a trap. Very near the pier a Ministry of the Interior frogman signaled the foreign women to jump into the water.  One jumped.  I tried to stop the other one from doing the same, but a passenger — later I learned it was a soldier dressed in civilian clothes — pushed me and I fell into the sea and lost the gun. Several frogmen caught me. They started beating me in the water and continued on the pier. My companions were also overcome.”

“The thing was big.  Even Fidel came. He told us that if we had gone, within a few years we would want to come back.” Lorenzo shook his head, sure that wasn’t true. “Absolutely not! I would have done like my father, who spent half his life in prison; but in the 80s when the Mariel boat lift happened, he went to the United States, changed his name, studied, became an engineer. I would have done the same. Then I would have reclaimed Muñe, my present wife; and Rorro, my daughter from my first marriage.”

Muñe — short for Muñeca, “doll” — sold pizzas from home. Lawrence described her as a Venus de Milo, but with arms, warm and candid. Talking about Muñe the expression of the black man resembled that of a first-time lover. But she, like Rorro, didn’t know that Lorenzo was living two parallel lives, and that with this double life he was running his personal labyrinth. He was a coin spinning in the air, heads or tails, good or bad.

Lorenzo worked every other day as a custodian in a polyclinic in Central Havana. There he had an exemplary attitude, he assured us. But his days off were libertine. He applied himself to working as a pimp and conman. Some times he ran games of chance, others he offered himself as a “guide” for naive tourists.

“Once,” he told us excitedly, “I went to Pinar del Rio with a Frenchman. What a life! He paid for everything: a rented apartment, good drink and best whores. There he met an idiot and he stayed with her. I do not know what he saw in her. The Frenchman was a good man. He was always kind to me. Although he was very trusting I never took advantage of him.” He looked at us mischievously and added, “But others …!”

Lorenzo once told me, “Ricardo, what a pity you gave yourself to politics. With your looks and ease with words, you’d be a first-rate swindler.” We also talked about Rorro. A pretty teenager who knew how to fend for herself. “She’s like me, but honest.” The nickname came about when she was a baby and Lorenzo’s mother sang her to sleep: “Arrorró, my girl, arrorró my love.”

The girl was studying to be a teacher in Miramar, a place of the former — and current — upper class.  “Papi, the cars there are silly, the people look silly, the houses are silly. In fact Miramar is a comedy.”

The day Lorenzo received the prosecutor’s request, he told the guard who served the food, “Give me more! I’m a death penalty case!” And he laughed. But after a while he looked at us seriously and whispered, almost to himself, “Who would have thought it, I would hope for a sentence of 30 years!”
Lorenzo got back from the trail very optimistic. “My lawyer said how can they ask for blood, if you did not shed a drop of blood.” And every so often he repeated these words, with the fervor of a dying man invoking God. He also told us, “You aren’t going to believe me, but I felt more fear when, at the trial,  I saw the video of the boat rising and falling on that furious sea, than when I was actually there, risking my life.”

That night they took us to an office.  The four of us, one at a time. When it was my turn a captain explained to me that even though Lorenzo had been given the death penalty, that didn’t mean he would be shot. “But,” the official emphasized, “some people condemned to death are desperate and they prefer to kill themselves, but the sanction is not ratified by the Supreme Court or the Council of State.”

With this argument he asked my cooperation to prevent — given his case — Lorenzo from making an attempt on his life. I agreed. Afterward I learned from my two cellmates that they asked them the same thing. I never knew what they said to Lorenzo.

From that time the window in the brick wall was kept open and outside there was an officer permanently on guard.

Another day in they afternoon they came looking for Lorenzo.  He came back very content. “State Security brought Rorro, her mother and my mother. They told me that the director of the polyclinic had written to the Council of State telling them about my good work attitude.” Soon they came for him again.

When we were alone, El Chino, the other boy and I commented that this visit was the last goodbye. The political police — and the other — did not normally bring our families to visit us. We were wrong. It wasn’t the last goodbye, it was the penultimate.

Lorenzo came back happy. Two officials were looking for Muñe and he had a visit with her. My cellmates and I, trying to hide it, looked at each other worriedly. We understood that Lorenzo would be executed soon.

That afternoon the food was different from the usual: half a chicken, rice and beans, salad, desert and a soft drink. Lorenzo was suspicious. “Half a chicken each?” The guard calmed him down arguing that they had received so many chickens they didn’t have room for them in the freezers, and all the inmates had been served the same ration. Lorenzo believed him, or pretended to: it was his last dinner.

Hours later, Lorenzo complained of a pain in his chest.  He told the guard. They took him immediately to the medical post. He returned quickly. He assured us he was better after they had given him an injection. He was sleepy.  Obviously they had drugged him. Some minutes passed, he was sleeping once again with the immobility of the dead. I remembered the night I met him. Barely a week had passed.

It was midnight when they opened the door. In the passage I saw six guards. One came in and woke Lorenzo. He got up groggily. Akwardly, he put on his shoes without laces. He looked at me asking, “What’s happening?” I explained it to him with a look. I gave him a pat on the shoulder and watched him go to his death.

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