I was pulling into a motorway service station somewhere south of Birmingham when the radio announcer said that in 20 minutes’ time there would be an interview with a prizewinning Cuban poet. I made a mental note to miss it. I had my coffee, got back into the car and drove off As I switched on again without thinking, the interview was just starting. I couldn’t change stations at that moment as I was having to concentrate on changing lanes on the motorway. By the time I’d done that and I was overtaking in the second lane, it was too late. The interviewer had explained that Jorge Valls Arango
had just spent 20 years as a political prisoner in a Cuban gaol His prize was for poets undergoing censorship or repression. He was not going to talk about his poetry but about his life in prison in Cuba. I was hooked.
Valls struggled to put together the words to describe what he had been through, but the limited halting English somehow made his story more riveting — and more harrowing. He had been released seven days before, thanks to pressure from the PEN International organisation He had been imprisoned for attempting to defend a friend accused of collaboration with the Batista regime which Castro had overthrown The fact that Valls had himself been in Batista’s prisons made no difference.
He described Castro’s prison as being slightly different from hell. “From hell you cannot get out but from prison you may die and get out”, he declared, and such moments of grim humour made his narrative all the more compelling and authentic. The physical violence against prisoners was horrible, he went on, as were the periods of desperate hunger. But the worst thing was the “psychical and moral violence” — the constant provocations, the time spent in complete isolation, the years spent in small crowded spaces with little air or sun, the sight of others being cruelly tortured or executed. These conditions had driven some of his companions mad and others to suicide. He quoted from one of his poems called Blood.
I am up to my neck in rising blood.
It’s a black and sour blood.
I am tied up with a rope of blood.
I am speaking with a voice
made of bubbles of blood.
I am being heard by five ears of blood.
I am travelling in a blood-smeared car
I am disintegrating into worms of blood.
The worms grow and multiply . . .
Towards the end of the interview Valls began to talk about his religious convictions and how they had sustained him through his captivity. His expression was just as powerful but it was an area of experience with which I could not identify. Still, I thought, how could you deny someone suffering so prodigiously the right to find his own source of strength and consolation?
I was still speeding along the motorway when the programme ended. I switched off. Nothing could follow this for the moment. I began to think about the kind of country Cuba was. I had to admit to myself that I didn’t know much about it. I would try and find out when I had the time.
I found out more quickly than I expected, for in the same week a six-part TV series on Cuba began, looking at 25 years of rule by Castro. The first programme told me that the Cuban Constitution said: “All have equal rights and equal duties”. But clearly some had more equal rights than others — in particular the ruling elite, most of whom were family and friends of Castro, and the ten per cent of the population who had membership of the Communist Party, an honour extended only to the select few The “less equal” members of Cuban society, the series showed, included the majority of the working population who were allowed no freedom of movement in jobs or residence, no trade unions and no freedom of expression or political opposition, and for whom rationing of food, clothing and petrol was a way of life. Even less equal were the 3,000 or more political prisoners, to whom Amnesty International had been denied access since 1977. and the many thousands of others in the 68 gaols of a country which has a population about a sixth the size of Britain
Not that the programmes shed an entirely negative light on the country. Castro’s rule had brought certain benefits to the majority of people much improved health care, increase of life expectancy from 55 to 70, a 96 per cent rate of literacy. Such improvements are not to be sneezed at but they must also be seen in a broader context that of a state which demands total conformity of ideas, locks up its dissenters and throws away the key, and confers privilege and status on a minority of the population while officially denying that such privilege and status exist. Is Castro’s Cuba therefore fundamentally different from any of the world’s other one-party states? Ask Jorge Valls Arango what he thinks.
(A transcript of most of the interview with Jorge Valls Arango was published in the Listener
, 26 July 1984. A social and political analysis of Cuba 25 years after Castro’s revolution appeared in the April 1984
issue of the Socialist Standard