BEHIND BARS IN CUBA (2)
[Once again, guest columnist Manuel Menendez takes us behind bars in Fidel Castro's Cuba, where Manuel himself says he once endured incarceration. In THE DAY THEY SHOT ELEGUA, Manuel vividly describes a 1965 prisoner uprising from the point of view of one of the participants.]
THE DAY THEY SHOT ELEGUA
BY MANUEL MENENDEZ
The queers were the ones who started the riot that gray Sunday dawn of December 24, 1965. Let it be said that they showed more guts than many of us "men," and in the moment of truth, not a single one of them chickened out. This time, our concentration camp commander, Captain Colas---"Patifino" to us---went too far. You see, you have a submissive dog, and you beat him every day, and he'll just wag his tail shamefully. But don't force him into a corner, because he'll jump for your throat.
Patifino had been minion and procurer for Juan Almeida, the token Negro in the Party's Politburo. For some misdeed or other, he had been banished from the Santiago de Cuba flesh pots and sent to the UMAP [Military Units for the Aid of Production] to clean his record. It was our tough luck we got him. If life until now had been sheer Purgatory, under Patifino it became Inferno.
First, he further curtailed the rations. From malnutrition we went into outright starvation: our meals became three spoonsful of rice, one of Russian tinned meat, and a piece of stale bread tasting of weevils. He had managed to bring two of his mistresses from Santiago, installed them in a house in Cunagua, the town that surrounded the sugar factory, and kept them in style by selling the camp's food in the black market.
Then came the requisas. If there's something sacred to a prisoner, it is sleep. After cutting cane from dawn to dusk, every cell of your body ached for those six or seven hours of rest, and your mind craved that brief escape from the daily nightmare. Two or three hours before reveille, Patifino would surround any one of the six barracks with armed guards, send another unarmed platoon inside and make the inmates stand naked and shivering in the cold while he searched the sparse belongings and confiscated whatever took his fancy. Especially the bikinis the queers made from the olive green Russian underpants and the "paravans," the bed sheets painstakingly embroidered and hung to the sides of the shoddy bunks to afford some privacy when having intercourse.
Arbitrarily, he raised the daily cutting quotas to 350 arrobas [4 metric tons] of green cane and 500 [5.6 metric tons] of burned cane. Those who didn't fulfill the quotas had to go on toiling into the night to the headlights of a jeep and sometimes they also had to sleep in the cane field. But the last straw was Patifino's decree that we had to work also on Sunday mornings, our "free" day, when we washed the sweaty, grimy clothes worn the whole week, wrote letters home, or simply slept nonstop, assuaging the constant fatigue.
The riot started in my barrack and was sparked by three queers: Loime, "Lovely Hick" and "Miss Matanzas." They stayed in bed that first Sunday morning, and not even the beating by the guards would move them. I aam with my peerioood... they screamed once and again. When the guards tried to drag them to the esplanade outside, all the other queers also rebelled.
The "peerioood" epidemic spread through the camp like a prairie fire.
At a loss before such unprecedented defiance, the guard detail requested orders from the officer of the day, Master Sergeant Capote, bka "El Capirro," who, for his part, sent Corporal Kindel n in a jeep to Cunagua to apprise the Captain of the goings-on. Patifino came back into camp fuming, with a splitting headache and a monumental hangover from Saturday night's party and subsequent menage-a-trois.
"Carajo, you have five minutes to form or else..." he threatened through the camp's loudspeakers. He then walked back and forth on his skinny legs through the esplanade, and shot a whole magazine of his Browning pistol into the battened earth, all the time raging and cussing.
In our barrack, a brief war council took place among the three factions into which, from the start, we had spontaneously divided ourselves: the queers, the "men," and the common criminals, who served as enforcers and snitches. The boss of the latter, Lusaga the Abakua, was noncommittally brushing his dentures on the palm of his hand.
"Are you in?" he was asked pointblank by our undisputed leader, "El Quimico," the camp "doctor," who got the appointment because he worked as a cleaner at the morgue of the "Calixto Garcia" hospital in Havana, and practiced autopsies for kicks.
"Nope," replied Lusaga. All the hoodlums, about 30 of them, started scurrying outside.
"Wait! .. Tell your boys to leave all the hardware behind! We need it!"
"Yep," Lusaga answered without looking up, and, as if by conjure, a small arsenal of clubs, shanks, lead pipes, fighting irons and even four machetes materialized.
Then El Quimico turned to the queers:
"You did your stuff already, you can go out, too, no problem."
"No way, este nino, we stay too," declared a formerly fat Negro dubbed "Bemba Liquida," who, turning to the others, asked: "Ain't it true, girls?"
"Yeaaah..." was the unanimous response. They produced the entizados they used in their duels, when fighting over the favors of a lover. These were makeshift sabers, a broom handle sawed in the middle and filled with Russian razor blades. Many of the fifty queers or so in our barrack sported faces crisscrossed by scars. The Jehovah's Witnesses also refused to leave, but explained that they would not fight, just pray on our behalf.
Ragged ranks started forming outside: the criminals; those sick with dysentery, or with deep stitched wounds,
The whole company of guards, most of them raw recruits, stood ill at ease, fiddling with their M-52 rifles
either accidental or self-inflicted; and about 60 able-bodied "men" who welshed, running out on the rest of us. But the exodus soon became a trickle and then ceased. We were about 720 inmates in the camp, and around 450 had remained behind. At the other side of the esplanade the whole company of guards, most of them raw recruits, stood ill at ease, fiddling with their M-52 rifles. The voice of El Capirro, with his uncouth Oriente accent, boomed through the loudspeakers: "Them five minutes the Cap'n gave you are oveh..."
"Capiirrooo... you gonna shoot me after we made love last night in the watchtower?" jeered "Adorable Triguena," posing suggestively in a bikini at the barrack's open door. To compound the embarrassment of the soldiers, who were just kids forcibly conscripted from all over the island, voices from our barracks called them out one by one by their complete names and hometowns, describing their sexual attributes and prowess in minute detail. If the tauntings were to be believed---and there was no reason not to believe them, because the conscriptees were all at a prurient age and in the middle of nowhere, with no women in sight---most of the garrison, including some NCOs, were guilty of sodomy, a felony punishable with a spell of stockade and a dishonorable discharge, the only exception being the Minister of the Armed Forces himself.
"Ah, cabrones, after we finish this I'll settle accounts with you, too," spewed Patifino, almost apoplectic with rage.
In the meantime, frantic but coordinated activity was taking place inside the six barracks. It turned out that ever since Patifino committed his first outrages, an underground contingency plan had been worked out and agreed to well in advance. Sooner or later a showdown was inevitable and the moment had come: to cringe and give up now would be the equivalent of renouncing our very human condition. Enough was enough. Condemned as we had been without trial to penal servitude for an undetermined period of time for the alleged "crime" of being "antisocial" or "homosexual" or "vagrant" or for wearing long hair and tight jeans or for having been denounced anonymously by a personal enemy, our youth destroyed and our lives wrecked for good, we had nothing to lose.
And all because the all-powerful State nobody had elected wanted to "develop" Camaguey province, the Cuban Siberia, where nobody would go voluntarily. A wasteland only fit for grazing the Cebu cattle introduced from India two centuries ago. They were not pedigreed enough, true, but before the Revolution, these cattle supplied the whole island with meat and milk, commodities strictly rationed for six years now. The whole province was now sown of sugar cane. Slaves were needed, and we were them. Thus, we shared the desperate, killing rage Spartacus and his followers must have felt.
While the queers distracted the troops, El Quimico and his two sidekicks, "El Toto" and "The Wizard," returned from the infirmary carrying a small but heavy wooden casket of nails. They overturned it on the floor, and started dividing the nails into six mounds. The nails, along with several rusty hammers, also obviously stolen from the sugar factory, were distributed to the "men" and queers assigned to serve as couriers.
The racket of the queer performers and their choir covered the noise of all the windows being nailed shut. Three Black cons who decided to stay behind shared a carefully hoarded joint and started jamming a guaganco. Isaias playing quinto; "El Tebere" and Leopoldo the Jamaican, tumbadoras.
"They invited me to smoke... Anabanabanaa....a good joint of marihuaaana... Anabanabanaa..." "Don't get sassy with my mother... or I send you into the streets... You ain't but a piece of aaaass..." "Yuri Yuri Gagariiin... shooting craps is not a siiiin..." "Vaaampiresa... how wicked you are Teresa..."
We moved the iron bunks sideways to make more free space. The thin mattresses were piled up as barricades. Meanwhile, El Quimico gave to the sanitarios from the other barracks stashes of merchromine, surgical needles and thread, rubber tourniquets, plus fresh bandages made from pieces of boiled bed sheets in addition to his final advices. We ate our last provisions from home and filled our water canteens and any other receptacle available. There wouldn't be time later. El Quimico and his closest buddies drank from a bottle of guachipupa: 90 degrees alcohol mixed with water, brown sugar and sour-orange juice.
"I'm gonna count until ten, and if you don't come out I'll smoke you-all out like a wasp nest," was the Captain's ultimatum.
"Patifinooo... kill if you gonna kill, kill and f... up no more," shouted back Carballeda the hunchback. Thus the preliminaries ended and the hostilities started in earnest.
Our barrack was singled out for the first attack and two platoons came a la bayamesa, with machetes, through both doors at the same time. But to their surprise no one was in sight. It was 10 in the morning of an overcast, gloomy cold day, and dark inside the barrack. A single light bulb shone eerily. They advanced slowly and bewildered through the long central aisle toward the barricades in the middle, and suddenly all hell broke loose. The inmates hidden on the upper bunks beat them in the head and shoulders with clubs and irons, while others jumped from the barricades and engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. The troops were supposed to hit us with the flank of the machetes, but seeing themselves surrounded they used the edge, and cut several of us badly. Finally they retreated leaving behind several machetes and three captured soldiers, whom we kept as hostages, trussing their hands and feet.
Couriers from all the camp kept us informed of the developments elsewhere: the guards had attacked two more barracks and their rout had been complete. But the price had been high for us: many seriously wounded and the first dead, Cesar "El Morrongo," whose skull was bashed in by the soldier's machetes.
There were some more attacks, but halfhearted. We were better armed now, and several wounded guards had been evacuated to the nearest hospital, in the town of Violeta. The floors of the barracks were slippery with blood, and El Quimico, smeared with it from head to foot, dealt with our casualties as best he could. In the meantime there were three more dead: two more immates---"Polingo" and "Papayeta"---as well as Corporal Tony, one of the soldiers. We were aware that, because a soldier had been killed, there was no possibility of a settlement; the worst punishment awaited us.
Patifino himself was also in a quandary. He was stupid and stubborn, but also cunning. He realized that he had put himself in a no-win situation. He could not afford a war of attrition, to bring us to heel by thirst and hunger. It was dusk already and tomorrow, Monday, we were supposed to be on the cane fields again. He toyed with the idea of opening fire into us with the BZ machine-guns from the watchtowers. But we happened to be valuable property of the State, and these weren't the times of the Sierra Maestra, when he hanged or shot "army informers" at will because he coveted their wives. So he had to swallow his pride and call for help from above.
Help materialized next morning, with the arrival of a dozen ZIL trucks loaded with troops in full combat gear. The comandante in charge, Victor Bordon, gave Patifino the bungler a good dressing down and told him to get lost. The comandante meant business and wasted no time with threats or warnings. He deployed his troops in a cordon all around us with orders to shoot to kill whomever came out of the barracks wielding weapons. Then he assembled two parallel lines of soldiers with machetes outside the first barrack to the left facing the esplanade. A detachment wearing gas masks went inside through the back door and threw stun grenades and tear gas canisters. As the mutineers escaped through the front door they had to run a gantlet of soldiers hitting them with the flanks of the machetes. Then, dizzy, blinded, and their whole bodies smarting from the blows, they were penned up in a corner of the camp, against the barbed wire fence. There the cons and snitches identified them, and officers sorted and blacklisted them one by one, according to their degree of guilt in the uprising and accoreding to their sexual preferences and other sins.
The procedure was repeated barrack by barrack, and all resistance quenched. As soon as the fumes cleared, the troops searched and thoroughly ransacked our flimsy abodes, confiscating all our weapons. Only then were we allowed to return inside. That day we weren't issued food, but the worst was the thirst. No one was allowed to leave the barracks, and we had to relieve ourselves inside, the stench adding to our misery.
The next morning we were ordered out and formed as usual on the esplanade. Under an intermittent drizzle, we stood there for four hours, prey to the biting wintry wind. Many of the sick and wounded fainted but were refused help. Patifino was nowhere to be seen. Our own officers and NCOs went around trying to look inconspicuous, hiding from the surly proconsul's gaze. At midday some soldiers dug a hole and sunk into the earth a long four-by-four post. A while later, two jeeps arrived and stopped in front of the guardhouse. From one of them descended a handcuffed tall black man, dressed in a brand new UMAP uniform and tennis shoes.
We old-timers couldn't recognize him until he looked straight into our ranks and smiled. His nickname ran from mouth to mouth: "Elegua..." "It's Elegua..." He was but a shadow of the young man we had known. The white even teeth of his former perennial and contagious smile were gone, smashed by a rifle's butt. His cheeks were sunken, and his face looked haggard and much older, with lines of suffering deeply etched on it. He was skeletal, and his strong muscles had withered. His skin, before so black and shiny, seemed ashen, as if kept for months without seeing the sun. Even so, it was Elegua, all right. And, by the swaggering, self-assured way he walked to the waiting "stick," his tormentors had been unable to break his spirit.
"Que vola , Quimico, El Toto, El Brujo, Pipo, Abelardo, Bautista, Eno Jue..." he went on greeting his old pals while the escorts tied him to the pole, hands behind his back. Despite the fact that we were witnessing his imminent death, he somehow lifted our despondent mood.
Nobody remembered his true name, not even myself, who had known him from sight from the Instituto del Vedado, where we both were going through senior high school. Women had been, directly and indirectly, Elegua's undoing. He became the boyfriend of a Russian girl, Nadia, who had a mane of honey-colored hair, hazel eyes, and the long graceful neck and the supple beautiful body of a ballet dancer. They formed a dashing couple that elicited either admiration or disapproval from all those who watched them walking hand in hand through Havana streets, evidently so in love. Despite all the regime's double-talk about racial equality, in the Sixties mixed couples were still frowned upon.
The one they irked the most was Nadia's father, a so-called "foreign technician," a Spanish communist who had fled to the Soviet Union in 1939, when the Republic fell. He survived Stalin's purges, almost forgot his own language, and eventually married a Moscow girl much younger than himself. Their only offspring was Nadia, and her father could not bear her liaison to an obydziana---a "monkey," as Blacks were called in Russia. The last straw was Nadia's pregnancy. The old man manifested his displeasure to the Soviet Consulate. The Consulate, in turn, relayed the displeasure to the Cuban "competent organs," and both lovers suddenly disappeared from school.
I never knew what happened to Nadia, but Elegua landed in the UMAP, where he soon ran into further
'He hated everyone, but in particular tall Blacks. The grapevine had it that his wife first cuckolded him with, and later abandoned him for, a handsome six-foot Negro'
trouble. Once more the fates twisted his destiny, this time by putting him in the way of Lieutenant Ballester, bka "Pedro Canon," thus called for his big Colt .45 pistol, which looked even bulkier on his diminutive person, five feet flat standing in his Russian boots. He hated everyone, but in particular tall Blacks. The grapevine had it that his wife first cuckolded him with, and later abandoned him for, a handsome six-foot Negro.
If our life was tough enough, Elegua's was a living hell. First, Pedro Canon managed to transfer him to his own punitive outfit, the so called "Ferrets' Brigade," where those physically unfit or deemed lazy were dumped. They were the first to leave camp to go to work and the last to come back, sometimes to find that there was no food left for them, or no water to wash themselves. Afterward, Pedro Canon coupled Elegua with "Little Bones" Escalante, who was half-dead from an untreated tapeworm, a fact which forced Elegua to cut twice the norm.
Lieutenant Pedro would stand all day long looking venomously at Elegua's sweating back, shouting to him peremptorily at the smallest pretext, real or imagined.
"Elegua, come back here and cut these stumps you left behind!..." "Elegua, this heap doesn't have 25 arrobas, bring over more cane!" "Elegua take all the canteens of the brigade and fill them yonder!" maybe pointing to a peasant house three kilometers away. With those dilatory tactics he ensured that his whipping boy had to go on cutting cane every night. Smoking a large cigar and drinking hot coffee from a thermos, Pedro Canon himself in the meantime sat behind the wheel of a jeep, its lights trained on his drudging, exhausted victim.
Sometimes he would send Escalante out of earshot, but near enough to watch, so he could have a witness if he had to shoot Elegua in "self-defense." With no one else to hear his taunts, Pedro Canon would step up his provocations against Elegua. I guess Pedro Canon was nuts and he drove Elegua crazy, too. When anyone complained to Patifino, he'd answer:
"That'll teach that uppity nigger not to mess with Russian girls!"
The fatal day came when Elegua hit Pedro so fast that Pedro had no time to draw his pistol. The machete embedded itself on the lieutenant's temple. Somehow, Pedro didn't die. Instead, he became a drooling imbecile for the rest of his days. Elegua was tried by a kangaroo court and sentenced to death. And now we were seeing the last chapter of the tragedy.
An unknown Sub-Lieutenant assembled the six men of the firing squad. It was the first time I saw an AKM, the standard issue in the camps being the Czech made M-52, favored for its bayonet that opened like a jackknife, which the guards used to stab the inmates in the buttocks.
"If any of you guys make it to Havana, tell my folks that I go content... Better to go this way than to rot for thirty years in prison... As for Pedro Canon, I don't regret what I did, the bastard was asking for it!" Elegua refused the blindfold and his eyes darted here and there searching ours.
"Looaad..." "Aiiim..." "Fiiire..." The salvo resounded surprisingly loud and we watched in fascination as red spots appeared in the front of the blue denim shirt, and Elegua's body slid slowly down the wooden beam. The aim hadn't been true and had missed the heart. Apparently none of the six soldiers wanted the condemned man's death on his conscience. But all they accomplished was to gutshoot him and prolong his suffering. Pink froth spurted from Elegua's contorted mouth while he tried to articulate something, perhaps a name. The young officer fumbled with his Makarov pistol until he managed to deliver the coup-de-grace.
Incongrously, it was Berrier, our incorrigible clown and jester, who spoke aloud what each and every one of us was thinking. He didn't shout, but his voice carried away in the silence: "You can kill all of us, but we won't work on Sundays!" We were dismissed and returned to our barracks.
"He died like a man," said Lazaro.
"No, he died like a human," corrected El Quimico.
If Elegua's public execution had been intended as a warning and a deterrent against future riots, it backfired miserably. Elegua gave us back the initial courage, momentum and blind rage that the crushing of the mutiny had temporarily taken away from us. The die was cast: we will stick to our demand whatever the consequences. The military seemed to sense our resolution, too, and decided to cut the resistance in the bud by scattering us immediately among the other camps.
That Monday evening we received no supper either, and weren't allowed to use the showers, only the latrines. Those who managed to sleep were awakened at four in the morning by the arrival of a column of Leyland buses. Instead of serving breakfast in the dining hall, it was brought into the barracks: lukewarm Russian powdered milk and a few stale crackers. They started calling names, grouping the inmates and sending them to different destinations under heavy escort.
Later we learned through the all-knowing, ubiquitous grapevine that the ringleaders were taken to "El Pitirre" military prison, in Havana province, to await a court-martial for the manslaughter of Corporal Tony and a likely death sentence. The queers known as compromiso, or "married couples," were separated on purpose, which brought an epidemic of suicides. Most of our officers and NCOs were also dispersed.
Patifino himself landed as an inmate in Guanahacabibes, at the very western tip of the island, in the special concentration camp where high ranking military officers and Party bigshots were sent in utter disgrace. Had he got his way, he would have been hailed as an outstanding officer and stern disciplinarian, and the practice of working Sunday mornings would have spread to all the camps. And maybe soon he would have returned to Juan Almeida's princely court. As it was, he sowed winds and harvested a tempest.
And finally, never again did our captors dare to make us work on Sundays---except when the peasants burned cane fields as sabotage, and then they were careful to give us the next day off. They had lost face enough, and didn't want another showdown. And this was Elegua's legacy to us.##
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