A Night in Prison With a Cuban Independent Journalist

Tuesday, December 8, 2015
A Cuban independent journalist relays his experience -- and consequences -- for trying to report on last week's protest at the Ecuadorean Embassy in Havana.

By Diario de Cuba's Pablo Pascual Mendez Pina:

"This isn’t news, it’s counterrevolution"

"The money, you dick!" was heard, followed by a clamor. Then a succession of confused screams and the boos and cheers of protesters. It was November 30, and a crowd of close to 500 people clogged the corner of 5th Avenue and 40th, in Miramar.

Some demanded money, others visas. From behind the police cordon impeding access to the Ecuadorian embassy, ​​someone was on a megaphone, but we could only hear an unintelligible mumbling. "We can´t hear! We can´t hear!” the crowd cried. "Bring out the ambassador! We want to talk to him!"

Dozens of mobile phones, help up over the heads of those on hand, recorded videos. Foreign media reporters showed up with cameras and microphones. Some reporters from the official media lurked nearby, and from the throng some shouted, "Press! Press! I want to talk!"

A young blue-eyed woman got the scoop: "Gentlemen, the officials have announced that they will let us in. Now we must clear 5th Avenue!" "We're not going anywhere, no way!" the mob yelled. "They've got some nerve! We want the visas they promised!" A young black man with sparkling gold teeth asked for a mike. "We hope to go away, without incident. Please. I ask the esteemed ambassador to grant us our visas!"

Just then I noticed that my phone battery was running out, and the sunlight kept me from checking the quality of the photos I’d taken. I decided to go for my camera and recorder. I got on my bike and took off. When I returned the protestors had calmed down, but 5th Avenue was still closed to traffic.

I took out my camera and snapped some shots. I just needed to get some opinions before leaving. Suddenly someone said: "Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña, put way your camera and come with us." I looked and saw two plain-clothes police officers next to me.

We left the area of the conflict. After telling me to erase the photos, one asked me: "Why are you looking for trouble?" "I'm an independent journalist," I answered. "And a crowd of 500 demonstrators that stops traffic on 5th Avenue is news." To which one of the guards shot back: "This isn't news. It’s counterrevolution."

While I gave them my ID, another officer was checking up on me on his walkie talkie. One of the officers proceeded to demonstrate his knowledge of my life and career, and to comment on the contents of some of my articles, quick to assure me that I was under the strictest surveillance.

A patrol car arrived, they stowed my bicycle in back, took my belongings, cuffed me, and put me in the vehicle. "To the holding cell!" spat the leader. And that white Geely, with 666 (the number of the beast) plates, ate up the stretch of pavement separating 3rd and 40th from 7th and 62nd, where the municipality of Playa's Criminal Investigation Unit is located. There I was informed that I had been arrested by order of Lieutenant Colonel Camilo.

They removed my handcuffs and led me to the area before the cells, where they told me to place my personal effects on a counter. A lieutenant colonel in counterintelligence asked me for some general information and noted it down on a form before asking: "Boy, didn't you hear what the Government said?" To which I answered: "I’m just as interested in what the Cubans protesting on 5th Avenue had to say."

The lieutenant colonel, coincidentally, had to leave on other business. My mobile rang and the officer told me to "take it." It was my wife. I told her I had been detained, and was being held at 7th and 62nd. When I hung up I felt more relaxed. The lieutenant colonel reappeared and ordered me to turn off my phone. Then an official proceeded to inventory my belongings. An officer told me that my wife was asking for me. I was surprised by her quick reaction.

In the cell

At one in the afternoon they put me in a cell, the only one available, in which there were two detainees, who they removed in a question of 20 seconds. The cell measured 48 square meters, and a 5-meter ceiling. The only window was barely a square meter across.

A narrow granite bench lined the wall. It was uncomfortable, whether sitting or lying down on it. There were no toilets. The floor was dirty, and reeked of urine. The walls were full of scrawls: nicknames, "SATS", "UNPACU", "Down with Raúl". Outside I could hear the buzz of traffic, voices, shouting.

I tried to sleep but couldn't. I was unaware that my wife had been in the building until 7:30 at night, waiting for information about me. She had a run-in with Kenia, the aforementioned lieutenant colonel, who showed resentment towards me thereafter.

Four hours later I heard bars open. They brought in Manuel Guerra Pérez, a colleague at Cubanet who was also intercepted by the secret police outside the Ecuadorian embassy.

They came over to offer us food and water. We replied that we weren't going to eat (hunger strike). They brought the water in a filthy jug, so we refused it. The toilet was in another cell, of stainless steel, entirely covered with a crust of dried feces.

An officer pulled me out of the cell. I was led to a room where we sat down at a table. He was wearing a Masonic ring the size of a walnut, and a two-dial watch. Such things used to be prohibited when wearing a military uniform, I thought to myself.

We spoke. He argued that there was no newsworthy event in the place where I was arrested. I disagreed. I went on the offensive and asked him: "Are you a journalist?" He replied: "No, I'm an officer." "So, if you're not a journalist, why do you make statements about things you don't know about?" He did not reply.

Then he asked me about the proof of ownership documents for the camera, recorder and mobile phone they had taken. I replied that were purchased in Madrid, where one is only given a receipt. He replied: "They issue them there too." I went back on the offensive, "Have you ever been to Madrid?" "No." "So, if you've never been there, why do you question something you know nothing about?" He shut his mouth.

He quickly jotted down a note, which he informed me was my statement. I tried to read it, but couldn't get past the second line. That's how I react to bad writing. I refused to sign it. The officer got up, went out and looked for two others, who were not present during my "deposition," but who signed as witnesses after my refusal anyway.

I was taken back to the cells. Along the way I stopped to drink from a water fountain, and spotted at least a dozen police vans, presumably to suppress the protestors at the Ecuadorian embassy. Taking a look around, I concluded that this facility was the command center of the apparent crackdown.

We were then questioned by another officer. He was affable and more understanding. He was interested in us working as moles, like the informants Serpa Maseira or Capote, who infiltrated groups in Cuban civil society. He insisted that later, on another occasion, we'd sit down and talk about it in a park. When we refused, he said he would "leave open the possibility."

The officials asked for my phone's password, multiple times. I absolutely refused. Its security system was installed during a trip I took to Trinidad and Tobago. It was so good that that FBI specialists had taken two days to decipher it. I thought: let's test them with a real challenge.

The dawn of the transvestites

At midnight we banged on the bars and asked for mattresses. The officer returned with Lieutenant Colonel Kenia, who reluctantly authorized the mattresses. We then shouted out (the only way of communicating) for a bottle of water, which was refused. The filthy jug was our only option.

We lay down on the floor, on two foam rubber mattresses. I cannot remember when I got to sleep, but I woke up, startled by screams and kicking at the bars. Four transvestites were brought in, the commotion they made multiplied by the reverberations.

Kenia and other officers appeared. The transvestites told them they and “La Pinta, La Niña and La Santa María,” could piss off, that they were above all the stars, the bars and uniforms. We saw Kenia retreat with his tail between his legs, exclaiming, "My responsibility is those two," referring to us.

The transvestites threatened to strip naked, shit, cover the walls with it, and piss themselves (they did the latter). They kicked the bars in unison, and I still don't understand how they didn't break the lock.

They called the officer to go to the bathroom, because one of them had recently had a sex-change surgery and was bleeding. The guard said that the only option was the filthy bathroom. More obscenities and kicked bars ensued. For several minutes the transvestites called for a "superior" or "politician," but to no avail.

Intermittent outbreaks followed. One minute they were shouting, the next they were belting Amigas, imitating the moves of Elena Burke, Omara Portuondo and Moraima Secada.

Then they recorded a video protesting discrimination, and the police’s accusations of prostitution and swindling. And they spoke of the CENESEX as if it were the Cathedral of St. Peter's Basilica and the beatification of Santa Mariela [Castro] of transvestites.

We were afraid to laugh. We felt they might feel humiliated and assault us. A while later they calmed down and talked to us. We introduced ourselves as journalists, told them about our odyssey, and then they lent us a mobile so that Mario could call his girlfriend let her know about our situation.

The transvestites kept shouting and kicking the bars, until past 4 am, when they were taken from the cell. Mario and I agreed that it had all been staged. Things calmed down, but a stench of ammonia emanated from the puddle of urine.


We shook the bars. The smell of the urine was insufferable. Another officer appeared, and threw water and a white substance on it before mopping. A bit after 11 in the morning they took me out of the cell and, with Lieutenant Colonel Kenia on the other side of the desk, they proceeded to return my belongings to me, by they were keeping my camera and recorder.

They produced a "justified release" document for the crime of handling stolen goods, because I had not been able to document the origins of the articles in question. I refused to sign it. I also told Kenia that "the scene with the transvestites was well done," to which he shrieked back that the transvestites were furious because we had mattresses and they didn't.

A lieutenant colonel with more ethics and professionalism offered me a deal: if I disclosed the code to my mobile, they'd give it back. Otherwise they would confiscate it. I accepted. They took me to the station lobby. Then I saw Mario Guerra leave with an empty bag. I was unable to talk to him, but surmised that they had also seized his camera and laptop.

The experts who examined my mobile were at it for about three hours. After I got out I went to a little street bar to have a beer and quench the thirst I had endured during my 26 hours of confinement. I rode my bike back to 7th and 42nd, where there was still a massive police presence.

When I got home the first to greet me was my little dog ​​Figaro, as always. I stroked his head to greet him. His name, transmuted into symbols, was the key they were unable to decipher.