We are required to remember those events in history when humanity disappeared, and evil prevailed, lest we forget them and descend into barbarism. To do so, we must preserve those sites, those killing arenas where atrocities occurred, whether they be fields, forests, concentration camps, or prison walls as sacred ground. We must hold them sacred for the memory of the victims, because if we forget the victims of evil, if we remain silent, we are complicit.
“Art” in a place of grief and tragedy
As a Cuban woman living in exile, I am well aware of the abuses committed against the Damas de Blanco, of the increase in arrests of dissidents, of the journey of His Holiness and those who traveled to Cuba as “pilgrims” under the pretext of “reconciliation,” of the possibility of investing in the island, of the hunger strikes, of those who travel to Cuba to find out how they can help, of celebrating New Year’s Eve oblivious to the suffering of the Cuban people and of many other topics related to our homeland.
But I have never expressed myself in writing before. And why am I writing now? Because I read a recent article about the 11th Havana Biennial titled “ La Cabaña, site of the largest Cuban art exhibition.” Its last paragraph reads: “In the plazas, streets, pits and dungeons of La Cabaña one can appreciate this art selection.”
This exhibition was visited by a large number of Americans and Cuban Americans who entered this jail with the excuse that they went to see art — ignoring the memory of the many who suffered and were executed there.This lack of sensibility prompted me into writing this article about what La Cabaña really means to thousands and thousands of Cuban families. Why conceal the real story?
La Cabaña represents grief, separation from loved ones, months and years of incarcerations, crammed cells totally lacking in hygiene, suffocating heat, beatings, hunger strikes, firing squads, death, and the echo of the executed last words: “Hail Christ the King,” “Long Live a Free Cuba.”
La Cabaña represents relatives at the base of La Fortaleza de La Cabaña under inclement weather waiting to hear the name of their loved ones called out. Their name is called and one begins climbing the steep hill towards the jail, passing by the wall where the executions take place and then a long wait in line for the humiliating personal search. Finally, the jail’s iron gate is reached and for some it meant a hug, a kiss to their loved ones and perhaps sharing a minute or an hour with them — it did not matter — but for many others, reaching the iron gate meant hearing, in a cruel and scornful way, that their loved one had been executed the night before.
La Cabaña represents trials which were a farce, presided by men devoid of scruples, enjoying the suffering of all political prisoners and their relatives, with pre-determined sentences be it death by execution, or many years of imprisonment. “Defense attorneys” were denied the right to exercise their profession and were subjected to derision.
La Cabaña represents the days of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Cuba in mourning. Cuba bathed in blood. Daily executions from east to west. At La Cabaña, every single day the living said good-bye to their brothers in arms sentenced to be executed. Those that stayed behind remained in their cells engulfed in silence, prayers, tears and those sentenced to die walked in chains to their encounter with God without a last kiss or embrace to their parents, wives or children?… ? “Hail Christ the King,” “Long Live a Free Cuba.”
I lived all this. I visited this horrible political prison innumrable times. I was present in several of the trials of my husband, my brother and my sister.I was also present on April 19, 1961 when my brother-in-law’s trial took place at La Cabaña. It began at 9 a.m. and finished at 9 p.m. On that day eight men were sentenced to death by firing squad and all were executed, among them my brother-in-law, at dawn on April 20, 1961 at La Cabaña, site of this “art exhibition.”
La Cabaña represents not art but men with courage, men of principles, and men with dignity, men who never surrendered, men who gave their best for love of country and for all of us.
Ileana Arango Puig is the wife and sister of political prisoners, sister-in-law of a political prisoner executed by firing squad and cousin of two members of Brigade 2506. She is vice president of Mothers and Women Against Repression.