Little Havana / Flagami

Coral Gables

New book sparks renewed discussion of jailed Cuban novelist

 

ngameztorres@elnuevoherald.com

The publication in Miami of the novel El verano en que Dios dormía (The Summer When God Was Sleeping) has revived the controversy surrounding Cuban dissident writer Angel Santiesteban, who is serving a five-year sentence on the island for allegedly breaking into the home of his ex-wife and attacking her.

Santiesteban is a renowned author who won the international Casa de las Américas Award in 2006 for his book of short stories Dichosos los que lloran (Lucky Are Those Who Cry), a volume of crude tales about Cuban jails. His new novel received the 2013 Franz Kafka Award for Drawer Novels, created in the Czech Republic to support Cuban writers who cannot publish in their country due to censorship.

In 2008, Santiesteban started a personal blog in which he harshly criticized the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC in its Spanish-language acronym) and the Cuban government, which, according to opposition figures and writers abroad, eventually got him incarcerated.

In his blog, Santiesteban documents a series of irregularities in the Cuban judicial process. Particularly, he alleges that he was not at the time and place where supposedly the crimes took place, but he was visiting a friend, who confirmed this fact in the trial.

The writer, who pleaded not guilty on all charges, has requested “a clear and transparent trial,” one that could be attended by people who may assess whether “it’s rigged or not.”

Amir Valle, a writer and Santiesteban’s literary agent abroad, has pointed out that this is a typical case of “criminalization of dissidence in Cuba,” referring to the attempts to jail opposition figures accusing them of common crimes.

“If I thought that these accusations were true, I wouldn’t be defending Angel,” he said.

There is an ongoing campaign to have Amnesty International declare Santiesteban a prisoner of conscience. The author has been included in a list of 100 Heroes of Freedom, published this month by Reporters Without Borders.

However, some writers on the island expressed doubts about Santiesteban’s innocence. In an open letter, writer José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, better known as Yoss, accused him of having a history of harassing his ex-wife. But Yoss later recanted in his personal blog and apologized for having rushed to condemn Santiesteban on “hearsay.” He also said “he was not so convinced” that Santiesteban committed the crime for which he is in prison and acknowledged “irregularities” in the judicial process.

Santiesteban’s case prompted a debate in Cuba about gender violence.

On March 8, 2013, a group of writers, journalists and academics publicly read at the UNEAC a declaration titled “All Against Violence,” in which they said that “no one should accuse a victim of trying to fabricate a case so that someone can be sentenced for obscure political reasons.” They also appealed to Cuban institutions to launch a public campaign “against all types of violence, especially against women.”

Danae Diéguez, a professor, activist and one of the signees, told El Nuevo Herald that the declaration had been “a spontaneous gesture,” with no institutional support. She said the declaration was a response by Cuban feminists who were outraged by a letter written in support of Santiesteban by another writer, Rafael Alcides.

In Alcides’ letter, which drew responses on several websites, he describes the incident as a “family quarrel” and speculates that, if justice were done, Santiesteban would receive “house arrest ... with a sentence to fit what in a few years would, after all, turn into neighborhood folklore.”

This shows, according to Diéguez, the tendency to downplay gender violence, including within intellectual circles in Cuba. The activist said she had information that points to guilty behavior by the author.

However, the female signees have been criticized for not mentioning, in the original letter or subsequent versions, other notorious cases of violence against women in Cuba, such as the harassment against the dissident Ladies in White. A law against gender violence would, in theory, also protect women in the opposition within Cuba.

In July 2013, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women expressed concern about the lack of statistics on this issue in Cuba and the absence of a law in Cuba about domestic violence. Also, it noted the nonexistence of independent human rights organizations that could help victims.

Diéguez said the campaign in which she is involved seeks exclusively to typify the crime of gender violence, though she rejected any other type of violence against women, “regardless of ideological or political motives. I don’t believe that violence is the way to resolve any political conflict,” she said.

Blogger Yoani Sánchez’s news site, 14ymedio, was launched recently with an interview with Santiesteban, in which the author says he feels “freer than many walking the streets.”

He also said that he had declined meeting with Fidel Castro at a reception at the Palace of the Revolution after receiving the Casa de las Américas Award. However, El Nuevo Herald confirmed with other participants that the reception was held at the Riviera Hotel, without the presence of Castro.

In his exclusive interview for 14ymedio, the writer also said that in 1998, Abel Prieto, then-president of UNEAC, offered him a car or a house in exchange for excluding five stories from his book Sueño de un día de verano (A Summer Day’s Dream).

“I needed a house at that moment. In the end, the book was published without those five stories,” he said.

Cuban-American writers Carlos Alberto Montaner and Antonio Correa Iglesias will lead a discussion about El verano en que Dios dormía at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Casa Bacardi, 1531 Brescia Ave., in Coral Gables. It has been republished by Neo Club Ediciones, an independent publishing house based in Miami. The plot of the novel is about the drama of the Cuban rafters and, according to Valle, its main feature is the “strength of its characters” and “the combined force of Angel’s stories with the spirit of the novel.”

Santiesteban will also receive that day the JOVENAJE Award from a coalition of local cultural groups, designed to recognize writers, promoters and artists, and will be picked up by the author’s sister, María de los Angeles Santiesteban.

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