The Painting: A Novel Based on a True Story




     Roberto knew little about the Censam Marin Hospital Prison on the outskirts of Havana. The prison held high-level military personnel who had been charged by the regime mostly with political subversion, many of whom had been close to Fidel. Presumably they were sent there in an effort to rehabilitate them politically.

     Aside from the numerous guards stationed throughout the hospital grounds, many carrying Kalashnikovs and looking bored, there was little evidence of security other than the double razor wire fencing surrounding the complex.

     After arriving at the hospital Roberto was registered, again stripped of his military uniform, given a dull grey hospital-issued uniform, and then sent for psychological evaluation by the military doctors.

     The evaluation lasted nearly two hours and seemed to Roberto little more than an attempt at forcing him to reveal his true feelings about the communist regime. He was intentionally vague with his answers and careful not to say anything that could potentially make life at the hospital more difficult. At the end of the evaluation he was given no indication by any of the military doctors how long he would be incarcerated.

     Compared to solitary confinement, the living conditions at the hospital prison were infinitely more humane. The buildings were clean and even the guards seemed more relaxed. The sleeping ward Roberto was assigned to contained only a dozen beds, with less than half appearing to be unoccupied. There were several inmates in the ward, most of whom looked older and appeared to be asleep.

     One of the men was sitting by an open window at the far end of the room. Roberto approached the old man and introduced himself.

     senor. My name is Roberto, Roberto Ramos,” he said politely.

     Roberto. I am Tiburcio,” said the old man, who turned and continued staring out the window.

     “May I sit down,

     “If you’d like.”

     “How long have you been here, Tiburcio?”

     “I don’t remember exactly. Ten years, maybe longer, and before that 10 years in

     “I was in solitary there the last eight days.”

     “You’re lucky to be here son. Lucky to be alive.”

     “Why are you in prison, Tiburcio?”

     “The government was not happy with my professional work.”

     “What did you do?”

     “Well, before I entered the military I was a professional painter, an artist. I had many wealthy clients here in Cuba and in Spain. After I entered the military, they wanted me to paint images glorifying communism, Fidel, Che, you know, but I refused. For some time they left me alone, and when I was on leave, I continued painting. It wasn’t until after I was discharged that someone informed on me, and the military police came and arrested me one day at my studio.

     “Why do they keep you here?”

     “Because I don’t tell them what they want to hear,” answered the old man. “If you want to leave here some day, you should remember that. Never reveal your true feelings to the communists, and when you have the chance, I recommend living somewhere else.”

     “You mean to flee Cuba?”

     “Yes. You have only one life, Roberto and it’s not a dress rehearsal.”

     “Tiburcio, my brother and I have a painting done by Carlos Sobrino. Did you know him?”

     “Of course I knew him. He was one of greatest artists from Cuba in the 20th century. He was one of the fortunate ones. He was able to escape to Spain and continue painting. I think he is dead now.”

     “Yes, I know that he died in 1971. I am acquainted with his daughter, Anabela. I have been to her house. She has many wonderful paintings from her father.”

     “Did you know, when Castro took over the palace in Havana in 1959, he ordered every painting in the palace that he didn’t like, for any reason, taken down and destroyed,” said the old man. “Many great works. Important works for the people of Cuba. There was a painting that for many years hung in the entrance hall of the Presidential Palace in Havana, done by Esteban Valderrama. The painting was entitled, Finlay’s In the painting, the Cuban doctor, Dr Finlay, is presenting the evidence from his research to the U.S. Yellow Fever commission, which included the most famous American doctor of the time, Dr. Walter Reed. Finlay had discovered how yellow fever was transmitted from person to person. It was one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine. A great source of pride for the Cuban people. It took Valderrama more than two years to complete! Two years of his life, destroyed, and now the painting is lost forever.”

     “Why would Castro want it destroyed?” asked Roberto.

     “Because there were Americans depicted in the painting. He came to hate the Americans.”

     “What about your paintings? Does your family have them?”

     “My family lives in Spain. The communists destroyed my studio and confiscated all my work. They are nothing more than common criminals.”

     “I’m sorry, Tiburcio. Do you know how much longer before you are released?”

     “I doubt they will ever release me.”

     “Why not? You have been here many years.”

     “Like I told you before, Roberto, I will never compromise my principles. And besides, my health is failing and I am tired, so I don’t think about getting out anymore. They feed me here and I have a warm place to sleep and it’s safe. If I am set free, I have nowhere to go and no money.”

     The old man turned once more toward the open window, as the last bit of light from the setting sun filtered through the coconut palms outside the window briefly illuminating his face. Roberto continued staring at him until the light had faded and the old man closed his eyes and fell asleep.

     Shortly after sunrise Roberto was awakened by two men in hospital uniforms, one of whom was holding a small container filled with what looked like a pink milkshake.

     Ramos, here is your medication,” said one of the attendants. “You need to drink this before eating.”

     “Medication, for what?” asked Roberto, sitting up on his elbows.

     “It’s part of your treatment program.”

     “I’m not drinking anything.”

     “You have no choice. You drink it or we call security.”

     Roberto slowly pulled back the sheet he was sleeping under and swung his legs over the side of the bed placing his feet on the floor. He took the container from the attendant, unscrewed the lid, and pretended to smell the bottle as though it was a glass of rum, then handed it back to the attendant.

     “What is the medication?” he inquired.

     “I don’t know. It’s prescribed by the doctor. You are required to drink one of these every morning.”

     “Will it kill me?” asked Roberto, not yet fully awake.

     “Only if you drink too much.”

     Roberto took the glass jar from the attendant and drank the entire contents, stopping once to catch his breath. The liquid was thick and sweet and reminded Roberto of a strawberry milkshake.

     “I guarantee tomorrow you will be asking for another one,” said the attendant, laughing as he turned and walked away.

     Within minutes, Roberto began to feel the effects of the drugs contained in the pink liquid. At first he simply felt a little light-headed and very relaxed, but quickly his vision began to sharpen, colors intensified, and his hearing even seemed more acute. It was not unpleasant he thought, and he enjoyed the enhanced sensory state. Roberto had no experience with any sort of mind-altering drug up to this point in his life and so the effects of the medication were likely more intense. He felt very calm and very alert.

     Looking around the room he noticed the other men were now awake, dressed and walking toward the door leading out of the ward. All except Tiburcio, who was again sitting by the window where Roberto had left him the night before.

     Roberto walked over to the old man wanting to make sure he was alright.

     Tiburcio. You’re not going to have something to eat with the other men?”

     “I don’t think so, Roberto. I’m not particularly hungry and I prefer to be alone.”

     “Are you sure?”

     “Yes, I am sure.”

     “I will come back later,” said Roberto.

     Roberto left Tiburcio alone and followed the other men from the ward to the cafeteria for the morning meal, which consisted of a single piece of bread, some avocado, and several slices of mango. The food was surprisingly fresh he thought and a welcome relief after a week of nothing but pasta. After the meal he was taken by the two attendants who had earlier given him the drug concoction, to see two of the hospital doctors.

     “Ramos,” said one of the doctors as Roberto entered the room. “Sit down, please. I am Dr. Perez, the head of the hospital and this is Dr. Diaz, the head of psychiatry. I assume you received your morning medications?”

     “Yes, but why do I need drugs?”

     “It’s part of your treatment. It says here in your paperwork you have difficulty controlling your temper, and according to this report assaulted and seriously injured your commanding officer. Is that true?”

     “It is true. He deserved it.”

     “Ramos, you seem like an intelligent young man. I think we can help you but you need to be aware of some rules. Violence of any kind is not tolerated. You will have regular opportunities to exercise and are allowed family visits once a month. Only family, no friends. Also, I’m putting you in group therapy once a week.”

     “Group therapy? What the hell for? I don’t need therapy.”

     “Everyone here is required to attend therapy once a week. You’ll be placed in a group with inmates who have similar issues.”

     “What do you want from me?”

     “Compliance, Ramos. Best not to forget that.”

     “What about my family? When can I see them?”

     “We will notify them this week. If they are interested to come, visitors are allowed the last weekend of every month. Two family members at a time for two hours.”

     “What about books?”

     “We have a full library here in the hospital.”

     “Let me guess, everything ever written by Fidel and Che,” said Roberto with a laugh.

     “Your family is allowed to bring books, but they need to be checked and approved by security before they can be brought into the prison.”

     “Are we done here?”

     “We’re done. Ramos. If you’re smart, you’ll remember what I’ve told you.”

     Realizing it was better to say nothing than to say what he wanted to and run the risk of a provocation, Roberto nodded to the doctors and quickly left the room.

     The attendants escorted Roberto back to the ward, locking the door to the outside behind him. The other men were playing dominoes at the far end of the room. Tiburcio was still sitting by the window where Roberto had left him earlier that morning.

     Roberto wasn’t in the mood for dominoes even though he loved playing, but rather wanted to continue his conversation with the old man from the previous evening.

     “Tiburcio,” said Roberto quietly, careful not to surprise the old man who appeared to be sleeping. “May I sit down?”

     “Certainly. I could use a little company. How are you enjoying your milkshake?” said Tiburcio, smiling.

     “Maybe ask me when it wears off.”

     “By the time it does they’ll be giving you another one. I’ve come to enjoy the high. Helps to pass the time and it keeps me out of trouble.”

     “Tiburcio, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately.”

     “About what?”

     “Art, from my country. I want to learn everything there is to know.”


     “Because I see it as my future, my path to freedom,” said Roberto.

     “There will never be freedom in Cuba, Roberto. Not as long as the Castros remain in power.”

     “All I know, Tiburcio, is how art makes me feel, and I want that feeling to somehow last forever.”

     “Do you want to become a painter?”

     “No, I want to learn the history.”

     “The true history of Cuban art, the government has made that impossible.”

     “I understand what you’re saying but I’ve already managed to learn many things the communists don’t want me to know.”

     “And if you become educated, what then? What will you do with this knowledge?”

     “I don’t know. That’s the problem. My brother tells me that knowledge is the ultimate true power.”

     “Your brother is a wise man.”

     “If he comes to see me here in prison, you will meet him.”

     “It will be my pleasure, Roberto. You know, there are many older people still living here in Havana that have paintings from the time before the revolution. They are very knowledgeable. You can learn from them as well.”

     “Like Anabela Sobrino.”

     “Yes, like Sobrino’s daughter.”

     “She offered to sell me paintings from her father’s collection. I would have bought them, but I couldn’t afford the price.”

     “There are many Cubans living in Spain that still collect old works. Though if you’re caught smuggling art-work out of Cuba, you’ll spend many years in prison,” Tiburcio cautioned.

     “I’m already in prison,” said Roberto with a laugh.

     “And why are you here?”

     “I assaulted my commanding officer.”

     “That’s a serious offense. But not a political one. Remember what I told you yesterday. You tell them what they want to hear,” said the old man with a wry smile.

     “I’ll remember, Tiburcio.”

     Roberto, thinking the old man looked tired, decided to leave him alone. The initial effects of the drugs Roberto had been given earlier that day were beginning to wear off, leaving him feeling tired as well. Returning to his bunk at the far end of the ward he laid down on his bed and immediately fell into a deep sleep. Several hours later he awoke to the occasional slapping sound coming from four of the other men from his ward who were playing dominoes at a small table in the middle of the room.

     Roberto walked over to the men and sat down on a nearby chair. He, like all Cuban men, grew up playing dominoes or watching the older men in his neighborhood play, and he knew how to play, but had never taken the time to learn the strategy required to be a good player.

     one of the men said, looking at Roberto.


     “Would you like to sit in? I could use a little break.”


     After brief introductions Roberto sat down at the table. Saying little as he played, he preferred instead to watch the older men closely in an effort to figure out why he kept losing.

     After his eighth consecutive loss he’d had enough. The men were too good, he thought.

     “How long have you been playing?” asked Roberto, directing his question to the other three men at the table.

     “Longer than any of us can remember,” said one of the men. “It takes time to become really good at this game, and you need to have a good memory.”

     “What is your name?” asked one of the other men.

     “Roberto, Roberto Ramos,” he said.

     “I remember you. You’re a national Taekwondo champion if I’m not mistaken,” said one of the men.

     “ ‘Was’ is more like it.”

     “Once a champion, always a champion Roberto.”

     “What about the old man, Tiburcio? Does he play dominos?” asked Roberto.

     “Not anymore,” said one of the men. “He used to play with us all the time, but lately all he does is sit by the window,” said the man, pointing toward Tiburcio. “He stopped eating maybe a week ago. Just before you arrived.”

     “Stopped eating?” asked Roberto, surprised by the comment.

     “Yes, says he’s tired and doesn’t feel well,” said another one of the men.

     “Excuse me gentlemen, I need to talk with Tiburcio,” said Roberto.

     Roberto stood up, thanked the men for their company and the invitation to play dominos. Carefully pushing his chair under the table, he placed both hands on the top of the rear chair legs and leaned over the table slightly.

     “Next time, the outcome will be different. Remember, I’m a champion,” said Roberto, trying not to laugh.

     “I don’t think so. We went easy on you today. Tomorrow, you’ll see.”

     Roberto turned and walked toward Tiburcio, who appeared to be asleep in his chair by the window.

     “Tiburcio,” Roberto whispered. “Tiburcio,” Roberto said again, a little louder.

     Roberto stood directly in front of the old man and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder, shaking it gently.

     “Tiburcio,” he said again.

     The old man’s chin was resting on his chest and there was no response. Roberto put his right hand under the old man’s chin and slowly lifted his head. Tiburcio’s face was an ashen yellow color, his skin was cold to the touch, and he wasn’t breathing. With his left hand, Roberto checked for a pulse in the old man’s neck. Roberto felt nothing. The old man was dead.