Thursday morning begins with a series of cloak-and-dagger maneuvers, we look over our shoulders the entire time, —because like the Iron Maiden song “we’re sure there’s someone watching”, still there’s no fear of the dark— the break of dawn in the Valley of Caracas is always a beautiful sight, especially when the cold morning weather and the first rays of light shine up such a troubled city, Caracas is no longer the metropolis it once was.
It sure was different for him, when he was put behind bars people could shake hands, hug and cheer each other, maybe light up a cigarette, now it all changed, even for him as he moves on. Always on time, khaki pants, leather loafers, long-sleeve buttoned-up shirt, he sports a satchel where he carries his belongings.
Our dialogue begins as it began the first time: A simple “Good Morning, buddy.” That’s how José Luis Santamaría begins his day, every day. His dark hair, big eyes, carefully trimmed goatee, and fair complexion complement his coarse voice, and resolute drive to live.
Recently released from a military prison for committing the heinous crime of giving Oscar Perez a final good-bye at a graveyard, the nationalist activist shakes hands, visibly thinner, but with the same spirit before his incarceration: he smiles. There’s something about the smile of this man that makes you wonder how can he keep up that spirit after what he’s been through. “I’ve been living every day as it were my last, I’m free, I’m happy.”
Powerful words coming from a man who was unfairly detained, tortured in the most horrible ways, and submitted to an arbitrary judicial process where he had no chance to defend himself.
The worst thing that can happen to a political detainee is that nobody will remember him or her. That quote comes from a political prisoner that did much more time than Jose Luis, trigger-happy police commissioner Ivan Simonovis barely saw 33 days of sunlight in more than a decade, causing him a vitamin deficiency that made his bones brittle.
Simonovis’ judicial process, widely written, commented, and taken to international courts has a darker side. Jailed with Simonovis were a group of other police officers whose trigger-happy antics during the April 11 events sent them to the same military prison where Jose Luis was thrown in.
These police officers remain in custody and in a Nietzschean twist of events —where the abyss gazed back at them—these police officers became prison ringleaders and thus became the jailers of Jose Luis, who submitted him to starvation, beating him up constantly, taunting him for his faith, they took from him his rosary praying beads and his bible, they took his food and water, they made him urinate and defecate in a plastic bag for days.
These sorts of cruel and unusual punishments would trigger anyone a very nasty case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not for José Luis. This man is happy he’s out there because he knew his friends wouldn’t forget about him: “I knew you guys wouldn’t forget about me. Now that I’m here, free, so far away from that place, I look at my life and I wouldn’t change a goddamn thing.” He repeated himself every day the same thing: “People out there know my story.”
Shortly after his release, he took some time to reorganize his life, then he went back to his activism. “I want people to know my story, I believe it’s a hell of a story, not everyone can put up what I had to go through.” We ask him about revenge: “I don’t have time for that, those guys will pay what they did to me sooner or later, for me, it’s all about enjoying life now, I can’t recover that time they made me lose there, but I’m going to live every day as it were my last”.
Jose Luis has always been restless, he looks around and we take a stroll. “D’ya think intelligence follows us? They always are, it’s a police state”, he points at a CCTV and we continue our talk. Unlike other Cultura Política pieces, that focus on intelligence, today’s piece aims to point out the resolute attitude of a man who saw the worst of adversity and smiles back. “I can forget, I won’t forgive, and boy, do I have a lot to do.”
Jose Luis’ family fled the country and represented him abroad, he’s on his own, trying to redo his life, his identity was nearly erased, the telecoms technician scrambles around town seeking to recover an ID card from the people that put him in jail, a bank account at closed banks, even a telephone line. If it were possible for him, Jose Luis would tour the country and organize meetings to raise awareness.
Coronavirus isn’t stopping him, he plans ahead and looks to the horizon. We see how the sunlight shines upon his face, the fresh air from the Avila mountains touch us and he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, he smiles and says “It’s good to be back. I missed the fresh air.”
Don’t make Jose Luis angry, his smile quickly fades away and his eyebrows tighten and the thunderous sound of his voice resounds. What makes this man angry after the kinds of things he’s been through? “The other day I asked for a coffee and got a tasteless cup of dark water.” This is a man who enjoys the simple things of life, he loves nature, he learned to survive, and he knows how to use technology.
Anger isn’t typical to his character, he’s a devout catholic man who only cares about his business, wants to exercise his faith “I miss church. They’re closed now”, and wants to see his country in freedom from the chains of the communist tyranny that Chavismo represents.
When asked about how it was there, here we have a man who has no problem telling us the harrowing tales he’s been through. However, he wants to let everybody know that the past is the past, and people should focus on what’s ahead.
As we end our chat, he thanks us, his voice breaks a little and the emotion is in his face as he takes another breath of fresh freedom air. “Thank you, you’ve made my day, I wish you all the best. Remember our country’s motto: ‘God and Federation’. Talk to you soon, God bless you and take care.” These are the words of a man who’s been to hell and back and whose story is worthy of publication in the shape of a novel or a Netflix film. Life goes on.