Breaking the silence

Joe, Barbara E.

CUBAN POLITICAL PRISONERS Breaking the silence BARBARA E. JOE DESPITE GEOGRAPHIC proximity, Americans have been estranged from Cuba for the past quarter century, almost since Castro first took...

...The younger one was just born when I was arrested, the other was three...
...Basilio Guzman, forty-seven, construction worker, both with twenty-year sentences, but having served twenty-two and Wilfredo Martinez, thirty-seven, foot soldier fifteen-year sentence, served seventeen charged, like the others, with conspiracy against the integrity of the state...
...As soon as their puzzlement at being embraced by strangers gave way to understanding, their tears of joy mingled with our own...
...Cut off from life inside the island fortress, few realize the existence of thousands of political prisoners, some continuously incarcerated since the early days of the regime...
...Both were put into the caged truck transporting us out of the prison, then they were taken out again...
...We all bear many scars...
...Shunning the press, three eventually poured out their experiences to us: Juan Gonzalez, forty-four, truck driver...
...CUBAN POLITICAL PRISONERS Breaking the silence BARBARA E. JOE DESPITE GEOGRAPHIC proximity, Americans have been estranged from Cuba for the past quarter century, almost since Castro first took power...
...22 February 1985: 115...
...You have too much freedom here...
...One man's front teeth were broken against the ground when he became too exhausted to lift his head...
...Of thousands of political prisoners still in Cuba, Martinez made a special plea for two: Santos Mirabel and Fernando Villalon...
...Was there ever a trial...
...Not so," said Gonzalez, "Gomez Camelos, already in there-education plan for twenty-two years, is eighty-two, with sugar in his blood and both feet amputated, but still not considered re-educated.'' How did they keep their sanity...
...Under bright lights, a dozen guards talked to me all at once, some gently, others harshly...
...There, he said, guards ground prisoners' faces into the dirt Commonweal: 114 with their boots, forcing them to pull up grass with their teeth...
...My own head was broken with a tire iron...
...I no longer believe in revolutions that propose to change everything in one stroke...
...But, mentally, I was prepared to live out my life in prison...
...I answered their questions only when it would implicate no one...
...Called ' 'plantados'' (meaning steadfast or rooted) because of their stubborn refusal to reconcile with the regime, these men had spent years in solitary confinement, incommunicado, often in twenty-four-hour darkness, clad only in underwear, subject to torture and beatings...
...Young people take drugs from boredom, because they lack a purpose...
...The interrogations went on, every five minutes, every fifteen minutes, for three months...
...Friends perished from lack of food and medical care and one Gerardo Gonzalez was shot through the neck by authorities, asking God's forgiveness for his killers before he died...
...Guzman: "I saw my daughters for the first time in five years...
...I was shown photos of executed prisoners and was threatened with the same fate...
...Everything is new for us...
...He's now thirty and still in prison...
...After trial, Guzman was sent to break up rocks on the Isle of Pines, where the Spanish once imprisoned patriot Jose Marti...
...When I'm out walking," says Martinez, "I'm afraid I'll bump into people...
...In Cuba," Gonzalez explained, "people are sent to prison merely for saying, 'When is all this going to change?' or 'My son has no shoes for school.' Every block has a captain who reports such things...
...I never lost hope that the world would stand up to Castro, making him cease these barbarities...
...Every month, we were given a razor to shave with, so we had the means, but we wouldn't give them that satisfaction...
...I grew old in prison, yet I still believe evil can be remedied, little by little...
...In Cuba," says Martinez, "this very conversation could cost us ten, twenty, thirty years in prison...
...Then we realized our two companions had been left behind...
...We can't see each other, but we know our brothers are doing the same thing because we've been doing it for twenty years...
...Nonetheless, a glimpse into the world of Cuban political prisoners was afforded Americans early last summer when twenty-six of them arrived at Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport accompanying Jesse Jackson...
...I spent nine years in solitary, nourishing myself with memories of friends, streets, restaurants, cars, anything to retain my humanity...
...Only in the airport in Havana did we learn we were going to the United States...
...BARBARA E. JOE is a writer, translator, and member of Amnesty International...
...Five minutes later, they took me out for another interrogation...
...When I was brought back at 2 A.M., I ate the yucca...
...Fernando was arrested at sixteen, also as a child, for writing on walls 'Down with Fidel Castro,' given three years served four...
...Yes, finally," Martinez said, "but with no evidence, no witnesses, just charges brought by state security...
...When they weren't realized, my friends and I began discussing some sort of organized opposition...
...Unfortunately, a neighbor going away on a trip asked me to keep his gun, a World War U memento...
...Guilt and punishment are always decided in advance, sometimes on a mass basis...
...Our little welcoming band of Amnesty International members had kept a long vigil for seventeen prisoners whose cases had been taken up by our local group and affiliates around the world...
...In prison, we survived because we knew our cause was just...
...After six or seven hours, when I couldn11 stay awake and would start falling, they would force me to stand...
...AFTER GUZMAN'S transfer to maximum security Boniato Prison in 1971, the cells were sealed with steel and concrete that blocked out light...
...Three months before his departure, Gonzalez and twenty-two others were taken to punishment cells for celebrating a national holiday.' 'After breakfast, we all stood up in our separate cells and began singing the national anthem as we always do on that day...
...Prisoners communicated in ways which cannot be revealed because of those who remain...
...After three days, I was returned to my cell, given water and some yucca, but I didn't have the energy to chew it, so I hid it in a corner...
...Prisoners were subjected to experiments with loudspeakers and electroshock, being promised that accepting political reeducation would win them early release...
...Some committed suicide, but very few," said Gonzalez...
...That was the basis of my arrest...
...Sixteen of my companions were executed by firing squad you could hear it in the early morning including my friend Enrique Hernandez, twenty-one-years-old...
...Bicycles today look totally different from those I remember...
...The rest of us were saved only to avoid an international outcry...
...On hidden scraps of paper, I wrote poetry and an illustrated children's book where animals talk...
...We had to calculate time by the guard opening the door for our meals breakfast and supper...
...The doors finally opened to a crowd of four thousand men, women, and uniformed school children who began to strike the prisoners, throwing stones, and shouting: "assassins, viruses, criminals...
...At first, I wasn't allowed any sleep, food, or water...
...Because of my long sentence, I divorced my wife and she remarried.'' Gonzalez:'' When my family came to say goodbye, I found out my father had died nine months before.'' What are their impressions of the outside world...
...They had had no forewarning of their release from years of incarceration, years that only the previous day had stretched before them with no end in sight as remains the case for so many of their fellow political prisoners even today...
...They looked dazed and confused under the klieg lights as reporters thrust microphones into their faces and fired questions at them in an unfamiliar language...
...life is too easy...
...Santos was arrested when he was only twelve, sentenced to age eighteen...
...The question of their status was recently raised again in connection with the negotiations between the U.S...
...it required ten stitches...
...Before leaving, they were allowed to see their families...
...In the pre-dawn hours after Jackson's airport press conference, they looked haggard and sallow, with their shaven heads and ill-fitting polyester shirts...
...As we traveled down a dark, narrow, tree-lined road, we thought we'd be massacred...
...At first, we had no idea where we were going...
...Gonzalez says,' 'After so long .we're like someone who has been frozen and reawakened in another time...
...Similarly, you can't know what it's like to be without freedom...
...Likewise, on Sundays, we each celebrate our personal Mass right after supper...
...We kept track of the days by scratching on the wall...
...Subsequently, Gonzalez and some fifty others were transported in a tightly sealed vehicle where three companions lost consciousness...
...Yet, all managed smiles...
...Hunger to you may mean a day you went without food, but you can't imagine what it's like to go forty days without eating, as we did...
...With a final twist of raw state power, they were denied release when their sentences were up...
...It's hard to explain...
...I still don't know how to turn off a TV...
...I was young during the revolution and had great expectations...
...and Cuba about the return of some of the 1980 Cuban refugees, but the Cuban government, so far, has not been forthcoming...
...Weeks Jater, when I threatened to take the stitches out with the edge of a meat tin, a doctor finally did it...
...Not surprisingly, "our" prisoners had been unaware of our appeals to their government and of the many undelivered letters we had sent them in prison over the years...

Vol. 112 • February 1985 • No. 4


 
Developed by
Kanda Sofware
  Kanda Software, Inc.