I remember one of my last telephone calls from the National Hospital for prisoners in the Cuban capital when I was about to head to Spain. I spoke on the phone with Yoani Sanchez two hours before my exile to Spain. She was at Jose Marti airport to meet me in person and say goodbye, but she wasn’t allowed to do it: in the capital of hatred and intolerance this hug was postponed.
Yesterday the Radio Marti reporter Jose Luis Ramos asked me to call him early in the morning: he knew of the missed meeting. “If you come right now to the station you will see Yoani,” he told me. I left immediately. While the blogger gave an interview, I greeted several friends at the station.
Half an hour after my arrival at Radio Marti, Yoani appeared, accompanied by reporters and Jose Luis himself, who introduced me. The hug was like a tattoo in the mind, repeated over and over. We recalled our work together; she and her husband were always ready to record every one of my articles, which I read over the phone from prison. They made it a priority and other colleagues also helped me.
Yoani at first glance isn’t impressive, but two minutes of conversation are enough to see the intelligence and bravery of this girl. She offers arguments, not attacks on others, and does not vary her discourse in an attempt to please. We planned a later meeting, more private and working.
I think Yoani Sanchez still doesn’t understand the weight that destiny has put in her path and it’s better this way, it helps her not to waver. I was happy and excited, we shared that embrace that was delayed for so many years by bars and distance; a distance that hurts more if you are an exile.
3 April 2013
Two Generations of Dissidents of Conscience Under the Same Regime
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
I clearly remember my arrival to Spain along with relatives and other ex political prisoners. We lived unforgettable moments which marked our lives. The media would constantly converse with us to report what we had lived through for more than 7 years of captivity due to political reasons under a system which attacks any who opposes it.
Spanish political leaders met with us and made us many promises to support the cause of freedom in our country. Two years later, I’ve noticed that the politics of Spain with the regime of Havana is full of hypocrisy and economic interests. Human rights and the prosperity of the Cuban people then becomes rhetoric of propaganda. But behind all of this, it is preferable to simply take a sip of a good diplomatic wine.
In one of the meetings we had with the then leader of the Popular Party, Mariano Rajoy, I asked him if his Party won the elections what he would do with the Spanish companies which, for years, have been accomplices of the Cuban dictatorship, upon paying a slave-level salary to the workers. As a response, Rajoy promised to keep his compromise with democracy.
Months later, Rajoy arrived to power and his minister of exterior relations, Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo, made declarations that he would not visit Cuba until they respect human rights there. This provoked much irritation among those in power on the island. The response was given by Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly. He threatened the Spanish companies on Cuban soil. And thus began the Spanish silence.
Two years later after our arrival to the Iberic country, many things have happened and none of them have been favorable for change in Cuba. The most lamentable case has been the death of the dissident leader Oswaldo Paya in a suspicious car accident in which there was a Swedish and Spanish citizen involved.
I understand and admire the fact that the Popular Party is doing the impossible to return Angel Carromero to Spain. It is a legitimate action to defend their citizens wherever they are having problems, but it is detestable to not know how the Cuban dictatorship acts and the Spanish politicians are thinking that silence will put their citizen in freedom.
Regardless, I think that Carromero will spend a long time in prison, at least until the spirits die down a bit. It will not be the first foreign captive in Cuba. Nor the last, although one of the only foreigners who will put behind the bars for a car accident. I am convinced that if Paya had been an everyday citizen, Carromero would be in a bar right now watching a soccer game between Real Madrid and Barcelona.
In this recent conflict between both nations, those who lose the most are those of us who want freedom for our country, those who long for all Cubans to have the right to have rights, those who want to return to reconstruct the ruins which this 53 year old communism has left us. Those of us who lose are the friends of Oswaldo Paya, his family and, more than anyone, the internal opposition movement. Carromero has also lost, though I am sure that his government’s silence will not take him out of the hell he must be living in, behind bars in a cell of any Cuban prison.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
I have lost count of the times I have heard the phrase “I am not interested in politics”. Often, it is young Cubans who say it.
It’s legitimate that we may not be interested in politics, especially if one has lived most of their life under a totalitarian system where even the flight of a pigeon is linked to politics.
Those of us who were born after 1959 were practically converted into robots. Our capacity of thought was reduced to “Pioneers for communism, we will be like Che” or “Country or Death, we will Win”. In sum, it was a bunch of slogans which bordered dementia.
I respect young Cubans who come from the island and are not interested in politics, it is their right.
But, I feel that it is something completely hypocritical to see those same people who are not interested in politics form a scandal when some US congressman or woman proposes a law to restrict something that has to do with Cuba, or when they want to modify the discredited “Cuban Adjustment Act”, a law which so many Hispanics and people of other ethnic groups long for.
The majority of those who take shelter in the “Cuban Adjustment Act” leave the island because of economic problems and not because they stood up against the ruthless regime which enslaves the country. In fact, upon obtaining US residency, one of the first things many Cubans think of is in returning to their homeland to take a look over the shoulders of their own country. Those who act in such a manner are the oddest political refugees which humanity has ever seen.
In the last 9 months, Cuba has lost two important figures of the peaceful opposition. Their deaths have left lots of doubts up in the air. They were both recipients of the “Sajarov” Award. First Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White, in a case of “dengue” and a few weeks ago the president of Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, after a suspicious “car accident”.
Those who have confronted the dictatorship know of what those who are at the service of the intelligence apparatus are capable of doing when any person who wants change for Cuba and who wants to destroy their totalitarian power stands in their way.
I feel shame when I hear Cubans who live in freedom say: “I am not interested in politics”, and it is not even because of the phrase itself, really, but instead it is because of the hypocrisy which hangs on those words. It is true that many are not interested in talking bad about the regime, about condemning its crimes, denouncing every violent act against the people, yet they do say things about the politicians of the country which has given us refuge whenever they try to pass some law against the dictatorship and, in one way or another, affect their interests.
It is possible that Cuba will change very soon. It is also possible that everything will continue the same, or worse, especially for those who confront the power of the Communist machinery from the inside. But every Cuban has the responsibility of taking action for the destiny of our nation.
There is no such thing as good or bad hypocrisy, just like there is no such thing as good or bad fear. It has been proven: every country which has chosen hypocrisy and fear as their shield has ended in ruins or in shackles. It is time to put an end to harmful fear and subtle hypocrisy.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
The most important month of the calendar for me is July. Firstly, it is when my only son was born and second, it was the month that I left Cuba.
Life, without one choosing, imposes change on us. Many times, these changes are too rough to handle, like crosses hanging over our backs, but human willpower is limitless.
Just a few hours ago, it was the second anniversary of my arrival to Spain, and the first of arriving to the United States. I remember that I told my family after talking on the phone with Cardinal Jaime Ortega in the provincial prison of Ciego de Avila, “We have to pack our bags, without even thinking of returning, at least as long as the same ones who are forcing me to leave are in power”.
Fifteen or twenty minutes before boarding the plane with my wife and son in a semi-empty terminal of the “Jose Marti” Havana Airport, I felt the strongest of emotions I had ever felt. I found some of my partners in cause and their families. A nightmare of more than 7 years was ending, but most of all, it was the illusion of discovering a path with lots and lots of expectations of living in a foreign land.
Time flies. It goes by so fast that sometimes we do not even notice. Yesterday, I was being consumed in a prison cell of high severity in Cuba, and today, right now, I enjoy freedom in this country which has always lent a helping hand to Cubans.
Now, I look back at the past and I laugh, although with a mixture of pain- it is inevitable after everything we lived- but I thank God for all the good and bad things he has given me.
Many of my brothers have found the path, while for others it has been more difficult, but I am certain that each one of them will find that route of happiness and prosperity.
Those who are no longer with us will always be remembered with love and respect, especially Orlando Zapata Tamayo, our martyr. Zapata was the climax which opened up the iron bars which, during years, kept us in inhumane conditions for simply thinking differently. His sacrifice caught the attention of the free world, that world which sometimes, because of complicity and other times because of ingenuity, was on the side of those who oppress, on the side of those who have ruined an entire nation. Of course, the political and economic interests have surpassed human rights, the rights of a people to live in freedom, prosperity, and of living like human beings.
Those who decided to continue the struggle from the inside and said no to exile deserve an outstanding position in the history of Cuba. Not all of us have the valor of living with the Sword of Damocles hanging over heads. Supporting them from here is more than a duty, it’s an obligation.
Right now, I dry my eyes off and do so with a bittersweet emotion. I live free, alongside my lovely wife and my rebel son. I can see my mother everyday and my two brothers frequently. That, for me, is more than enough to be happy. However, pain does invade my heart each night. Cuba is still a slave. Those in power continue ruining it, and whats hurts me the most is seeing how people decide to take refuge in fear and double-standards to just end up enslaved.
I look back again and I thank God and all those who have lent me a hand. I have to look towards the future, for in the past one cannot dwell, and the future is unpredictable, while the present is magnificent for me, for I have what I have dreamed of in life.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba left a storm of arrests, blocked phone lines, and beatings against non-violent dissidents. The most visible of these cases has been the measures taken against the individual who screamed “freedom” in the Pope’s Mass in Santiago de Cuba. The worst part of this specific case is that the oppressor used a symbol of the Red Cross to attack the victim.
For me, what has been most lamentable about the Papal visit has been the exclusion of a sector of the Cuban population. It is unbelievable that His Holiness dedicated half an hour to Fidel Castro, the main henchman of the Cuban Catholic Church, and refused to meet with the Ladies in White and/or other peaceful dissidents, even if for just a minute.
On this trip to the island by the Vicar of Christ, there was no truce on behalf of the oppressors against the dissidents. Actually, I see the Catholic Church of Cuba as the winner of this story, as well as the peaceful Cuban opposition. The decadent dictatorship has lost.
The Cuban Catholic Church was persecuted, insulted, and decimated during the first years of the dictatorship. Their convents and schools were closed, countless priests were exiled, etc. But they never lost Faith and continued preaching the Gospel. Something similar happened to those who believed in freedom, those who confronted the regime and who would die in the execution wall screaming “Long Live Christ the King“.
The dictatorship loses, because they lose spaces and the tiny openings become cracks.
Raul Castro, one of the executioners of such cruelty, looked tired, humiliated and worn out on television when the Bishop of Santiago de Cuba refused to shake his hand. Who was to say that the atheist soldier, 52 years after persecuting the religious would witness another Papal Mass. God forced him, for God has power over men.
I agree with the words of Benedict XVI: “Cuba should be the home of all and for all Cubans, where justice and freedom may thrive in an atmosphere of serene brotherhood“. But I should also point out that the only ones who do not allow this to happen are the sames ones who His Holiness shook hands with.
Evidently, there will not be reconciliation between the blade and the wound. The wound is carried by those who slept in dungeons while the Pope visited Cuba, those who are not allowed to travel to their own country, those who have died for defending the freedom of their land, the oppressed, those who were excluded by Benedict XVI. And the blade is carried by all those who oppress their people, who beat people, especially women who carry flowers in their hands. They are the sharp blades, ready to stab the victims.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
Last Sunday ended the Catholic Social Week of the Miami Archdiocese, and luckily, I was able to participate in two of the events.
In one of the programs, Cuban American businessman Carlos Saladrigas held a conference on the business future of Cuba.
Saladrigas allowed the public to present written questions. According to the moderator, not all were answered due to the financier’s lack of time. A group of participants in which I found myself offered a retort to some of the answers given by Saladrigas. This gentleman compared our retorts to an act of repudiation.
Personally, my concerns are for the members of the peaceful opposition who risk their well being and even their lives for the rights of all Cubans to participate in the country’s economy. Those who demand peaceful changes and are repressed by the Cuban political police.
I have a premonition that the thesis presented by Saladrigas regarding the economic future of our country will serve the rich businessmen in exile, like Saladrigas. Those who today demand liberty for Cuba from inside will not have many options; they lack capital and business experience.
According to Saladrigas, an opposition member may be within the actual ranks of the Cuban Communist Party.
What is curious here is that Carlos Lage, Abel Prieto, Esteban Lazo, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura or any other can be an anonymous member of the opposition according to his hypothesis. These individuals can possess large amounts of capital obtained through theft and the suffering of the Cuban people. Those who confront the regime hardly have enough to put food on the table and feed their children.
Nevertheless, I respect the beliefs of Saladrigas, it is his right and I will not deprive him of it. It is also my right not to believe in his theory and my duty to remind him that the most vulnerable sector in Cuba are the members of the peaceful opposition in Cuba who the regime prohibits from investing in the country’s economy.
What caught my attention the most at this conference with Carlos Saladrigas were the words of Father Jose Conrado in response to the replies to Saladrigas. According to the pastor, he saw in this conference the same thing he sees daily in Cuba and he felt shame because of this.
Shame is what I felt, and much of it, after hearing these words from a man whom I admire. To offer a retort is a right provided by freedom of expression. The opposite would be true if they had not invited those who disagree with Saladrigas’ theory. What happens in our country can only be compared with fascist hordes or totalitarian communist regimes like the one in Havana. It has nothing to do with what took place at this conference held by Saladrigas.
Today I felt like throwing in the towel, forgetting everything, but I cannot. Cuba is above everything and everyone. I hope my wife and son will understand because I have involved them in something that is very personal; the liberty of Cuba.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
I arrived to the Matanzas prison known as ‘Aguica’ on April 29th. I was kept there in solitary confinement for 17 months. The Head of Penitentiaries applied a special regiment on us: family visits were only allowed every 3 months and could only last 2 hours, they only allowed 2 relatives and their underage children, the bag with food which was intended to keep us somewhat healthy had a limit of 30 pounds. Conjugal meetings were only allowed every 5 months and could not exceed 3 hours.
My time in ‘Aguica’ was always in The Polish Cell, located in the most rigorous of sections and which aimed to hold prisoners who were punished for disobedience, those who were sentenced to death, or those with life sentences. There were other members of the group of the 75 there. In ‘Aguica’, I lived the hardest days of my life, but I was also blessed because I met Miguel Galban, Alexis Rodriguez, Manuel Ulvas, and Roberto de Miranda, also victims of the crackdown of 2003.
In a matter of 7 years and 4 months, I learned of the dark side of humans, the misery of the heart always corrodes the conscience. The impunity and low level of education of the soldiers would always start quarrels between guards and prisoners. The soldiers would always win, while the latter suffered unimaginable punishments. With my own eyes, I saw men amputate their ears, cut their veins, pinch their eyes and go blind, cut of their hands and legs, swallow barbed wire, throw themselves from a third floor, and all with the intent of avoiding a beating by the guards.
The sad part of this story is that, in the majority of these self-inflictions, the ones suffering are demanding that their fundamental rights, which had been violated for years, be respected. Others grew sick in the nerves due to the rigorous conditions of captivity, while some would hurt themselves to end up in a hospital, where they could eat at least a little better.
Putting us together with common prisoners was a perverse tactic by the authorities. Fortunately, during those years I was able to shatter the plans of the ruling elite. Without intending it, the prisoners saw me as a shield to confront their oppressors and, with time, they [the common prisoners] ended up respecting our cause, with very few exceptions. In fact, there were even some policemen of lower ranking which defended political prisoners of conscience.
On the day which Cardinal Jaime Ortega informed me through the phone that I would be allowed to travel to Spain, I was shocked and it was difficult for me to speak. It was the end of a terrible nightmare which consumed me for years.
Now that the storm faded, I believe that if it had not been for my faith in God, the love of my country and love of my family, I could have not withstood such torture. I appreciate all that Spain and its people did, offering human warmth to me, despite the difficult financial crisis that country is going through. They lent me their hand, and I will never forget that, just like I will never forget my days behind bars.
To live in exile is difficult, and because of this, I admire the Cuban diaspora very much. Despite the hardships they may live on a daily basis, they never forget the political prisoners and they offer help to those who now arrive with nothing.
Cuba is physically missing from us, but it is still in the mind of this exile. What is true always lasts, and because of this, my cause does not fade, for it is the cause of those who aspire to achieve a better world.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
Writing what one’s conscience dictates in a totalitarian system represents a grand risk for those who break the barriers of silence which the soldiers impose. Generally speaking, those who are brave end up in prison, exiled, and in the worst of cases in a cemetery. Despite this, continuing to write without censoring our thoughts means to strengthen that free soul which we all carry inside.
Luckily for Cuba, while the State-run media assumes the role of the submissive spokesperson of the longest dictatorship of the Western hemisphere, others decided to describe the cruel reality in which Cubans live. If the crackdown of March 2003 was the reflection of hate and intolerance of a regime, the brutal deportation of various dissidents to Spain is proof that nothing has change on the island. It is just a cosmetic sign of “open-ness” which is far too absurd.
On March 19th, 2003, as I was taking an afternoon nap with my son, a large number of State Security agents knocked on my door. I was arrested and taken to a cell of the political police in the province of Ciego de Avila.
One week later, I was able to see my wife again and she told me that the soldiers forced my son Jimmy to wake up so that they could search the mattress in search of proof to incriminate me. At that moment, I did not imagine that I would spend 87 months behind bars. One day before my 33rd birthday, I met for the first time with my lawyer and she was the one who told me the trial would be held on April 4th. A fiscal petition of 26 years imprisonment weighed over my head. The trial was nothing more than a Roman Circus. The Communist Party members and the soldiers played the role of Cesar, while the fiscals and judges represented the lions, and the defense lawyers were just spectators. Pedro Arguelles and I were the slaves being sacrificed. After various hours in that judicial parody, we were both sentenced to 20 years of prison.
Oleivys was left in the mercy of the goodwill of a few friends which followed their human instincts and tore apart their ideological indoctrination, in addition to the hostility of the authorities from the Ministry of Health for which she worked. To this they added an additional punishment of forcing her to travel 360 kilometers with our 4 year old son in order to see me. Oleivys, with her strong and optimistic character, stood back up again. The separation forced her to be a mother, a father, a sister, a friend, and confident of Jimmy. He was the one who least understood what was happening. Day after day, he would ask his mother when his father was going to return. My other half, finding strength somewhere inside of her, would respond with pain: when he finishes studying.
“Every night, I would submerge myself in a sea of tears”, Oleivys now tells me, after she surpassed the storm.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
When my only son was born, I dreamed that he would be a baseball player. Ever since he was very young, Jimmy liked baseball and he did not miss a single occasion for any adult to throw him a ball. He batted with style, something very impressive for his age.
Everything was going good, little Jimmy was showing signs of being a good athlete. He had the drive and talent.
On one afternoon of March 2003, I was taking an afternoon nap with my son who was only 4 years old at the time, when a Cuban political police official, accompanied by a large police operation, knocked on the door of my house.
That day, they shattered my dream and the dream of an innocent child. Hate, intolerance, and the obsession with power of Fidel Castro took me away from my family for more than 7 years. However, we still did not give up and we continued onward.
Against all odds, my wife Oleivys knew how to confront the situation and fueled my hope and desire of having my son become a baseball player.
This past weekend, Oleivys, Jimmy and I went to the inauguration of the baseball championship of Miami Lakes. Our son, now an adolescent, is among the ranks of The Giants team.
Seeing the teams come out filled me with an indescribable feeling. I was emotional, proud, and happy, but most of all, my dream had come true. It is possible that my son may end up wanting to be a baseball player and it’s really what I desire the most, but my greatest satisfaction is that he lives in a free country where only he can decide his own limit.
Today, I can proudly say that despite all the missteps we have suffered and of all the efforts of the Cuban dictatorship to try and ruin our lives, they were not successful. We can walk through thorny paths or even over sharp blades, but if we never give up, we will make it. And that’s what is important.
A few days ago, a couple of friends invited Oleivys and I to have an American breakfast. As I always say, the future is unpredictable. We were with my friend Olga, American by birth but Cuban by heart and descent, and her husband Frank, who escaped Cuba during the rafter crisis in 1994 and spent various months in the naval base of Guantanamo. They both suffer the pain of seeing their country enslaved, and one can clearly see that pain whenever the couple talks about the subject. You can also see the interest they express to help the peaceful dissidents on the island who confront the regime.
After heading out to an I-Hop near their home, we had to turn back because I had left some of my papers and my phone in the car. In one of those coincidences of destiny, we decided to head to another I-Hop. In all honesty, we were not even sure why it was we had chosen to go to another one.
A few minutes after sitting at the table in the restaurant, a familiar looking woman walked in- she was short, blonde, and was smiling while holding the arm of a man a bit older than her. She was dressed like everyone else that was there and she made the line to sit down just like everybody else. I’ve always believed that doubts weigh heavier than the truth and I could no longer support my curiosity. I turned to my friends and told them that the woman looked a lot like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
I must confess that it was a somewhat confusing moment for me. I have lived the majority of my life in a closed society, thanks to a totalitarian system, where American politicians who defend the freedom of Cuba are constantly attacked by the dictatorship. On the other hand, I can also remember the differences between politicians who make up the elite part of the Cuban nomenclature and the everyday Cuban. The closest I have ever come to seeing a Cuban politician has been on TV.
Olga, very sure of her political knowledge, confirmed that it was indeed Ileana Ros. Frank enthusiastically took me to the congresswoman and presented me to her.
We chatted with the same natural tone of any two Cubans who long to see their nation in freedom. She demonstrated much concern for the island, for my family, and my current situation. I told her about the vulnerable situation in which former political prisoners and their families living in Spain are in, and how soon the help given to them by the Spanish government will come to an end. They have all been going to interviews and are waiting to receive a Visa for the United States, but for reasons unknown to me, they have not yet received the authorizations.
After a few minutes of conversation, we sat back down at our respective tables to have breakfast, which was exquisite. And the company of Olga and Frank made the morning very well worth it.
Before leaving, the Congresswoman passed by our table to say goodbye and to show us the photo we took together. She told us that she had already sent out an e-mail to her secretary informing him that in the next couple of days I would pass by her office to talk about the Cuban refugees in Spain and other topics of common interest.
I profoundly meditated that night and I understood, more than ever, that in a democracy we are all equal. Despite how much influence one may yield, they cannot look down upon others. Despite how much political power a person may have, they still have to make lines, eat amongst everyday people, and dress like everyone else, because in the end they are just simple human beings like all of us. Overall, I learned a very important lesson: that democracy gives you the possibility of setting your own limit. Every person can achieve whatever they want, depending on just how capable they are to push on in life.
Ever since I was exiled to Spain by the Cuban authorities nearly more than 16 months ago, I have enjoyed many joyful moments. The most important, of course, has been reuniting with my family.
It has also been unforgettable to be able to finally breathe in freedom, to meet with students in London and Venice, or with human rights activists in Berlin, Chile, Peru, and Poland, where I had the honor to shake hands with the Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa. I have also been able to dialogue with political leaders that are in favor of the Cuban cause for freedom. They have been moments of my life which I will never forget.
Today, I have received my first check, earned by my own sweat, and what I feel is difficult to put into words, for I have finally found a path which has given me the opportunity to feel like a human being.
The Vilarino family, which so profoundly shares the pain of Cuban political prisoners, has extended their hand to me and have offered me a job in one of their restaurants. It is very gratifying to experience that human solidarity as soon as we arrive in exile, knocking on doors. Those doors actually open, allowing us to move forward.
It is a gift from life to be able to say what you think in your workplace whenever you have the chance. It is even more of a gift to not sense fear of being fired from work just for your political ideas. It is very formidable to be able to work without accepting double standards and without betraying one’s own ideals. What matters is that you fulfill your duties and that you be honest.
Earning my first check has allowed me to pay off some bills and to do so is magnificent.
Upon receiving this first payment for my work, I think back on the times when I was expelled from jobs in my country just for being a dissident of the communist doctrine, or for not signing documents with which I was not in favor of. The political police forces administrators to learn their scripts and they would always tell me: “you are not reliable because of your political position“. I would laugh, but with pain. Those of us who lived through such experiences know that it was the regime’s method of economically suffocating us. And they can do that because in Cuba, the only employer is the regime.
Just yesterday, in my own nation, I was suffering because I was kept from working in any field to buy my family food just because of my political ideas, but today I thank God that I have a job and that I can make a living off of my own efforts and my freedom.
Violation of Correspondence IV, Final Chapter
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
It was not yet afternoon when I was taken to the last jail cell of the ‘Vivac’ section. This dungeon is the most notorious amongst common prisoners due to its inhumane conditions. Penate ordered that I be left with my belongings because I had assured him I would accuse the prison authorities of theft in the event that I lose even the most minimal of things, even if it was something as simple as a pencil.
Many prisoner stories I had heard told of their experiences in the Vivac cells, and to be honest, up to that moment I had thought that these prisoners were exaggerating. As soon as the guard shut the door of my new dungeon I was petrified.
I would look at my hands, my feet, and my legs but I could not see anything. Absolutely nothing. I began to patiently breath in and out. I knew I had to develop nerves of steal if I wanted to survive this test imposed on me by destiny and the thought police.
After a few minutes, I noticed that there was a very small light emanating from one of the corners of the cell. Much to my surprise, it was coming from the floor and I was automatically bent on trying to find its source.
The more I came closer to the light the more I could smell a very strong odor- it smelled like urine and feces. It became so strong that I took off the shirt I was wearing and covered my nose. I never knew that in order to see myself I had to go up to a prison “toilet”.
The cell I was closed in was 4 meters in width and 4 in height. It consisted of a concrete bench to sleep on and very uncomfortable walls which did not allow inmates to lean on them.
My months in captivity trained me to react with a positive instinct and that is what I automatically did. I lay on the floor next to my small bag and began to devise a plan to get out of there the least affected as possible. The option which I found was to pray. To pray to God.
That night, I could not sleep because of the mosquitoes, the roaches, and the rodents. In addition, it did not help that my thoughts were not there, but instead they were 350 kilometers away, with my 4 year old son and my loving wife. They were suffering from the separations inflicted on us by hate and intolerance. They were the ones bearing the heaviest burden of my captivity.
Cruelty is limitless in the prisons of totalitarian regimes. To damage my psychological state, the guards did not put any water for me throughout the whole night. Neither did they in the morning and in the afternoon they only did so for 30 minutes. The precious liquid I was to drink was coming from the same hole where prisoners defecated and urinated. The tube with the water would come up from there. The entire cell is designed to humiliate the prisoner to the maximum. In fact, in many cases prisoners tried to take their own lives.
I spent three days without showering. I was trying to save the most water possible. I would use it to clean my face and drink, sip by sip.
On the final day of my punishment my nerves were destroyed. The mental torture, the odor, the horrible personal hygiene, the lack of communication with others, and the darkness had taken their toll on me. Luckily, I did not show this to the guards. Nor did I demand medical assistance.
On Monday morning they took me to the office of Diosdado More. The director of “Aguica” tried to dialogue with me, but from the initial moment I let him know that I had no intention or desire to chat. I just needed to know if they would comply with our demands and what would happen to me, for my punishment was apparently over.
I was then taken back to “The Polish Cell” , the same one I had been in for 6 months.
Two days later, the new re-educator of the prison showed up to my cell. He brought newspapers, cards, a planner for conjugal visits, medical assistance, and the rest of the things we had demanded.
This strike represented the beginning of various protests to demand our rights.
Violation of Correspondence III
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
Two soldiers took took me to a classroom, just a few steps away from the ‘Polish Cell’. They would always take us with our hands handcuffed to our backs, for security reasons- according to the guards. If we even slightly bumped into the uniformed officials, it could end up in the destruction of our faces or our teeth. Luckily, that never happened. At least with the political prisoners.
The directors of ‘Aguica’ Prison were sitting inside the classroom, as well as a political police official. The official by the name of Penate invited me to sit down. I preferred to stay standing.
I let them know every one of our demands until Captain Diosdado More, the director of the prison, interrupted me.
“Pablo”, he told me, “I can see that you’ve all reached an agreement amongst yourselves. You have repeated the same phrases and accusations against us until the point of exhaustion”.
“No, Captain”, I responded, “It’s just that we have all suffered what we are demanding, which is very different from simply reaching an agreement”.
After nearly an hour of dialogue and their promises that they would comply with our demands, I told them to take me back to my cell. To this, one official responded, “a guard will take you to the lunchroom where you will eat and show them all that you are discontinuing the hunger strike”. I sarcastically smiled and said, “I will only eat in my cell. That lunchroom is for the prisoners who work in the yard and I am confined to an isolation cell. I will never work for re-education”.
Clearly irritated, Diosdado rose from his chair and grabbed my arm to tell me something. I rapidly shook off his grip and told him, “You are not a friend of mine or anything of the sort to be taking me by the arm like that”.
My response angered him further, which led him to call on a guard to take me to the Vivac cell.
“Captain, if you like you could even send me to hell. Even though I am already there. Regardless, I will only eat in my cell”.
“Today, you will really get to know what hell is like”, he fired back.
Just a few minutes later, the guards were searching through my belongings in the Vivac cell. Suddenly, I heard one of them say, “Penate, come look at this”. After reading one of my notes, the political police official said, “Pacheco, this news is false”.
“Really?”, I responded, “Then tell me what happened. Tell me what led this common prisoner, last name Licea, to throw himself from his cell’s ceiling and into his death. You’d be a very trustworthy source for this news”.
Penate literally changed colors and furiously yelled, “Guard, take him into the cell in the back, for being such a loud mouth and for disrespect”.
“You can take me wherever you like, but tell me what happened to Licea. You know that the guards were going to beat him and he preferred to throw himself into nothingness instead of receiving those blows. You are all nothing but abusers and one day you will all pay for your crimes”.
“Take him away!”, screamed Penate to one of the men under him in the ranks.
Violation of Correspondence II
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
It was a war of nerves between the guards and us on that morning. They passed in front of our cells but they did not ask us our reasons for our abstinence from food.
At lunchtime, we once again refused food, and to be completely honest, if our decision were otherwise we would have devoured it all. On that day, the cooks and the logistics functionaries of ‘Aguica’ were bent on doing the best job. They served us black bean stew, white rice, fried chicken, sweet potato, a piece of bread, and even dessert. It was the most dignified plate of food seen by human eyes and with much more quantity than they had served us during those first 6 months of captivity.
I cannot deny that my mouth watered, but I rapidly understood that it was all a mechanism on behalf of the guards to try and crack our psychological state. Luckily, the common prisoners also noticed the manipulation and only the common prisoner who had not joined the strike accepted the food. After the plates remained outside our cells for three hours they were taken away intact.
At 4:30 in the afternoon they served us dinner, which looked just as appetizing as the lunch, but temptation could not surpass our desire to demand respect for our rights.
Two hours later, the Unit Chief- Ricardo- and another official showed up to “The Polish Cell” and told Manuel Ubals to get dressed for a meeting with the Direction Council and the chief of the Political Police, Porfirio Penate. The soldiers began to take each one of us out while promising the solutions to our demands, but they asked that as soon as we arrived to our dungeons that we had to start eating.
In truth, our sole interest was that our petitions be respected. Among our points we demanded that our right to mail be respected, and that we be allowed to receive news, books, and adequate medical assistance, and that the re-educator visit “The Polish Cell” at least three times a week, for we only saw him there once in that time frame. That last demand was decided on by the common prisoners. We political prisoners cared very little if we saw the Unit Chief or not, we knew that it was not in his hands to solve our problems and meet our demands, and we let them know that during our meetings with the political police officials and other soldiers of the Direction Council, and even in front of Ricardo Martinez.
As my companions-in-strife were arriving to the cell they started to eat their food. It was the agreement we had reached in the event that our demands were met, and so they were.
After 8 pm they came for me. I was far from imagining the situation I was about to get into. For some reason, they considered me to be the leader of the protest and I was the last to be interviewed.
“Violation of Correspondence”
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
The communication between those of us prisoners in “The Polish” jail and the functionaries of the interior was deteriorating daily. The guards had a low cultural level and engaged in despotism and intolerance. The prisoners, on the other hand, were rebellious, energetic, and desired freedom, which conflicted with the aspirations of the political police which wanted to make us crack through the guards which kept strict vigilance over us.
One afternoon, the chief of the Punishment Cells Section, subtenant Yosbany Gainza, showed up to our dungeons with letters from our families. To the surpise of all, including the common prisoners, the letters had all been opened, which according to the guard had been done on orders from the Direction of National Prisons. The verbal protests did not take long to begin, and to top it off, Gainza assured us that as of that moment all letters from relatives and friends which we turned in or received had to be opened.
Our citations of article 57 of the Cuban Constitution and Chapter 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were futile. The guard did not want to accept our rights, once again proving that the Cuban regime violates its own laws and international pacts which it has signed.
Two days later, a few common prisoners informed us that this measure had also been applied to Blas Giraldo Reyes and Fidel Suarez Cruz whom were locked away in the isolation cells of “La Tercera”.
After trying just about all we could do and seeing that no positive results were coming out of our attempts, we decided to go on hunger strike.
The deep totalitarian rule went beyond our “Polish” prison walls and even attacked common prisoners. We had two options. First, to get these suffered men, victims of the communist prison system, to join our hunger strike or, second, they would accuse us of arbitrary measures taken by the jailers.
Alexis Rodriguez, Miguel Galban, Manuel Ubals, and I decided to send a letter to our partners in struggle located in that same section about or decision to start the protest over the violation of our correspondence as well as other arbitrary measures against those of us in the “Polish Cell”. Much to our surprise, the note went from hand to hand and only one convict didn’t have access to it due to the lack of trust he had for the others.
On the next morning the guard of that section, last name Garvey, was shocked upon our refusal to accept the breakfast he was serving. But what most caused an impression on him was the solidarity of the common prisoners, and that the information of the hunger strike did not reach him.
The situation just grew more tense and we could not imagine what the outcome of our protest would be, but we were willing to assume the consequences, while the support of those who suffered with us gave us the extra strength we needed.
Of the 16 men who were imprisoned in “The Polish”, 15 joined the protest. The prisoner who accepted the piece of bread and cereal was the first one taken by the police to be interviewed, but he did not know what was going on. Soldiers from diverse ranks began to show up throughout the prison, not asking anything, just walking into our dungeons. It was the beginning of a psychological battle between them and us.
By Pablo Pacheco Avila
I cannot come up with an exact number of how many times, while still in Cuba, I heard the phrase: “the exile is intolerant” “the exile is stubborn”, or that “the exile is intransigent”. Although it may sound strange, this governmental propaganda and generalization method did function to manipulate and lie to public national and international opinion.
Today I must swim in the sad and difficult waters of the Cuban exile. One of the most prolonged and difficult ones of our America during the past centuries. Many believe that exile is glorious, or that it is the best way to succeed in life. This is a serious misconception. Exile is nothing more than an incurable wound which amputates your soul and sometimes leaves you feeling as if you have not realized that you are still alive.
Miami has been classified by many as the capital of the Cuban diaspora. After the Cuban capital, this city is the one with the most Cuban citizens. It is a large city which, prior to the Cuban exodus, was insignificant in terms of United States geography. Many assure that it was built on the marshes of Florida, and there are also those who argue that its success and development is owed in large part to all the Cubans who have been arriving since 1959.
I have only been a month in this beautiful and welcoming city. Little by little, I have started understanding the contrasts of a reality I was once afraid of. I was also rather frightened by the thought of moving to Spain, due to misinformation which the Cuban national press spreads about the rest of the world. Luckily, I like challenges and I always accept them despite the consequences.
I have been invited to various meetings with Cuban exiles and I cannot lie and say that I do not feel shame when generalizations are made about the exile, using epitaphs like ‘intolerant’ and ‘close-minded’. Although some Cubans living in the diaspora allow their passions to take the place of their hearts, I believe that labeling the entire exile as intransigent means that one does not really know their particularity or the various testimonies of Cuban political refugees.
The passion for achieving the freedom of Cuba cannot and should not be confused with our own interests and ideologies. We all have the right to the diversity of opinions and absolutely no one holds absolute truth. For once and for all, we should all learn from each other, those who are here and those over there, that Cuba is something greater than ourselves, greater than our miseries and our own interests. We have to clearly identify our real enemy: the dictatorship.
With my own eyes I have seen old men, nearly blind, using their walking sticks to be able to transport themselves, and even then they still think of Cuba’s freedom. Many give the little strength they have left to the cause, and the only thing the dictatorship has not been able to rip from them is their love for the homeland. That deserves respect. They are not perfect, and that is normal, for they are humans.
Personally, before condemning I prefer understanding all those who have suffered so much and for so many years. It’s easy to criticize the exiles or label them with all sorts of names or arguments, like the dictatorship does. But we have to put ourselves in their spot; when you haven’t waited for the execution wall, or haven’t given your last bit of hope to your companion right next to you who is on his way to be killed, or when you’ve never suffered a day in a prison or been attacked by the vileness of the henchmen, then it is easy to criticize.
My struggle is non-violent, and I will never deny that. But my fate was to live during a different era, an era much more different than the one in which Cubans confronted the totalitarian regime with weapons. They did not rely on the support from the international community, the media, or the new technologies we have today. Those were times when no one listened to the political prisoners, when not even the Cuban people wanted to listen and preferred to accept the romanticism of what converted itself into a dictatorship. I would be lying if I denied that, confronted with the same situation, I would have done the same, if I knew what was going to happen to our island.
Throughout the story of the past 5 decades of our country, those who are truly intolerant and intransigent are those who, without permitting the most minimal form of dissent, have enslaved Cuba, ruined our nation, executed, jailed, tortured, and exiled their own compatriots. The same ones who, today, without ever having ceased the attacks, do not hesitate to use the money of the exile to oxygenate their battered finances. The real intransigents were those who decided by decree that we’d all “be like Che”.
I respect and understand those who planted the seed of rebellion against the dictatorship, which later germinated among various generations of Cubans. I respect and appreciate those who today comb white hairs and who paved the way in a foreign land, so that our experience here today would be less difficult. Particularly, I must point out that in Miami I have received a real human comfort, a solidarity, and a space which I was denied in my own country.
It is impossible to ignore this. And if we do, we run the risk of suffering what has already been lived. But if we want to reconstruct our nation and get her out of the ruins which she has been submerged in by more than 50 years of dictatorship, we should turn to justice and not revenge.
Twelve months have passed since the first group of former prisoners of conscience from the group of the 75 arrived to Spain, as product of an unexpected dialogue between the regime of Havana, the Cuban Catholic Church, and the Spanish government- set in motion by the pressure of the internal Cuban opposition and the international community. That’s how more than 7 years of anguish ended for our families. During this process, some other Cuban political prisoners and their families were also exiled.
When one lives far from their native land everything seems strange, extravagant, and even illusive. However, with time I have realized that what is really strange, extravagant, and illusive is my country. Cuba is another planet, or better said, the communists have turned our island into another planet.
I remember that upon landing in the airport of Barajas I felt a very unique feeling. For the first time in my life, I set foot on free land.
Days after my arrival I was able to tune into Spanish television and catch a debate about the state of the nation during a congressional meeting between the diplomats. The intervention of Mariano Rajoy, head of the opposition party, and his harsh and unscripted criticisms against the Spanish President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero led me to understand that democracy is more than just a word. That day I realized that the real definition of democracy meant the purpose of life. It was my first democratic lesson.
This first year of freedom has been a mixture of a strong desire to start over and also of frustrations. Exile is very difficult for multiple reasons: the nostalgia, the new customs, the absence of certain loved ones, and staring from afar at your beloved and enslaved homeland is very harsh. And, to these obstacles, if we add unemployment, then the suffering increases.
It is certain that I have had a roof over my head, food, free education for my son, health care, and other benefits which cover my basic needs, and not to mention, the solidarity of the Spanish people to which I will be forever grateful. I have expressed this to the Spaniards ever since I set foot on their Iberian land. I should also point out that I have received gestures of affection, respect, and solidarity from the Cuban exile and various international NGOs. But even all of this does not replace the necessity for having to work and sweat to make a living.
It is incomprehensible that, after a year, none of the professionals which have arrived to Spain have been able to reestablish their titles, at least those that are able to be reestablished in that country.
My wife is specialized in medicine, with 16 years of experience from Cuba. Her professional life is about to fade. In 48 hours she was only able to take her medical diploma, and not the rest of her documents. In the airport, the functionaries from the Spanish embassy told us that the titles would be re-established. But time has passed and we have not been able to even legalize them. The Cuban side refuses to even provide them to our relatives left in Cuba, even while a price is paid to the regime as occurs with all those who emigrate or desert the country. I have no doubts that such a behavior is the additional punishment on behalf of the dictatorship against us. Even in freedom, we cannot escape their cruel tentacles.
Within this year, I have had the opportunity to visit various European and South American countries. I have been invited to these places by NGOs which always pressured the Cuban regime about our unjust imprisonment. They wrote inspiring letters to me which also served as a protective shield against our oppressors. With such initiatives, they strengthened my deteriorated hope while behind the bars. Luckily, I’ve been able to thank many of these people in person, but I always emphasize my companions inside Cuba. They, the Cuban democrats, deserve all the possible attention because they are the most vulnerable to the dictatorship’s repression. They live with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, and even then they challenge the government. In each phone call Felix Navarro, Pedro Arguelles, Librado Linares, Ivan Hernandez and others tell me the same thing: “Pablo, we will continue the struggle until our country is in freedom and until you all, who wish to return, can do so”.
During this rapidly passing year, I have maintained the idea of returning to Cuba once it is democratic and when I no longer run the risk of being jailed again for my political ideas. It may seem odd, but the more time passes, I feel it more necessary to walk down the streets of my hometown and to visit Pedro Arguelles or other nonviolent dissidents.
It is certain that here I have freedom, internet, that I can write without fear of backlash, and I live in the First World. But it is not enough. I need more, I need to see my island in freedom, to live together with my people and help reconstruct the ruins left behind by more than 50 years of communist totalitarianism. I pray that my time in exile is not too long.
The major challenge for an exiled person is finding a job, and in Spain the situation is very complex. At this very moment, the statistics of unemployment surpasses the 5 million mark, according to governmental sources. In addition, there are no visible solutions to the problem, at least in my opinion. My wife and I tried to find work in any field because we want to earn our living with our labor. We need to restart our lives and that has not been possible in Spain.
For this reason, after analyzing the situation time and time again, my wife and I drew up to possibilities- either leave Spain or stay. We decided to pack our bags and travel down the path which brought us to Europe, but down another direction. Fortunately, the US government opened its doors yet again to Cuban exiles and they have allowed us to integrate ourselves into this country under a special visa.
We set off with the hope of finding the path which would help us reconstruct our lives and give our best to the cause of freeing our country. And I am grateful to Spain which also received me with open doors when I needed it the most. I sincerely hope that they may get out of the economic crisis they are living through.
The complaints cost me points with the commander.
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
It has been 92 days since my last meeting with my wife and son. I was impatiently looking forward to the officer on duty calling my name for the visit, and being able to hug my family and talk with them, even though it was only for two hours. In captivity, visiting time is considered a blessing from God.
Around noon I heard my name on the guard’s walkie talkie and he immediately presented himself at my cell asking, “Are you ready?” “For more than three hours,” I answered.
I’d spent more than two months without breathing free air. The guards hadn’t taken me outside the bars and walls of my cell during this whole time. One week after the last visit they had taken me to the prison infirmary for a routine medical check-up and since then I hadn’t left the confines of “The Polish.” Whenever I passed the barriers of confinement I felt like another man, a free man, if only for an instant.
Between hugs and tears my wife and I greet each other. With my son I had to pluck up my courage so he wouldn’t notice my distress and to a certain extent I succeeded. Then, he started to tell me about his experiences at school and innocently asked about my studies. Oleivys looked at me and inevitably our eyes welled up with tears, fortunately Jimito wasn’t looking at us at that moment. The white lie we told our son after my arrest, about my supposed school, broke our hearts.
Oleivys clued me in to recent events in Cuba and the campaign for our release. The three of us ate together. In reality, only the boy ate well. We two, knowing the crude reality of our lives, made it difficult to eat the food that Oleivys had made with so much effort and sacrifice in our home, almost eight hours before the meeting.
Suddenly Captain Peñate of the political police burst into the office where we were and announced the end of the visit. Oleivys looked at her watch and we had actually passed the two established hours. We said goodbye on the spot, my partner and I having agreed not to show our despair in front of the “executioner” when it came time to say goodbye, it was one of our most effective weapons against the guards.
Back in my cell, I waited for Captain Emilio Cruz Rodriguez, Chief of Internal Order in the prison and the main “executioner” of the prisoners. He ordered his subordinates to search my belongings minutely.
Emilio took umbrage with a small jar of mayonnaise my wife had bought in the hard currency stores. They made me put it in another container because the metal detector beeped at the metal that protected the mayonnaise. I explained handling the sauce could contaminate it, but they ignored me. After an exchange of words he said, “It’s not my problem if it gets contaminated, I’m following orders.” Never mind Captain, I’m a prisoner for my ideas, not for my food,” I told him.
Before leaving the cell Emilio told me, “Pablo, on your previous visit your wife lodged a complaint about me with regards to a beating given to a prisoner.” It’s possible, I responded. “I just want to inform you, Pablo, that these complaints of your result in my getting points from my Commander in Chief,” he added. To which I replied, “Captain, may your Commander in Chief be equally brave the day it’s not about protecting yourself and you have to respond before a court for your abuses.” Emilio stared at me, upset, and didn’t say another word.
When I got back to my cell I wrote a note to my brothers in the cause telling them the details of the visit. Then, out of an instinct of solidarity, I sent them a bag of goodies that my family had brought. It was customary among all the political prisoners in “Polish” to share opinions, food, books and everything we could share. Among us prevailed the power of solidarity above selfishness and human misery. Time proved that captivity strengthened us as human beings and we today we give thanks to God for it.
That night, the words of Emilio hammered in my brain and I confess they kept me up late. I never imagined so much evil in one person, I understood that the cruelty with regards to mayonnaise was in retaliation for the complaint Oleivys had lodged with the military.
Three days after the visit I had to throw away the sauce because it was rancid. I lost one of my most precious foods in prison. It always lasted me five or six weeks, saving it, but this time Emilio’s hate and intolerance forced me to throw out the food. Little did this guard imagine that his attitude gave me extra strength to continue denouncing the abuses and crimes in the Cuban prison system.
2 July 2011
At night, I met the founder of the German chapter of Amnesty International, Gerd Ruge and also Wolfgang Piepenstock, one of the original members of this German NGO. We attended the evening award ceremony Human Rights Prize (held at the World Culture House of Berlin) which was given to Abel Barrera. The discourse of the indigenous leader was impressing and energetic, and the testimony Valentina Rosendo was harrowing. With her paused, yet potent, voice she asked for solidarity to demand that the Mexican government fulfill the law decreed by Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which sentenced the soldiers who raped and tortured her and Ines Fernandez. A disturbing cold shill ran throughout my body as I heard this woman describe how she was raped by a uniformed official of the Mexican government, and the even worse part of the case was that these criminals were not punished.
The ceremony was hosted by Reinhold Beckmann, a television host and recipient of two awards- The Federal Merit Cross Award and the German Television Award. Up on the stage, we listened to the voices of AI’s General Secretariat, Salil Shetty, Federal President Christian Wulffl, Stefan Kessler, Martin Moryson, Peter Franck, Mathis Richtmann, and other German politicians. We also heard artists like Sophie Hunger, Alice Sara Ott, Michael Mittermeier, and the Mannheins Sohne group.
When it was my turn, I shifted the discourse towards asking for solidarity with the Cuban democrats in the island which are vulnerable to the repression of the dictatorship, and who represent the democratic future of Cuba. I reminded all those who were present that the power of human solidarity is the only thing that can impede repressive crackdowns, like the one which occurred in 2003, and other violent attacks on behalf of the dictatorship against the peaceful Cuban dissidence. “Cuba needs a change to democracy and we Cubans deserve another chance. We want to live like human beings- with freedom, prosperity, and more than anything in our piece of island without having to worry about being punished for our political ideas, religious beliefs, or sexual preference. We want a Cuba as was dreamed by the apostle Jose Marti: With all and for the good of all”.
I chatted with various of the attendees for a few hours and the solidarity displayed by each of them gave me that extra inspiration needed to survive in exile in order to continue to fight for a democratic Cuba, free of exclusions.
Of all the countries I have visited lately, I would say that the Germans are the ones who can identify the most with out Cuban cruel reality. The totalitarian past which cost them years of pain, suffering, deaths, hate, lack of freedom, and the unfortunate economic state which the RDA became has been tormenting the Cuban people for more than 50 years.
On Saturday morning Gabi, Sandrine, and Karl drove me to the airport. We bid farewell to each other amid hugs and tears of joy. Again, they handed me gifts for my wife and son. Today, I feel happy and committed to human rights. I cannot forget that a simple letter or the anonymous help of people we do not personally know actually does help the lives of political prisoners and prisoner of conscience in any corner of the world.
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
Everything indicated that the eruption of the Icelandic Grimsvotn volcano would impede my trip to Berlin. I had been invited by Amnesty International to assist the award ceremony of the Human Rights Awards which are annually presented by this NGO. This time, it was being awarded to the director of the Human Rights Center of Tlachinollam Mountain, Abel Barrera Hernández.
Upon my arrival to the airport of Malaga, the airliner company informed me that they were only authorized to fly to Frankfurt and not all the way to Berlin, precisely because of the ash cloud produced by the Grimsvotn eruption. I spoke with Anabel Bermejo, an Amnesty International activist in Berlin, and she suggested I board the plane because they had already confirmed that the flights to the capital had been reestablished. And that’s what I did.
Julia Schell was waiting for me at the Berlin terminal. This cheerful young woman was speaking a fluid Spanish, and was informing me about the itinerary I would have in Berlin while we were on our way to my hotel.
During the next morning, at the lobby of the hotel we met with Sandrine Gyurakovis, Gabi Pimper and Karl Heinz Stanzick, Amnesty activists from Lörrach. They invited me to breakfast, to a chat, and a ride around the city. In a matter of minutes it felt like we all knew each other from childhood, despite the barrier of language, considering that Karl was the only who dominated the Spanish language.
We visited the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and other historical landmarks of that city.
They were all very eager to hear of my experiences behind the bars and wanted to know how their work helped me during that time. While we chatted and drove around town we recapped years of my suffering, pain, and hours of solidarity which they dedicated to me and which tore down the iron bars, penetrated the walls, pierced the conscience of others, and created a protective shield around me which kept me safe from the hate and intolerance of my henchmen. Each letter they sent me produced a positive effect; the ones which the guards allowed me to see were sources of inspiration which let me know I was not alone, and the ones which the police kept also established my necessary protection, for it was proof that I was not alone in my cause.
The four of us agreed that the liberation of the Cuban political prisoners and prisoners of conscience was an incentive to keep sending letters to anyone anywhere who has been stripped of freedom for those same reasons.
In the afternoon we visited the headquarter of Amnesty International in Berlin. There, I met with the press, and the most satisfying part of it all was being able to meet Maja Liebing, Anabel Bermejo and other activists from the German Chapter of Amnesty International. For years, these people lifted their voices in favor of my liberation and they only knew me through photographs and through the ideals I defend. The cause in favor of the respect of human rights and democracy in Cuba, which led the Cuban government to send me to prison under a 20 year sentence, out of which I only served 87 months. It was a very difficult experience for all of us, and the proof remained in our faces.
That night, the Cuban-German journalist Boris Luis Santacoloma invited me to dinner at a restaurant which specializes in steak and I must acknowledge that it was the best food I have ever eaten in my life.
On Friday morning Gabi, Sandrine, Karl, Boris and I met. We went to what luckily still stands from the Berlin Wall. From the moment I arrived in Germany I expressed my profound interest to visit that area. At midday, Boris had to leave the group due to work related reasons and we continued to the Bernauer Strasse Memorial. For a moment, I lived the suffered past of the Germans, which is the actuality of Cuba. But at least, I thought, the Germans had a standing monument which paid tribute to the victims of totalitarian communism and of all those who tried to get to freedom.
The Berlin Wall became the symbol of a moment in history which the Germans survived. In contrast, in the case of us Cubans, although we have double the number of deaths we will never be able to build a monument in the middle of the ocean. It is quite possible that we will never know the exact number of victims who have ended up at the mercy of sharks or at the bottom of the Florida Straits. A few tears appeared in the eyes of Gabi, Sandrine, Karl, and myself while we remembered the deaths of so many compatriots. It was a spontaneous display of human solidarity and it really reached the sensibility of our group.
Sue, Graham, Yanisel, and I arrived to the heart of London at midday. Graham recommended we eat at the “Arch Duke” restaurant which specializes in cocktails, steak, and jazz music. The food was exquisite and the jazz sounds provided a sensuous feeling to the occasion.
We then began to explore the rest of London. Inevitably, I remembered that only 10 months ago my life was being consumed in a maximum security dungeon in Canaletas Prison of Ciego de Avila. Now, I was walking through one of the most beautiful and important cities in the world. Not so long ago this was but a dream which seemed impossible but now it was an accomplished reality.
Before nightfall, we took a tour through the River Thames, the most important river of England. From the boat we were one we saw various historic sites of London such as the Tate Gallery and monuments such as Parliament, Big Ben, and the London Eye. Concluding our trip alone the Thames, we went up the London Eye and what I saw exceeded all my expectations.
Standing in a glass capsule, London was at my feet. The Cathedral of St. Peter, The Chamber of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben. My view extended beyond the view of any passerby on the ground. I truly never thought I would live to see and tell about such things, considering that I do have certain fears of height, and there I was standing in the worlds highest Ferris Wheel at 135 meters in height.
I cannot deny that London produced a very profound emotion in me. I fell in love with this European capital.
On Monday, Sue invited me to a meeting with a group of Amnesty International students, with professors of Henley College, and a group of French students. These young students who are in the process of completing their high school careers and who in a few years will be the future of their country, do not know the reality of the totalitarian world, that world of suffering unleashed upon some people through hate, intolerance, thirst for power, disrespect for human rights, and the lack of freedoms imposed by those who reside in power.
The questions about Cuba quickly went underway. The most frequent ones were in regards to education and health.
I explained that in my country, ever since children are 6 years of age they must daily shout slogans such as, “Pioneers for Communism, we will strive to be like Che” in the mornings. I told them that we Cubans want our children to be whatever they strive to be and not like Che because, despite the fact that the Cuban dictatorship has sold his image as an example for the world to follow, this man is not an example worth emulating for kids because he assassinated many Cubans simply because they were against the communist regime which has ruled Cuba for 52 years. In the same vein, I explained to them how Cuban students are separated from their parents when they hit 12 years of age and are sent to rural schools to study and work, in addition to receiving communist indoctrination which marks them for their entire lives and impedes them from personal initiatives and from thinking freely. That is not the kind of free education we want, I affirmed.
Later on I detailed how, when students are completing their high school careers to enter the university, they must overall be members of the Young Communist Union. As if that were not enough, those who succeed because of their talent and hard work in school find themselves working for a miserable monthly salary of less than 20 euros.
As far as the “free healthcare” and the “medical potential” which the regime boasts about, I commented to them how in Cuba the tourists are provided with hospitals which have technology that is much more advanced than what is found in hospitals for nationals. In fact, in hospitals, I explained, there is an apartheid which is practiced towards nationals, for we do not receive the same medical quality or attention which is provided to foreigners once they pay with convertible currency. I finished this point by explaining that with all this money which the regime steals from its workers, including doctors, they pay the public health service.
Lastly, I shared with them what I lived for during 7 years and 4 months in captivity just for writing what my conscience dictates and for denouncing the cruel reality which my people face and that the dictatorship tries to hide through its propaganda which distorts the truth. In Cuba, the life of an average person is very different to the style of life of those who command the revolution, seeing as how they live like aristocrats.
The majority of the students showed concern for the changes my young son has had to go through in exile. They asked how he felt in Spain and how he has adapted to this new world. I told them that Jimmy is happy because he recuperated what had been stolen from him- the company of his father, a good morning kiss, the hug before going to sleep, and most of all the desire to be a normal kid.
One student said, “From today on, I am going to value what I have much more, such as living in a democratic country and knowing that, despite mistakes of our types of government, there is a sharp contrast between what we live and what your people live. We have options, we are free to express ourselves, and of choosing our own paths. Thank you, Pablo, for making me appreciate what I have”.
A knot took over my throat and at the moment, more than ever before, I understood the importance of waking the conscience of humans in regards to Cuba. “Thank you all for sharing this unforgettable moment with me”, I responded.
We took photos over and over, we hugged each other, and we shook hands. In each salutation I felt the solidarity of the young students, while a rush of satisfaction ran throughout my body. It was something very special, a memory which will last a lifetime for me. Before wrapping up the meeting, they gave presents for my wife, my son, and myself. This was the most sensible part of my trip to London.
That night, Sue and a group of her Thai Chi students invited me to a performance by the “Shaolin Warriors”. The evening was extraordinary. It was very impressing to see the mastery of martial arts they displayed. For a moment, I thought I was in a dream but I knew what was happening was in fact real, and was happening all thanks to human solidarity.
On Tuesday morning Sue and Graham took me to the Gatwick Airport. We bid farewell to each other amid tears and hugs. I will live with the certainty that a better world is not only necessary but possible. My debt to Amnesty International will be eternal. My pain, suffering, and punishment was all less dramatic thanks to them. Their support surpassed frontiers, traveled through the seas, and achieved to cultivate a feeling of solidarity within my very cell which helped me to wake up each morning. During my days of isolation and darkest hours I lived through for more than a total of 87 months behind the bars, the cross I was carrying became less heavy and I must confess that it was in great part due to Amnesty International.
I then found myself aboard a plane flying back home, anxious to tell Oleivys and Jimmy about what I witnessed during those 6 days- an unforgettable and unique experience.
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
After meeting with the Amnesty International UK group in London, I went with Sue Bingham and Yaniset Zapata Grenot to Sonning Common, Reading, where both these women reside. Yaniset served as an interpreter and added the Cuban “touch” with her sense of humor.
In the evening I met Graham, Sue’s husband. I was impressed by his knowledge of sports. He confessed to me that he was a fan of Teofilo Stevenson and Alberto Juan Torena due to their athletic feats. I told him that I also greatly admired Jonathan Edwards, an international triple jump record holder and an Olympic champion from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in addition to Gary Lineker, Peter Shilton, and other English soccer players.
On Saturday morning I accompanied the family to one of the most welcoming places I have ever seen: a castle-garden which historically belonged to a British aristocratic family. It was very interesting to see so many years of history up close, and before I knew it I was traveling back in time and imagining foreign and local soldiers in the fields I was now walking on.
The climax of the day was emotional and gratifying. Sue took me to the Global Cafe in Reading. At the cafe there were various voluntary activists from Amnesty International which traveled from other towns nearby Reading to meet the person for which they had worked to free for countless hours.
In the meeting I let them know the importance of the letters they sent to political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. I explained to them that the postcards they sent me served as a protective shield against our oppressors because it proved that we were not alone. Sometimes the letters would be given to us, and other times they would not. Regardless, these letters had an enormous effect, for they showed our jailers that all their strength was futile against human solidarity.
These people I met in Reading worried about the situation my family and I currently faced. They do not understand why the government will not give political asylum to some of my brothers in cause. Despite the fact that many of them solicited these permits more than 8 months ago, many of them continue in a legal limbo in Spain. It was also difficult for them to believe that the Cuban government has taken so long in sending documents to the deported prisoners and their families that would allow them to validate their titles and re-commence their professional lives in the Iberian country. The minimal demand on behalf of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero towards the Cuban regime also seemed unbelievable to them.
After a pleasant and constructive chat, in which Cuba’s current reality was the main subject, we took some photos together and they gave me various souvenirs and a CD of Cuban music.
That night, we all went to bed late at Sue’s house because we were able to successfully connect through Skype with Miguel Galban Gutierrez, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, Jesus Mustafa, Alfredo Felipe Fuentes, Regis Iglesias, Arturo Suarez, Alexis Rodríguez and his wife, Juan Carlos Herrera, Mijaíl Barzaga, Luis Enrique Ferrer, and Yamilka Morejon, the spouse of Jose Ubaldo Izquierdo who lives in Chile. One could tell by Sue’s face that she was very happy and she actually cried with more than one of them. Before we all headed off to bed she told me, “At least today I have felt more important, for my work at Amnesty can be seen on your faces. I feel very happy, Pablo, and as a consequence my compromise to the cause of defending human rights has been multiplied,” she finished saying with tears in her eyes.
On the following Sunday afternoon we went out to visit the city of London. But I’ll tell you all more about that in the next chronicle.
Photo taken by Amnesty International
by Pablo Pacheco Avila
The future is unpredictable and our day to day experiences prove this. Just a few months ago my life was being consumed in a jail cell of the Canaletas Prison in the province of Ciego de Avila. Meanwhile, in other corners of the world thousands of people prayed, suffered, and demanded that the dictatorship of Havana free all the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience being held in Cuba. I never imagined that I would be able to personally thank and share some unforgettable moments with a large group of activists from Amnesty International in the United Kingdom.
In the London airport of Gatwick I was being awaited by Robin Guittard, a young Frenchman with incredible charisma and who dominates the Spanish language very well. After eating dinner, I went to bed with lots of curiosity about my upcoming agenda. I spent my nights at a hotel which consisted of constant movement of young people, apparently most of who were international students, for most of them spoke a diverse range of languages, and this made my stay all the more pleasant.
The following day, I met with four other human rights defenders who each represented different continents. They invited us to the annual report made by Amnesty International and for the 50th anniversary of this foundation. We were welcomed by the Secretariat General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty.
As the hours passed, the interviews intensified. For me, the most important part of it all was to explain that absolutely nothing has changed in Cuba despite the release of more than 50 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. The regime has tried to clean its deteriorated image and lacks the will to initiate a peaceful transition. During each dialogue with journalists I explained to them that they should closely follow the events which occur on the island, for Cuban dissidents are highly vulnerable to the dictatorship’s repression.
I also made sure to emphasize that, in Cuba, there exists a dictatorship which for more than 50 years has subjugated our people, while violating and amputating the inalienable rights of all Cubans. Unfortunately, the international left has had a sort of romanticism with the dictatorship of Fidel Castro and the highest price of that amorous relationship has been paid by us Cubans with deaths, imprisonment, exile, and the overall ruin of our nation. Luckily, however, many others have understood the damage they have exposed us to.
In its 2011 report, Amnesty International harshly condemns countries that violate human rights and it doesn’t use selective standards, but it seems to me it is more critical of many western democracies than of some dictatorships. It is certain that democratic governments allow international organisms to periodically visit their countries in order to observe their situation, while dictatorships impede such activities.
In the case of Cuba, Amnesty International manifests that they have no way of verifying, through other international NGOs, what goes on in the jails. At one point in the dialogue I commented that the situation in the Cuban jails is untenable and very delicate, and possibly, due to lack of hope, the country with the highest rate of prisoner suicides in our region. Lastly, I pointed out that, in their annual reports, they should reflect the fact that the Cuban government does not allow international observers into their prisons. Or into their country for that matter. Cuba is one of the nations in which Amnesty International does not have an office, and it is all because of the government’s lack of will to allow it.
After debating about a diverse range of subjects we went out to dinner. While at the restaurant we chatted about some of their campaigns in favor of freeing Cuban political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and I spoke about my experiences in captivity.
On Friday, I was able to contact Catalina Cortes from the Rory Peck Training Fund. This foundation has always been committed to the situation of imprisoned journalists and their families. For them it is very important to know our necessities and the state of vulnerability we find ourselves in. It was a fruitful meeting which was filled with hope. The fundamental subject was about a colleague in Cuba who needs to recuperate his vision, for it was deteriorated after nearly 8 years of imprisonment. They want to help him, as do I. Now, it is up to the will of the Cuban regime, and I would hope they treat this as a humanitarian gesture and not a propaganda campaign.
Later that afternoon I had lunch with Sue Bingham, Carolina Roman, Gerardo Ducos, and other Amnesty activists. Sue, a woman with a cheerful attitude and very committed to her work in favor of human rights. I was impressed by her kindness, friendliness, cordiality, and her commitment and knowledge about my country.
Upon concluding lunch we assisted a meeting with various people who always demanded freedom for the group of the 75 from the moment we were all jailed. I could not believe that I was in the headquarters of Amnesty International in the United Kingdom.
It was here that various campaign for my liberation were established. I had the chance to personally meet people who did not rest until they saw me free and who now continue to do the same thing with other prisoners of conscience in the world. Their work does not finish as long as their is injustice in the world. This meeting was truly one of the best things that has happened to me- I laughed, I cried, and I enjoyed each moment with deserved intensity.
Chatting with Kate Allen, director of AIUK (Amnesty United Kingdom), Ruth Dawson from the group of individuals at risk, Shane Enright (Director of the campaign in favor of unions) and others, besides incredible was unforgettable.
I was far from imagining that the most emotional part of it all had not yet occurred. Sue had prepared it all with absolute precision and reached my most sensitive emotions. The power of human solidarity is amazing. It tears down walls of silence, shatters chains of oppression, pierces the bars of intolerance, and reaches the conscience of humans, even that of the oppressors. In the following chronicle I will tell about it.