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Freed Cuban dissidents adjust to life in Spain

The liberation of a group of political prisoners has sparked hopes of change on the Caribbean island. However, for those freed, their new life in Spain will be a challenge in itself.


When the Cuban dissident Ricardo González was released from jail and put on a flight to Spain, what struck him first about his newfound freedom was the airline food.

“The thing that impressed me on the flight to Madrid was the fact the food was hot,” González, 60, said. “I hadn’t eaten hot food for seven years and four months.”

This is just one of the many changes González and a group of other freed Cuban prisoners have experienced since the government’s announcement July 7 that over the next few months it will release the 52 dissidents still behind bars following a 2003 clampdown that put 75 people in jail.

The decision is the result of diplomatic efforts by the Spanish government and the Vatican and over the following week 11 prisoners were released after agreeing to emigrate immediately to Spain. Each was told about the offer just days before and most did not see their families until they were taken to Havana airport and escorted onto the airplane together.  A total of 20 are scheduled to be taken in by Spain.

The dissidents were given €395, a shirt, a tie, a pair of trousers, deodorant, a shaving kit, and a toothbrush and told they would have to request permission if they ever wanted to return to the island – although the relatives who came with them could do so more freely.

“We’re feeling a combination of sadness and happiness, because we are leaving our homeland behind, but I can see my husband again,” said González’s wife Alida Viso.

“We’re very happy to be free and to be in a free country and to be able to talk freely with the press, but we have only just arrived and the change is very harsh,” said Omar Ruiz, who was sentenced to 18 years in jail. The 63-year-old was speaking in the lobby of a one-star hotel in the working-class neighbourhood of Vallecas on the outskirts of Madrid where the Spanish authorities put up the released prisoners on their arrival.

Amid such a hurried sequence of events, the Cubans were not only adjusting to their new-found freedom, but also trying to understand the exact nature of their legal status in Spain. Ruiz, like the other freed Cubans in Spain, has been told that he is officially an immigrant, but he sees himself as a refugee.

“I consider myself a political exile. I didn’t come here for economic reasons, I came here for political reasons,” he said.

Some, like Ruiz, hope to move to the United States, where they already have family, although it is still not clear whether that is possible. After some initial confusion, the released prisoners were told they will be relocated to different provinces around Spain, including in Valencia and Málaga. Ruiz is one of several freed dissidents who believe the Spanish authorities have not given them enough information.

The Red Cross and Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR) are organizing the Cubans’ accommodation, as well as offering employment advice, psychological support and medical care.

The Bible and José Martí

For some, the physical and mental toll of seven years in prison has been devastating. Pablo Pacheco, a 40-year-old journalist, was sleeping with his four-year-old son when government officials woke him up, confiscated his typewriter and papers and eventually handed him a 20-year prison sentence. In jail he suffered arthritis and migraines and a bad knee was made worse by a botched operation.

Pacheco, who wants to publish a book about his experiences, says that for a spell he shared a 30-square-meter cell with 26 other men, including convicted murderers. He said reading the Bible and the works of Cuban revolutionary philosopher José Martí enabled him to survive the ordeal.

“Only someone who has been through the experience knows the pain and suffering of having a relative in jail, “ said Pacheco’s wife, Oleivys García. “Much more so if it’s for an injustice, an unnecessary reason. It was a reason that the government gave but which we just couldn’t understand.”

In a press conference, freed dissident Julio César Gálvez painted a horrific picture of Cuba’s prisons. He described sharing cells with cockroaches and rats and said there were outbreaks of dengue and tuberculosis. Another former inmate, Normando Hernández, said prisoners set themselves alight and injected petroleum and other substances into their own bodies in order to be attended to. The Cuban government, meanwhile, insists its jails meet international standards.

Antonio Villarreal, 59, remembers with a shudder the first 16 months of his sentence, during which he was in solitary confinement in an unlit cell. As a promoter of the Varela Project promoting political change, he was given a 15-year stretch.

“All you could do was sing songs to stay alive,” he said. “I believe in God and I believe God was able to grant me a life. I always knew he would never abandon me and my family.”

With the Cuban government having committed itself to freeing the remaining ‘Group of 75’, some of those who have been liberated are concerned about the fate of political prisoners who refuse to leave Cuba. The offer made to those released so far was to leave Spain or remain in jail.

“If you are in jail and they ask ‘do you want to get out and go to another country?’ it’s very difficult to say no, because it’s either freedom or jail,” said Ruiz, who was told by a Cuban official that all of those released will be sent abroad. “I have political prisoner friends who have said they won’t leave Cuba. I’m worried about them.”

Ten prisoners in Cuba have reportedly insisted they will not agree to leave the island if offered the chance to be released.

There is also the issue of how these newly freed dissidents will make a living in recession-ravaged Spain. With unemployment at around 20 percent and even fears that a Greek-style debt crisis could hit the country, it is no longer the land of opportunity that drew hundreds of thousands of Latin American immigrants over the last decade.

“A trick and a lie”

Óscar Pernet Hernández, a member of the Group of 75 who was released and came to Madrid two years ago, warned El Mundo newspaper that the prospects for the new arrivals are bleak and that the Spanish government’s offer to help him financially has transpired to be “a trick and a lie.”

Regardless of their economic situation, the freed prisoners’ influence on the opposition movement in Cuba is now inevitably limited, inviting speculation that the Castro regime is the true beneficiary of this development.

Ricardo González disagrees: “When we were imprisoned, I thought it would be a step back for the movement, but despite the mass arrests of 2003 the opposition continued. I don’t hope (the movement) will continue, I am utterly certain it will.”

For the Spanish government, the freed prisoners are proof its policy of reaching out to the island is bearing fruit.  Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, who helped broker the projected release of the 52 prisoners, said it “opens a new era for Cuba.” He has also reiterated the belief of the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero that the European Union’s “common position,” which demands human rights improvements from Cuba as a condition for resuming normal relations, needs to be softened.

Spain’s main opposition Popular Party does not agree. Nor does Waldo Díaz-Balart, a Cuban artist who lives in Madrid and whose sister Mirta was once married to Fidel Castro.

“This is a farce because they are using these poor political prisoners as merchandise. They have been sent over here and now they have to find a way of earning a living,” Díaz-Balart said from his Madrid studio. “The Zapatero government is helping Castro,” he added. “This is a conscious policy by the Spanish government to keep Fidel Castro in power.”

But those released and brought to Spain in the last few days seem optimistic for the most part that their country will see major political change sooner rather than later. Few of them, however, can forget their seven years in jail.

“I have a slogan from the years I was in prison that says ‘when my wounds are healed someone will be paying for having inflicted them,’” said Antonio Villarreal. “Because you can forget about the people you laughed with, but you can never forget those who made you cry.”

A version of this article was originally published in Spanish in El Nuevo Herald.

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