Note: This interview with a former prisoner of Cuba’s Black Spring of 2003, recently sent into exile in Spain, is from the blog Pedazos de la Isla, Pieces of the Island.
Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, better known simply as “Paneque”, is an example of the brutality practiced by the Cuban government. In his face and in his spirit he carries the scars inflicted on him by a dictatorship which does not tolerate any form of dissent or free thinking. But Paneque is also a prime example of the Cuban man who struggles, of a fearless dissident, and of a free man.
Upon being exiled to Spain, this member of the “Black Spring” group of 75 men has decided to continue fighting for the freedom of Cuba, although he resides in foreign lands. He began writing his own blog, “Diary of an Exiled Cuban”, and he now shares another blog, “Cuban Voices from Exile”, with his brother-in-cause Pablo Pacheco.
The following is the story of Paneque, in his own words:
Paneque, please tell us a bit about your origins. What part of Cuba are you from and how did you grow up?
I come from a traditional Cuban family (my dad was a car mechanic and my mother a housewife), who lived on farmlands in a sugar-producing small town of Southern Cuba. In such a traditional family, the father figure is a symbol to be followed. From my father I obtained an education based on values which had been deeply rooted within the Cuban people and which 50 years of dictatorship had tried to erase. Everything that I learned at home was the opposite of what was being taught to me under the official education system. I didn’t really notice any of this during my childhood or during the first years of my adolescence, but I eventually made the distinction as I continued growing older.
According to what I have understood, you studied medicine. What kind of medicine did you specialize in and how long did you actually get to practice this profession?
Yes, I studied medicine and graduated in the year 1989. I specialized in Plastic Surgery for victims of burn injuries. I worked for 14 years in a Burn Injury Unit in Las Tunas.
What was it that took you from doctor to dissident?
The university was a turning point for me. There, I developed my principles and my ideological positions which have accompanied me up to this very day. That contact with other points of views, opinions, cultures, and realities was a very important moment in my life and inspired me to continue with this struggle for freedom of expression, association, and movement, without having to respond to official convocations as is mandatory in the Cuban system.
I was only waiting for the right moment to express all that I was feeling. That moment came in 1996 with the formation of numerous small dissident groups in the interior of the island. At first, such groups did not have a very well-defined platform but they all had a very strong desire to make some changes in society.
Please tell us a bit about your activities as a civil dissident and independent journalist.
With the passing of the years and with all the daily struggles, everything became much clearer. Tangible projects were set in motion, allowing us to evolve from a state of dissidence to a well-developed opposition platform, which consisted of political movements, alternative cultural projects, professional associations, and the formation of the Freedom Press Agency which launched on March of 1998. All of this was done with very little resources and with notebooks, pens, and using telephone equipment that would allow us to communicate with media outlets in South Florida (United States). All the while, we were well aware that we were taking risks, but with the conviction that we would spread the truth despite the consequences, we were determined to take on the task.
You were jailed during the Black Spring of 2003. Where were you at the moment of your arrest, and what do you remember the most about this day?
I was one of the many detained on the afternoon of March 18, 2003 under the oppressive wave known as the Black Spring, where 75 people throughout different towns and cities of the Cuban provinces were jailed and condemned to sentences of up to 28 years in prison.
From the early hours of that day, the secret police was already watching over my house in Las Tunas. Every time I would walk out and head somewhere I noticed that I was being followed, and in fact, I even received a phone call saying that I was going to be detained within the next few hours, but such methods of intimidation are common practice and I was used to it. For that reason, I continued going about my daily life as usual. What I did not know was that I was in the middle of a massive state security operation known as “Offensive II”.
At around 3:30 pm, while I was with my four young children, state security carried out a search of my home, without taking into consideration that this may inflict psychological damage onto my children. This search lasted for more than 6 hours and they confiscated “material proof” such as a typewriter, a telephone, a fax machine, a short-wave radio receiver, a photo camera, a small voice recorder, various books (not really even taking into account their content), and some medications, some of which were actually for my children.
After a 23 hour period, I was taken to the Provincial Police Investigation Unit of Las Tunas. There, I was thrown in a dark and humid cell which lacked sufficient ventilation and which would be a foreshadowing of what I was going to suffer later. I did not have any means of communication, and without even having a proper trial they handed me a fiscal petition for a sentence of 20 years imprisonment for committing “acts against the territorial independence and integrity of the nation” and “acts against the territorial independence and integrity of the state” based on the pretexts of Law 88, popularly known as the “Gag Law”.
On the 3rd of April a trial was held for me and four other detained dissidents of the same cause in a theater. The entire scene was absurd and all of us were sentenced in the end. At no point in time did any of us five deny that we had acted on principles based on necessary democratic changes. On the next day, the constable notified all of the “accused” of their official sentences. In my case, I was to serve 24 years behind the bars.
In your blog you mention that when you entered prison, you weighed 189 pounds. However, when you were recently released, you only weighed 105 pounds. What was the reason for such dramatic weight loss?
Two days after my “trial” I was taken to the provincial maximum security prison known as “El Tipico” (‘The Typical’). There was where I commenced my journey through hell, which is the best way that the Cuban penitentiary system can be described. Upon arriving we were informed that we would be jailed under major severity in isolation cells for 2 years. All of this while never having committed any crime, or even any in-disciplinary actions in the jail for that matter. Yet, they continued applying the most cruel and inhumane form of punishment on us.
In this prison I was only allowed one monthly phone call, which was obviously heard by and censored by the authorities. I only was allowed visits every three months, while bags of food were only allowed every four months and conjugal visits every five months.
What I did not imagine at the time was that this was going to be the odyssey of a political prisoner of conscience who would go through 9 prisons in 5 provinces of Cuba, all of which were very far from my home and relatives. In Villa Clara, I was in three prisons. In Holguin, I was in two. In Havana, I was in Combinado del Este, and then Granma, and once again back to another prison in Las Tunas.
We were subjected to a severe defamatory campaign in the official media in order to warp and discredit our images among the Cuban population. In addition, we would also suffer by having to hear the live broadcasts of state-run TV shows, such as “Mesa Redonda” (‘The Round Table’) right in the middle of the period known as “the Battle of Ideas”. Clearly, all these programs were prepared by the government in order to promote its own point of view.
We had been cast under the unlimited cruelty of not only being men who were deprived of any sort of freedom of expression and defense, but we were also isolated in deplorable conditions which seriously damaged my health and the health of my brothers-in-cause. I was a healthy man who weighed 189 pounds when I entered the gulags. Less than a year later, I weighed a mere 99 pounds — a severe loss which endangered my life — product of the intestinal indigestion syndrome I acquired in prison. And it was in those same conditions that I arrived to Spain.
How would you describe a typical day in the Cuban prisons to someone who is not familiar with the reality of the island?
Everything starts at dawn when the alarm bells start ringing to announce the first of the 3 “prisoner counts”. But there aren’t always just 3 counts; there could be more depending on any mistakes made by the penitentiary authorities while counting. The prison code considers such “inventories” to be sacred. Violating any of the norms, such as not forming a line correctly, dressing incorrectly, or not remaining silent, could get you a harsh beating on behalf of the guards. Another common punishment is to be kept in a punishment cell for 21 days. After the count there is breakfast, which consists of sugared water, any sort of insipid cereal, and a small piece of bread.
The prisoner who is assigned to clean must do so, if not he pays someone else to do it for them. Some work for no remuneration and accept the humiliation, while others collaborate with the authorities as the only way to “catch a bit of air”, or in other words, step out of jail for a little while. The other option is “five pounds of padlocks” (to get locked away). Prisoners denouncing prisoners is a very common practice in the penitentiaries. Meanwhile, some prisoners actually do the dirty work of the guards — controlling pawns, capital punishment, the sale of drugs, prohibited games (Dice), etc. These specific prisoners count on the approval of the authorities for whom they work.
The isolation and punishment cells are small enclosures of 3 x 1 meters with very scarce ventilation and illumination, for the only opening is a small fence. They are humid cells divided in two sections by a brick wall. On one side there is a latrine – known among prisoners as the “Turk” – which stands on a tube where water flows for only 5 minutes daily and which occasionally does not flow at all; and also a washing place known as a “small boat”. On the other side there is a very narrow bed which is very uncomfortable, even for me, a person of short stature.
As you can see, there is very little free space left to move around. And that’s how I spent my life 24 hours a day, with only the exception of 1 hour reserved for getting some sun, although under very isolated conditions as well (only from Monday to Friday, not the weekends).
I had family visits every 3 months and one phone call per month for 2 years. Afterward, we were to be submitted into a strict and inhumane punishment method applicable to any person where we were prohibited any sort of social interaction. The objective was to “brainwash” us.
Being in a Cuban prison feels as if time has stopped. I was forced by the circumstances I was living under to create protection mechanisms which helped to improve myself and to give me strength to deal with my reality. If you are able to achieve a psychological balance while in jail, then you can determine just how deep the scars will affect you in the future. That’s the reason why many of us who have been deported to Spain have been in such deplorable states of health. In my case, I still harbor a serious scar which I acquired during the days, weeks, and months which I remained behind bars.
In order to survive such an extreme state of loneliness I would carry out a daily routine, starting at dawn, and which occupied my entire day. This process would start with the arrival of water. During those very limited moments, I would fill up my drinking bottles and my shower bucket while I waited for my breakfast — sugar mixed with water, cereal, and a small piece of bread. Then, I would commence my morning prayers. I clearly recall with much devotion how I would find such peaceful refuge within the prayers of the Rosary, that prayer strongly recommended to us by his holiness, Pope John Paul II.
After cleaning out my buckets I then did some exercise (improvised, of course) though I wasn’t accustomed to do this, for my whole life I had been somewhat sedentary. With what I could and with much patience, I would shower and then clean my own cell. I would organize my belongings (though they were not much), later laying in bed to read. At first, I would read universal literary classics such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Los Miserables, or the biography of Fuche — these were the typical selections in a prison, for there were not many other options to begin with seeing that family visits were so sporadic and our literature was tightly controlled and censored. When they felt like it, the guards would bring us national magazines such as “Granma”, “Rebel Youth”, or “Workers”.
It was amid all these processes that our lunch would arrive to our cells. It was nothing appetizing and it would vary from prison to prison. My ingestion was only improved by the food brought by family members during their allowed visits. Usually, the bag of food consisted of 25 pounds of crackers, seasoning, cooking oil, powdered milk, and some type of cereal. After lunch, I would rest for a bit, or they would allow me out to get some sun. Other times I would disorganize my cell, later to just organize it again, I would read some more, I would shower, and then wait for dinner (which I would dedicate more time to than lunch or breakfast). It was really all a ritual to try and distract myself from the reality which surrounded me, refusing to succumb to that dark sadness produced by the vicious and painful cycle.
As is common practice, the system of the Cuban regime not only punishes its political prisoners, but also their family members. In addition to the obvious pain caused by the separation of family what other hardships, what other hardships did your relatives suffer during your time in jail?
The personal decision to confront the Cuban regime also inevitably translates into aggression towards your entire circle of relatives and friends. Like I have previously mentioned, it all begins with a campaign to socially discredit us. Then, we are threatened, excluded from work opportunities, and if none of these methods are effective, then they will resort to physical aggression. And to further attack the family, they imprison and/or isolate us. Such forced separation puts any family man in a very vulnerable position, especially when that man is a father (in my case to four young children who cannot even understand what is happening). Of course, the intent of such actions is to completely annul the opposition. It’s not enough for the government to just destroy our image and isolate us from society.
Those were years of bitter suffering for me and my family, as I resided behind the bars of isolated cells far from my children and wife. But it was even more painful to know of all the hardships my family was subjected to, even though they tried to keep it from me. My wife was threatened on numerous occasions as she demanded my freedom while my kids were victims of mob acts on behalf of groups of people organized by the government’s political police. The government showed no mercy. On the night of August 3rd, 2006, for example, a mob of more than 50 people armed with sticks, stones, and other objects, surrounded and attacked my home. This occurred simply because 7 young Catholics were staying overnight with my family, for they were planning on heading to a meeting at the Cobre Sanctuary in Santiago de Cuba. For more than an hour the government mobs threatened to burn down the house to “get rid of the worms”, while they screamed such slogans like, “Leave!”, “Assassins!”, and “terrorists”, all the while hurling stones.
Presented with such a situation, there was not much I can do. My responsibility was to protect my family, but I was not going to alter my position. Whenever I was able to meet with my family during the allowed prison visits, we actually considered the possibilities of having them go into exile. Various friends of the family suggested the same thing to us. My family, however, refused to leave their sick and imprisoned husband and father behind. The situation was truly unbearable. Eventually, after much dialogue and negotiation I was able to have my family accept my decision. Yet it was very difficult for me, for I did not know if I was going to be able to see them again.
According to what I have understood, you were mixed with common prisoners who were sentenced for violent crimes. Did these prisoners threaten you for being a peaceful political prisoner of conscience?
Well, as you can see I went through 9 prisons in 5 Cuban provinces. I became familiar with the hell known as the Cuban Penitentiary System. I got to firsthand experience their punishment cells, their galleys, their hospitals, and their collective cells where not only political prisoners suffer, but also thousands of other Cubans imprisoned in one of the 200 jails run by the Cuban regime also suffer. In my situation, I was forced to live with all sorts of prisoners. Some actually lent themselves to carry out the dirty work of the authorities, but generally speaking they displayed respect and sympathized with me. It was common for many prisoners to cooperate with us, delivering messages to and from us. In many cases common prisoners would find ways to have our denouncements reach the outside world and this sometimes would actually protect us in a way.
Would you describe your release as a “forced deportation” or your “voluntary acceptance to go into exile”? What was that process like?
I was surprised to find out that I had received a call (to the prison) on behalf of the Cuban cardinal, Jaime Ortega Alamino. He offered me to leave jail if I travel to Spain. It was a moment of much uncertainty and doubts, but in the end I accepted.
I left behind 7 years and 4 months of pain and suffering for me and my family. But I also left behind my homeland- my country, places I will never forget, my friends, brothers in faith, and relatives that perhaps I will not be able to see ever again. However, during all that time spent in prison (and even now) I maintained a strong, positive, and optimistic spirit, for I was very sure of the cause I was defending. I received the cardinal’s proposal with a mixture of happiness and pain. My future promised the possibility of recuperating my freedom, while I left behind so many years of struggles and sacrifices, unfinished projects, and divided families. I was beginning a new stage of my own story- and it was called exile. With this position, I have had to accept the pain of abandoning my country through “the backdoor”.
I quickly went from rotting in a jail to sitting in an Air Europe plane. While I sat inside that immense aircraft which had most of its seats empty, I felt as if it was a never-ending tunnel. At the moment I did not realize that a new sun was rising and that I was about to experience the first winds of freedom.
Cell phones with connections to various press agencies were passed from hand to hand among us- the group of the first 6 released political prisoners. There were also many people present who wanted to congratulate us and take photos with us. All of this gave us much strength to carry on. We know that not all has been lost. Though separated by distance, we are still able to struggle for the return of democracy and freedom to our country.
It was an 8 hour moment full of emotion and signs of respect, love, and solidarity. While one government closed its door on us, another land opened its own doors with generosity. I did not really imagine what was awaiting us in Spain. All our expectations fell short. It was a sea of emotion as we came face to face with a freedom we did not previously know. We did not know how to put these rights, which were given to us for nothing in return, into practice.
In reality, however, we had very little to celebrate. We were only the first prisoners of conscience from a larger group. Eventually over 41 other brothers in cause joined us in exile. Things have changed very little in Cuba. Our release was only a form of “cleaning the face” of a regime which insists on perpetuating pain and suffering for more than 11 million compatriots who are shrouded in deeply-rooted and chronic fear, without being able to find a way out.
Have you been able to reunite with your family?
That is actually still a thorn which deeply pierces my heart. I have been in Spain for 6 months and any sort of family reunion has yet to occur.
Have you been able to re-validate your titles of Plastic Surgeon and Journalist in Spain?
Those questions are actually complicated to answer, due to the confusion attached to the subject. At first, I had the idea that our titles would accompany us on our exile. But 6 months after, nothing is clear. The only certain thing is that we must continue down this path on our own. We are supposed to pay the Cuban government the elevated price it demands for re-acquiring our titles. We are currently in no conditions to pay such prices. Many of us do not have a concrete legal status so it is very difficult for us to enter the work force. And many of those who are officially legal have not been able to find a job that would be able to sustain a family and reclaim our titles. We do not wish to be parasites. We are men who are experienced in working daily and struggling to survive, but we also need opportunities to prove this. This would allow us to continue our struggle with much more freedom.
What message would you give to the Cuban exile which is spread out around the world- from Miami to Europe?
My message is very short. Look within Cuba. Right there, inside the island, are the protagonists of this story. Each of us have played a significant role, but now those of us outside must assist those who remain inside.
And a message for your fellow countrymen back in Cuba?
I’d tell them that they are not alone. Here in the Diaspora there is a very large group of Cubans who also struggle and support them. Many of these exiles are fighting for Cuba in places many of them did not chose to be in, but they also contribute their sacrifice to the cause.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of Cuba?
I do. I feel that all of us (Cubans) will find a dignified and balanced end to the Cuban story. And when I say “all of us”, I mean just that — all of us.