This past Tuesday, the Cuban authorities finally acknowledged Calixto R. Martinez Arias’s right to go free, after he had served more than six months in prison, initially for the crime of “insulting the leadership figures of the Revolution.” He had no trial.
Martinez Arias twice engaged in what is known in the post-1959 history of Cuban political prisoners as “taking a stand” (literally, “planting oneself”): he declared a hunger strike. In the first, he went 33 days without eating, the second, 22. Until, after the second strike, it was reported by state security that his case had been reviewed and they had “understood” his demand for freedom.
“I started the first hunger strike to protest my stay in the Combinado del Este prison,” Martinez Arias said. “I also refused to wear prison garb. When an inmate declares a hunger strike, the guards use many methods to make them quit. The first thing they say is that you are committing a disciplinary infraction, which hurts your eiligibility for rights such as conditional parole, and for family and conjugal visits. And ultimately they take you to the infirmary where the doctor will take your vital signs and issue you a “suitable cell” notice, which means just that: you are fit to be taken to the punishment cells.”
“The punishment cell measures about 6 by 8 feet. It has no light. It has a “Turkish” toilet, and a water basin you can access twice a day, when the guards allow. There were days when they refused me water because a captain who claimed to be the second-in-command of Building 3, where I was detained, said that I could not drink water and took it away from me.
“By day you have to lie on the floor or stand. To that end, they remove the mattress. They left me my clothes, but took away anything with which I might cover myself. I spent very cold days, especially during the first strike. The cells are very wet and very cold, deliberately prepared to be that way. There were times when I had to sleep sitting on the floor, up against the wall, because the guards would come very late to give me the mattress. Lying on the floor you can contract a lung disease from the cold and moisture. The floor is very dirty because the cells are not cleaned. There are many insects: enormous rats, droves of cockroaches. It is a sacrifice that you have to make, convinced that it is all designed to psychologically torture you.
“During the second hunger strike, of 16 days, they took me to what they call ’the increased’ area, which is more severe. Then they took me out of there after one day to an even harsher cell. There the conditions were more brutal. They kept a surveillance camera on me at all times; they never turned off the light.”
In the second hunger strike, Martinez Arias started bleeding profusely from his gums and his teeth began to fall out. He lost 45 pounds. But he says: “I became a lot stronger.”
The “Official Organ of the Communist Party of Cuba,” the newspaper Granma, on Wednesday April 10, published an account of the “good conditions” in which prisoners live in Cuban jails. Regarding this, Martinez Arias said:
“This is an absurdity. I can assure you that they began preparing this article in December. In the month of December they informed us that journalists from the national and foreign press accredited in Cuba were going to visit the Combinado del Este prison. Major Rodolfo, who is in charge of the building where I was, a building for ’pendings,’ explained to us that the visitors would not be given access to our building because of the appalling conditions. Prisoners there live in a state of overcrowding, because every day many ’pending’ prisoners enter.
“It also has many leaks, and the bathrooms are in an extremely unsanitary condition. The building should be declared uninhabitable. Rodolfo explained that he was not going to take visitors there, because of these conditions, and that this was not a bad decision because, and I can almost quote him verbatim, ’when a visitor comes to your house, you want to show him the best, not the worst parts.’ For that reason, he said, they were going to repair a wing of building No.1. The foreign media should not be allowed to have access to the punishment cells. In fact, in none of the pictures they showed are these cells seen.”
In Cuba, the exercise of the right that everyone has to seek, receive, and distribute information, by any means of expression, without limitation by borders—as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—may be considered a crime. But on occasion, to put an independent journalist in prison, as in the case of Martinez Arias, the authorities bring charges of common crimes against him, to deflect the political nature of the arrest.
On September 16, 2012, Martinez Arias had been inquiring of some terminal-workers near Jose Marti International Airport about a batch of medical aid provided by international humanitarian organizations to address the outbreak of cholera and dengue and that, because of official mismanagement, had spoiled.
On leaving the airport, as he and others took shelter from the rain, perched on the benches of a bus stop to avoid the puddles, a patrol car arrived and gave them all tickets; but Martinez Arias was transferred to the police unit of Santiago de las Vegas on the charge of being “illegally” in Havana, having an address of the province of Camagüey. Martinez Arias claimed in his defense that “the brothers Fidel and Raul Castro are natives of the province of Oriente.”
“Immediately” said the self-described activist “the police handcuffed me, took me to a dark hallway, and beat me hard.”
The police who detained and beat him then accused him of “insulting the figures of the leaders of the revolution.” He was automatically moved to the Valle Grande prison, and from there, as punishment for continually denouncing through his colleagues the human rights abuses of the prison population, he was taken to the maximum-security Combinado del Este prison.
During the first hunger strike, State Security informed Martinez Arias that the prosecutor’s petition stated that he had been “insulting” and “resistant”, for having offended a policeman.
“If I had reacted during the beating they gave me by dodging a blow, or by landing a defensive blow to the policeman who was giving me the beating, I would have been accused of ’attacking,’” Calixto said. Police in Cuba can feel “offended” and “attacked” if you don’t react with absolute passivity to their arbitrariness and brutality, and then they fabricate the charges of “insult” and “attack”, respectively, resulting in the person’s imprisonment.
Martinez Arias believes that the visibility conferred by having been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, together with the solidarity of human-rights activists, independent journalists in Cuba, and many foreign media with the participation of Cubans living abroad, managed to send a message to the government of Raul Castro that a person imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression is not alone, and you cannot keep them in prison subjected to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment without paying a high political cost that limits your room to maneuver with impunity.
*Translator’s note: Literally “the planted one”
Translated by: Tomás A.
This post appeared originally in Cubanet.org
12 April 2013