A Hug in Miami / Pablo Pacheco

Pablo Pacheco, prisoner of the 2003 Black Spring now in exile, meets Yoani Sanchez for the first time. Yoani and friends in Cuba and abroad managed to publish a blog for Pablo and other Black Spring prisoners, “From Behind the Bars,” while they were still in prison in Cuba.

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.

riendoYoani 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

Hypocrisy, Fear…Both Things

I walk for the freedom of Cuba. Cuba Democracy NOW!

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 “Sakharov” 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.

Translated by Raul G.

19 September 2012

The Path Depends on Ourselves / Pablo Pacheco Avila

Me with my wife and son

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.

Translated by Raul G.

17 July 2012

The Storm Has Passed but the Calm Has Not Arrived / 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.

Translated by Raul G.

12 April 2012

I Felt Shame, Much Shame / Pablo Pacheco

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.

Translated by Alberto de la Cruz

4 April 2012

Writing What my Conscience Dictates (II and Final) / Pablo Pacheco

I arrived at 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.

4 April 2012

Writing What my Conscience Dictates (I) / 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.

Translated by Raul G.

14 March 2012

Notes from Captivity XVII / Pablo Pacheco

“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.

Translated by Raul G.

30 September 2011

Notes from Captivity XVIII / Pablo Pacheco

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.

Translated by Raul G.

4 October 2011

Chronicle of my Trip to London (Pt. II) / Pablo Pacheco

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.

Translated by Raul G.

27 May 2011

Chronicle of my Trip to London (Pt. I) / Pablo Pacheco

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.

Translated by Raul G.

23 May 2011

Notes from Captivity XV / Pablo Pacheco

“Vicissitudes of an Isolation Cell”
by Pablo Pacheco Avila

My time behind the bars taught me to value the characteristics of each common prisoner, avoiding any sort of unnecessary confrontations. Imprisonment actually teaches you a great deal, but you have to learn quickly in order to survive through so much human misery.

One morning we did not receive the water that was supposed to be supplied to us by our jailers. Almost instantly, we political prisoners began to protest because we barely had enough water to drink or to bathe ourselves. The response from the guards was simple: “the turbines are broken and there are repair trucks on their way with more pipes to supply water for the prison”. And that’s how it occurred.

At mid-morning I received a note from a common prisoner whose last name was Garcia. In the letter he told me that the re-educator, Yosbany Gainza, had gone by his cell in an attempt to find out more about his good relations with the political prisoners within the jail. Garcia’s response was that he did so because he sympathized with their cause. A few days later, he disappeared.

When lunchtime came around, they served us white rice, “crazy broth” (boiled water, one viand, some sort of pasta, and a meat bone with a bad odor), quimbombo, guava jam, milled corn flour, and a plate of soy pasta which was an insulting main dish. It had been days since I had seen some sausages which my wife left me during a family visit, which they served along with my other food. I had a terrible surprise when I opened the container they had been kept in. The foul smell invaded the surroundings of my dungeon and I had realized that they had gone rotten.

When I told my brothers-in-cause about what had happened with the sausages, they each sent some of the sausages they had left. They knew that I barely ate any food from the prison, and because of this I had lost a great amount of weight, which proved to be disastrous for my health. With time, I was diagnosed with a kidney infection, and on more than one occasion the political police suggested I undergo surgery. But I always refused this option based on the suggestions of my wife.

Three years later, when I was transferred to the Morón Prison, a Urologist gave me a diet designed to increase my weight. He also gave me a belt for my pelvic region which would keep my kidney from dropping any lower and also gave me some preventive medication. Fortunately, I was able to recuperate.

When night fell and I saw that I had not received any mail from my loved ones, I realized that the day had been one of those not worth remembering. The mind gets deteriorated when one is kept in an isolation cell, and even the most minimal detail can push you into a vicious cycle which can negatively influence your relationship with others. Without noticing it, you become psychologically damaged. The dictatorship knows this, hence their decision to keep us isolated from the rest of the jail population for more than 16 months.

Before going to sleep that night, an operations guard from the prison, with the last name Ortiz, swung by “The Polish” to carry out the nightly prisoner count.
When I brought up the water issues he responded, “I also have not been able to shower. But tomorrow will be another day”.

I simply could not swallow such sarcasm so I shouted back at him, “you are the perfect example of cynicism, and one day you will pay for all the abuses you’ve inflicted on others”.

“Pacheco, I’m not in the mood for you today,” came his response.

I did not shower that night, but thanks to other prisoners who sent me some of their own water, I was able to quench my thirst and put together a refreshing drink before going to sleep. The next morning, the water turbines were once again working and the water was finally getting to us again. The irregularity with this precious liquid happened during various occasions. Those of us who had been held captive in “The Polish” were always convinced that this was just another method utilized to torture us and destabilize us.

20 April 2011

Notes from Captivity XIV / Pablo Pacheco

Denying my Father a Visit

One afternoon, the weather abruptly changed. It seemed as if the fury of the gods was attacking “The Polish” and all its inhabitants. Suddenly, a heavy rain shower invaded my cell. If I hadn’t been awake at the time, all my belongings would have gotten soaked. The water entered through the roof of my cell with strength. When the storm finally concluded, I got rid of some water with the old shirt I used to keep warm each night. I had to use this article of clothing because I did not have a towel, and since the guards did not allow me to have a mop, I had to get on the floor to dry my cell as if I was some sort of four-legged animal.

When it was time to count the prisoners, Major Brito, the chief of Aguica Prison’s Re-education system, passed by my cell and sarcastically told me, “Pacheco, your dad passed by here today, but a visit was not possible.” My instincts reacted in the face of this soldier who had a reputation for being one of the worst henchmen of the prisons. I felt that he wanted to psychologically torture me, so I was bent on avoiding this at all costs. “Major,” I replied, “Don’t worry about it. My dad knows that today is not the visit day and I didn’t tell him to come. Besides, it’s good that this happen to him so that he can realize that he is wrong in defending a system which I oppose with all my strength. All of you with your abuses and crimes are proving to your followers themselves that communism is incompatible with humanity. Thanks a lot for the information,” I concluded.

Brito was cut short after hearing my words and told me, “You are all unpredictable and ungrateful. I would think you would get happy to hear about your father.” I laughed out loud and replied, “You would be happy if I became worried and started asking you why they didn’t let a father see his imprisoned son after traveling 300 kilometers. No soldier, I am in jail because of my ideas and not because of family visits. But regardless, thanks for your interest and for trying to cheer me up.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon and night thinking of my father. He had given part of his life to defend a revolution which jailed his son just for writing and dissenting without rules. The mother of two of his children had left the country. My father had little left to fight for and his ignorance made him see life in black and white. He did not want to accept reality. With time, I understood that he was yet another victim of the dictatorship.

During the next few weeks I suffered a lot in silence for my dad. I felt a sense of guilt about his failed trip. When I was finally able to see him he told me that he cried, and not because of the heavy rain which soaked him, but because he was not able to see me. But he understood that everything in life has a price and my life’s price was a sacrifice for my ideas. From that moment on, my father and I understood each other better and we respected the space which ideas has imposed on us with time. We never argued about politics again and I thank God for that.

Translated by Raul G.

April 9, 2011

NOTE: Pablo Pacheco was one of the prisoners of Cuba’s Black Spring, and the initiator of the blog “Behind the Bars.” He now blogs from exile in Spain and his blog – Cuban Voices from Exile – is available in English translation here. To make sure readers find their way to his new blog, we will continue to post some of his articles here, particularly those relating his years in prison in Cuba.

Notes from Captivity XIII / Pablo Pacheco

"FIRED" (Photo is of Felipe Perez Roque)

“Hidden Declaration in a Lighter”
by Pablo Pacheco Avila

After the success of the hunger strike, we began to elaborate a plan to confront the ex-Minister of Exterior Relations, Felipe Perez Roque. The lies he had told the national and foreign press about the existence of services for political prisoners were about to be proved false by us prisoners.

The control exercised over the prisoners in each of the corners of “The Polish” seemed to be never ending. Common prisoners would actually give us ideas on how to clandestinely send out notes for the press. Some would do it out of genuine solidarity while others actually did so in order to later denounce us to the authorities, gaining their share of benefits.

Roberto Pinto Perez, a common prisoner from Villa Clara province who was sentenced to more than 40 years of prison for serious crimes, suggested we hide the notes by attaching them to the soles of our shoes. Manuel Ubals failed at the attempt and suffered a few days of punishment for it. Yosbany, a prisoner from Camaguey condemned to a life sentence for murdering a soldier at his local jail, suggested we hide the note in the hem of our pants. We failed at that as well. Lastly, the prisoner Yoexis Rodriguez Sarmiento, from Cienfuegos and with a 46 year sentence for homicide and other violent crimes, told us we should be astute, for the police had 8 hours to watch us and we had 24 hours to think.

On the day before the family visit of Alexis, he wrote us a letter where he said that bringing the note out would be his responsibility. For security measures, and to avoid the guards snatching the note from us, he did not give much details on how he would go about doing this. And we understood him. Solitary confinement trains you to see unexpected and imaginative paths. We realized this with time and carried it out with many good results.

When Alexis returned from his visit, he wrote us another letter saying that the declaration would be made public as soon as his wife, Luisa Maria Lebeque Gilart, arrived to Santiago de Cuba. We were not expecting any of this. He wrote down the declaration and he folded it so small that he managed to hide it inside a “Cliper”-brand lighter. When the guards searched him and asked him about the lighter he told them he was giving it to his wife so she could re-fill it. Fortunately, the guards could not imagine that in such an innocent lighter there was a note denouncing crimes committed by them and the government they represent.

Two days later, the world knew that the words of Felipe Perez Roque were lies dressed with cynicism and bad intentions.

Soon thereafter, common prisoners carried out their own subtle investigations about how we were able to surpass the guards and get the note out. Luckily, we had already grown accustomed to such indigent attitudes, and they never found out how we overcame the fierce censorship of the authorities.

Weeks later, we were very surprised by the progress of the jail services. For the first time ever we were given 5 minutes of telephone time to talk with our wives or relatives. Medical assistance increased. Letters finally started getting to our hands. Our food was being prepared with more quality, and they lent us some books from the penal library.

The accusations worked, and common prisoners also benefited. In order to not acknowledge our victory, police guards extended the assistance to common prisoners and we were happy about that, for not only are they also humans, but we had won their support.

During one afternoon we noticed that one of the guards had tuned into Radio Marti by mistake. This is a station which is located in South Florida and which broadcasts to Cuba. It became the voice of those who least have voices on the island: peaceful dissidents, independent journalists, and human rights activists.

I was very surprised when I heard the voice of Jose Luis Ramos, a reporter from that station, reporting some news about my mother. We quickly noticed and we all remained silent until the news report concluded. We then spoke about what just had happened and continued listening to other news. Upon hearing our comments, the convict Raidel Casanova called the guard and told him he was listening to a counter-revolutionary station and that if he did not change it he would tell the State Security officials.

Taken by surprise, the guard quickly turned the radio off. But he could not extinguish the happiness we felt for having lived those quick moments of freedom. Many other common prisoners hurled insults to Raidel. His attitude confirmed our suspicions about him being an informant. Luckily, similar experiences with the radio kept happening every once in a while, seeing as Matanzas and South Florida are very close in location to each other. Despite all the interferences the Cuban authorities have tried against that station, the signal would reach us with clarity.

In addition to the family and conjugal visits, listening to Radio Marti, even if just for a few minutes, moved me away from loneliness and misinformation. They were glimmers of freedom during moments of gloom and they inspired me to continue down the path I had chosen. For this reason, among others, the cross I carried was made less heavy and the taste of imprisonment was less bitter.

March 28, 2011

Why the Black Spring of 2003? / Pablo Pacheco

I remember that distant but unforgettable 18 March 2003. Two friends of mine went to my home after lunchtime and informed me that the home of Pedro Arguelles Moran was filled with State Security agents.

I visited the residence of my friend and colleague, and I began to make some phone calls to the capital, denouncing the situation of Arguelles. I was shocked to hear other reports coming from leaders of the peaceful dissidence and independent journalists about what was happening that day. The regime of Havana was attacking all the democrats with all its power. I discovered that Arguelles was just another one of the victims of that oppressive wave, and that I was not about to escape that list. Just a few days after, I would find myself standing just a few feet from the cell where my friend was.

All of us who were convicted faced an unpredictable and difficult path. On one hand, the international scene benefited the dictatorship, or at least that is what they thought. The Iraq invasion and other military conflicts were what captured the world’s attention during that moment. The regime took advantage of this context in order to arrest the members of the group of the 75, and even worse, to execute three young black men for trying to escape the island without hurting anyone else in the attempt.

However, international pressure did not take long to respond with our situation. From diverse parts of the world, voices began to demand the Communist Cuban regime release us, while others condemned the infamous executions. Amnesty International declared that all 75 of us were prisoners of conscience. Soon, we would see the results of such actions.

A few months later, the regime had no choice but to release the most sick members of our group. Afterward, any other releases happened in a very slow manner, as a way of the rulers of our country saying that they are the ones with absolute power.

During each anniversary which I spent behind the bars, I wrote about the subject. This year, I wanted to publish something simple, but something that would prove our innocence and our victory. They sanctioned us to jail sentences which ranged from 6 to 28 years behind bars. Today, 8 years after that oppressive wave, the majority of the 75 are already out of jail thanks to the sacrifice of our brave brother, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the dignified Ladies in White, the determination of Guillermo Farinas, the growing international pressure, and the strengthening of the internal dissidence. Only Felix Navarro and José Daniel Ferrer remain behind the bars without justification.

Each day that passes, the dictatorship displays more and more signs of weakness, and it does anything in its power to try and isolate the peaceful Cuban opposition. Luckily, not everyone believes in their absurd tricks and the truth spreads throughout the population that is sickened by the same government rhetoric. Our path has been thorny and torturous, but it has taught us that fear is conquerable and that prison is not the last place on earth.

The Black Spring of 2003 was far from being a hard blow to the opposition, like so many people say. I would say that it was instead a serious misstep of the Cuban regime. Those days remained etched in my memory, marked forever. I’ll remember that hate and intolerance which kept me from my family, my neighbors, and my brothers-in-struggle. But at the same time, I will acknowledge the fact that our fates made the world aware of our reality — a reality that has been distorted by those who tightly hold power without measuring consequences which, in the future, will be reproached by another generation.

Cuba does not belong to one group or another, Cuba belongs to every Cuban. Sadly, the nation has been mistakenly associated with one party, one ideology, and the whims of one man.

While I write these lines, there are mobs led by the political police harassing the Ladies in White while other dissidents are being arrested just for trying to commemorate the 8th anniversary of the Black Spring.

Cuba needs its children, and her children need her. We must all fight alongside each other so that an oppressive wave like that of the Black Spring 2003, and other similar events which have plagued our nation, will never happen again. Together, we can do it.

March 21, 2011