Cuban Prisoner Gonzalez Recalls Rage, Rats, Starving: Interview

Cuban Dissidents
Cuban dissidents from left, Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, Julio Cesar Galvez Rodriguez and Normando Hernandez Gonzalez at a press conference in Vallecas, Spain on July 19, 2010. Seven Cuban dissidents arrived in Spain on July 14, 2010, following Cuba's surprise deal with the Roman Catholic Church on July 7 to gradually free 52 detainees. Photographer: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

After seven years and four months in some of Cuba’s most infamous prisons, journalist and poet Normando Hernandez Gonzalez is finally free.

Last week, the ailing writer was hastily released and flown to Madrid along with 10 other prisoners and their families. Nine more are expected to arrive today in Madrid, thanks to the Catholic Church, which negotiated their release to Spain.

He spoke to us at the dingy Welcome Hostal in the industrial outlands of Madrid, far from the Plaza Mayor. Right now, the International Red Cross seems overwhelmed with the task of housing the Cubans, many of whom are very ill from years of maltreatment.

Gonzalez had no celebratory Spanish meal of eels upon his arrival; even baby food leaves him with painful cramping. “My digestive system,” he said, is “shot to pieces.” So far, he’s only had one perfunctory medical examination.

His gratitude at being reunited with his wife, Yarai Reyes, and their daughter, Daniela, is untainted by his anger over the years lost to himself and his family for the “crime” of speaking truth to power.

“Our release is purely for political means,” Gonzalez said. He was dressed in a blue and white checked short-sleeve shirt and jeans, his nose and Adam’s apple visibly deformed by a poorly treated tumor.

Bad Press

“The real catalyst of our release was the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died on February 23 after a hunger strike that lasted 83 days,” he continued. “His death echoed around the world, it was terrible press for the regime.”

Now 40, Gonzalez was the youngest of 75 Cuban journalists, artists and others arrested in what became known as the “Black Spring” of 2003. He infuriated the regime by writing investigative stories critical of Fidel Castro’s social services agencies. As the world focused its attention on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Cubans were found guilty of advocating the overthrow of the government and sentenced to long prison terms.

“The first month I spent in jail, I only ate eight times because the food they gave us was subhuman and so rotten that if you offered it to a dog, he’d turn away,” Gonzalez recalled. “For refusing to wear prison overalls, I was sent to a dark cell for 101 days without seeing the light of day. There wasn’t a single inch of my skin that wasn’t covered in septic mosquito bites. I was forced to sleep on the concrete floor with rats and cockroaches crawling over me.”

Emotional Reunion

The bitterest part of his experience, Gonzalez said, his voice trembling with emotion, was the separation from Yarai and Daniela, who was a year old when he was arrested.

“They came to arrest me three days before her first birthday,” he recalled. “I’ve spent her entire life behind bars, only seeing her every three months for two hours when my wife was allowed to visit me. I cannot put into words how much my mother, wife and daughter have suffered since I was kidnapped by the Cuban state. The only thing that has made me smile is my daughter.”

Gonzalez said he plans to petition the U.S. embassy in Madrid for visas that would allow him and his family to join his mother in Miami.

He does not think that Raul Castro is much different from his brother. After we spoke, Gonzalez and six other former prisoners of conscience signed a petition to the foreign ministers of the European Union, imploring them not to regard their release as evidence that Raul Castro’s regime is softening its treatment of dissidents. Some members of the EU have proposed changing the union’s position on Cuba’s human rights abuses.

Stay the Course

“Our departure for Spain must not be considered a good-will gesture but a desperate action on the regime’s part in its urgent quest for credits of every type,” the petition stated.

“I’m relieved to be free but I’m sad, hugely sad, I’ve been exiled from my country,” Gonzalez said in the interview. “My brothers are still there rotting in its jails, mothers wake up every day and don’t have milk to give their babies, fathers go to work every day and their minimum salary isn’t enough to get their families to the end of the month.”

(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Sharon Smyth is a reporter in the Madrid bureau of Bloomberg News.)

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