Freed from one of Cuba’s worst prisons, Kilo 7, after more than seven years, journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez arrived in Miami last week after a jarring 10 months at a shabby hostel in an industrial section of Madrid.
On Friday, I met with him at his mother’s modest pink home in a section of this city unfrequented by the tanned, oiled and lubricated crowds of South Beach just a few miles away.
Yarai, his wife, and their 9-year-old daughter, Daniela, joined us as we spoke about the terrible last years, a conversation that continued at Bloomberg’s offices downtown. Anna Kushner, a former staff member at the PEN American Center who had been on the case from the beginning, served as interpreter.
Hernandez belonged to a group of Cuban dissidents released last July through the intercession of the Catholic Church and flown to Madrid.
Instead of freedom, he told me, they often found themselves treated contemptuously and sometimes cruelly.
“We had no status in Spain, ninguno,” said Hernandez. “Once we arrived, we asked for political asylum. We got no response. By the time I left after 10 months, the Spanish government, in violation of its own law, had still not responded to my petition for political asylum.”
Health care was almost as hard to come by as it had been in prison, despite the fact that many of the men arrived severely ill.
“I was in very critical condition,” he said. “I weighed only 54 kilos (119 pounds). My body wasn’t even able to process baby food. I was very weak and just overwhelmed by a crisis of diarrhea from chronic illness.”
The men were among 75 arrested during the “Primavera Negra” (“Black Spring”) crackdown of 2003. Hernandez -- a self-taught reporter who had founded a school for investigative journalism in the central island city of Camaguey -- was the youngest of the “criminals.”
His crime? Weapons dealing of a sort.
The authorities found the “arms” in the home of the accused: “Folders. Pens. Typewriters. Computers. Magazines. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A fax machine,” he remembers.
When the judge at his star chamber trial asked the prosecutor what kind of journalism Hernandez practiced, he replied, “Well, he criticized the quality of bread.” Which was true, Hernandez said. The state of bread, made in state-owned bakeries, in Cuba apparently is lousy.
“For telling the truth about the bread, I was sentenced to 25 years in prison, of which I served seven years and four months,” Hernandez said.
Last July, it was enough to have been reunited with Daniela and Yarai. (Also exiled with them were an uncle and three cousins.) But the euphoria was short-lived.
“We lived in a permanent state of hopelessness,” he said. “The Spanish government and the ones who were truly responsible for us acted in a way that seemed complicit with the Cuban government from the first moment that we arrived.”
The examples Hernandez cited included terrible food that was prepared exactly as it had been in prison, the lack of medical treatment and poor housing offered the men and their families.
Although they were free to move about the city, they were at the mercy of a capricious system, he said. He was told he could no longer renew his public transit pass, for example, which he used to take Daniela to school. No reason was given.
Why the men were poorly treated remains a puzzle. The official in charge of their case was Agustin Santos Maraver, director of the Cabinet of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. He did not respond to several requests for comment.
I first learned of his plight when the PEN American Center awarded Hernandez the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write prize in 2007, designed to spotlight some of the world’s most endangered writers.
Did he ever think that he would die in jail?
“You think about everything when you’re in prison,” he said. “If there’s a place to think about things, it’s prison. Once, I had a high fever and was delirious and my throat was so dry. I just held out my hand hoping someone would give me some water, and when no one did, I thought, ‘This is it, I’m not going to wake up tomorrow.’”
The next morning, when the medical chief of the district asked how he was doing, he replied: “I’m not as well as I’d like to be, but not as sick as you’d like me to be.”
Hernandez believes American lefties who continue to support the Castro revolution should get over their “sick romanticism.” His message to President Barack Obama is not to lift the trade embargo because “it will only benefit the government.” He said this after bitterly asking, ”What embargo? America is Cuba’s fifth-largest trade partner.”
Before we returned to the pink house with the parched yard, I asked him if he dreams of going back to Cuba. He answered in Spanish, but his reply was as American as Tom Joad’s monologue at the end of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“I haven’t left Cuba!” Hernandez said. “I’m physically here, but I’m still in Cuba. I’m standing right there next to the 12 Apostles, who did not accept the condition of leaving. I’m standing right there next to that common prisoner who was forced to commit a crime in order to feed his family. And I’m with my sister, my father, my nephew, my friends, standing right next to everyone. I’m right there.”
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)