Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cuban Prisoner Gonzalez Recalls Rage, Rats, Starving: Interview

Cuban Prisoner Gonzalez Recalls Rage, Rats, Starving: Interview
July 20, 2010, 12:22 AM EDT
Interview by Jeremy Gerard and Sharon Smyth

July 20 (Bloomberg) -- 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

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

"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."

--Editors: Manuela Hoelterhoff, Rick Warner.


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