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The Conscience of Cuba

By Duncan M. Currie

“In the 16 months I have been confined in this dreadful place, I have suffered the most savage physical and psychological tortures...Also, the constant sounds of chains and gates and the frequent cries and pleas of women prisoners that get lost in the echo of the cold walls convert this place into a Dantesque inferno that I have tolerated only by the mercy and grace of God. The more they torture me, the more I seek God, the more I cling to the feet of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, not death.”

Those words come from a statement released by blind Cuban lawyer Juan Carlos González Leiva this past July. Through his wife, Marítza Calderin Columbié, he has been smuggling out such messages ever since his incarceration in March 2002. In his most recent letter, dated Sept. 16, he reports that prison officials are “releasing chemical or biological substances [in his cell]…that are making me progressively very ill.”

Most readers have probably never heard of González Leiva. Indeed, the dissidents who languish in Castro’s jails typically remain nameless and faceless to the American public, despite being 90 miles from our shores. For every Armando Valladares—the Cuban poet who was held for 22 harrowing years before an international campaign helped gained his release in 1982—there are thousands of other brave souls whose pleas were never answered. Human-rights groups estimate that there are currently more than 300 “prisoners of conscience” in Cuba.

Someone who has worked tirelessly on behalf of these prisoners is Laida Carro, the president of the Coalition of Cuban-American Women. “I feel like I’m struggling with them,” she says. “They’re very special people, and what they’re going through is hell.” Carro stresses how vitally important it is that their stories be told. Allow me, then, to briefly share the story of Juan Carlos González Leiva, along with that of another awe-inspiring Cuban hero.

González Leiva, 38, is the president of both the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights and the Brotherhood for the Independent Blind People of Cuba. He is also the director of the Ignacio Agramonte Independent Library. He earned his law degree (remarkably) while completely blind, but has been prohibited from practicing ever since the regime learned of his oppositionist activities. On March 4, 2002, he organized a peaceful protest outside the Ciego de Avila city hospital to express solidarity with an independent journalist, Jesús Alvarez Castillo, who had been brutally beaten by Cuban State Security. Along with his fellow demonstrators, he too was soon attacked by State Security and clubbed in the head so violently that it took several stitches to close the wound. He was subsequently imprisoned in Pedernales, Holguín, where he remains today without trial or sentencing. Tortured, poisoned and denied adequate medical care, González Leiva’s condition is rapidly deteriorating.

Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, 58, is also critically ill. She is the director of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, founder of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba and the recipient of the 2002 Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award, bestowed by the New York Academy of Sciences. First jailed in 1997 for co-authoring a paper critical of the Communist system, she was released in May 2000—only to be incarcerated again this past March for meeting with U.S. diplomats and publicly demanding freedom for Cuban political prisoners. This time, she was given a 20-year sentence. I spoke to Martha Roque’s sister, Isabel Roque of Miami, last Friday. Fighting back tears, Isabel says that isolation, inept medical procedures and torture have ravaged her sister’s health. She has lost 40 pounds, has developed dangerously high blood pressure and is slowly dying.

To date, there’s been no organized show of support for González Leiva at Harvard Law School, and nothing in the economics department for Martha Roque. In all likelihood, few professors or students even know their names. The same can undoubtedly be said for most American universities.

Omar López Montenegro of the Cuban American National Foundation, himself a founding member of the Cuban opposition, nonetheless tells me how effective a campus movement, particularly one at Harvard, might be in focusing attention on the prisoners’ plight. “The regime always claims that the ‘students of the world’ are with the revolution,” López observes, and a student-led campaign for human rights in Cuba would shatter these illusions. To that end, Carro suggests creating “a program whereby students would adopt a prisoner. Maybe not one student; maybe an organization at a school.” She notes that various Amnesty International groups have “adopted” prisoners; among other things, they send them messages, call their relatives and provide financial assistance. Carro calls such initiatives “human sparks of solidarity.”

Cuba’s jailed dissidents need more of those sparks. All too often their cause is ignored by Western journalists and academics. The task of educating people about Castro’s gulag normally falls to Cuban-American activists and organizations, whose efforts are as indefatigable as they are invaluable.

As Valladares wrote of Cuba’s prisons in his 1986 memoir Against All Hope, “Someday, when the history of all them is known in detail, mankind will feel the revulsion it felt when the crimes of Stalin were brought to light.” Until that day, it’s the responsibility of free people everywhere to ensure that moral titans such as Juan Carlos González Leiva and Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello are not forgotten or abandoned.

Duncan M. Currie ‘04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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