Imprisoned for 'dangerousness' in
By Nik Steinberg
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A15
Click. And then silence.
It was the sound I dreaded in my calls to
Had the Cuban intelligence services cut the line, or was it just the shoddy phone system? I would call back immediately, often getting a busy signal or a recorded message that the number was not in service. If I found out what had happened, it was usually days or weeks later.
"A neighbor dropped by to check on me, someone sospechoso."
"I don't know, my phone just stopped working."
For months I made -- and lost -- these calls. Because
For nearly five decades, Fidel Castro silenced virtually all forms of dissent in
Raúl Castro has also incarcerated scores more political prisoners, such as Ramón Velásquez, who completed a three-year sentence in January, but was reportedly detained again following Zapata Tamayo's death. I first spoke to Ramón's wife, Bárbara, on the phone last March. She told me how on Dec. 10, 2006, they had set out with their 18-year-old daughter, Rufina, on a "march of dignity" across
They marched silently, from east to west, sleeping on roadsides or in the homes of people who took them in. Along their way, police detained them, they were attacked and cars even ran them off the road. They kept marching. In January 2007, more than 185 miles from where they started, Ramón was arrested. He was accused of "dangerousness," tried in a closed hearing and sentenced to three years in prison.
Bárbara and I spoke several times over the following months about her trips to visit Ramón in prison; about her son René, who took care of her; and about how Rufina had fled to the
My organization repeatedly sought permission to visit
When we arrived at the Velásquez home on the outskirts of Las Tunas, only René was there. Bárbara was on her way back from visiting Ramón in prison, he said.
We sat in a small kitchen with a dirt floor. Inside were two small chairs, a worn wooden table and a single-burner gas stove. A door opened on a room just big enough to fit a mattress and a dresser.
René told us he had not been on the march and did not consider himself political. But shortly after his father's arrest, he came home to find "Death to the worms of house 58," his family's address, spray-painted on the nearby bus stop. A week later, he was fired from his longtime hospital job. Members of the local "revolutionary defense committee" -- the neighborhood association connected with the Communist Party -- insulted him in the street and tried to pick fights. A man was assigned to watch him and his mother; he stood on their corner and followed them as they came and went.
René's girlfriend stopped talking to him on her parents' orders. So did most of his friends, who were warned by police that they would find themselves in trouble if they kept hanging around a "counterrevolutionary."
"It's like having someone plant a boot right in the middle of my chest and applying so much pressure I can hardly breathe," René told us. "Some days I wake up and I think: I have nothing. I am nobody. I have no dreams left for my future." We encountered this profound sense of isolation time and again in visits with the families of political prisoners.
Soon Bárbara arrived from her five-hour journey. Exhausted, she talked for a few minutes and then went to lie down.
"For weeks after they arrested my father, she didn't leave that bed," René whispered. The upside, he said, laughing, was that he'd been forced to teach himself to cook.
When we left, René insisted on walking us to our car. We headed down the dirt road outside their home, past neighbors who stopped their conversations and stared, and past the man on the corner, who trailed a few yards behind us. When we reached the car, René hugged us and asked us to pass a message to his sister, to whom he hadn't spoken in months: "Tell her we're fine -- not to worry."
As we drove away, I looked in the rearview mirror. René turned around and walked home, past the watchful gaze of his neighbors.
The writer is a researcher with the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs