Sunday, October 10, 2010

Feeling prisoners' agony in Cuba

Posted on Sunday, 10.10.10

Feeling prisoners' agony in Cuba

Actor Danny Glover sent a letter to President Obama recently, asking him
to grant humanitarian temporary visas to Adriana Perez and Olga
Salanueva, wives of Gerardo Hernandez and Rene Gonzalez, two of the five
Cubans convicted in Miami in 2001 for ``acting as unregistered agents of
a foreign government.'' They are known, for short, as the ``Cuban Five.''

One of the five was found guilty of playing a role in Cuba's shoot down
of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996, causing the death of four
young men over the troubled waters of the Florida Straits. They are
serving sentences that range from 15 years to life in prison.

I called the State Department to find out why the visas have been
denied. Officials did not return the call, but according to an Amnesty
International report, the U.S. government has given different and
``inconsistent'' reasons for the denials.

I can't even begin to place myself in the mind of a consular officer.
What I do know is that prisoners -- no matter what government or cause
they serve -- should be allowed to have family visits. And food, and
water, and sun, and medical assistance.

Glover, a character actor who has starred in The Color Purple and Lethal
Weapon, writes that he ``cannot imagine the pain, the suffering, the
emotional longing, and the punishment that not seeing a life-partner in
over 10 years would cause.''

Frankly, neither can I.

And so, for the information and details that are the fuel of
imagination, I turned to Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez, who spent 22 years,
three months and 19 days in Cuban prisons. ``I spent almost seven years
in a cell in my underwear, mostly alone, without visitors, without
medical attention, without books. For months I was on a hunger strike. I
was almost blind, almost dead, could only breathe in one position. I
couldn't even get water, because the guards said the doctors had not
ordered it,'' he said.

``Sitting with my back against the wall, I could touch the other wall
with my feet. The light was blocked because the guards had welded iron
plates over the bars, leaving a hole for food.''

He was in cell 32, in the Boniato prison in Puerto Boniato, at the end
of a pretty valley laced by mountains in Santiago de Cuba. He remembers
that, too.

Yes, but what does it feel like? I insisted. ``I'd say that, in those
conditions, the human being loses the sense and the sensibility of the
self,'' he said. ``You are confused. You don't understand time. Days are
hard, long. You don't understand the passage of time. Eventually, you
become like a thing, a vegetable, just waiting for the passage of time.''

To survive, Diaz Rodriguez said, ``you need a strong religious faith or
a strong spirit, and the conviction that what you are doing is right and

Diaz Rodriguez, who was 29 when he was imprisoned and 51 when freed in
1991, said he had the latter: the ``strong spirit'' and the conviction.
He was arrested in one of several attempts to infiltrate Cuba and foment
a revolution to overthrow Fidel Castro's government. Before his arrest,
on Dec. 4, 1968, he lived in New York and Miami where he painted
windows. He left three children behind; the oldest was 5, the youngest
six months old.

When he went in, he weighed 165 pounds. After a five-month hunger
strike, he weighed 79 pounds. He had diarrhea for two years. But he
wrote nonstop, producing volumes of poems that were later published.

During the six and a half years in solitary confinement -- what Cubans
know as ``tapiado'' -- Diaz Rodriguez's elderly aunt tried
unsuccessfully to see him. Repeatedly, after days traveling to Boniato,
she was turned back. She was about 70, then, recalled Diaz Rodriguez,
now 70 and living in Connecticut with his wife Alicia Perez, a pediatrician.

Just like Glover, Amnesty International and others are now doing for the
``Cuban Five,'' a lot of people agitated for Diaz-Rodriguez's release,
including Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias and legendary Rhode Island
Sen. Claiborne Pell. Eventually, he was released. Eventually, he had the
piece of cake he so yearned for when he was imprisoned. Eventually, he
saw his aunt. And, eventually, once he came to the United States, he saw
his grown sons.

I don't know if this amount of detail is sufficient for Glover to be
able to imagine what family separation feels like on the other side of a
welded punishment cell. It was enough for me, almost more than I could
assimilate as a writer, who, like an actor, is often immersed in the
quest for understanding human nature, even the kind that dwells in the
minds and hearts of those who to this day continue to keep prisoners and
their families apart.

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