Life after prison means facing fear daily
HAVANA · It's a habit Bernardo Arévalo Padrón picked up in his last year behind bars. To mark time, he crossed off each remaining day in his six-year sentence on a calendar that hung in the cell he shared with 28 other prisoners.
Today he counts his days in freedom and quickly offers the tally: 65 since he was released Nov. 13 from the Ariza prison in central Cienfuegos province, where he served six years on charges that he defamed Cuban President Fidel Castro in an interview with a Miami-based radio program.
Cuban officials offered to withdraw the charges if he retracted his statements calling Castro a liar, but he refused, he said.
For a time Arévalo Padrón, 39, was Cuba's only independent
journalist in prison. That changed last April when 28 others, including
the well-known poet Raul
Rivero, were sentenced to up to 27 years on charges that they reported "false news to satisfy the interests of their sponsors in the U.S. government" and tried to
destabilize the Cuban government.
Arévalo Padrón has spent the past couple of months adjusting
to life outside prison. He said he is writing a book based on his experiences
in jail and is applying for a
visa to move to Canada. He has continued to file radio reports for several Miami-based exile organizations, including the federally funded Radio Marti, which is
generally blocked by the Cuban government.
He says there are days when he still gets nervous from the sound of a police motorcycle or car idling outside his home. He fears he could be arrested again.
"I feel fear, and every day I overcome it," said the former railroad
worker who has no journalistic training. "Someone has to report on the
laments of the Cuban
In letters from political prisoners across the island, many describe conditions similar to those Arévalo Padrón faced at Ariza.
He said his mattress was stuffed with seaweed where gnats and mosquitoes
nested. His food was often served rotten. Rainwater leaked into his cell,
contracted high fevers after rats urinated in the food his wife, Libertad Acosta Diaz, brought to supplement the prison meals.
He spent much of his time reading books, including The Godfather, Jules Verne's science-fiction adventures and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.
While Arévalo Padrón was imprisoned, other dissidents
helped his family by donating rice, beans and other foods. Now the roles
are reversed, and he collects food
to help a jailed dissident's family who live nearby.
Like many of Cuba's dissidents and independent journalists, Arévalo Padrón once supported Cuba's communist system and its leadership.
But the former army reservist says he had a change of heart in the late 1980s and began to sympathize with Cuba's struggling opposition groups.
"There was no definitive moment," he recalled. "It was a gradual disillusionment
with the communist regime which was influenced by Radio Marti and the information
A dissident-led human rights organization in Havana last week said the island has 315 political prisoners.
The list in the group's semiannual report included some who were convicted for trying to leave the country illegally.
It also included the 75 dissidents who were sentenced in the crackdown
last year and are considered prisoners of conscience by the human rights
International. The Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission said 10 of these prisoners are so ill they should be allowed to serve out their
sentences at home.
Those in most frail condition, according to the commission, are two
former state economists, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who suffers from cirrhosis
of the liver, and
Martha Beatriz Roque, who has high blood pressure.
They are being treated in military hospitals, but Espinosa Chepe's wife says her husband's medical care is inadequate.
The commission also highlighted the case of blind dissident Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leyva, who has been jailed since March 2002 without a trial.
The year "2003 was very unfavorable due to the systematic violations
of civil, political and economic rights," the report stated. "What is worrying
for us is that 2004
could be just as discouraging in these areas."
Vanessa Bauzá can be reached at email@example.com.
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