By María Elena Salinas

For those of us who live in a free society, it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to survive in a place where expressing your views and asking that your rights as a human being be respected could land you in jail. But that’s what life is like in Cuba. Throughout the years, the communist regime of the Castro brothers has put hundreds of dissidents behind bars.

In a twist of fate, or political maneuvering, 52 prisoners of conscience are being set free, allowed to leave the country with their family members if they so choose. Many of them accepted the offer to begin their exile in Spain.

Among the first nine to arrive in Madrid was Normando Hernandez. He traveled there with his wife and young daughter and was greeted by his mother, Blanca Gonzalez, who traveled to Spain from her own exile in Miami to greet him. I spoke to Normando by phone shortly after. “I feel a lot of sadness and nostalgia,” he told me. “It broke my heart to see my mother crying when she saw the frail condition I am in.

It was for him a bittersweet moment. Although happy to be a free man and once again reunited with his mother after eight years, it pains him to think of what he left behind. “I left not only family members behind, but also my people, my brothers in the cause who are living their life in slow motion in Cuban jails in deplorable conditions and with the uncertainty of what will become of them.”

When they arrived in Spain, the freed prisoners were taken to a modest hotel in an industrial area in the outskirts of Madrid, where conditions were not quite what one might expect to find in a First World country. No TV sets, the rooms have metal lockers to store clothes, and guests have to share a bathroom. Yet, they could not complain. This was heaven compared with the conditions in a Cuban jail.

Hernandez worked as a writer and independent journalist in Cuba. He was sentenced to 25 years behind bars for reporting on the conditions of state-run services and criticizing the government. According to PEN American Center, a literary and human-rights organization, during his time behind bars he was transferred several times from one prison to another, held in solitary confinement with only four hours of sunlight a week. He was forced to share a tiny cell with insects, rodents and mentally unstable prisoners. He was given polluted water and inadequate food, and was offered only basic medical services. While in captivity, he contracted several illnesses.

The release of the 52 prisoners from Cuban jails is officially the result of the Catholic Church on the island and the government of Spain negotiating with Cuban authorities, but almost certainly was influenced by the bravery of ordinary Cubans who decided to go from oppressed observers to silent protesters, a silence so strong it reverberated in the highest levels of the Cuban hierarchy.

The pressure was on when international public opinion began to shift against the Castro regime as images of the “Ladies in White,” mothers and wives of political prisoners, being harassed by pro-government mobs during their Sunday vigils were broadcast around the world. The death of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata in February, following an 85-day hunger strike, motivated independent journalist Guillermo Farinas to start his own hunger strike until prisoners who were gravely ill were allowed back home with their families and given proper medical attention. Shortly after the announcement of the release of the political prisoners in Cuba, Farinas, virtually on his deathbed, ended his 130-day hunger strike.

The release of these men is one of the most significant signs coming from the communist island of what could be the appearance of loosening up its tight reign. Critics of the Cuban regime think it’s just a public-relations stunt. The Cuban government has never admitted that there are political prisoners in Cuba, but according to human-rights groups, there are still dozens of prisoners of conscience behind bars.

For his part, Normando Hernandez will begin a new life in Spain, hoping eventually to live his exile in Miami. But his struggle to free Cuba will remain the same: “Whatever it takes to free my people, I will do, as a journalist, as a defender of human rights, in any capacity, but I will do it in a peaceful way.”

for the freedom of all cuban political prisoners
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