By Carlos Alberto Montaner

MADRID Unexpectedly, the guard, in a voice less harsh than usual, said to him: "Paneque, leave your cell to take a phone call."

José Luis García Paneque, 44, is a doctor, a plastic surgeon specializing in burn injuries, a family man with several young children, talkative and intelligent like a good imp. In March 2003, during the so-called "Black Spring in Havana," he was arrested and summarily sentenced to 15 years in prison.

His crime? Like the rest of the 75 detainees during that repressive orgy, he wrote chronicles about the Cuban reality in foreign newspapers (because he wasn't allowed to do so in the government-fettered press), lent forbidden books, wanted and asked for democracy for his country and was a devout Catholic. In other words, the living portrait of a dangerous enemy of the people and an agent of Yankee imperialism.

The call came from Cardinal Jaime Ortega. Amiably, the prelate asked him if he wished to be released and sent to Spain. There were no humiliating conditions. Neither would Paneque have accepted them nor would Ortega have proposed them. Paneque answered Yes. Somehow, the democratic opposition had won the game, and the dictatorship was beginning to get rid of the prisoners of conscience.

Besides, Paneque trusted his church. The priests and bishops had not abandoned him when he was arrested. They helped his family and looked after him when they discovered that he was dying of the infectious diseases contracted in the filthy cells.

His immunological system no longer fought off the intestinal parasites, the medicines had lost their effectiveness and he gradually became malnourished. He looked like one of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps. Besides him, two other captives, Normando Hernández González and Ariel Sigler Amaya, suffered variations of the same chronic and incurable illness.

Of the three, Sigler, who was the strongest when they walked into prison, an almost-200-pound athlete, is in the worst condition: invalid, thin as a rail, in a wheelchair and incapable of even holding his head up without a neck brace. He's still in Havana because the Cuban government cruelly denies him an exit permit, even though he has a U.S. visa.

I went over to embrace the prisoners, who had just arrived in Spain. It was a very emotional moment. It is impossible to hold back the tears. One hides them, because of that awful curse that "men don't cry.'' But the eyes usually do their own thing.

Normando's mother, Blanca González, who had just arrived from Miami, hugged her son with the intense love of someone who had given birth to him for the second time. Andrés Ely Blanco, the great popular Venezuelan poet, perceptively stated it many decades ago: There is no happier day than the day the prisoners are freed.

I had seen Blanca shout at a hundred demonstrations, invoking Normando's name and waving his picture. To see him alive again was her wish when she went to bed and when she rose every single day. His cause encouraged her to continue breathing amid so much pain and so many sad reports that flew from the prison cells, like ravens, to warn her that Normando would die soon if he was not rescued.

The prisoners were housed in a modest hostel in Vallecas, an industrial neighborhood near Madrid. That's understandable. Spain, which has extended a generous hand amid a crisis, does not have funds to dispense charity profusely. The prisoners have arrived with their relatives, and the final bill could be high for any of the underbudgeted state institutions. Maybe there was also the objective of isolating them so the media hoopla could be kept down. The Zapatero government does not want this operation to become a broadside against the dictatorship.

But it won't accomplish that. These men -- for now, Paneque and Normando, Léster González, Antonio Villarreal, Pablo Pacheco, Julio César Gálvez, Omar Ruiz, Ricardo González -- are willing to die to defend their right to say what they think.

If they weren't silenced by the blows, the hunger and the caging in terrible prisons, who can even think of muzzling them now that they've gained freedom? They came to exercise their throats and will not keep quiet.

for the freedom of all cuban political prisoners
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