RSF sat with Ricardo González Alfonso, at Motel Welcome in Madrid for an interview on 14 July.
Cafeteria of the Hotel Welcome, where the Spanish government is lodging the 11 Cubans who arrived in Spain on 14 July
Seven of them are journalists and one of the seven is Ricardo González Alfonso, who has been the Reporters Without Borders Cuba correspondent since 1998. He was arrested along with 74 other Cuban dissidents during the notorious “Black Spring” of March 2003 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Spanish section of Reporters Without Borders went to greet him on his arrival at Madrid’s Barajas airport and, because of the enormous international interest, organised a news conference for him and the other journalists on 17 July.
In the following interview, he talks about his impressions since his release and his plans for the future.
What were your initial feelings on leaving prison?
There have been various feelings. The first is one of being physically in Madrid and mentally still in Cuba. In conversations, I find myself saying ‘here’ and I am referring to Cuba. There was a more intimate and personal feeling, the one I had when I woke up next to my wife for the first time in seven years and four months. In prison, there were conjugal visits ever five months, then every three months and finally every two months, but they were three-hour visits. And you missed waking up beside your wife. But there is a detail that is worth recalling: when I was on the plane flying to Spain, I saw a knife for the first time in a long while. A metal knife. Something very simple but forbidden inside prison. It surprised me. It almost frightened me. Another detail: the emotion you feel facing you first plate of hot food in seven years. It is a jumble of little things that may give an idea of the confusion I feel at this moment, and the need to adapt psychologically to the new circumstances.
How did you experience your release, from the moment you received the news until you left Cuba?
Everything began with a rumour, which I heard in the national prison hospital, where I was being treated for a foot infection. A fellow inmate, a reliable person I trusted, told me that he had heard on the radio (in the Combinado del Este building where he was) that they were going to free 45 prisoners. That was the first news. A little later, in the same hospital, I met another colleague, Julio César Gálvez (another journalist, who was also released). He told me he had heard something similar but he still did not have any details. When I got back to my cell, I asked for the newspaper, Granma, and there I saw that the news was confirmed. It spoke of releases but did not give the names of the chosen detainees.
Later, at around 6 pm on the same day, 8 July, I got a call from Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, telling me that my name was on the list of prisoners who were going to be released and flown to Spain, if I was willing. I said that going to Spain could be interesting. When I met my wife Alida, she was thinking of emigrating to the United States. But I was not contemplating emigrating. So we decided that we would separate when her exit permit arrived (which in Cuba is issued by the interior ministry). But, as the years went by, we became closer and more in love with each other, and Alida’s exit permit did not arrive. Finally, a few days after I was arrested, Alida’s one-way exit permit finally arrived, presumably to get her to abandon me. But she refused to abandon me. She rejected the permit and decided to stay here with me. It was obviously the kind of decision that creates a strong bond between two people, stronger than the initial commitment to each other.
When the releases first began, in the first half of 2005, we talked about it and I told her that, if they released me and then took a year to give me an exit permit, we would stay in Cuba. But if they gave us the exit permit before the year was up, we would leave. Years later, I am a granted a release together with an immediate exit permit. So, I kept the promise I had made to my wife, in response to her loyalty to me, and we decided to emigrate. The first phase was difficult for me, because my younger son from my first marriage did not want to leave his mother, and his mother did not want to emigrate. But her friends and I managed to persuade her. I was fortunate in finally being able to emigrate with the two children from my first marriage, with my wife, of course, and with my children’s mother. So I can say I am one of the few Cubans with all of his family united.
When you were told of your imminent release, did Cardinal Ortega tell you that you could choose between staying in Cuba or leaving?
No, it was very clear. What he told me was that those who left with me would be able to return without a permit. This is exceptional. Any Cuban who emigrates definitively has to apply for a re-entry permit in order to return. This of course violates article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but that is the situation in our country. The cardinal also told me that, for the first time in 50 years, the property I left behind, my home, would not be confiscated. Those were the details he gave me. But he told me I had to take an immediate decision.
In other words, you had to give him your reply in the course of the same phone call?
Yes, at once. The cardinal said that the processing was going to be very fast that not a minute could be lost. I had to give him my reply at once.
The conditions in which you were held for the past seven years, what were they like?
There were various stages. The investigative phase and the trial itself, a total of 36 days, were spent in Villa Marista, the State Security headquarters. The light was on all the time. I had to sleep next to the light in a windowless cell. The water for bathing and drinking was rationed. The interrogations were in the morning, the afternoon, the night and in the early hours. So you had only short spells for sleeping. This went on until the trial. After the trial, the same conditions continued but we were allowed out of our cells in the morning and afternoon and were able to converse, because there was no longer any point interrogating.
We were there until 24 April 2003, when we were sent to the top security prison, Kilo 8 in Camagüey, where the conditions were very harsh. I was in a cell in which, where the bed ends, the little bathroom begin. A cell so narrow that the water store is in this small toilet. There was no shower, just a water tube over the toilet, toilet in inverted commas, what we call a Turkish toilet. That is where you had your breakfast, lunch and dinner and where you received medical attention. From Monday to Friday, when it was not raining, we were allowed into a courtyard where, if I stretched my arms out, I could touch the walls on either side. It was like a cell, but instead of a roof it had bars. If it was noon, you had the sun overhead. At other times, there was glare from the sun. Then the situation changed. We spent three months without electricity. Then we were three months with the light on all the time.
This was all in Camagüey?
Yes, I am still referring to Camagüey’s Kilo 8 prison. It is 533 km from Havana, where my family lived. During the last month, we were able to turn the light off and on. That was a big advantage. While there, I wrote a book of poems called “Man without a face” that reflected all the abuses taking place there. Not just the abuses to which I was being subjected because of my ideals, for defending freedom of expression, but also what the ordinary offenders were undergoing. I was punished for writing the book. They sent me to a special wing holding Cuba’s most dangerous inmates, ones that no other prison accepted, to the point that there were no people in Camagüey province in the prison. They were all from other provinces.
One told me that three of them were there to harass me, to steal things from me and to be verbally abusive. Not physical mistreatment, but verbal aggression, insults and so on. One of them admitted that he had been sent by State Security, that he would be rewarded for the role he was playing. To end this punishment, I was forced to go on hunger strike. I told the authorities that I would call off my hunger strike if they recognised that they were punishing me for writing a book or if they gave me the same treatment as my colleagues, the treatment that I had been receiving before, which was bad but not as bad as this.
Later, when I already had gall-bladder and liver problems, I was sent to Agüica prison, in Matanzas province. I was in poor health all the time I was there. They took me to the national prison hospital several times and I was operated on three times there. From there, I was transferred to Havana’s Combinado del Este prison on 7 December 2004. At first, I was in Building No. 2. Then I was admitted to the hospital again. From there we were sent back to prison without a medical discharge because we had staged a protest. In the final stage, the last two or three years. I had a cell to myself, thanks to the protests and hunger strikes and the international campaign by my wife Alida.
As a result, I managed to obtain conditions that were better than those available to ordinary offenders – the possibility of having my cell door open from 6 am to 6 pm and of having a light that I could turn on and off. As for the rest, it was the prison discipline that everyone has to accept. Except that I refused to wear the ordinary offender’s prison uniform because I was not an ordinary offender. I wore regular clothes. This led to my sister being harassed when she came from New York to visit me. The Cuban political police pressured her at Havana’s José Martí airport to try to persuade me to wear prison uniform. She was 71 at the time and they put her under so much psychological stress that she fainted.
What can you tell us about the food and the hygiene in the prisons where you were held?
Here again there were phases. For example, when I was in the windowless cell in Camagüey and being punished for going on hunger strike, the floor had a carpet of rodents. It was part of the punishment. My bed was just two steps from my toilet. The ceilings of the cells were incredibly damp. I saw this in all the prisons where I have been, without exception. There was so much humidity that we used plastic bags to channel the water leaking from the pipes so that it did not drip on us while we were sleeping or eating. Using Cuban ingenuity, the inmates made channels for the water by tying plastic bags. The walls were permanently damp in my last two cells. Water dripped from the walls and the leaks.
And how did all this affect your health?
Well, I am allergic to humidity. I had to be treated with antihistamines all the time. I suffer from migraines. I was always on analgesics to control those. I was 53 when I entered prison and 60 when I left and, logically, all that humidity made my osteoarthritis worse.
More at the link.
(H/T Marc Masferrer)