In March 2003, the Cuban regime rounded up 75 journalists, librarians and human peaceful dissidents and quickly hustled them off to prison for lengthy terms on bizarre, trumped-up charges.
For example, Normando Hernandez, who had been writing articles on CubaNet since 1999, was found guilty of reporting on the health, education and judicial systems and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, a surgeon who was hounded from his profession for his political beliefs, was sentenced to 24 years, with 17 months of it in isolation. Ill with pneumonia and a cyst on his kidney, his weight dropped to 90 pounds. Regis Iglesias, a poet, received an 18-year sentence.
All of the 75 Cubans were released by 2010, a few months after an international outcry over the death of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo. But the releases did not come until many of those jailed in the spring of 2003 -- including Hernandez, Paneque and Iglesias -- had spent more than seven years in prison, in terrible conditions for alleged crimes that amounted to nothing more than the exercise of “the most elementary of human rights, especially as regards freedom of expression and political association,” as the European Union put it, in a statement denouncing the prosecutions.
For these three and many of the others, however, the privations did not end with release from prison. They were exiled to Spain, where they were denied basic liberties customarily accorded political refugees. In a column in the Wall Street Journal on June 13 of this year, Mary Anastasia O’Grady criticized the Spanish government for “assisting the Cuban dictatorship to disguise the deportation as ‘liberation.’”
Among the readers of the column was former President George W. Bush. The three ex-prisoners learned of his interest, and, on Tuesday, they flew to Dallas to tell their stories to a packed assembly at an event sponsored by the Bush Institute.
The Cubans were accompanied by Jose Maria Aznar, former president of Spain, and Antonio Lopez-Isturiz White, secretary general of the European People’s Party, the pan-European center-right organization that has been looking out for the welfare of the exiles as the Spanish government has shirked its responsibility.
The sad fact is that much of the world is either consciously ignoring or is blissfully unaware of the brutality and repression being exercised by the Cuba regime against citizens simply asking basic freedoms. While global attention has focused on the Arab Spring and the liberation of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, a Caribbean island has remained for more than 60 years in the grip of a family that has destroyed its economy and stripped its people of the most fundamental rights.
What’s the answer for Cuba? Start with an intensification of international pressure on the regime. Certainly, the attitude of the Spanish government will change later this month if, as expected, the Socialist government so friendly to the Castros is defeated.
But international pressure won’t increase unless the world hears the stories of brave Cubans like Dr. Paneque, who told the rapt audience in Dallas about the hell of solitary confinement in a tiny cell. He said that his life would never be the same. You could see the emotional scars.
The Castro brothers probably expected that the experience of prison would chasten or silence the released dissidents – those in Spain or the United States or still in Cuba. But it has not. Hernandez, Paneque and Iglesias remain defiant. They’re telling tales of one of the most repressive governments in the world. “We must seek the truth,” said President Aznar on Tuesday, “and make known the lies of the regime.”
Change in Cuba also requires that freedom-loving Americans – especially high officials -- to lend their moral support. Aznar reminded the audience that freedom “will never come from appeasement and complacency.”
When President Bush was in office, he vigorously and publicly put the weight of his office behind hundreds of dissidents and freedom advocates.
He met with Dr. Paneque’s wife and daughter in the Oval Office during the dissident’s fourth year in prison and then, six months later, in the East Room of the White House for a “day of Solidarity with the Cuban People.” The President even helped Paneque’s wife get a better job in Texas so she could be at home with her daughter at night. He mentioned Paneque three times in speeches, including an address to the Cuban people a few days before he left office in 2009.
President Bush also mentioned the jailed Normando Hernandez in three speeches, and Hernandez’s mother joined Mrs. Bush in the First Lady’s box for the 2008 State of the Union address. We know from interviews with other dissidents that word of this kind of support seeps into prisons and gives freedom advocates the courage to struggle on.
Finally, the United States and other nations need to be steadfast in their policies. Any change in relations with Cuba must be predicated on free elections. Freedom won’t come to the nation until the current regime leaves power and the Cuban people themselves are able to choose their leaders.
Perhaps nature will have to run its course, but I hope not. There are non-violent ways to bring freedom to Cuba, and they all come down to helping courageous Cubans like Hernandez, Paneque and Iglesias succeed.
James K. Glassman is the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy.
- President Bush