Sunday, December 21, 2008

"In defiance: Cuba's women prisoners"

From the Miami Herald:


BY MYRIAM MARQUEZ
mmarquez@MiamiHerald.com

She spent 16 years, nine months and four days in Fidel Castro's prisons, but it's what happened on Dec. 7, 1969, that still torments Georgina Cid.
That cold dawn, prisoner Cid was ushered into a room in a forced-labor farm outside Havana with the government-imposed Orwellian name of America Libre, Free America. Two interrogators delivered an impossible ultimatum as a simple choice: Snitch on your group's anti-Castro activities -- on lacausa, the cause -- or we'll kill your older brother, who had been running CIA-backed raids on the island from Miami.
Cid had already lost her younger brother, Eladio Jr., to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista during a shootout at the Haitian Embassy, where he had been hiding in 1956. And now, facing these two men -- just months after her father, Eladio Sr., had died of a heart attack in state custody under questioning -- she was supposed to help the regime?
'I told them, `Look, I am willing to give my life for my brother's because he is better than I am and more useful than I am,' '' said Cid, catching her breath while wiping tears from her face at her Miami home recently. ' `But I can't do that. This is a struggle, and I can't risk anyone's security to save even those dearest to me.' ''
Francisco ''Paco'' Cid -- bruised, emaciated, his once sturdy muscles hanging from bone as he hugged his imprisoned sister for the last time -- was executed by a firing squad, leaving his widow, Ofelia Rodríguez, in prison and a young son.
TOUGH CHOICES
Thousands of women like Georgina Cid had to make tough choices. While Cuban male political prisoners have long captured the media limelight, the women have mostly kept their memories private.
When set free in the 1970s and 1980s, these women set out to rebuild their lives in South Florida. Some earned university degrees; others worked menial jobs. Many married former political prisoners -- men who understood their pain and pride.
Now in the twilight of their battle, the former women prisoners who are left -- many of them called plantadas because they were firmly planted against the regime and refused Marxist reeducation programs -- share a precious bond. Their stories, rarely told outside Cuban exile circles, stand as testament to these women's grit and defiance at a time when most women -- Cuban and American alike -- were expected to be prim and proper homemakers, not gun-toting conspirators for democracy.
Cid was just shy of her 25th birthday when she was sentenced in 1961 to 20 years for hiding a gun ''to conspire against the powers of the state'' -- against a revolution she had embraced after Eladio Jr.'s death.
When she arrived in Miami in 1979, she had become, like so many of the ferociously hopeful Cuban women of her era, a symbol of proud suffering, never cracked by jailers in a bloody, dysfunctional regime that sought to break them.
Most of the imprisoned women had championed the revolution but turned against it once Castro stopped talking about building a big political tent for democratic ideals, and started building prisons instead.
So the women hid young conspiracy-hatchers, cooked up Molotov cocktails, moved weapons and distributed anti-Castro pamphlets.
They stole their Fidelista father's guns for the underground, learned to set up a radio station to incite the masses, or, like Zoila Aguila, known as La Niña del Escambray, took to central Cuba's hills to fight the new revolutionary army. They did everything and anything in the hope that the citizenry would find the nerve to rise up against a communist takeover of their young country. It was a tough sell in a climate of fear fed by hours of bloody executions showcased on TV.
In prison, the women were punished relentlessly, which only brought them closer -- a ragtag sisterhood as diverse as it was united. Poor campesinas like Olga Rodríguez Morgan and Aracelis Rodríguez San Roman mixed in with the once upper crust of Cuban society, such as lawyer Albertina O'Farrill, who had been an ambassador's wife during the Batista years, and Polita Grau, the niece of a former Cuban president, Ramon Grau San Martín, who lived to regret his early support for Castro.
A prisoner's smuggled testimony to the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights detailed the violence on Mother's Day, 1961:
There were a hundred of us women prisoners in Guanabacoa, and they wanted to transfer us to Guanajay, where the conditions were unbearable. . . . The prison was completely surrounded by about 600 armed men and women. . . . They turned [on] water hoses, with a pressure of 200 to 300 pounds. . . . There was one prisoner who was six months pregnant, and they aimed the hose directly at her stomach to make her abort. Many of us ran to protect and cover her with our bodies. The pressure of the water left a deep mark on our skin for about two months.
''From a humanitarian point, independent of what we thought politically and respecting each other's beliefs, we stood together,'' recalls Miami librarian Luisa Pérez, who was among the women who dived in front of a very pregnant Raquel Romero to protect her from the powerful fire hoses. The baby survived. ``If they touched a hair on one of us, all of us would come out to defend her.''
Pérez, Cid, Morgan and Ana Lázara Rodríguez are among the dozens of women who survived that violent Mother's Day behind bars, coming just weeks after the exiles' failed, CIA-hatched Bay of Pigs invasion.
Cid had just returned to her cell after a visit from her mother when she heard ''these terrible screams.'' The women started to bounce off the packed cell door to break the lock and join the fight.
In Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen years in a Cuban Women's Prison, Rodríguez describes the scene as ``a kaleidoscope of flying fists and swinging feet. . . . Casualties were falling on both sides. . . . But the men had the advantage of size, numbers and weapons.''
PLANNED VIOLENCE
When the riot broke out in the yard at the Guanabacoa prison, Morgan was being punished in her cell. ''I was in Galley 5, and I'd been digging a hole to escape, so when we saw so many militiamen outside, I thought the authorities had discovered the hole. But no, it was a trap to transfer some women to Guanajay, and to beat up the mothers and families who had come to see us,'' said Morgan, who now lives in Ohio with her husband, James Goodwin.
''That was an important moment,'' Morgan said. ``In that moment, we began to see ourselves as one.''
Morgan was a guajira -- a country girl -- who grew up in the tobacco region in a little house with a dirt floor in the kitchen and dining room. As a student leader in Santa Clara, she had fallen in love with William Morgan, the fabled yanqui comandante in Castro's rebel force.
After Castro's triumph, the pair were relegated to running a revolutionary frog farm in Pinar del Río province, and an unhappy William soon began to conspire against Castro's tilt toward communism. Arrested in October 1960, William Morgan was executed five months later. By Mother's Day, 1961, Olga Morgan had left her two baby girls to her mother. She was now an imprisoned widow, sentenced to 30 years.
Guanajay scared the women because it was built for the most violent common criminals during the presidency of Grau San Martín in the late 1940s. As Castro's regime cracked down, prisons like Guanajay were packed with six to 10 women in a cell built for one.
Among the prisoners at Guanajay: Grau's niece, Polita, accused with her brother Ramon of counterrevolutionary activities, including helping 14,000 Cuban children escape to the United States through the Catholic Church's Pedro Pan program.
From an OAS report on July 4, 1962, on a transfer from Guanajay to Baracoa prison:
A new system of iron discipline was imposed at Guanajay. Punishment without cause became constant. At noon on July 4, they . . . called off 25 by name followed by the word, ''Transfer.'' The courtyard turned into a battle scene. Yelling, insults, threats, blows, profanity, curses, the noise of broken heads, blood. . . . A young black, Juana Drake, was taken out of her cell and beaten all the way by a militiaman who screamed at her, ''Walk, you black bitch!'' This young woman was resentenced to another three years with the female criminals because she wrote a sign on the wall in English, Spanish and French, which said, ``We have the right to be free.''
In all, 65 women were taken from Guanajay to Baracoa, including Maria Amalia Fernández del Cueto and her baby daughter, Amadita, then only 23 days old and who barely survived the trip. The Baracoa cells had lice and rats, and there was no medical care, except for any help that prisoners Caridad de la Vega and Isabel Rodríguez, both doctors, would lovingly dispense to their younger cellmates.
''For six months, they had us there,'' said Gloria Argudin, who was a 20-year-old University of Havana secretary when her father, a Fidelista doctor, ran the campus clinic. One day, she decided to take some of his weapons and head for the Escambray Mountains. She was caught conspiring against Castro's government in 1960.
Argudin was the only woman with a band of 12 men in two cars hauling grenades, guns and radio equipment. Five men were sent to the firing squad in that show trial, attended by 2,000. Cuba's Bohemia magazine described them as former revolutionary rebels gone bad, beholden to the ``imperialist monster to the north.''
CHILLING MEMORY
To this day, Argudin gets chills on high-rise balconies -- the legacy of having been dangled off the roof of a tall building, part of her interrogation after being ''shot'' by soldiers with fake bullets in front of a ditch. ''I never cry in those moments,'' she said in her Little Havana apartment. ``I just get more furious.''
Friends like Gladys Chinea, who was in prison with Argudin, recall how guards would taunt her with threats that her friend would be facing the paredón -- execution by firing squad.
'We would hear, `Gloria Argudin, paredón!' '' Chinea said. ``On those nights, we would all tremble.''
After Baracoa, the 65 women and the baby were returned to the Guanajay prison in 1963. They soon found a new revolutionary method of torture: Tapiadas, or covered cells.
''Our arrival was terrible,'' Morgan said. ``Each time one of us got down from the van, they would grab you and pull you and beat you up the stairs. Several of us were badly injured.''
Eventually, some of the women would be stripped of their clothes and thrown into newly built cells with concrete slabs covering windows and a metal door that barely allowed a food plate and tiny pink cup to be slid through the slot. It baked in the tropical sun. The Internacional, the communist anthem, played incessantly.
''The cells were made by sick minds, by people who thought they could take away our strength, our principles, our ideas,'' Morgan said. ``But they were wrong.''
Miami historian Pedro Corso, a former Cuban political prisoner whose group, Instituto de la Memoria Histórica Cubana contra el Totalitarismo, documents the regime's human-rights abuses, calls the women prisoners ``unique to their time, often suffering more abuses than many of the men.''
That suffering made them stronger. They would sing and crack jokes and taunt their jailers. And pray.
Grau, who died in South Florida in 2001, loved to play guitar and formed Christmas choruses to sing religious songs banned by the atheist regime.
At Nuevo Amenecer, or New Dawn, a perverse misnomer for a work-camp prison in Havana province, Rodríguez San Roman remembers how excited the young women would get when Grau talked about her years as Cuba's first lady during her uncle's presidency. Rodríguez, Grau and La Niña del Escambray were among the last plantadas there in the late 1970s.
Rodríguez came from a big family of 11 siblings, country folks who grew rice, tobacco, malanga and corn in Pinar del Río. With only a sixth-grade education, Rodríguez is scrappy smart. She kept the books for the Frente Union Occidental, the Eastern Union Front, an anti-Castro group her uncle ran to disrupt commerce by bombing bridges.
That uncle, Esteban Marquez Novo, escaped to the United States, trained with the CIA, and returned to Cuba to run missions and bring out some of his nephews between 1961 and 1964.
Two of Rodríguez's brothers also returned on May 13, 1964. Gilberto was killed in combat. ''He had a machine gun, so he killed two or three of them,'' Rodríguez said. Her brother Arsenio escaped but was on the lam for almost a quarter century -- hiding in Cuba until he left on a boat.
When news of nephew Gilberto's death reached Marquez Novo, who ran the Frente, he grabbed his pistol and killed himself.
That same day, Rodríguez, her father, uncle and another brother were hauled away. She was taken to the G-2 security office in Pinar del Río. They wanted her to identify her brother Gilberto's body. She was taken down a hall to a pile of clothes on the floor.
''They were full of blood,'' she said, her voice breaking, ``but I didn't see the body. For years, I didn't know if he was really dead.
''History can be so horrible,'' she said. ``No one imagines.''
In 1979, Rodríguez left Nuevo Amanecer and came to Miami, among 3,000 political prisoners released by Cuba. She was 39 and about to be married to another prisoner. Since widowed, Rodríguez now takes care of her 98-year-old mother and her 94-year-old uncle, Ramon San Roman Novo, who spent 24 years behind bars.
HALF A CENTURY
Fifty years. Families decimated by firing squad, suicide, guerrilla raids and long imprisonments. Women set free too old to have children.
Hate? No. But justice, sí.
''I'm one of those people who doesn't forgive or forget,'' said Gladys Ruisanchez, who served 10 years in prison. Her father and her future husband were also imprisoned.
Today, Ruisanchez helps organize events to bring the women together -- and find ways to help the opposition in Cuba, groups like the independent Democratic libraries run from people's homes and the families of ex-prisoners who remain in Cuba.
Cid says her imprisonment gave her the chance to meet women ``with a lot of morals and spirituality. We cared for each other and still today continue doing so because we shared a common suffering.''
Turning a page of her late mother's memory book, which contains hundreds of Cid's numbered letters from prison, Cid spots a yellowed Cuban exile newspaper's clipping about her brother's death, with the headline: ``Cuba will be free because of the sacrifice of its sons.''
And its daughters.

3 comments:

Violeta (anticastrista) said...

Alerta !!!!!!!!
No se puede entrar en le blog de Yoani , ni en el d su marido
prece q los han deasaparecido . Por favor, si pueden divulguen esto entre los bloguers

Violeta (anticastrista) said...

el blog d Yoani ( Generación Y )es tb antifidelista ..

Alfredo said...

Violeta,

Yoani's blog is back up!