Still Not Free


The first impression I got when I spoke to Victor Rolando Arroyo via telephone this past Sunday is what an incredibly humble man he is. After I thanked him for his courage and his sacrifice in the struggle for freedom in Cuba, this remarkable man refused to accept any recognition for his brave acts, deferring instead to Cuban patriots he felt had done much more than him.

Victor Rolando Arroyo was one of the 75 members of the opposition arrested during the Black Spring of 2003. Victor is also one of the prisoners of conscience banished from Cuba and forcibly exiled to Spain in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church and the Spanish government with Cuba’s dictatorial regime. He suffered the indignities and humiliation of being unjustly imprisoned in one of Castro’s gulags for more than 7 years, and as he told me in our conversation, even though he is no longer in that prison, he still does not consider himself a free man.

Victor had been arrested on previous occasions, the most notable being in 2000 when he served 6 months in jail for giving children toys for El Dia de los Reyes Magos, Three Kings day. He provided me with details of this interesting humanitarian operation called Reyes Magos del Milenio, which I will write about it in a later post. But today I wanted to share with all of you the conversation we had regarding his release and subsequent banishment from Cuba.

Victor and I spoke at length regarding his and his family’s experience in the past weeks — from prison and separation, to reunification and exile. Their journey has been a tumultuous and bittersweet one, and although they are happy to be finally together again, they are not happy with the way they were banished and forced into exile.

I asked Victor to tell me how he first found out about his release from prison, and he said that in was in the regime’s newspaper, Granma, where they first saw the news of the releases. He was under the impression that he would be released and allowed to go back to his home to see his family members, some of  which he had not seen in over seven years. But he soon realized that would not be the case; instead, he was whisked from prison straight to the airport, and the only family members he was able to see while still in Cuba were the ones traveling with him to their forced exile in Spain. The article in Granma was a “huge lie,” he said, to give the impression the regime was releasing political prisoners when in reality it was banishing them from the island.

His only communication with the Catholic Church, the entity that took on the responsibility to negotiate his life and the lives of his family without any of their consent, took place on two occasions. The first was a short phone call from Cardinal Ortega while he was still in prison asking him if he would be willing to travel to Spain if he were released. Victor answered yes, and the Cardinal’s response was a curt thank you and blessing before hanging up. No explanations were given, and neither were the terms of the negotiations that would affect him and his family for the rest of their lives were offered.

The second time he was called by the church was to obtain a list of the family members he wanted accompanying him into forced exile in Spain. He gave them his list and soon thereafter, his wife and mother were approached on the street by state security agents and told they had two hours to gather all their worldly belongings before they had to leave.

They were taken to a military installation where they were kept for two weeks under constant surveillance and forced to surrender all their papers and identification cards. They were not allowed to leave the military compound or contact anyone during their time there. Victor explained with a heavy heart how the whole experience, the uncertainty, the secrecy, the detainment of his family members, had a huge impact on all of them.

When they were all finally sent to the airport they were brought into the plane through a rear door after all the other passengers had already boarded. Once they arrived in Madrid, they were instructed via the loudspeaker to remain in their seats until all the other passengers had left the plane. It was then, like pariahs or undesirables, that they were allowed to deplane.

Victor stated that the entire experience was not very different from the  indignities and humiliation they had all suffered under the Castro regime. Even in another continent, the regime was still humiliating them.

The topic of the European Union’s Common Position on Cuba came up and Victor reiterated what most of his fellow exiled dissidents have already said; the situation in Cuba has not changed one bit, and neither should the EU’s position. Members of the Cuban opposition are still being oppressed and harassed by the tyrannical Castro regime and regardless of the so-called release of 52 political prisoners, Cuba remains a dictatorship. Cuba has not changed, and in Victor’s opinion, neither should the EU’s position towards the island’s dictatorial regime.

The issue of the U.S. embargo on the Castro regime naturally followed, and Victor gave me an interesting and eyeopening take on the topic: in Cuba, he said, there is no embargo or blockade.

Nothing is in short supply for the Castro family, or the elite members of the government. None of them have to worry about food, or clothes, or medicine. They have access to the best luxuries money can buy, and they take advantage of that access. They all eat well, live in nice, luxurious homes, wear designer clothes, travel abroad on vacation, and drive nice cars.

The real blockade, Victor said, is the blockade the Castro dictatorship has on the Cuban people. They are the ones that are denying them the most basic items while they live like monarchs. Lifting the embargo would only benefit the elites, he explained, and would not address the real problem affecting the Cuban people; the lack of freedom and democracy.

Towards the end of the conversation, I had to ask Victor if he at least felt freer now since he was no longer in a Castro jail or being watched by Castro’s state security. His answer was simple and poetic; while he remains banished from his own country, he will never truly be a free man.

He then told me the story of the conversation he had with a Castro government official who told him right before they drove him to the airport that he was not being released but instead put on parole and given permission to leave the country. The official made it clear to him that Cuba retained the right to throw him back in prison to serve the remaining time on his sentence if it ever deemed it necessary.  Although they would not be able to do that while he remained outside of Cuba, the threat remains if he ever dares to return to his own country.

His unjust conviction and sentence were never rescinded, and he is still a convict in his own country. He may be considered a free man anywhere in the world, but in his own country, he said, he is still a prisoner of the regime. Regardless of what the regime, the Catholic Church, or the Spanish government may say, in his mind, he will not be free until he is free in Cuba.

My last question to Victor was to ask him if he was planning to remain active in the cause of freedom in Cuba. His answer tells you the caliber of man that he is: “Alberto,” he said, “I would deserve to be repudiated by my compatriots if I didn’t.”

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