Unexpected departure: From jail to exile

By Omar Rodríguez Saludes/Committee to Protect Journalists Guest Blogger:

Unexpected departure: From jail to exile

It was about 4 in the afternoon on July 8 when the official assigned to me at Toledo Prison, where I’d been locked up for nearly five years, came running to get me. He was in such a hurry that that he tripped and almost fell to the ground. “Saludes, we’re going upstairs,” he said, breathless and sweating. He didn’t give me any more details, but I soon found out that he was taking me up to the director’s office where State Security was waiting for me. “They’ve come to talk to me,” I told myself. And they had.

At the chief’s desk sat an agent of the political police. I didn’t recognize his face, but he had the same harshness and arrogance as all members of that repressive body. As soon as I entered the office, the agent signaled me silently to pick up the telephone receiver lying unhooked on the desk. 

With countless questions racing through my head, mostly related to my family, I picked up the phone.

“Yes…” I said.

“Is this Omar Rodríguez Saludes?” a female voice asked me.

“Yes,” I responded, laconic and intrigued.

“One moment please.”

Without delay, a man’s voice came on the line. He identified himself as Orlando Márquez, official spokesman for the Archbishopric of Havana and secretary to the cardinal. Márquez hastily told me that Monsignor Ortega wanted to speak with me.

After formal greetings, Monsignor Jaime Ortega Alamino, archbishop of Havana, got straight to the point, disclosing the results of negotiations with Cuba’s leader, Raul Castro, that he and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos had mediated.

Following his summary, Ortega Alamino said that he had included my name among the first five prisoners that would “shortly travel to Spain with their family members.” The cardinal asked if I would accept this proposal.

“Monsignor, I greatly appreciate your concern,” I told him. “But you will understand that I can’t give you an answer now. First, I have to speak with my family, principally with my wife. They also have the right to make a decision.” This was my answer.

The cardinal assured me that he would immediately contact my wife and that he would make arrangements “with the authorities” for a family visit.

Before saying goodbye, I thanked the cardinal for his efforts in support of 75 prisoners of conscience and of the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White. I also extended my thanks to Pope John Paul II, who always advocated for our freedom and was always concerned about the Cuban people. The prelate thanked me for my words and bid me goodbye, giving me God’s blessing.

Our conversation had lasted 20 minutes. I was obliged to raise my voice so that the archbishop could hear me. “There’s a problem with the line,” the security agent in the chief’s seat told me sarcastically while jotting down each of my words. To clear up any uncertainties, he asked me pointblank if I wanted to travel to Spain or not. My answer was categorical: “No,” I said. “You know all too well that it has never been my intention to abandon Cuba.” Following a brief exchange, the agent assured me that I would be granted a family visit as soon as possible.

The next day, at 3 in the afternoon, I received a visit from my wife and my eldest son. We were given barely 30 minutes to decide our fates. I explained to my family the difficulties of being deported, which are made worse by arriving to a new destination in a state of complete neglect and disorientation. I asked them to carefully analyze their decision before communicating it to me. In the end, both opted for leaving.

When the visit was over, without wasting any time, five state security agents met with me in the same room. They assured me that I could bring a “reasonable number” of family members to Spain. “They will be able to come back when they wish, but not you,” they told me when I asked if I would be able to return to Cuba whenever I wanted. “You leave for Spain in less than a week,” they announced.

At that point, time sped up. There was scarcely enough time to finalize and coordinate everything. The day after my family’s visit, two soldiers arrived at my bedside to tell me to gather all of my belongings. “Saludes, get everything because you’re leaving. State Security is coming to get you,” they told me. They almost surprised me in the act of writing in the secret diary that I’d kept, cautiously, since my first day in prison, and in which I was able to record the impressions that now fill this page. Minutes before their arrival, I had saved my final notes in the usual hiding place.

The other prisoners congratulated me and kept telling me how happy they were to see me get out. Everyone wanted to send me off with a goodbye, the goodbye we had always longed for next to a seemingly permanent question mark.

(Translated by Karen Phillips)

This entry is part of an ongoing series of first-person stories by Cuban journalists who were imprisoned in a massive roundup of dissidents that has become known as the Black Spring of 2003. All of the reporters and editors were convicted in one-day trials, accused of acting against the “integrity and sovereignty of the state” or of collaborating with foreign media for the purpose of “destabilizing the country.” Seventeen of them were recently released and exiled to Spain as part of a deal between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government; however, three arrested in 2003 still remain behind bars.

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