Ariel Ruiz Urquiola Speaks Out About His Time in Jail and His Repressors
On Saturday, 16 2018 Dr. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola made a decision that could have cost him his life: to begin a hunger and thirst strike.
He was at the Cayo Largo work camp, “a suffocating set of barracks with two latrines and one shower for 52 inmates,” where he was to serve the two months of prison he had left after on 8 May, 2018 the Municipal Court of Viñales condemned him to a year of jail time for the crime of contempt.
The fabrication of the crime, the judicial maneuvers, the authorities’ abusive conduct against the penal population, the violation of his right to work, and the ousting of his sister, Omara Isabel Ruiz Urquiola, a cancer patient since 2005, with Ariel taking charge of and seeing to her survival, constituted such a series of affronts that he was spurred to break free – whether by overcoming Castroism’s machinery of persecution and condemnation, or through death.
Two days after beginning his strike, on Tuesday, 19 June, Ariel was sent to the Kilo 5 Prison, where he was subjected to solitary confinement, a special punishment for serious indiscipline, according to the authorities at the prison.
On Monday, 3 July, 16 days after commencing his hunger strike, he was granted a furlough that would allow him to serve out the rest of his sentence outside the prison. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola abandoned his strike and the million human beings who were following his cause breathed a sigh of relief. Castroism had caved in to the iron will of a simple man who decided to demand justice.
What was the cell like in which they locked you up once you arrived at Kilo 5?
It was a cell measuring less than four square meters in which I could not even lay down, I didn’t fit. At 10 at night they gave me a mattress, and at 6 in the morning they took it away. Rats came out of the toilet. I had to stop it up with a 2-litre plastic bottle, those ones for soft drinks, left over from before I arrived.
There was an opening with bars I would try to get my face up near, to get some oxygen, but that required an effort, because it was high. When I didn’t have the strength any longer, I would lay down on the floor, to breathe in the fresh air that came through the lower part of the cell grate. It had to lie down diagonally, because I didn’t fit otherwise. I needed air, and suffered from tachycardia, which I was only able to control through prolonged exercises of Vipassana meditation.
How many days did you spend in that cell?
From Tuesday to Friday, the sixth day of strike. Then they decided to transfer me to the Abel Santamaría Hospital. There I was received by a major, alias Tito, who is the head of Chamber K at the MININT , along with Dr. Valiente, and nurse Belkis, heads of the medical service and infirmary, respectively.
While the doctors and all the nurses were magnificent professionals, to whom I am very thankful, Major Tito’s conduct was reprehensible, from the outset.
What did his conduct consist of?
He ordered the large window in my cell closed. I asked him why, and he told me that everyone received the same treatment.
But when they took me to weigh me, the other windows were not closed. Just mine. I complained, but they did not open the window for me for another two days, and just the upper part, never completely.
That first night when I arrived, Major Tito shouted, so that everyone could hear, that my breath smelled, that it reeked to high heaven. He told me that tooth paste and a brush were on their way, because I couldn’t go around like that, disturbing the nurses and doctors.
I arrived, after six days in the cell at Kilo 5, with horrible breath, as I had not bathed, or brushed my teeth, eaten, or drunk. The brush and the toothpaste never arrived.
On the following day I asked a nurse for some gauze to brush my teeth. The gauze was my brush, and the soap my toothpaste, during my entire stay at the hospital. They were obligated to give me a brush and toothpaste as part of the hygienic kit at the prison. That was not a favor, but a right, of which I was also deprived.
There were also friends of mine in Pinar del Río who brought a brush, toothpaste, and soap for me … but they never gave them to me. On day 16, the last one of strike, Major Tito appeared with a toothbrush, supposedly from his house, for me.
Did you bathe at the hospital?
I bathed every day.
What was the most difficult moment of strike?
The ninth day. On that day a clinical doctor came, the head of the Internal Medicine Service; I remember that was how he introduced himself. He decided to change the serum of 5% diluted dextrose for concentrated glucose, if I remember right, in 10-cc hypodermic needles. That worried me, because after so many days without eating, those shots were going to generate a degree of hyperosmoticity that would have an impact on my body.
On the following day, the tenth of strike, when I tried to stand up, I could not keep my balance. I opened my eyes, and I saw the world spinning around me. I had to hold my head to me with my hands because I really felt like I was going to lose it.
Do you think that they induced that change on purpose, to convince you to abandon your strike, due to the worsening of your condition?
That, I cannot say. I can tell you the facts. I asked Dr. Valiente, when he arrived, to resume the treatment with diluted dextrose, as before, which he did.
I then recovered from the dizziness, and I was able to take care of myself, until the end of the strike. That confirmed my concerns about the highly concentrated dextrose.
Did people from the Department of the Interior go to see you?
Constantly. They came to harass me, in some cases, and others to persuade to me.
When they came to harass you, how did they act?
Cynically. But there was no anguish that I could not overcome, thanks to my meditation exercises. I did not feel like I was suffering, but rather that I was being liberated, thanks to that technique to mitigate the body’s suffering and pain. Blessed was the day I decided to learn it, during one of my academic stays in Germany. At that time I did not realize that it would prove to be a life saver, many times over.
Did they show up to pester you during the final days too?
Yes, of course.
What did they do?
When I asked for religious attention, Major Tito denied my request. I shouted at him that he was violating my human rights, and that he was ignorant. His answer was: “Now I’m going to take to you to the Prosecutor, on another contempt charge.”
Later he himself brought me a piece of paper, so that I could make the request in writing, denying that I had the right, due to my serious indiscipline. They never gave that request to the bishop. They said that I had asked verbally, which was a lie.
On the following day Bishop Jorge Serpa came.
What effect did his visit have on you?
It was the second time, since they seized me at my farm, that I was overcome with emotion, and tears filled my eyes. The first was after reading a letter by Armando Chaguaceda calling for solidarity with my cause. In front of me there was not only a bishop, but a father anxious to embrace his son, without reproofs.
How were you informed that you had been granted the furlough?
They tried to convince me to quit the strike until the very last moment. The disclosure of the furlough was part of that effort. A doctor told me that I was in a phase in which they feared for my state, so it was necessary to transfer me to a better room to care for me.
I refused, and the officials wanted to take me by force. Then I asked them if they were going to violate my human rights again. They left me, and the head of the Provincial Prison Agency came in, Lieutenant Colonel Rodolfo, accompanied by a major. He said to me: “Ariel, if you don’t want to go to the progressive care room, we’ll take you to prison. And I responded: “Then that’s where I’ll go, where I never should have left, but in my soul.”
Then he changed his tone and said to me: “You have been granted a furlough by the Provincial Court, and you can serve the rest of your sentence outside the prison.
It was difficult for me to believe what was happening. I asked Marilin, the nurse on watch that day, whether that was really happening, and she nodded. Then I left, thinking I was going to the prison, because I thought my sister would go there to pick me up, but, to my surprise, they took me to another room at the hospital, a civil one, where the people were free.
What did you feel when you arrived at that room?
Worry, because my sister didn’t show up. They had told me that she was on her way.
Another lie, because your sister was never informed.
No, she wasn’t. Though they could have contacted her in any way, my sister found out from my mother, she told me.
What did you think about during your strike?
Most of the time I really did not think, I meditated. I thought when I was with people, especially when there were medical professionals, but those times were few and far between.
The most vivid images I have were constructed before, when I read the autobiographical work How the Night Arrived, by the former schoolteacher Huber Matos. If when I saw my farm, El Infierno (Hell), I did so without dread, it was because in spite of the calamities that darkened much of Huber’s life, he did not forget the small towns in eastern Cuba, nor the desire of their inhabitants to prosper.
If I accepted my responsibility, it was because I considered my plight nothing in comparison to what Huber endured over the course of 20 years in the prisons of this country.
At this time you are a key figure for all of us Cubans who are working towards the restoration of the rule of law and freedom in our country. How you feel about that role?
I feel I have a tremendous responsibility to add, to the causes that I already defend, a new one: the rights of the Cuban prisoners, due to the violations of criminal law and penal procedure, as well as the subhuman and humiliating conditions to which much of the prison population are subjected, which I learned about first-hand. Cuba’s prison population is subjugated by two scourges that dominate contemporary Cuba: injustice and fear.