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Brave souls from Cuba plan to meet

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Myriam Marquez
March 30, 2009

They will come to Miami from as far away as Venezuela and Spain—Cuban men and women who were imprisoned over the past half century for fighting, with word or deed, a totalitarian regime that still seeks to quash anyone who stands up for liberty.


In this 50th year of Fidel and Raul Castro’s violent rule, there remain in Cuba hundreds of political prisoners, some estimate thousands. And there are brave souls such as Jorge Luis “Antunez” Garcia, who spent 17 years behind bars for disseminating “enemy propaganda” and now is “free” on a hunger strike in his ramshackle bungalow surrounded by police in the Central Cuba town of Placetas.


In Cuba, any comment that strays from the communist regime’s propaganda is blamed on U.S. machinations. Even a hunger strike—a tactic used by Cuba’s political prisoners since the 1960s to get the world’s attention—warrants repression.


Latin American and European heads of state go to Havana and fawn over the Castros, never bothering to speak to one dissident, one opposition group, one honest broker for basic human rights.


It is this international see-no-evil Orwellian reality that Cuba’s former political prisoners hope to change. At least 1,000 ex-prisoners will get together April 3-5 in Hialeah and Miami—and connect with Cuban ex-prisoners and current prisoners’ families by phone and online—during the First Congress of Cuban Political Prisoners.


This group spans the generations—not only the thousands who had supported the revolution only to see it turn into a dictatorship. It includes young people who served prison sentences in the 1990s and those still in prison.


“This has been a stupendous idea,” Maritza Lugo said Thursday. She was detained, harassed and jailed dozens of times—adding up to five years—in the 1990s as she worked with human rights groups to help political prisoners, among them her former husband, Rafael Ibarra Roque. Now in his 17th year in prison, he begged her to take their two daughters out of Cuba. They left in 2002.


Now working for the human rights group Plantados, which gets some U.S. government funding as well as donations, Lugo spends her day calling opposition groups in Cuba, spreading their stories and sending donations to families of political prisoners.


“There’s been so much pain and so much sacrifice,” Lugo said. “This will be a way to send a message to the world, so that people understand that there are all these generations (of ex-prisoners) who are there, still working toward one goal.”


The idea for a congress—to discuss how best to help Cubans on the island chart a new course—came last summer, said ex-prisoner Gladys Ruisanchez, who along with her husband, Gustavo Gallardo, and dozens of others are helping the grass-roots event.


“This is a big chain,” Ruisanchez said of the grass-roots effort as she kept getting interrupted by phone calls at her West Kendall, Fla., home Wednesday from people wanting to attend.


“All those who have struggled for Cuba’s freedom are invited,” said Gallardo, who spent two long stints in prison adding up to 19 years until 1980.


Added Jose A. Lima, who was 17 when he was imprisoned in 1961: “We are showing our support for dissidents in Cuba, who have seen foreign presidents come and ignore them. We have no ambitions that we want to run this or that. We want to help, period.”


If only this time the world will open its eyes to Cuba’s tragedy.


Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to her via e-mail at mmarquez@miamiherald.com.

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