He is one of the independent journalists who was imprisoned during the repressive wave known as the Black Spring of 2003. Eventually, thanks to friends beyond the prison bars, he managed to open his own blog, “Voices Behind the Bars”, all while he still languished in jail. This blog was a complete success- taking the words of a prisoner of conscience throughout the entire free world. His thoughts were never left behind in silence, for he would always write what he felt and what he saw. His name is Pablo Pacheco Avila, and after 7 long and difficult years of imprisonment, he now finally lives in freedom in Marbella, Spain, together with his beloved family.
Pacheco has granted us the honor, here at “Pedazos de la Isla”, of chatting for a while about his Cuban story- one filled with drama, pain, tribulations, but also with much hope. Here is voice outside of the bars.
Tell us a little about yourself- what part of Cuba are you from and what was your life like before becoming a prisoner?
I was born in Puerto Padre, in Las Tunas province, located in the eastern region of Cuba. As a child, my family moved to Ciego de Avila. Before March 19th 2003, which was the day of my arrest, I lived the same way most Cubans do- with plenty of economic limitations and drowned in government rhetoric, but convinced that Cubans must be treated as human beings. So I started to speak up, and I’m very proud of that.
What inspired you to join the opposition movement in Cuba?
What inspired me to integrate myself into the opposition within the island was solely the realization and acceptance of our cruel national reality. We don’t have space to think, and much less to act on our own individual will. And I would also say that my rebellious attitude influenced my destiny. Luckily, I got over the fear, which in Cuba is stronger than pain.
Many times I ask myself this question: how is it possible for Cubans to have the courage and will to go out to the sea to search for freedom before actually confronting the regime that oppresses us?
When did you start working as an independent journalist? What would you write about, and what were the obstacles you faced for being independent- in other words, for not working for the state?
I started writing for the independent press in the year 2000. At first, I would mainly denounce violations of human rights, and then I started writing opinion articles, chronicles, and commentaries. The regime does not accept a dissident press- that’s normal of totalitarian systems like the Cuban one.
The main obstacles I faced, just like all the other independent journalists, were arbitrary arrests, the blocking of my cell phone (which was constantly monitored by State Intelligence), and defamatory attacks by the authorities. In sum, such a story has been repeated throughout the 50 years of the dictatorship.
You were jailed in the Black Spring of 2003. What do you remember from that day? In your trial, what supposed crimes were you accused of?
The day of my arrest is implanted in my mind. It was the beginning of the worst nightmare I have ever lived in my life. They woke me up while I was napping in the afternoon with my son, who at the time was 4 years old. A week later, when I was able to see Oleivys (my wife) again, she told me that the guards also woke my son up; making him get up from bed so that they could search through his mattress for any sort of proof that would help accuse and sentence me. The search lasted for 7 hours and they only found books, a typewriter from 1959, a fax, a voice recorder, a radio, and medicine. All of this could be verified in the report turned in by the Ciego de Avila tribunal. With such arguments, I was sentenced to 20 years of prison.
In what prison did you commence your long years of captivity, and how many jails were you moved to in total? Looking back at all of this time behind bars, how would you describe your experiences to the readers?
The jail they first sent me to was Aguica in Matanzas, which has the reputation as one of the harshest in the country. I was kept there for 17 months, surrounded by common prisoners who had death sentences or life sentences, and others which had made it to prison because of very violent behavior. I also spent some time in “La Polaca” — Poland — which was a punishment cell. The prisoners of conscience, Miguel Galban, Alexis Rodrigues, and Manuel Uvals were also in that penitentiary with me, and we really went through lots of harsh times together but I’m proud to say there was a strong sense of fraternity and solidarity among us. Although we did not all think the same way politically, we understood each other perfectly. We were all fighting for the same ideal- for the freedom of our country.
Later, I was moved to Moron, and I then lastly spent about 20 months in Canaletas Prison in Ciego de Avila. It’s impossible for me to describe all the human misery that we lived through. I saw people amputating their ears, puncturing their eyes and later going blind, slicing their veins and dying, men drugging themselves to escape from their cruel realities, people swallowing barbed wire, people throwing themselves from a fourth floor, and also people hanging themselves. It’s far too harsh to talk about it and not get depressed. The important thing is that the nightmare is over for me, but the sad part is that hundreds of my compatriots continue living through similar stories. Mandela once said, “If you want to see what a government really is like, visit their jails”. I’m convinced that this the reason why the Cuban authorities prohibit, time and time again, any international NGOs from visiting the jails in the country.
In your blog, and in many of your remarks, you have mentioned that many prisoners (whether they be common or political ones) reach the point of depression and suicide. What kept you strong to continue onward during your time behind bars?
Suicide in jails throughout the island is at an elevated rate, and it’s worrisome. Most of the time, these suicidal acts are a way of trying to vindicate all of one’s rights which have been violated for years, while not realizing that doing so would extinguish their complete existence. Even while knowing this, they still take the risk, which goes to show you just how desperate these people are and just how little the Cuban authorities do to stop it, especially those authorities which work at these prisons. Amid all their arrogance and love of power, those who are ruling do not accept that human lives go before any ideology or system of government. I don’t believe one bit that the government’s henchmen are just pawns of Castro’s chess game. They are all part of the Machiavellian écheme of those who are attached to power.
I recall that the current chief of the MININT and the chief of Aguica prison, Emilio Cruz Rodrigues, approached me when I denounced his actions to the international community through Radio Marti because he had abused a common prisoner. He told me, “Pablo, I know you told Radio Marti about me…”
During your time in prison, friends in Cuba who have displayed solidarity with your case helped you to open your own blog, “Voices Behind the Bars”. Tell us about this blog and its purpose, and how it was able to be maintained.
It’s true. When I was in Canaletas my friend and colleague, Ivan Garcia, proposed the idea of opening a blog to me. At the time, I didn’t really understand the concept, but he finally convinced me and the only regret I have about it is that I wish I would have had the opportunity to do this from the very first day of my arrest, because “Voices Behind the Bars” became the voice of those who had the least voice in our society. The goal of the blog was difficult, but my optimism shattered any obstacles that come with being imprisoned.
I wrote news, articles, commentaries, and my favorite thing was to conduct interviews about issues that were usually controversial. Later, I would dictate my entries to Claudia Cadelo, Ciro, Yoani, Reinaldo, Marta, or Eugenio, and they were in charge of putting up the posts on the blog. Common prisoners would actually give up their own turns to go on the phone so I could send out what I wrote. This was incredible, I couldn’t believe it, because for a prisoner, the most important thing is to have family visits, matrimonial visits, and 15 minute chances to talk on the phone. And here they were, giving up their time so I could have more.
In reality, the blog served as a shield from all the abuses carried out by the authorities. In fact, at one point, three guards were arrested for corruption and they actually asked me to denounce their unjust cases through my blog, and I did. In the end, there was nothing that could be used against them and they were released of charges. Two of these guards simply abandoned MININT while the third actually expressed his gratitude to me while I traveled to the national prisoner hospital on the same day that I would later go to Spain. Maintaining “Voices Behind the Bars” is a feat of the people I previously mentioned and other anonymous people from the exile. I would only write what my conscience dictated, and about the occult reality of Cuban jails. Now that I finally saw the blog, I am very thankful to all of those people who helped me keep it running. We all helped in one way or another to tell about the suffering of Cubans, victims of the current system on the island. And that has been the most important thing for me.
Would you say that this new technology of blogs has been effective in challenging censorship in Cuba?
The internet is the most powerful weapon that can be used against totalitarian systems. In this new era, it is impossible for censorship to fully thrive, even if the government tries to hide information from the entire country. Throughout the world, we instantly hear about the news from Cuba. And, of course, bloggers are not the only ones- we also must mention all the independent journalists which carry out plenty of valuable research, spreading lots of information. Blogging could easily be the future of journalism…we must wait and see.
What was the process of your release like? Were you able to freely travel to your house to visit family and friends?
My liberation process did not catch me by surprise, but I did not expect to have my name in the list of those first to be released. Cardinal Jaime Ortega actually called me while I was having a family visit. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t believe that such a horrible nightmare was about to end. Ole, Jimmy, and I embraced each other in a mix of hugs and tears when I told them what had just happened. We couldn’t believe it. It has been something unforgettable which has made an impact on our lives.
However, they did not let me go to my house and bid farewell to the neighborhood, to my friends, and my other relatives. Our release proves that we are completely innocent and that the rulers cannot accept this. Their arrogance impedes them from using logic and this demonstrates just how weak they are. Luckily for Cuba and all Cubans, the end is near, I can foresee it.
Would you say that international pressure and pressure from the internal opposition of Cuba have been key in the release of the members from the group of the 75?
Our release has been the outcome of multiple factors; at least that’s how I see it. First, we must point out the unfortunate death of our beloved brother, Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Also, we have witnessed the unlimited worth of the Ladies in White, while they challenged the dictatorship right in the heart of the Cuban capital with their peaceful marches and flowers in hand. This has been something that those in power were not prepared for. From then on, we all saw the aggressive and despotic attitudes taken against these women. International pressure always played a fundamental role. The Diaspora raised its voice and supported each and every prisoner. Then, we lived through the hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas. But there has also been another factor which is rarely mentioned: we political prisoners of conscience went to jail for writing freely. In captivity, we continued our labor, and we never bowed our heads in defeat, and this really shocked the regime and it redeemed us of any faults.
When you were imprisoned, your son was very young. Now, after your release, he is 11 years old. How did it finally feel to be reunited with him after 7 years of physical separation? How do you explain to him that you were jailed just for writing and thinking differently?
My son was four years old on the day of my arrest. It was a harsh blow for him, but Oleivys, my wife, served as a great example to him. Jimmy is the best thing I have; imagine how I must have felt when we were separated. Fortunately, the nightmare has ended. Now, he is a happy and mature adolescent. I remember when he was barely 9 years old and he asked me why I was in prison. We ended up chatting for the entire two hours of visit time that the penitentiary allowed us and I explained to him that the majority of men and women of this world who have fought for just causes have wound up in jail. After this conversation he told me, “Dad, I am very proud of you,” and, crying, he hugged me. That instance was the most joyous one I had during my imprisonment, which is obviously a place of very few happy moments.
Thousands of prisoners have passed through the Cuban jails. From the previous generation of political prisoners, many were executed on the firing wall, while many others were exiled. Do you have a message to convey to those who have lived outside of their country for many years? Would you say that the cause for which you were imprisoned is the same one that those prisoners fought for as well?
I have always admired those who rebelled against the traitors of the Cuban revolution. Although I was not around at the time of their struggle, I completely understand them. Now we only need to get together in time and space. Those previous prisoners and I all want a free Cuba, without exclusions and full of opportunities for all Cubans. It is an inevitable fact that, one day we will all have to sit at the table of dialogue without taking political inclinations into account. There, we will decide the best for Cuba. When that day comes, we will finally be paying homage to the victims of the dictatorship, which believe me, have not been few.
What were your first impressions upon arriving in Spain- a free country?
Spain astounds me for multiple reasons: first, the warmth of its people despite the economic crisis the country is going through, considered one of the worst in all of Europe. They have extended their hands to us, and I will never forget that. They have the freedom to express themselves and criticize those who are in power- imagine what a pleasant shock for someone who has lived under the confines of a dictatorship his whole life! It’s truly inspiring. They have an excellent sanitary system, the media is very professional, and, in sum, it is a nation that deserves to be ranked as one of the most successful places in the entire civilized world. And besides, I am very sure that they will climb out of the crisis which affects them.
I don’t think that anyone living outside of his or her country ever feels completely free, and much less when their homeland is enslaved, as in the case of Cuba. But I can assure you of one thing: my country is far in geographical distance, but very present in the mind of this exile.
Some prisoners who have recently been released have commented that they truly do not feel free because they reside outside of their country. Would you say that you feel free?
Living in exile is very difficult. A living testimony of this has been the Cuban Diaspora. But we can’t look at life in terms of black and white. Life is composed of diverse layers. We should continue onward and await the future with optimism, and moreover, we should prepare ourselves to reconstruct our Cuba, which has been devastated for more than half a century of dictatorship. It is a difficult task that lies ahead of us, but we can’t give up on it. One day, Cuba will be at the forefront of the region and it will be a beacon of inspiration for other countries. When that day comes, we will finally be able to say that all our sacrifices were worth the pain.
As an exile, and as a liberated man, what are your plans for the future?
I’m optimistic by nature. But life has also taught me to be as practical as possible. The future is a mystery, it’s true. In prison I learned this rule: If you can’t run walk, if you can’t walk drag yourself, if you fall get up again, but never, ever, give up. I learned that from Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I have faith in the future of my country, which also belongs to me. Soon, Cubans will be able to live like human beings, and the dictatorship will be a sad page in the past of Cuban history. Working in favor of democracy also constitutes my plans for the future.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of Cuba?
Cuba is more than one man, a political party, or a revolution. Cuba is a marvelous country and its people are incredible. Sadly, communist totalitarianism has forced us to spread throughout the entire world, meanwhile driving the nation to a cruel state of ruin. But soon, people of different political currents will sit at the dialogue table and we will then decide what is best for our country and our people. The most difficult part is yet to come: reconstructing the nation, re-inspiring our national conscience, rescuing essential values that have been lost, and the most difficult part of all- learning to forgive. When we accomplish all of this, our children and grandchildren, along with all our descendants, will feel a strong sense of pride for us. That day will be a moment of unlimited happiness. I invite all Cubans to work together for the sake of Cuba. The time has come to place our interests side by side for the benefit of Cuba, and not Cuba at the service of our interests.