Independent journalist, independent union worker, and mechanical engineer, Miguel Galban Gutierrez is a dignified Cuban who was punished by the Castro tyranny or acting like a free man in a totalitarian land. He was condemned to the prisons of the island during the Black Spring, and now resides in Spain- free, but exiled. He has launched his own blog, “Desde el Destierro”, where he chronicles his painful prison experiences and the current events which transpire in Cuba.
Now, Galban and his family seek to start new lives in Spain. Although he resides thousands of miles from his country, Cuba lives in his heart, as expressed through his words and his actions. Here is his story:
“Freedom is the right every man has to be honorable and to think and speak without hypocrisy.”- Jose Marti
“The pain of imprisonment is the harshest of all pains. It slaughters intelligence, dries the soul, and leaves inerasable scars on one’s spirit.”- Jose Marti
Tell us a bit about your origins- what part of Cuba are you from and how did you grow up?
I was born on January 12th of 1965 in the municipality of Havana known as Guines. I grew up with economic difficulties, for my father was the only one who provided a source of income for my family, which consisted of my other four brothers and I. He suffered a number of consequences for having had a transit accident and they did not allow him to carry out various productive jobs.
But this did not keep me from being raised in a peaceful home. My parents taught us the best morals so that we could be exemplary human beings and Christians, and so that none of their children may succumb to becoming social deviants.
With that upbringing I commenced my studies and achieved a high academic level. In 1992, I graduated from the Jose Antonio Echeverria Superior Polytechnic Institute as a Mechanical Engineer with a Masters in Engineering Maintenance in 1998.
When I began to carry out my professional work I started reflecting my rebellious posture. I began to constantly witness and confront all the irregularities which government officials committed while remaining immune before the laws of society. This special social class has been around since Castro rose to power, and as long as they pay tribute to the revolution, and mainly to the figure of dictator Fidel Castro, then they are exempt from any penalties.
When did you begin your work as an independent journalist? Was it difficult for you to exercise such a profession seeing as you were not working for the state as an “official journalist”?
At first I must say that it was rather difficult. I didn’t really harbor the ability of a journalist, for my profession had no relation with words and letters. But thanks to a high degree of dedication, consistency, sacrifice, and the help of my “Havana Press” colleagues Dorka Cespedes Vela, Jorge Olivera Castillo, and also my friend, the communicator Victor Manuel Dominguez Garcia, I improved my writing each day. My works have always been centered on displaying the Cuban reality, without limits or boundaries.
The task of seeking information which is not only exact and true, but also attention-getting and important , was made easy for me due to the fact that I was constantly on the move throughout multiple areas of Havana. On some occasions, I had the opportunity to write from the very center of the country.
Journalism proved to be very credible, and also very critical and exhausting for the Cuban regime- a fact which was proved by the penalty given to me by them for my investigative labor.
In addition from being a journalist, you were also an independent union member. Tell us a bit about your work in this field.
I was given the idea to create the National Center of Labor Union Training with the purpose of educating the everyday worker about his/her rights and how the regime violates them. In this organization, I also informed workers about the rights they possessed to confront such crimes.
My job consisted of providing education and it was backed by an accredited university degree. In addition, I had knowledge of the labor union world. I developed lots of close ties with workers from the most manipulated sector of Cuban society: the peasantry and the workers from the interior of the country.
Imprisonment and a sentence kept me from being able to fully contribute to this project, which has proved feasible for independent unionists and which continues to operate within civil Cuban society. It was possible for us to conceive a series of information which upheld all the international covenants established by the International Workers Organization, in addition to other labor documents which the dictatorship censored.
What do you remember from that day of the Black Spring in which you were arrested? Which crimes were you accused of and how long did they sentence you for?
I was arrested on March 18th, 2003 in the capital municipality of Center Havana, right on the intersection of Campanario Street with San Rafael. I had just left the home of Roberto de Miranda Hernandez, the president of the Independent Cuban School of Education. Hernandez had just held a fast at his house where we were demanding freedom for Oscar Elias Biscet Gonzalez.
They incriminated me on charges of “Acts against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State”. I received a petition from the Fiscal Ministry which notified me that I had been sentenced to prison, based on cause number four from 2003 from the Department Against the Security of the State in the Provincial Tribunal of the City of Havana. My sentence was of 20 years, and it was a very brief trial full of all sorts of arbitrary actions.
You have mentioned that during your time behind the bars you were in two different prisons- Aguica Prison and Guanajay Prison. According to comments you have previously made, the most repressive times were spent in Aguica. Why do you say this? How was the repression in Aguica?
The prison of Aguica, located in the Matanzas municipality of Colon, is a place where one can witness firsthand the cruelty of the Cuban jail system. Right outside the building there is a sign which announces, “You have arrived to Aguica. If you don’t get yourself straight, we’ll do it for you.” And you may ask yourself, how would they go about doing this? There is only one way: through infernal treatment and beatings.
Here I met one of the most cold and insensitive prison functionaries- Captain Emilio Cruz Rodriguez. He is an individual devoid of the least bit of humanity and is capable, together with other henchmen, of beating innocent prisoners until they pass out. Perhaps he resorts to this to get his mind off his own personal issues.
In Aguica, prisoner rights are not respected. The National Penitentiary Direction Establishment commonly uses this place to send captives from other jails that have shown signs of indiscipline and rebellion.
According to what I have read, you were denied religious assistance while you were in prison. Please tell us a bit about this- What were the reasons the authorities used to deny you such a fundamental right?
In both prisons, Aguica and Guanajay in Havana, they prohibited me from having any religious visits. The political authorities resort to such restrictions as a method of torture. The affected parish priests in this case were Jairo Restrepo and Gustavo Abad in the first, and later Ramiro Quintero, all who are of Colombian nationality- a fact which did not allow them to advance as much as they desired.
In Aguica, I spent the first 9 months without any religious assistance. After this period, I was denied the assistance on random occasions. When I asked to see a priest, they did not allow me to do so. The consultations which were allowed were only authorized every three months. In Guanajay it was monthly. I had no assistance of the sort for 5 months. The oppressors argued that it was a re-education activity and that I could assist without a prison uniform. In the end, they allowed me to assist, but not to go to mass. I even tried reaching out to Cardinal Jaime Ortega for some help, but such attempts were in vain.
The life of a Cuban political prisoner is difficult, not only for the prisoner but also for the family members. How did your family suffer while you were in captivity?
We suffered the death of our beloved mother, who did not even have biological ailments or complications. Her death stemmed from the emotional difficulties she was facing because she could not see me, since I was in prison for such a long time under such an abusive sentence.
Also, my eldest niece was expulsed from her Work Center after counter-intelligence searched her e-mail account and found a message sent to her from abroad with my name on it. It came from the exile, and it was my colleague Maria Lopez Vela.
After I was jailed, the political police kept my family under fierce vigilance the entire time. This led to friends of the family being kept away, thanks to the deep fear which exists in the island. In sum, their economic woes kept growing and they faced extreme obstacles to try to get me things that they would take to me while I was in prison. Of course, the little that was allowed to be admitted.
During your prison sentence, did you get to the point that you last all hope to get out alive? What kept you strong to keep resisting?
At first, I would not accept the reality. I couldn’t get my head around believing that I had received such a sentence, and from all that I was seeing- the degrading and inhumane life conditions, and the solitary confinement, away from any family contact for months.
Thinking about the situation I was in, and turning to daily prayers, as well as all the solidarity which reined between all of us brothers-in-cause who found ourselves in the same small punishment space, was what allowed me to not lose hope. My Christian religious beliefs also helped me greatly.
I then began to prepare myself physically and spiritually. I resumed my journalist skills, but under much more unfavorable and risky situations, where I found myself very defenseless against the abusive political police.
Tell us a bit about your liberation. How was the liberation process from prison? What was that day like for you and for your family?
On the 17th, during afternoon hours, various soldiers who would keep an eye on me in prison called me to them because I had received a phone call from Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The prelate asked me if I wished to travel to Spain, and I told them that I would only accept and continue onward if I was allowed to take my family members, which was a total of 10 people. He stated that such cases were up to the discretion of Immigration (State Security). I let him know that I was going to go to the National Hospital for Recluses, and that I would not leave Cuba if they did not allow me to leave together with my family.
Upon concluding the phone call, I demanded to see the chief of the political police of that specific prison. I made it clear to him that I was going, but that I would be resisting, because I had stated, ever since July 8th, that I would leave the country on two conditions, and I only had been allowed one: to place flowers in the cemetery on the tomb of my mother, who passed away on October 3rd, 2008.
Afterwards, a prison guard informed me that the other petition was approved by those in power. During the next afternoon, I was taken in a huge state security vehicle to the Recluse Hospital along with my brother in cause Hector Raul Valle Hernandez.
They informed my family on that same day (the 17th), very late at night. Then, during the next afternoon, they were all gathered and taken to an office of State Security, located in the outskirts of the capital, in the municipality of “La Lisa”. We were kept there until the night hours of the 24th when they then gathered us at the waiting room of Terminal 1 of the Jose Marti International Airport, as we waited to be sent to Madrid.
The liberation and re-adjustment process to Spain has been very difficult for my family and I. It’s true, we managed to reach lands of freedom, but we left half of our family behind, although they had equally suffered my inhumane imprisonment. The circumstances forced my eldest sister to stay in Cuba, due to the fact that my father was not in conditions to take on this new life because of his frail state of health.
Tell us a bit about the “2011 Freedom of Expression Award” which was granted to you. How did you feel when you received such a prize for your work?
I felt such an immense sensation of satisfaction when Covadonga Porrua, the President of the Press Association of Almeria, called me that day to inform me that the Board Committee of that organization had unanimously decided to give me the 2011 Freedom of Expression Award- the highest prize which this organization hands out.
The basis of giving this award to me was my struggle for the freedom of my country, the defense of free expression, and good journalism carried out during more than 7 and a half years in the jails of the Cuban regime.
With this prize, I have paid homage to all my colleagues who have defended, and continue defending, freedom of expression within the Cuban prisons, without fearing the repression the political police would carry out on them and their family members.
From your exile in Spain, you have opened your own blog, “From Exile”. Tell us about this project of yours.
While I was in jail, I always kept in my mind that I wanted to open a blog whenever I got out of prison, if I still possessed a state of sanity. God guided me this 7th of November when I attended the Mass of our Holiness Benedict XVI at the Church of the Sacred Family in Barcelona. There, I met a Cuban woman who kindly offered to assist me with establishing a blog. My project is very goal-driven: I aim to publish all the writing I carried out before being arrested, the writing I did in jail, and all the writing I am doing now in exile. I also want to publish any articles written about me in the past and in the present, including any photos of dissident activities I took part in while I was still in Cuba (if there are any people of goodwill that have them available and would like to share them with me because they were all taken from me when they searched my house the day of my arrest). I also aim to write about my current situation in Spain.
In this virtual space I will also post information and news about brothers in cause in and out of Cuba.
Besides continuing writing for your blog, what other plans do you have for the future?
My intention upon arriving to Madrid was to relocate to the United States where I have many friends and family members who are willing to help me in my situation. In addition, I plan to continue writing about the Cuban reality, not just in my blog but also in any other respected news source that is offered to me. I also want to earn money in this country so I can sustain myself and family. Upon leaving Cuba, a document was given to me by Mrs. Mas Fernandez Palacio, the Council Minister of the Spanish Embassy in Havana which outlined how our treatment would be here in this country.
When I arrived, relocated, to Barcelona, an autonomous Spanish community, the Red Cross did not keep much of its promises. In fact, they work differently than they do in other Spanish regions.
I have tried to study this situation from different angles, but it is true. But whatever the case may be, it cannot be as bad as what I lived under the tyranny of the Castro brothers.
The biggest difficulties lie in work permits, official authorization of professional titles, and the documentation of our status. As long as the official Spanish authorities do not offer an effective solution, then we do not even have the right to exit this country.
Are you hopeful for the future of Cuba?
I have deep sense of certainty that democracy will soon arrive to my country. We will finally be able to build the republic which our apostle, Jose Marti, dreamed of: “A Cuba with all and for the good of all”. From exile, I will continue promoting my small contribution to trying to achieve this goal, this goal which many dignified and brave Cubans have given their lives for, including our recently deceased brother, Orlando Zapata Tamayo who was assassinated by the Castro dictatorship just for demanding improved prison conditions in the jail where he served his unjust sentence.
We will then all commence to work together for the reconstruction of our country so that we can achieve an open democracy where violent and oppressive forces that violate all international covenants, the rights of its citizens, and economic development, will not be present. We have much work ahead of us!
Do you have a message for Cubans in the island who keep fighting? And for the exile spread throughout the world?
To all my compatriots in Cuba and in exile, I want to say to not lose your hope. Our exile will not prevent the collapse of the Castro dictatorship. Like the song of our fellow compatriot, Willy Chirino, says, “Our Time is Coming”.
We will establish a dialogue in which all political inclinations will be represented, with much compassion and respect. All Cubans must make ourselves fit in the same table so that we can begin to talk to reach one goal: the well being of all our citizens, the reconstruction of our country, the re-establishment of our ethical principles, and a social understanding that would exempt all those who shamefully participated with the Castro repressive system, but whose hands are not stained with blood.
“To respect a country that loves us and waits for us is grandest magnificence. To leach off its pains and enthusiasms for self-interests would be the lowest ignominy.” – Jose Marti