My time as President of the Free Cuba Foundation from 2001 – 2004 was deeply transformative and held great influence over the course I took in my life post-FCF. During my college years, I had become interested in the topic of human rights due to some mission travel in other countries but was not particularly aware of the grave situation in Cuba. Even though I was a first generation Cuban by birth, my family had been exiled in the 1960’s and had never looked back. I was recruited to join the Free Cuba Foundation in 2000 in the halls of the Florida International University Graham Center and was the only extracurricular activity I pursued during my time.
Growing up in Miami, we had a lot of exposure to Cuban culture in our surroundings. We ate Cuban food, smoked cigars, drank rum, danced salsa, and spoke Spanglish frequently. Nostalgia over the “times that where” permeated nearly ever aspect of family gatherings and conversations among friends. Yet, very little was known or discussed on the topic of what the island looked like now, how the people lived, or what their culture was like at present day. What was most impactful to me during my tenure was becoming aware of the vastly different and often saddening conditions of the Cuba that was, the Cuba that is now and the Cuba that it is falsely portrayed to be.
The truth can sometimes be a burdensome thing. I believe that apathy in the human condition is prevalent because, the more we know, the more responsible we become with the information we’ve obtained. Within the island and outside of it, the realities of the plight of the Cuban people can become too much to bear, impossible to believe, and enormously in contrast with the propaganda fed to us. It is however, imperative, that within our own capacity to do so, we bring to light these aspects of darkness and expose the ugliness that controls such a beautiful place. My own perspective from outside the island humbly reminds me that while Cuba is not my home, and no longer my identity, this is not the case for 11 million Cubans.
During my tenure, we hosted, as we always have in the history of the organization, various regular awareness activities centered on the anniversaries of atrocious events. Every February, 24th it was remembering the Brothers to the Rescue Shootdown, every July 13 it was the sinking of the “13 de Marzo” tugboat and every December 10th we commemorated international human rights day. Press was always an essential component of the events and participants, both students and members of the community, often came from diverse backgrounds.
One of the most memorable events was on December 10th, 2003. It was the very first time we co-hosted with and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights led by Dr. Ricardo Bofill the visit of Chinese dissident, Harry Wu and Daisy Tong of the Vietnamese American Federation. Wu is widely known to be one the most prominent political prisoners of Communist China, who was imprisoned for 19 years, having made headlines with his courageous act of filming the conditions of Chinese prisons after his release, earning him another 15 year prison sentence in the gulags, but thanks to international pressure was deported to the United States. He is also the founder of the Laogai museum in Washington DC, the first museum of its kind, highlighting the history of Chinese human rights atrocities. This was the first time that Harry Wu came to Miami, to address members of the Cuban exile community and it was not without controversy.
Unbeknownst to us, the university was in the midst of talks with the Chinese government on the construction of a new hospitality suite in mainland China. We later published an expose on this transaction in the 10th anniversary of the Free Cuba Foundation’s founding in its publication iYARA!
Needless to say, this was not one of Beijing’s happiest days in Miami.
Regardless of the clear enemies the Cuban dissident movement has, they also have many friends here and abroad. FCF members had the opportunity to meet and connect with Matt Laar, the former Prime Minister of Estonia, Philip Dimitrov, the former prime minister of Bulgaria, the Taiwanese consulate, a couple Senators from Argentina, Miami-Dade county’s long-standing congressional leaders, and President George W. Bush. During the 100th anniversary of the freedom of Cuba from Spain, President Bush addressed a full stadium of exiles and Miami residents, prominently highlighting Cuban political exile leaders, members of the dissident movement, and the children of current prisoners, called Los Ismaelillos, with FCF leadership among this honorary crowd. It was a moment that made us all very proud.
Being American is a privilege that was given to me by my parents as a result of their exile and move to the United States. This is my country and I am very loyal to its founding principles. We must also recognize that it should be the privilege of everyone to have just as much faith in universal freedoms in their own country. In 1948, Cuba signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, but since 1959, the totalitarian regime of the Castro brothers has consistently violated these basic rights to their own people. The leaders of the non-violent civic dissident movements like Oswaldo Paya, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, Laura Pollan, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez “Antunez” and many others have been simple seeking the right to live freely in their own country. For this, Oswaldo Paya and Laura Pollan ultimately paid with their life.
I remember meeting Oswaldo Paya, the leader of the Christian Liberation Movement in 2003, when he came to visit Miami. He was a soft-spoken, humble, and intelligent man. He had arrived in Miami to discuss his now famous Varela Project, and attempt to use the government’s own constitution to enact reforms through the presentation of a petition requiring 10,000 signatures, of which he and other members of his organization initially diligently collected 11,020 of them. For this initiative, he received numerous human rights awards and recognitions, including Europe’s famed Sakharov award and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Last year on July 22, 2012, after many threats from Cuban State Security, he was brutally murdered in a car crash, along with Harold Cepero. According to the accounts of one of the two survivors of the car crash, Angel Carromero, both Paya and Cepero survived the crash caused by another vehicle with government plates and was murdered some time later by State Security in order to silence him. His daughter, Rosa Maria Paya, continues to fight for justice for her father’s death.
While I never had the privilege of meeting Laura Pollan, I have met and even marched with members of the Ladies in White movement. This group of peaceful and resilient women is comprised of the wives, mothers, daughters, and grandmothers of Cuba’s political prisoners. Every Sunday, they dress all in white and carry lilies through the streets of Havana, protesting the unjust incarceration of their loved ones. They have rightly gained international attention for their actions. While I was living in France, their demonstration was covered in Le Monde newspapers and when I moved to Washington, DC, I attended a bipartisan congressional memoriam in Laura Pollan’s honor. She was one of the founders of this movement and fell ill in October of 2011 after being mysteriously poked with a needle during a riot. She died a week later. This was another brutal and tragic murder by the oppressive Castro regime to silence the cries of their citizens.
Although it has been eight years since I led the Free Cuba Foundation and at least 3 since I have lived in Miami, where the organization is based, the issues of Cuba continue to haunt my consciousness.
What is most striking to me now is how often the topic of travel to Cuba is brought up in conversation. As a direct result of Cuba’s aggressive marketing campaigns and desperate propaganda, many foreigners dream of visiting this island prison and often to discover it “before it changes.” As appalling as that may seem to those who have met Cubans who fight daily for this inevitable change, the ignorance of well-meaning foreigners on the oppressive activities of the state is not the most shocking revelation. It is the fact that most Cubans do not even know about the political dissidents that sacrifice their lives for their freedom.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is arguably one of the most famous and well-regarded leaders of the civic resistance movement. A medic, activist, and founder of the Lawton Foundation, he received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 and is a designated Amnesty International “Prisoner of Conscience”. He has been compared to Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. When 3 Cubans, who infamously escaped to Miami in a rigged up Chevy, arrived in my father’s church on a Sunday morning, I wore a t-shirt with Dr. Biscet’s face and quotes emblazoned on the front in solidarity with their escape. My own ignorance was revealed when, to my surprise, the Cuban exiles had absolutely no idea who this man was or the existence of active civic resistance movements through the island.
In one of my favorite quotes by philosopher, poet, and Cuban freedom fighter, Jose Marti, he states, “It is a sin not to do what one is capable of doing.” Cuba’s political prisoners, civic resistance movements, dissident leaders, independent journalists, intellectuals, artists, and musicians who risk everything to speak the truth about their country and their countrymen firmly embody the spirit of Marti and others who seek freedom. We should all, in our own capacities, follow the lead of Marti and support the efforts of the brave men and women who simply desire to live without oppression, have their basic human rights respected and be represented by a free and democratic society. Their struggle should become ours until it is no longer.
Neri Ann Martinez
FCF Chairwoman 2001-2005
August 22, 2013