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    Castro foes not ready to quit

    Castro foes not ready to quit
    By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
    Published: January 4, 2015

    TAMPA — Day after day for four months, Roberto Pizano was marched from
    inside a prison to a pond holding human waste from a tuberculosis
    hospital nearby.

    As punishment for his crimes against the revolution of Fidel Castro,
    Pizano was held face down until he nearly drowned.

    Many died from this torture, Pizano said. For him, it was an
    introduction to the 18 years he would spend in Cuban prisons.

    “I thought those who were executed were lucky,” Pizano, 76, said through
    an interpreter. “Nobody can conceive the evils we endured in those prisons.”

    Starved, forced to stand naked in crowded cells and made to watch
    friends be executed, few who survived as Pizano did are welcoming the
    announcement by President Barack Obama that the United States will begin
    normalizing relations with Cuba.

    “Never,” the Tampa man said.

    “This hurts him more than the physical torture he endured,” said
    Pizano’s friend Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer long active in the
    movement to overthrow the Castro regime. “The president’s act is equal
    to pardoning those who tortured men like Roberto.”

    Pizano is aware of the arguments in favor of Obama’s decision.

    Polls show that most Americans, now even those of Cuban heritage, favor
    this course after five decades of isolating Cuba failed to bring about
    regime change.

    They have not suffered as he has, said Leonardo Delgado, 88, another
    former Cuban prisoner now living in Tampa, who was part of the
    anti-Castro resistance through 1979 and estimated he served three- to
    six-month sentences on 25 to 30 occasions.

    “Cuba has been rewarded for taking away freedom,” Delgado said. “Some
    people think that is OK. I do not.”

    ?????

    Both men have heard accounts of how life is improving for people in
    Cuba. More private businesses are allowed, the government is allowing
    some artists to voice criticism of the regime, and religious freedom is
    growing.

    But they say that steps toward freedom do not make Cuba free.

    “Everything that changed came about only by absolute necessity,” said
    Delgado, who sees the changes as a direct result of the U.S. policy of
    isolation.

    “Everything in Cuba is subject to be taken away whenever he wants,”
    Pizano said. “There is no stability.”

    Pizano was a member of the Cuban military under President Fulgencio Batista.

    He fought against Fidel Castro’s revolution and continued fighting after
    Castro took power Jan. 1, 1959.

    He doesn’t like to say he was “captured”; he thinks that sounds like he
    surrendered to stay alive.

    “I was ready to die for a free Cuba,” he said. “I still am.”

    He was shot in the head during a battle in February 1961 in the
    mountains of the former Las Villas Province — a region that today
    contains the provinces of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara.
    Unconscious, he was tossed in a truck and taken to prison.

    A faint scar is still evident on top of his head, under his graying hair.

    Torture and execution were part of daily life in prison, he said.

    Another form of cruelty Pizano said he endured was a form of “bungee
    jumping,” where he was tied with one end of a rope and tossed off a
    building or helicopter, not knowing whether the rope tied at the other
    end was short enough for him to survive.

    He saw people die like this, he said.

    ?????

    Four times, Pizano said, he was taken on a firing-squad death march but
    each time his life was spared.

    His interrogators, he said, hoped the fear he would not be saved again
    would break him and he would share information on counterrevolutionary
    activities or publicly embrace the Communist government.

    He never did.

    The closest call was a time he and seven other prisoners were tied to
    posts in front of crude wood coffins.

    The executioner killed each prisoner one by one, stopping after each
    shot to cut down the body so it could fall into the box.

    Pizano said it took him a few minutes to realize the killing stopped at
    the prisoner before him. He was covered in blood from the others and
    mistook it for his own. As he watched the executioner walk toward him to
    cut him down, he thought he was already on “the other side.”

    He heard tales from other prisoners of mass executions, hundreds of
    people at a time, but never witnessed one.

    Some historians have estimated that more than 13,000 Cubans have been
    executed for opposing the Castro government.

    That number is high based on research by Luis Martínez-Fernández, author
    of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History,” published in 2014 by the University
    of Florida Press. Born in Cuba, Martínez-Fernández left in 1962 at age 2
    when his parents fled Communist rule.

    “My suspicions are they may be counting those who died in other ways,”
    he said, such as deaths in battle and in drownings at sea during escape
    attempts.

    By the end of June 1959, Martínez-Fernández said, the estimated number
    of executions was 550 to 1,500 — many ordered by Castro lieutenants Che
    Guevara and brother Raul Castro.

    ?????

    Revolutionary trials in the early 1960s have been described as Roman
    circuses, held in stadiums where crowds participated by booing and
    hissing at the defendants.

    On at least one occasion, Fidel Castro ordered a retrial of three pilots
    acquitted of bombing civilians for Batista’s military. They were found
    guilty.

    “It is what they called ‘revolutionary justice,’” Mar­tínez-Fernández said.

    Torture, he added, was indeed prevalent.

    “I have spoken to very credible witnesses who said torture was part of
    the prisoner experience,” Martínez-Fernández said. “Prisoners would be
    fed rotting parts of animals that humans never consume.”

    Another common form of torture, said ex-prisoner Delgado, was to kick a
    man repeatedly in the groin.

    “It is why many prisoners never had kids when released,” Delgado said.
    “What they did to the women was worse.”

    Asked to elaborate, he shook his head no.

    Still, Cubans had grown accustomed to cruelty in their justice system
    before the revolution.

    Batista, who seized power through a military coup in 1952 and enjoyed
    the support of the U.S. government, also tortured women as well as men
    when they spoke against his rule.

    “Torture was widespread under Batista,” said Martínez-Fernández. “There
    was a level of savagery to how Cuba was treated then, too.”

    ?????

    In 1978, President Jimmy Carter allowed a group of Cuban exiles living
    in the U.S. to negotiate with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600
    political prisoners.

    At the time, the official list of Cuban political prisoners was 4,500,
    Martínez-Fernández said.

    Pizano was among those freed. He walked out of prison at 6 a.m. on Feb.
    22, 1979.

    He said he was given a jacket and a passport, clubbed over the head,
    tossed into an airplane and dropped off in Costa Rica. He made his way
    to Tampa because he has family here.

    Obama’s announcement on relations with Cuba included a prisoner swap:
    Three Cuban spies held in the U.S. were freed in exchange for one U.S.
    spy jailed in Cuba.

    Alan Gross, an American held in Cuba since 2009 on charges he
    distributed communications equipment used to disrupt the government, was
    released on humanitarian grounds and was not part of the official exchange.

    Cuban leader Raul Castro also agreed to release 53 political prisoners
    imprisoned in Cuba.

    “If you think there are only 53 political prisoners in Cuba you are dead
    wrong,” said attorney Fernandez. “There are countless. What about them?”

    “World Report 2014,” compiled by the research and advocacy group Human
    Rights Watch, estimates the number of Cubans in prisons or work camps at
    57,000.

    Since Raul Castro took power, Martínez-Fernández said, executions have
    largely ended and the number of long-term political prisoners is shrinking.

    “The new modality is arrest for a few days and months, then release,” he
    said.

    ?????

    The tactics may have changed but the intent remains the same — to
    suppress dissent, said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who criticizes the
    government in the magazine “Voces,” published in the U.S. and available
    as an Internet download in Cuba.

    Pardo Lazo was arrested and temporarily held in March 2012 as Pope
    Benedict XVI visited the island nation.

    Just last week, Cuban police detained at least four political opponents
    including the husband of prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez. The
    action came hours before a performance artist planned to stage an
    unauthorized open microphone event calling for more freedoms for Cubans.

    More than 3,600 arbitrary detentions were reported from January through
    September 2013, compared with 2,100 in 2010, according to “World Report
    2014.”

    “Barack Obama must know that he cannot trust a man that has killed with
    his own hands,” Pardo Lazo said.

    Obama said during his announcement that he doesn’t expect Cuba to
    improve overnight.

    Fernandez doesn’t expect improvement until the Castros are driven from
    power.

    “People have been saying that the Castros will change for decades,”
    Fernandez said. “When do we stop waiting and accept they will not? You
    cannot make deals with men like the Castros.”

    Cuban citizens showed they have hope for change, taking to the streets
    to dance after hearing of Obama’s announcement.

    Still, Pizano said, this does not justify the way the Castros have
    remained in power.

    “History has shown that there have always only been a select few in
    repressed nations strong enough to be the guardians of freedom who are
    willing to sacrifice everything for everyone,” Pizano said.

    “Those are the ones we should be supporting in Cuba. I worry this new
    development means we may not.”

    pguzzo@tampatrib.com

    Source: Castro foes not ready to quit | TBO.com and The Tampa Tribune –
    http://tbo.com/news/politics/castro-foes-not-ready-to-quit-20150104/