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Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez was born in Manicaragua, Cuba. As the son of a political prisoner, the government forced Blas out of school at the age of 16. During the next three years of his life, Blas was pressed into military service where he performed forced labor. In 1975, Blas and his family were sent to live with his father in a penal colony, essentially a concentration camp for political prisoners, in Pinar del Río. While there, Blas met Isel Acosta, the woman he would marry.

In 1990, Blas moved to Sancti Spiritus with his wife and began working as a surveyor, but was unable to escape his family’s past as he was harassed by State Security. Inspired by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, Blas decided to become active in the Cuban opposition. He also started an independent library and became involved in the Christian Liberation Movement, an organization that spearheaded the Varela Project, a petition calling for a referendum on legal reform in Cuba with the goal of greater personal, political and economic freedoms. Blas was arrested for his activism in March 2003 and sentenced to 25 years in prison; he was one of 75 nonviolent dissidents incarcerated as part of a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. While imprisoned, he was kept in solitary confinement for long periods and subjected to abuse by the prison guards.

Blas was released along with fellow prisoners in 2010 as part of an agreement negotiated among Spain, Cuba and the Catholic Church. In 2011, he resettled in the United States where he lives today. 

In August of 1975, they assigned housing to my father in Pinar del Rio; so we are obliged to go live in the province of Pinar Del Rio in the captive village of Ramon Lopez Peña, which was once called San Carlos in the municipality of San Cristobal. When we arrived, it was very painful.

September 2 was the day that they took us on that big move to Pinar Del Rio; the westernmost province in Cuba. We were taken there by train.

[The captive villages were a system of camps established in 1960s by the Castro regime to imprison political opponents and their families from the Escambray Mountains region in central Cuba. Many of those who were imprisoned were active in anti-government uprisings in the years following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The Cuban government refers to this insurgency as the War Against the Bandits; opponents call it the Escambray Rebellion. The government sent many of these people to Pinar del Rio, the westernmost province. Blas Reyes, whose father was active in anti-Castro insurgents, and his family were among those moved to the captive village of Ramon Lopez Pena. Reyes was 20 at the time.]

The captive villages in Cuba are the farmers of Escambray [province] who helped anti-Communist guerrillas. This was in 1963; they took farmers and brought them with their families to captive villages such as Sandinos, in Pinar del Rio. There is the town of Sandinos, Pinar del Rio, and there are several other towns in the province of Camagüey. There are other captive villages in Amarilla, Matanzas; in Remedios near the prison, near the military unit there; the 4th unit division of Remedios. In total, there are 17 captive villages in Cuba. Those are the families dislocated from Escambray.

Humble people, whose only flaw was that they were not sympathizers of the system; because they knew that it was a Communist system. So they were taken to these captive villages. Those men there had to build their homes. They took them to prison, but after prison, they put them into forced labor brigades. Some did construction, others worked on chicken farms, others in agriculture, but then there is a group of those young men who had to build housing for all those families.

So that’s what we called captive villages, which are filled with people locked in there, you know? It was like a concentration camp... They are concentration camps with difficult living conditions, as I told you earlier. They were flood-prone areas, that when it rained, the streets would flood. The flooded waters ran down the street.

Then, there were problems with hepatitis, because the sewage contaminated the drinking water. These are the captive villages. The families were also punished. You were punished just for being the son of someone who did not agree with the system. Their goal was to psychologically destroy the person because that’s how totalitarian communist systems are.

What they do is kill the person psychologically and they might not give punch you but it affects you more psychologically because the body heals, but the psychological part is more difficult to heal. Then we get psychologically tortured which stays in our brains. And that affects us for the rest of our lives. And that's what they use. My father is alive; he will be 91 years old but already his mind is completely lost.

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.

More from Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez

Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez: Captive Villages “It was a like a concentration camp.” Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez: Prison “Cuba is an eternal prison” Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez: Why I Became a Dissident “And I tried to united the opposition.”