Fidel Suarez Cruz was born in 1970 in the small village of Manuel Lazo in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio Province. As a young man, he began to question the policies of Cuba’s communist government. In 1994, Fidel became active in the nonviolent opposition, including the Máximo Gómez Human Rights Front and the Human Rights Front Affiliated with the Andrei Sakharov Foundation. He also established and ran an independent library in his hometown. Fidel was detained on numerous occasions and was branded a violent criminal by the state.
On March 19, 2003, Fidel was arrested, along with 74 other nonviolent opposition activists (the Group of 75) in the crackdown known as the Black Spring. In a summary judicial proceeding, he was sentenced to twenty years in prison. He served time with common criminals in maximum security prisons in Matanzas and Pinar del Río. Like other prisoners of conscience, he suffered brutal treatment and was physically and psychologically tortured, including long periods of solitary confinement. In 2005, he was subjected to nineteen beatings within a four month period, causing him many permanent health problems.
Fidel’s family also suffered during his imprisonment. The regime sent many of the Group of 75 to prisons that were distant from their hometowns and families. Fidel’s relatives would travel hundreds of kilometers to visit him in prison, but were sometimes denied permission to see him. When Fidel was first imprisoned his son was only fourteen days old. Fidel’s wife joined other female relatives of the Group of 75 prisoners of conscience in establishing the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco), conducting vigils and other activities to raise awareness of the Group of 75 and press for their release.
After more than seven years in prison, Fidel Suarez and the other Group of 75 prisoners were released in an agreement negotiated between the Roman Catholic Church and the governments of Cuba and Spain. On October 6, 2010, Fidel was released from prison and exiled to Spain with his son Jeferson (named for the American president), his mother Candelaria Cruz, and his wife Aniley Puentes, a member of the Ladies in White movement.
In 2011, he moved to the United States, where he and his family live in the city of Hialeah, Florida. He currently works in landscaping and remains active in the movement for Cuban freedom.
Life in prison is hell. I entered the Agüica prison in the Matanzas Province on May 17, 2003. The first two days I was in a cell with a similar design to a No. 5 - with a double row of bars and completely dark. The halls and corridors were about this width. Guards have to enter sideways. Similar to No. 5. General Calderín, chief of jails and prisons in those years, came on the third day. He said: "Look, Fidel, you messed with the ‘Crown‘ and you know that to mess with it will cost you dearly. You'll be in prison for 20 years and you will remember what you have done.
On the third day I was transferred to cell block 2 on the prison’s third floor with those serving life sentences and death penalties. Being a country boy from the north, I had been inside caves. That cell was more inhospitable than a cave. First, because in the cave you are free. You couldn’t tell whether or not that cell was painted. You did not know if the floors and walls had mold or dirt or what it was. If it was angled or flat. The walls were splattered cement, made by grabbing cement and throwing it against the wall resulting in balls so that you could not lean against them.
There was no bed, only a hard, prefabricated concrete bench. The cell was constructed with double rooftop. When it rained, the water that collected fell. During the rainy season I sat in this position on a bucket, a container used to store paint. Sitting with my feet hooked on the top for months. Because when it rained so much water accumulated it took months for the water to filter down. The cell floor would fill with water. Where was I to sleep? I was seated.
That's how I lived for so long. It was sealed up. Dark. For a toilet, there was what we called a "Turkish bath," just a hole in the floor, where there were parasites or black colored worms constantly moving and crawling out. I would lose consciousness because of dehydration, starvation. Hunger was terrible. Then came a time that I no longer felt hunger. I felt like I was dying, that I had no stomach.
Another thing that was very painful for me: within one month and nine days I was tortured 19 times. Nineteen beatings. They damaged my hearing. I have 1 percent capacity in my right ear and 38 percent in the left. They damaged my right knee. They dislocated my knee and my leg. I was subjected to torture in what is called the "seat" in Pinar del Rio and "the chain" in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. They chained you from behind and by the feet and then they pull you with an extension cord and you are kept that way. Four soldiers would lift me and throw me to the floor.
For one month and nine days I was subjected to that torture. I spent nearly three years in Agüica and saw sunlight every 3, 6 or 9 months when my family came. I felt like vomiting, I foamed at the mouth. I had tremors. I cried. I had headaches. I felt an unbearable weight on me, as if I was being crushing by tons. Because I was taken out of the third floor to the garrison where my family was. It was the only time I got sunlight and could see the damage. My skin was white. You could see my veins. I was extremely thin. I was there for nearly three years.
I was transferred on November 13, 2005, on my birthday, to the 5 ½ Prison in Pinar del Rio. There I was received with 30 days of punishment in a cell that may be more inhuman than Agüica. It is on the ground floor but almost in the ground. The rats were so big and so accustomed to seeing men there that they coexisted. There were thousands of "santanillas" - a type of ant that stings a lot. Your head touches the roof of the cell so you had to be hunched over. It is a torture cell.
I was there for 30 days because I was asked if I accepted the prison system and I told them that I was a plantado. That I did not accept a master or prison rules, just as I did not accept Cuban laws. That was why I was tried. [A plantado, meaning “an immovable one,” is how Cubans describe prisoners who would not cooperate with the authorities. They were singled out for harsh treatment.]
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.