José Luis García Paneque was born in 1965 in Cuba. He studied medicine at the Institute of Medical Sciences of Camaguey. As a doctor, he specialized in plastic surgery.
In 1998, he became active as a dissident, joining the Freedom Press Agency, an alternative journalism project. In 2000, he became the initiative’s director. For his activism, he was removed from his position at the hospital where he worked.
In March 2003, Dr. García was among the 75 dissidents who were arrested in the crackdown known as the Black Spring. He was summarily sentenced to 24 years in prison. He was imprisoned for seven years and four months, two years of which were in solitary confinement. The harsh conditions in prison caused him to lose half of his body weight, posing life-threatening consequences to his health. In 2010, he was released in negotiations brokered by the Roman Catholic Church. As a condition of his release, Dr. García was required to leave Cuba.
Since leaving his homeland, Dr. García has overseen the Freedom Observatory project, which is associated with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies at the Catholic University of Valencia in Spain. He currently lives in Florida.
Follow Dr. García’s blog at http://vocesdeldestierro.wordpress.com/.
It all really started on March 18, 2003. On that day, my life started and totally changed, radically. That day at around 5 PM some state officers knocked on my door and they were coming to search my house because there was a report saying that subversive activities took place in my home. They came in. They did not present any document. They came into my house. They made me sit and my four children were there and they conducted a thorough search that lasted six hours.
They took everything that they saw like books, cameras, a small tape recorder, a fax machine, a typewriter, personal medical equipment, a sphygmomanometer, a stethoscope. The funniest thing is that they took every single book, all the literature that was in my house. My children’s medications were taken as well since they were supposedly medications coming from the enemy and therefore they were illegal in my household. They came from packages that the Cuban regime manufactured. They were normally sent to Cuba and they were wrapped in different packaging. There was nothing illegal in my house.
All the rest was something a person could have at home such as medical literature, books, books from Cuban authors in exile, literature about human rights, they even took things as absurd as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And among those books, there was also a geography book that belonged to my eldest daughter. And I said to them, “You are going to take the geography book of my eldest daughter?” That was subversive literature according to them.
Around 11 PM they said they will put everything they have seized in boxes and that I am under arrest because I have committed crimes against the Cuban state, and that I was subversive against the Republic of Cuban. I was taken into a dungeon. They held me there for a few days. The judge requested twenty years and I was condemned to twenty-four years. Because something really funny happened. On the day I was to be taken to court, oddly enough my trial was to take place in the theatre at the Faculty of Medicine where I worked as a teacher and as a doctor.
Some students were allowed to come in so that they could see how a doctor, a surgeon, was punished for opposing the system. In that trial which lasted all day, all accusations were based on information that said that I sent information outside of the country. It was based on the fact that I had meeting that were according to them, against the regime and that I mingled with foreign people, including ambassadors. Something odd happens in Cuba.
Ambassadors, especially those from the Western hemisphere, need to inform where they are going to be able to go outside of the Cuban capital, to which house they are going, or to which specific place they are going to go. So if an ambassador informed that he was going to my house, the Cuban government knew about it. But, I do not think it is illegal to receive guests in my home. If people coming to my home need authorization from others, I have not told them not to come since it may affect them negatively. But I do not think that this has anything to do with me because I do not hold the same ideas as the people who came to visit me. And this trial concludes in the afternoon and the following night I was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
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.