Interviewed November 2011
Normando Hernández is an independent journalist who has dedicated his career to providing alternative sources of news and information in Cuba. In 1999, he co-founded the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights, and in 2000, he established the Camaguey Association of Journalists, the first independent organization in Camaguey province since 1959. Declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International following Cuba’s “Black Spring” (2003–2010), during which dozens of dissidents and journalists were imprisoned for their activism, Mr. Hernández was exiled to Spain in 2010 and has since resettled in the United States.
The author of numerous articles and publications, including the book El Arte de la Tortura: Memorias de un Ex Prisionero de Conciencia Cubano (The Art of Torture: Memories of a Former Cuban Prisoner of Conscience, 2010), he has received several journalism and human rights awards, including the Norwegian Writers Association’s Freedom of Expression Award (2009), the PEN American Center’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2007), and a special mention by the Inter-American Press Association for excellence in journalism (2003). Mr. Hernández is currently a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is examining the Cuban communications monopoly and considering strategies by which independent journalists may combat totalitarianism.
In 2003, 4 days before the Black Spring of Cuba, an event that became known internationally, I was in Havana and I had run a printing test for the magazine Luz Cubana. On March 18, 2003 I was at the bus terminal to travel from Havana to Camagüey. I was organizing a round table with political information of the Cuban government.
And I was thinking… Cubans have many sayings like: “If we are able to go through this, it means we have a witch on our side.” And the problem was that… they were already arresting people. I did not know that they were arresting my comrades, my colleagues from Havana and Cuba. I came back home late that day, at 5 AM. And I saw there was a police raid in the sector and my district area.
But in Cuba this is completely normal. There are police raids every day and people are arrested every day, so I didn’t pay attention. They even said "Hi" to me and I said "Hi" to them when I passed in front of this area and I kept on going home. After I took a shower and had breakfast I told my wife that I was very tired and asked her to take my calls and let me rest because I had an exhausting week working in Havana where I had a meeting to promote civil action in Cuba with Martin and Beatriz as leaders.
On March 19, 2003, at 9:30 AM the phone rang and woke me up. To my surprise it was a reporter from Radio Martí who asked me - and I paraphrase – “Brother, why haven’t you been arrested already?” And I answered him: “Is that the way you greet me? What do you want me to tell you?” “Don’t you know what’s happening in Cuba?" And I say to him: “No, I don’t know what’s happening in Cuba.” That’s how I knew that there were massive arrests throughout Cuba.
He asked if I could verify if 2 journalists were put in prison in Camagüey. And I told him no problem and I could make some calls, that the journalists who worked with me could verify this information and I could release the news in the media. So he gave me all the information and I realized what was happening in Cuba. I became aware through the radio station Radio Martí, which informs Cubans about the real situation because it’s very difficult for a Cuban to obtain information through the official media.
The police arrived at my home at 3 PM. I was giving my daughter a popsicle. She was turning a year old in three days. I was giving her the popsicle when my neighbor came out screaming: “Normandito, run, run, the state police are here.” Subconsciously, I thought that I was prepared to receive them. I was going to face them when they came searching for me because of my views and way of thinking.
But I was so nervous that I ran. I ran away and climbed a mango tree. Mango is a very characteristic Cuban fruit. I stayed up that tree from 3 to 9 PM. The political police got there, the revolutionary national police, and they surrounded my house and the neighbors’ houses. They even sent dogs to look for me. They were even underneath the mango tree and didn’t see me. They even looked up and I could hear their conversations. I saw everything from up there.
At 9:30 PM when the last car left the front of my house, I came down from the tree and went inside my house. I was sitting in the living room talking to my wife, my uncle and my sister. We heard another police car approach our house and they brought more dogs to look for me as if I were a murderer, so I ran and hid under the bed. My wife came out, gave them a hat to detect my smell which was sent to me from the USA and took a pail of water. They said it’s the last time that I give you the hat. And she put the cap in the water so that the dogs couldn’t smell me. And they looked for me and the dogs couldn’t find me. I was in the hands of God.
At least I wanted to see my daughter sleeping in her crib turning one year old. My daughter turned 7 and I couldn’t be next to her when she blew out the candles. On the 24th I decided to turn myself in. I asked my sister to talk to the police during a raid. There was a national raid looking for me. They had enlarged pictures. They searched every bus, every car that came in and out of the municipality. They had enlarged pictures looking for me everywhere. And it’s really sad because they wanted to tell a lie about why they were looking for me. They spread a rumor that they were looking for me because I had some bombs that I wanted to use to blow up schools and kill children. It was a lie to discredit Cuban dissidents.
Lots of neighbors came to my home as well as friends, and nobody knew that I was under the bed. My wife took them to our room, they sat down on my bed and I heard all their comments. Under my bed I listened to Radio Martí, Radio Netherlands, Radio France International. I became aware that the international public opinion and democratic governments of the world were against the Cuban government’s repressive regime. I was very well informed and this gave me courage and made me happy knowing that the world’s governments were not ignoring what was happening in Cuba.
On the 24th I sent them a message asking them to bring only one police officer so that I could turn myself in. But if they brought lots of people they were going to see my anger; it was going to be difficult for them to put me in prison and I was going to leave telling everybody the truth about their crimes. I also said, and this was a lie but I wanted to impress them, that I had prepared a big meeting if they decided to make a big deal about my detention. And that’s how it happened. Only one officer came, and I left home in his car. It’s been more than 8 years and I haven’t been able to go back home. I haven’t seen my neighbors who were saying goodbye silently with tears in their eyes. Saying goodbye to me silently.
I was under arrest for 10 days at the Regulations Agency of the State after I was taken out of my house, which I describe as being kidnapped because I’ve never committed a crime. Ten days elapsed before the Cuban government was bold enough to condemn me to imprisonment for life. According to Cuban criminal codes, life imprisonment is interpreted as a mitigating factor of the death penalty. On the 11th day, the Cuban government scheduled a preliminary hearing for me, which was more like a theatrical event because judgment had been already made.
I was sentenced to life imprisonment and on the 12th day they gave me 25 years without freedom - the Ministry of Internal Affairs had to decide which was the more convenient way for them to punish me. They sanctioned me with Article 91 of the Criminal Code, which is an attempt against independence and the integrity of national security.
But it’s interesting that the judge asked me the kind of journalism that I practiced and the prosecutor said: “Well, Normando criticizes the quality of bread.” And the judge put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Yes, we know that the quality of bread is not always good. But Normando made a big deal and blamed the Cuban government for the bread’s bad quality.”
People who are aware of the totalitarian system know that they even control your salt intake and your breathing. They know they are responsible for everything that goes on in the country. So they requested a life sentence because I’m a devoted journalist.
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.