Interviewed March 2011
Ariel Sigler Amaya was a teacher and an accomplished amateur boxer in his native Cuba. After he began speaking out in favor of democratic reforms, he became one of the 75 dissidents arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 and was convicted of having acted “against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.” In prison he suffered torture and other forms of ill treatment.
By the time of his release in 2010, Sigler’s weight had gone down from 205 to 117 pounds. Once in excellent physical shape, he suffered from a variety of medical conditions resulting from his treatment in prison and his friends and family members feared he was near death. After arriving in the United States, he gradually began regaining his strength and began walking with a cane instead of using a wheelchair.
Sigler remains a vigorous advocate of freedom and democracy, not only for his fellow Cubans but also for others living in countries with totalitarian and highly authoritarian governments around the world.
After my fifth year in prison, my health began to deteriorate. During the first five years, I was conscious of my physical condition, trying to keep active and exercise, always trying to stay healthy. After the fifth year, my body started to wear down. First, my legs started getting weak and it was harder for me to stand up. I would stand up and quickly have to sit back down, until the moment came where I couldn’t stand at all.
One day as I was trying to get out of bed, I fell and my legs wouldn’t respond. I was taken to the hospital where they ran some tests and diagnosed me with paraplegia. Paraplegia is defined as the lack of movement in lower limbs. Many attributed it to a lack of vitamins; others said it was because of my spinal cord.
In Cuba, a political prisoner will never know what he really has. Why? Because the doctors that see these political prisoners belong to the regime or are part of government security.
Underneath they wear a green uniform representing the military, covered by a white gown that defines them as doctors. We are never going to trust their diagnosis. That diagnosis is a lie. It is false because we can’t trust them. Every day they would diagnose me with a different illness. I thought to myself, this is not possible, I am healthy. How can I have a different diagnosis every day? They said I had this one day, I had that the other day. That is impossible, it can’t be.
And every day my health was deteriorating more and more. I entered prison weighing 220 pounds and when I left, I weighed 116 pounds, almost half my weight. Even they were scared. They said I was on the verge of dying and that if I got any thinner, I would surely die. If I gained weight, I had a chance of surviving. During those one and a half to two years of disability due to my paraplegia, I didn’t receive proper medical care, knowing I had a severe back problem.
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.