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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Horacio Julio Piña Borrego

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Horacio Julio Piña Borrego, the son of an ardent communist, was born in Las Martinas, Cuba in 1966. Horacio first became active in the democratic opposition as a member of the Cuban Pro-Human Rights Party Affiliated with the Sakharov Foundation; in 1999, he became a provincial delegate for the organization in his hometown of Pinar del Rio. Through his activism, he also collected signatures for the Varela Project, an initiative that petitioned the regime to hold open elections and expand civil liberties.

In March 2003, Horacio was detained along with 74 other nonviolent dissidents in a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. He received a summary trial in which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Horacio was placed in solitary confinement until August 2004, and was subjected to physical and psychological torture throughout his time in prison. In October 2010, the Catholic Church and the Spanish government negotiated the release of the 75 and Horacio went into exile with his family. He lived in Spain as a political refugee until 2011, before settling in the United States.

Horacio is active in the fight for Cuban freedom and democracy; he serves as the Managing Director of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and Press in Florida. 

My father believed in the [judicial] process. They [parents] went to a lawyer. When they presented the case to the first lawyer, the first lawyer made excuses and said it was a very difficult case. My family had between 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. that morning to find a lawyer. That was the time the prosecution allowed. At 10:45 a.m. my father decided to speak with the head of the firm because he had spoken with so many lawyers and no one wanted to take the case. The head of the firm sided with the lawyers my parents had already seen. My parents unleashed a political tirade saying that we were Cubans who had to be represented. That’s what the law said, no matter the situation.

The trial took place in an amphitheater with a capacity for 800 people. They allowed five people from each family in that amphitheater which is called Primero de Mayo. There were 20 people who came to support us and there were 800 pro-government representatives. They tried to bring people from the CDRs [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution] as the trial was meant to serve as an example. They were government supporters. There was no opposition. One of the five people who came to support me appeared in one of the videos. [Videos of Horacio’s opposition activities were shown by the prosecution as evidence of his dissidence against the government.] He was quickly apprehended and taken away [during the trial]. The trial lasted from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. [All] the witnesses belonged to the prosecution. The defense wasn’t allowed to have witnesses. Even so, I didn’t ask for witnesses because I didn’t want to compromise them. [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution are a network of neighborhood associations across the country composed of pro-regime Cubans. Their official purpose is to promote social welfare and report on "counter-revolutionary" activity.]

At 6 p.m. the judge was ready for sentencing and on [April] 5 the sentence was delivered: 20 years. We could appeal. My father wanted to appeal. I saw it as a waste of money because it was over. Especially when an officer puts their hand on your shoulder and says, "You're going to learn to love your country." No less than 20 years. They were bribed. It was a fixed judgment.

And so came the imprisonment. A few days later I was transferred to Ciego de Avila. I remained there for a year and four months. I was in solitary confinement for a year and one month. Three months later I was placed with a group in galleys [cell block], as we call them in Cuba. Then in August 2004, I was transferred to Guanajay. I was in a special area for about five days because it was for transit [to another prison].

I was to be taken to Pinar del Rio. The transfer was on the 14th, by August 21st or 22nd I arrived in Pinar del Rio. They placed me in what they call a “preventative area.” I was there a few days until Normando Hernandez - who had been in solitary confinement - was moved there and I was taken to the Cinco y Medio prison. I remained there until 2007 when they took me back to the preventative area. [A “preventative area” is a holding area for prisoners before they’re sentenced. Normando Hernandez (1969 - ) is a Cuban independent journalist and human rights advocate. From 2003 to 2010, he was a prisoner of conscience after his arrest in the Black Spring crackdown. He has lived in the United States since 2011.]

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 on this theme from Horacio Julio Piña Borrego

Horacio Julio Pina Borrego: Trial and Detention “The defense wasn’t allowed to have witnesses.”

Other videos from Horacio Julio Piña Borrego

Horacio Julio Pina Borrego: Why I Became A Dissident “Actually, my father was forced to fire me.” Horacio Julio Pina Borrego: The Black Spring “We were placed in separate cells where the mosquitoes and rats crawled on top of us at night.” Horacio Julio Pina Borrego: The Ladies in White “They were our voice, our representation and our light” More + Horacio Julio Pina Borrego: Surviving Prison “I knowingly took the risk of going to prison.” Horacio Julio Pina Borrego: Message to Dissidents “We have been denied freedom.” More +