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/.
Seven years and four months passed before I regained my freedom. I did not recover my freedom in a normal way either or due to a pardon or because of amnesty. No, more cruel things still had to take place. A man like Orlando Zapata Tamayo had to die. [Orlando Zapata Tamayo was a Cuban political activist and prisoner, who died in 2003 after a hunger strike.] This man voluntarily gave his life for me and for the rest of my mates. He was the symbol for a cause. This created many opinions at the international level and within the Cuban people.
The group called “Las Damas de Blanco” (The Ladies in White) had been continuously fighting for our freedom for over 7 years. [The Damas de Blanco is a Cuban civil society group made up of female relatives of political prisoners.] And these ladies who are our mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, had shown tremendous will and had really put pressure on the government to the point that I thought I would be the next one. After Zapata’s death, the next day Guillermo Farinas Hernandez said that he would also start a hunger strike for the freedom of 22 of us who were in prison. [Farinas is a Cuban psychologist, dissident and political prisoner. He has conducted repeated hunger strikes as a form of political protest. In 2010, he was awarded the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.] He was going to offer his life for mine.
It was a very difficult situation, very embarrassing and that even made me feel guilty about what took place around me. I remember that when I was able to talk on the phone with my mom, she told me that she was calling him every day to tell him to stop the hunger strike, that she could not allow him to offer his life for her son’s life. I also said that to my family so they also said this to him. But he really did not listen. 127 days passed. International pressure kept increasing and it resulted in a negotiation process. The Catholic Church was the mediator.
The decision made was for us to be exiled. The cardinal called us and asked for our opinion. They came to get me in my cell, they got me to go with them and take me to the phone. They tell me to answer it. I refused because a political prisoner neither gets nor takes calls in prison, and who would call me? Who could call me while I am in prison? Who would allow me to take a call? Then the officer says that it is the Cardinal [Jaime Ortega, Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and Archbishop of Havana] who wants to speak to me. Now I really laugh. I said, “The Cardinal wants to speak with me?" The Cardinal has communicated with my family many times. We have links due to our faith with many bishops but it is not possible that they call me here. I do not think he has any reason to do this. "No, no, take the phone." And I really had refused to take the phone. And then they said, "I will let you call your mom. Call your mother and ask her." And I called my mother.
I call her and she tells me, "[Cardinal] Jaime [Ortega] called me a while ago and he said he would call you. That he has news for you and he wants to consult them with you. Take the phone because it is him." And I really took the phone and it was a very hard decision We talked for a bit and he told me that he had read the press release that morning and I told him that I was not in my cell, that I was forbidden to watch TV and that our newspaper is in my cell, but that the inmates were saying that I would be freed. He says, "Yes, José Luis, you are one of the five initially selected to start an exile process that we have negotiated and that was in course for a while. We have made it, sir.” And I ask, “How come? Why?" He says, "José Luis, I only have the information, they authorized me to call you and ask for your opinion and if you agree then, this process will be undertaken by the Cuban authorities. We will simply see what happens with all this but we have no authority." And I accepted. I accepted the Cardinal’s proposal.
The process continued and four hours later I was taken to the capital. I got documents prepared for me quickly overnight and the next day I was put on a plane. Along with the documents they gave me, they gave me a criminal record to show that we were not really freed. My documents state that I started my prison sentence of 24 years on March 18, 2003. It says I completed “0, 0, 0, 0” years of my sentence.
I would never be able to go back to Cuba, under threat of being sent back to prison if I did, as I was not a free man according to the Cuban government. I was told that I was put out of jail only to leave the country. I arrived on July 13  in Madrid, Spain. And then another story started, another tough chapter in my life: life in exile.
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.