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Arturo Perez de Alejo Rodríguez was born in Manicarauga, Cuba on May 23, 1951. He received a degree in topography and worked in several different fields, including as a subsistence farmer and as a surveyor. As a young man, Arturo believed the 1959 Cuban Revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power would change Cuba for the better.

Arturo soon became disenchanted with the Castro regime. He was drafted into military service and sent as part of a Cuban force in Angola’s civil war during the 1970s. As a soldier, he witnessed acts of brutality that sharply contrasted with the official version of events.

In 1980, thousands of Cuban citizens stormed the Peruvian Embassy seeking asylum to escape from the Castro regime. Following the incident, the regime announced it would allow people to leave Cuba, but privately, the government encouraged its supporters to harass and brutalize those fleeing the island. The events at the Embassy of Peru led Arturo to break with the government.

In the 1990s, Arturo became more active in the Cuban opposition. In 2001, he founded the Escambray Human Rights Front, which monitored human rights violations in the region. Arturo was arrested in March 2003, as one of 75 nonviolent dissidents during a massive crackdown known as the Black Spring. He was subjected to a summary trial and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his opposition to the Castro regime.

After more than seven years as a prisoner of conscience, Arturo was freed in 2010 when the Catholic Church and the Spanish government negotiated the release of the 75 Black Spring prisoners. He and his family were exiled to Spain where they lived for several years, before resettling in the United States. 

My name is Arturo Pérez de Alejo Rodríguez. The son of a humble family, I was born in a town in the center of the Escambray Mountains called Manicaragua. There I did my early studies, and spent my childhood.

Later, I was admitted and studied at the National School of Geology graduating as a topographer. And well…just being young and enjoying normal life in my country. Later, already working in a sugarcane company as a topographer, I was called to serve in an “international mission” [military campaign] and left for the war in Angola in 1976.

[In 1975, Angola became a Cold War battleground. Different rebel groups were supported by the United States [the National Front for Liberation of Angola (FNLA)] and the Soviet Union [the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) as they vied for control of the country. Communist Cuba sent special forces to aid the MPLA.]

Angola is where I really began to witness the reality of the regime. They made us perform acts that they had always criticized the United States for committing throughout the world, but then they forced us to do them as well. We wiped out villages completely with the 1021 [a Cuban military aircraft], strikes which lasted from 7 am to 7 pm.

I myself organized an attack where we utilized a battery of M21 artillery guns. We attacked a famous base known as “La Base del Ceremo,” where Jonas Savimbi was supposedly stationed. Later at 10 pm, we performed an aerial attack where we unloaded 160 rockets against the base. The base was 4 square kilometers, two in front and two in the back.

[Jonas Savimbi (1934 – 2002) was an Angolan military and political leader who led the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). UNITA engaged in guerilla warfare against Portuguese colonial rule and later against the MPLA during the Angolan Civil War.]

Can you imagine the number of people who were stationed there? There they formed bases that they called “Bases de la Agüita,” and it was our task to practically eradicate them from the face of the earth. I began questioning all of these things a little, and I began to notice the large differences that existed between soldiers and officers which helped me discover the true nature of this regime.

I returned to Cuba after 30 months of participating in this useless war, a war that we never should have entered into, and I began running a floriculture business. And when the situation at the Embassy of Peru occurred, and the Cuban government said that all those who wished to leave [Cuba] could leave; they began hitting people, throwing eggs, and massacring those who presented themselves to leave. The people being attacked weren’t only the people who stormed the embassy of Peru seeking asylum but also regular citizens who were exhausted by the country’s dire situation.

[In April 1980, thousands of Cubans seeking asylum stormed the Peruvian embassy. The incident attracted international attention and put pressure on the regime to relax its emigration restrictions; the port of Mariel became the primary exit point for Cubans fleeing the country.]

Well at least with me, since I was a manager of a company, they tried convincing me to participate in throwing eggs, and fighting and I said no; that I did not agree with that, and I wouldn’t throw eggs at anyone, and that whomever wants to leave the country, can leave.

That led to me breaking with the government and I went to the Party office, resigned my position [as manager of a company] and I went to the fields, uprooting my home from the city to the countryside where I spent 22 years growing tobacco. Of course throughout these years, I educated myself, reading books, gaining knowledge in order to discover the true face of the regime.

And in 1996, more or less, is when I became involved in the fight for human rights in Cuba, and I began in Havana with Mrs. Alda Valdes Santana. In this manner, I represented my province of Villa Clara and subsequently in 2001, I created my own organization called the Escambray Independent Organization for Human Rights, which was responsible for monitoring all the violations that occurred in the area. In this way I also collaborated with other Cuban organizations of dissidents, who were all united. [Alda Valdes Santana is a Cuban human rights activist.]

That’s why I broke with the Cuban government and I left to grow tobacco. And struggled like you would not believe, let me tell you. I struggled like no one could imagine because in the early days, I was not accustomed to the fields. I had to take my dad there to help me, so I could move forward in my situation, so

I could survive because somehow we had to survive. Imagine you leave a house in your town, with the grocery store and the butcher shop in front of your house, to go to the fields; and by foot. That happened to me, and sitting here today, I do not regret breaking with the government. I feel happy.

Although I have had all the struggles one could imagine, although I struggled in prison, I have no regrets. I have no regrets; I am proud of having broken with that; and to have discovered the true face of this regime. That is it.

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 Arturo Pérez De Alejo Rodríguez

Arturo Perez De Alejo Rodriguez: Why I Became a Dissident Arturo discusses his early life and fighting in the Angolan Civil War.

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Arturo Perez De Alejo Rodriguez: Arrest, Trial and Prison Arturo discusses his arrest and imprisonment during the Black Spring. More +