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Blas Giraldo Reyes Rodriguez was born in Manicaragua, Cuba. As the son of a political prisoner, the government forced Blas out of school at the age of 16. During the next three years of his life, Blas was pressed into military service where he performed forced labor. In 1975, Blas and his family were sent to live with his father in a penal colony, essentially a concentration camp for political prisoners, in Pinar del Río. While there, Blas met Isel Acosta, the woman he would marry.

In 1990, Blas moved to Sancti Spiritus with his wife and began working as a surveyor, but was unable to escape his family’s past as he was harassed by State Security. Inspired by Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba in 1998, Blas decided to become active in the Cuban opposition. He also started an independent library and became involved in the Christian Liberation Movement, an organization that spearheaded the Varela Project, a petition calling for a referendum on legal reform in Cuba with the goal of greater personal, political and economic freedoms. Blas was arrested for his activism in March 2003 and sentenced to 25 years in prison; he was one of 75 nonviolent dissidents incarcerated as part of a massive government crackdown known as the Black Spring. While imprisoned, he was kept in solitary confinement for long periods and subjected to abuse by the prison guards.

Blas was released along with fellow prisoners in 2010 as part of an agreement negotiated among Spain, Cuba and the Catholic Church. In 2011, he resettled in the United States where he lives today. 

In 1998, I decided to start working in the opposition directly; I was always a faithful listener of Radio Marti. And I was aware of everything that happened to the opposition inside Cuba. But as I was already a persecuted person, the son of an ex-political prisoner and the son-in-law of an ex-political prisoner, my family was persecuted.

I feared for my family, you know? So then in 1998, I decided to break with the system completely; to take off my mask, as we say in Cuba, and face the system with the truth. I never sympathized with the system, but neither was I acting against it. I was apolitical from the beginning of my childhood, because my father never let me be a Pioneer. I never belonged to the CDR (Committee For the Defense of the Revolution), I never went to the political speeches; I never went to any of the political meetings to help any of them in the system, you know?

[The Pioneers are the Communist Party’s organization for children. The Committees for Defense of the Revolution are neighborhood-based groups which monitor Cuban citizens’ activities and promote the Communist Party agenda.]

Then in 1998, I had to leave my work as a topographer, and go to work in the fields with farmers to provide for my family; [these were] very tough times, you know? In Sancti Spiritus, the first organization that I participated in is the CTDC, which is Council of Democratic Workers of Cuba, which was founded in the town of Ramón Lopez Peña.

I visited that town and there, through friends from my youth there in Lopez Peña, I joined the CTDC. Then in Sancti Spiritus, I founded the Ex-Captive Club of Sancti Spíritus, of political prisoners and family members who were part of it. There were many political prisoners in the area of Sancti Spiritus.

Even then, we began to be persecuted whenever we went out to meetings in Placeta, Santa Clara. They would take us from those places, when we were leaving the house, or at the train station that was close to my house. They would take us away and leave us long distances away from home; 100 or more kilometers from home, you know? So then, that’s when all those problems began.

Then on May 20, 2001, I founded the "May 20th #1" [independent] library in Sancti Spíritus; and the problems continued against me and my family. My son was already big, because my son at that time was 16 ... no ... 15 years old. And he was studying in a school of economics. And he was harassed by a gentleman from State Security; if you can call him a gentleman, because those people are repugnant, you know? That man harassed him, saying things to my son.

These are difficult things, you know? But well, when a man faces a fight for the truth, you have to be ready for whatever comes. I always counseled my son, “Don’t answer him. Let him be. Let God be witness to all his wrongdoings." Because of these things, my son already felt inferior to his other classmates. Because sometimes he didn't understand things, you know? But I always reminded him that the system [in Cuba] did not work.

So, in Sancti Spiritus, I continued my peaceful struggle. My home was a meeting point, because it was in a very central location in town. My house was the meeting point of the opposition in Sancti Spiritus. I didn’t have problems. I got along well with everyone, you know?

And I tried to unite, not divide – unite the opposition, because a united opposition is a stronger opposition. When there are divisions in the opposition, you don’t get anywhere. The opposition ought to be united. Each one has his own ideas, because this is democracy; each with his own ideas and planting that which he believes good for the country.

And from all of this, you take the best – that’s my idea, my intention. I have always tried to do things this way; uniting and not dividing the opposition. It’s State Security that divides us. They say, “divide and conquer.” Unity is our strength. So I continued in the opposition there in Sancti Spritus. 

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.

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