Cuba's hidden victims
Dissident's families pay heavy financial and emotional price

Miriam Leyva looked at the lineup outside the Havana travel agency and shrugged. Last week her husband, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe was transferred to Guantanamo province on the other side of the island, and Leyva has to take an 18 hour bus trip for her weekly 30 minute visits. But first she has to get a ticket.

"It's Sunday and already they are lining up," Leyva said. "By tomorrow morning when the office opens there will be more than a hundred people here, and I can't even be sure there will be tickets available."

Leyva's inconvenience in not unique. According to Reporters Without Borders last week the families of a dozen of the 26 journalists detained in the crackdown of 78 Cuban dissidents were told by state security police that their relatives would be sent to jails up to 900 kilometers from the capital.

Miriam Leiva

In Cuba, where only the rich and government workers own cars, and where public transportation is hard to come by, that makes regular visits an often-insurmountable obstacle.

The move illustrates a compelling aspect of Cuba's dissident crackdown, which is that the families of those incarcerated are also suffering what is in many cases unbearable hardship.

Life for ordinary Cubans is hard. There are chronic shortages of food and other goods throughout the country. Many parts of Havana have running water only ever second day and power blackouts are frequent. The average Cuban salary is paid in increasingly worthless pesos, and only those with access to U.S. dollars get even basic comforts.

But for dissident's families the burden is higher. Most must make do with only one salary. Blanca Reyes, wife of dissident poet Rául Rivero, gets only a meager pension, and the hardship is beginning to show.

This month is the first she has passed without her husband, who was sentenced to 20 years in jail, and was recently transferred to Ciego de Avila, more than 400 kilometers from her Havana home.

Even before her husband was incarcerated things were so tough the two were forced to live with his 83 year old mother, who is in such poor health that Reyes hasn't had the heart to notify her of her son's imprisonment.

Blanca Reyes and Claudia Marquez

Cuba's prisons are notoriously brutal, unclean and medical care is hard to come by.

According to Leyva who visited her husband two weeks ago, with her niece who is a doctor, Espinosa Chepe is showing symptoms indicating liver disorder and the niece recommended that he be hospitalized.

Amnesty International has expressed concern about the case, and is reviewing whether to classify him as a prisoner of conscious.

At a meeting in her tiny Havana apartment last week Leyva alternated between tears and defiance as she talked about her husband's plight.

"He has nothing in jail, not even running water," Leyva said. "The prisoners store their water in a pail that they keep in their cells, and he doesn't even have one of those."

According to Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Recognition and one of the most important activists in the country, the current crackdown on Cuban dissidents is unprecedented in its extent and its severity.

"Never before in Cuban history have so many people been condemned for opinion crimes or with such high sentences," Sanchez said. "Not even during the time of Batista."

Sanchez has seen the repression first hand. Two members of his group have been jailed, as have many organizers of the Varela Project, a petition organized last year by Oswaldo Payá, that called for more openness in Cuban society. The crackdown has been especially tough in the provinces, which are outside the prying eye of the press and foreign diplomats.

Elizardo Sanchez

For Claudia Marquez the stakes may be the highest of all. Her husband Osvaldo Alfonso Valdéz, a political activist, was recently sentenced to 18 years in jail, leaving her alone to care for their six-year old son.

Marquez is supporting him by writing articles for U.S. based Cubanet.org, a Web-site that features Cuba oriented news coverage.

"If I get arrested, with my husband in jail there will nobody left to care for my son. They will have to put him in an orphanage," Marquez said. "I am so scared all of the time, that fear has become part of my daily life."

 

Photo caption: According to Elizardo Sanchez, president of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Recognition, the current crackdown on Cuban dissidents is unprecedented in its extent and its severity.

 


Peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

 

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