Prominent journalist and poet Raul Rivero walked free out of a military hospital this morning after being unexpectedly paroled by the Cuban government. Rivero served 20 months of a 20-year sentence for conspiring with the United States to oust President Fidel Castro and his socialist regime.
Rivero's is the latest in a series of releases this week. The surge suggests Cuba might be trying to mend fences with the European Union. Cuban-EU relations chilled after Rivero and 74 other dissidents were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in March 2003. Fueling this idea is the fact that just last week, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced the resumption of formal contacts with Spain.
Rivero, nonetheless, said he doesn't believe it's the result of any pressure brought to bear on Havana.
"It seems to be a private initiative of the Cuban Government...an independent decision," Rivero said. He did not rule out however, that Havana had come to a mutual accord with the Spanish government, an "opening of roads."
Rivero said five dissidents were released Friday, leaving more than 60 of the original group of 75 dissidents scattered in prisons across the island.
All of the other prisoners were apparently paroled because of health problems. However, 59-year-old Rivero, smoking a cigarette as he spoke to a group of international journalists who crammed into his fourth-floor walk-up apartment, insisted "that's not my case... they had told me I was fine. I felt deplorably healthy." But he admits prison doctors have diagnosed him to be suffering from emphysema and cysts on a kidney.
Rivero, the winner of this year's UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize, said of his time in prison: "The first months were especially difficult for me. I left my house directly for a punishment cell. It was a brutal shock."
Rivero spent 11 months of his sentence in a space he describes as "small, humid, cold" and was handcuffed whenever he was allowed out to get some sun or to see the doctor. Still, he insists, at Ciego de Avila prison in central Cuba, he was treated fairly: "The doctor and nurse came daily."
His jailers allowed him to write love poems, which after checking they passed on to his wife. Those poems are about to be published in Spain under the title, Corazon Sin Furia, or Heart Without Fury. In addition to writing, he real voluminously, including the novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo" that someone sent him.
Rivero went so far as to describe his prison experience as a "privilege that few writers have been able to have...to see a prison from inside."
It was very "intense and dramatic" and changed him. "I think I'm a better person...the prison is an exercise in humility...glory doesn't matter...it doesn't matter what gets published. You're there suffering." Prison also taught him to value other things differently, "To be close to my daughter, my wife, my mother."
Rivero, said no artistic, journalistic, or employment conditions were put on his parole. He has no intention of restarting the independent news agency, Cuba Press, which he created in 1995.
"That exhausted itself," he said. "I'm tired."
He is frustrated with the bureaucratic clashes his relationship with U.S. agencies has caused him. Some of his connections have gotten him in trouble, such as attending a celebration for "Journalists Day" at the home of James Carson, head of U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Rivero said at his trial by the Cuban government, attending that U.S. -run event was presented as evidence against him.
Despite this, Rivero defends his and others' rights to accept invitations from foreign embassies. He blames a "very difficult moment" in which the government felt it was losing control of the opposition movement for the massive sweep of dissidents that left him imprisoned.
And, despite his hardships, this writer has no plans to abandon his country. "I've never wanted to leave Cuba, not because of stupid blind patriotism but because this is my country and I have always felt well here."
But his decision will depend on how things work out. "It's been nearly 20 years since they last let me travel. If everything is resolved so that I can live like any normal citizen, so that I can leave and return like other writers and journalists do, I have no reason to leave."