By: Anita Snow, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Blanca Reyes waits by the phone every Thursday afternoon for a call from her jailed husband, Raul Rivero. A year ago Saturday, she watched from her tiny balcony as the poet and journalist was hustled away by President Fidel Castro’s agents in front of cheering pro-government neighbors. Crying tears of rage, she shouted: “Alli va un hombre!” — “There goes a man!”
Rivero was among 75 dissidents arrested in a broad and crushing crackdown that provoked worldwide condemnation and showed a communist regime determined at any cost to prevent what 77-year-old Castro sees as Washington’s growing effort to topple him, especially since the Iraq invasion.
Rivero, 58 and serving 20 years in prison, gets to make one weekly call home. Every month or so Reyes hires someone to drive her to Ciego de Avila, a central city 265 miles east of Havana, to visit her husband in prison.
The phone rings in the modest fourth-story walk-up in a central Havana neighborhood of dilapidated apartment buildings, and for 25 precious minutes, husband and wife exchange news and affections.
Referring to notes scribbled on a pad, Reyes, 56, gives Rivero the latest on the daughter pregnant with his first grandchild, and tells him UNESCO is awarding him its World Press Freedom Prize.
Rivero reads his wife the love poems written for her and updates her on his weight loss — down 75 pounds to 192 pounds since he was arrested.
Three weeks after the arrests, Castro defended them by saying: “We are now immersed in a battle against provocations that are trying to move us toward conflict and military aggression by the United States. We have been defending ourselves for 44 years and have always been willing to fight until the end.”
Reyes, a woman with a soft, round face framed by shortish blonde hair, says she cares about her family, not politics, and hopes Rivero will be freed if the couple agrees to leave Cuba. “The only thing important for me now is that Raul gets out,” she says.
Rivero is among a few professionally trained Cuban journalists who call themselves independent reporters. He worked many years for state media, and was trusted enough to serve a stint in Moscow, Cuba’s former backer, before breaking with Castro’s regime in 1989. He has published many volumes of reportage and poetry.
He had been detained in the past, each time for several days, but this was the first time he was tried and sentenced.
Rivero’s wife says neighbors testified to the closed tribunal that he had distributed “enemy propaganda” — articles from foreign newspapers — in the neighborhood and that foreigners frequently visited the apartment.
Rivero wrote articles for foreign publications that sometimes criticized his country, but denied being on a U.S. payroll.
The weeklong crackdown that began last March 18 swept up independent reporters, rights advocates and members of outlawed opposition parties. They were accused of working with American officials to bring down the government. They all denied it. So did Washington.
All were convicted in one-day trials in April and sentenced to prison terms of six to 28 years.
Cuba’s highest court rejected their appeals. Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez hopes at least the old and infirm will be amnestied, but expects it to take years. Meanwhile, he says, “If anything, they are tightening the screws on the inmates.”
Amnesty International has adopted all 75 as prisoners of conscience. The nongovernment Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation headed by Sanchez says more than 300 political prisoners are now held on the island of 11 million people.
The crackdown came amid a rash of hijackings of planes and boats to the United States, which Cuba blamed on U.S. policies that it says encourage illegal emigration.
Separately from the March arrests, the regime executed by firing squad three men arrested in the unsuccessful armed hijacking of a passenger ferry, and jailed four others for life.
Amid worldwide condemnation of Castro, the United States tightened Cuba trade and travel restrictions.
Until the crackdown, Cuba’s relatively small opposition had been gaining in strength and numbers, and increasing ties with U.S. diplomats in Havana.
U.S. officials were meeting more frequently with activists, and speaking out more pointedly — and publicly — against Castro on his home turf.
In May 2002, former President Jimmy Carter had made a historic visit to Cuba during which he openly endorsed the reform movement and was allowed to deliver an uncensored talk about democracy on Cuban television.
The few vocal dissidents who escaped arrest a year ago still issue communiques and hold occasional news conferences, but they say the movement is crippled.
The government “has triumphed in its attempt to weaken (the opposition) but has lost in its legitimacy,” said Manuel Cuesta Morua of Cuba’s Moderate Opposition Reflection Group.
Sanchez, the human rights campaigner, says the Cuban nation both at home and in exile “is suffering from a type of political Alzheimer’s.”
Leadership throughout the Cuban community, both on the island and in Miami’s exile stronghold, both official and opposition, is “marked by decrepitude, irrational decisions … and it could continue for years,” he said.
Sanchez has been the target of a government effort to discredit him, including the release of a book and videotape revealing meetings he had with state security agents.
He says he never provided information to harm other activists and remains a primary source of information for international groups such as Human Rights Watch.
Sanchez noted that many of those arrested a year ago are 60 or older and at least a dozen are hospitalized for serious ailments.
Independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, 63, is being treated for cirrhosis at a military hospital outside Havana.
“He’s doing really poorly,” Espinosa’s wife, Miriam Leiva. “They just don’t give me any medical information.”