Former U.S. contractor Alan Gross got a standing ovation during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last night, but he wasn’t the only former Cuban prisoner in attendance. Sitting quietly on the non-clapping side of the aisle was the invited guest of House Speaker John Boehner —former Cuban political prisoner Jorge Luis García Pérez, a man dubbed the “Cuban Nelson Mandela.”
It’s a moniker that makes the 50-year-old cringe. “I appreciate it, but I don't think I deserve it.” García, who was freed in 2007, told Fusion. “It's actually bothers me a little bit.”
García, who spent 17 years behind bars for protesting against the Castro government in 1990, says he thinks Obama’s recent effort to thaw diplomatic relations with Cuba is a betrayal that will only embolden the authoritarian government’s crackdown on island dissidents.
“I feel that we've been abandoned,” he said, adding that the White House’s move feels like support for the Castro government at the expense of the Cuban people. “The more support a regime like Cuba has, the more ability it has to delay democratic change.”
García says Cuba can’t be coaxed gently down the path to reform. And cozier relations with the U.S. will only make matters worse, he insists.
“A dictatorship doesn't know any other language than pressure and force,” he said. “It won't change.”
García’s opinion of the Cuban government is informed, in part, by being a prisoner there for one-third of his life— a period marked by steadfast resistance.
While behind bars, García refused to wear his prison uniform or to receive state-mandated "Communist re-education" training. As a result, he says he was beaten regularly and locked in solitary confinement. Though Cuba reportedly recently released 53 political prisoners as part of the new deal with the U.S., Garcia said he wants the world to remember that there are still others like him left behind. And the conditions they face are horrible, he says.
“There is no pencil, pen, architect, actor that could narrate what it's really like to suffer in jail under Castro's rule,” he said. “It's impossible to narrate.”
García says harassment and torture are “parts of everyday life in a Cuban prison,” and that starvation was used “as a weapon to pressure you.”
“They deprive you of everything…sometimes they'd take your clothes; they'll leave you completely naked in a cell,” García said. “Sometimes they'd take away your mattress, box spring. They put you in a cell with no bathroom. They wet the floor so your feet get cold.”
García said one of the forms of torture was called the "Shakira" method, named after the Colombian pop singer. He said that consisted of guards hog-tying prisoners in such a way that they can only move their hips.
“I’ve had dogs released on me nearly destroying my legs. They’d incite suicide, saying things like, ‘Just kill yourself,’ he said. “When I carried out a hunger strike, they'd force tubes up my nose to feed me.”
Despite his ordeal, García doesn’t view his time in prison as lost years.
“I feel like I've won those years. Those were the most difficult years, but the most fruitful,” he said. “I will never forget the abuse I suffered or the abuse suffered by my fellow inmates. That's something I'll never forget. I still remember clearly the sticks hitting my body. I still remember the cold I endured. Being away from my loved ones.”
Still, he says, that past suffering is now a source of strength and mission.
“I want to live. I want to live to see the future and liberty of my nation. If I had to give up my life to contribute to the freedom of my people, I wouldn't think twice about it. I would. People know me by my saying, ‘I won't be silenced and I won't leave.’ To be silenced would implicate to give up who I am as a person, as a thinker. I would be a traitor to my fellow Cubans and especially to those who were and still are political prisoners.”