HAVANA—Acclaimed poet Raul Rivero walks 7,000 paces a day in his prison cell and seeks refuge “from the hours that fall as if from a dropper” by writing verses and letters on yellow legal pads.
Former government translator Adolfo Fernandez Sainz, who briefly worked at Cuba’s U.N. mission in New York, has learned to barter cigarettes—a precious prison commodity—for cheese, guava paste and other snacks. He writes to his wife and daughter from atop a triple-decker bunk bed in the cell he shares with almost 50 other inmates.
Ex-economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who once negotiated credit agreements at Cuba’s Embassy in Yugoslavia, lies in a hospital bed at a state security ward suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and a fungal infection on his legs.
A year ago this week, Rivero, Fernandez Sainz and Espinosa Chepe were among 75 dissidents arrested in an islandwide government crackdown that veteran opposition leaders and international human-rights groups called the worst wave of repression in more than four decades.
Cuban President Fidel Castro said the dissidents were mercenaries financed by American diplomats in Havana to threaten Cuba’s sovereignty. After one-day trials in April, they were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 28 years.
The crackdown and harsh sentences roused a storm of criticism from as far away as the Vatican, the European Union and U.S. Congress, which called for the dissidents’ release.
U.N. envoy Christine Chanet, assigned to monitor Cuba’s rights record, last month condemned the dissidents’ prison conditions but also cast blame on the U.S. government, saying tensions between Havana and Washington create “a climate that is unfavorable to the development of freedom of expression and assembly.”
In recent years the Cuban government has denied international human-rights groups access to its prisons. For now, the dissidents’ letters and essays, which in some cases are smuggled out of prison, offer limited glimpses into their lives. They describe inadequate medical care, poor food and darkened cells where toilets are little more than holes in the ground.
“The purpose is to make one surrender,” dissident leader Hector Palacios, sentenced to 25 years, wrote in a September letter to his wife. “I assure you that they will first deliver my dead body to you rather than my defeated spirit.”
The year has taken its toll on some. Edel Jose García, an independent journalist sentenced to 15 years, battles depression and insomnia and sometimes cries during his family’s visits. Last month he was transferred to a hospital ward at a Havana prison.
“He says he has a strong spirit, but he can’t take it,” said his wife, Maria Margarita Borges. “I am not used to seeing my husband like that.”
Others remain optimistic that they will not serve out their long prison terms.
Rights activist Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who spent the first few months of his 25-year sentence in a punishment cell with no family visits after refusing to wear a prison uniform, “says this is the year of freedom,” said his wife, Elsa Morejon. “I don’t say anything because I don’t want to take away his hope.”
That optimism seems to have been fueled by the transfers of several prisoners to hospitals for medical checkups.
An additional 13 are hospitalized for ailments including gastrointestinal problems, gallstones and high blood pressure, said dissident Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which monitors the conditions of political prisoners.
In some prisons, rumors are circulating that the sickest dissidents might be released—something the wives dismiss as a strategy to appease them as the annual vote of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights draws near in Geneva.
During the past year, Cuba’s fragmented opposition movement has absorbed the prisoners’ wives, many of whom had not been politically active. They work to keep the spotlight on their husbands through letters, interviews with Miami-based radio stations and visits to embassies in Havana.
“They tried to silence 75 voices, but now there are more than 75 voices shouting to the world the injustices the government has committed,” said Laura Pollan, who in December married her longtime partner, Hector Maseda, in the “re-education” offices of the La Pendiente prison in central Santa Clara province, where he is serving a 20-year sentence.
“This has been a painful year for us—a year of pain, impotence, rage and fear,” said Yolanda Huerga, wife of jailed independent journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal. “But it has also been a year of unity.”