The Wall Street Journal | By MARY ANASTASIA O’GRADY
On a muggy Friday evening in New York City last month, some 70 people gathered in a midtown office building to hear former Cuban political prisoner Hector Palacios talk Cuban politics.
Dressed in a neatly pressed white guayabera shirt and khaki trousers, Mr. Palacios could pass for your average Cuban exile. But he has set himself apart from the rest of his refugee community by declaring his intention to return to his homeland next month.
To anyone familiar with his story of torture at the hands of revolutionary enforcers in 2003-2006, this sounds like certifiable insanity. But as I listened to him and later to his wife Gisela Delgado, who was with him that night, I learned that the couple’s decision, while not without risk, is also not without reason.
Mr. Palacios and Ms. Delgado believe the system is in the throes of death. While their optimism may reflect the triumph of hope over experience, it is equally possible that change is finally within reach.
Mr. Palacios has no illusions about the mercilessness of the Castro regime. He himself was once an ardent communist and a practitioner of regime skulduggery. His epiphany came during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Watching the mobs, incited by state security agents, attack people who wanted only to leave the island, the scales fell from his eyes.
Over the years, Mr. Palacios grew increasingly uncooperative with the regime. What got him into trouble most recently was his role in the Varela Project, which led a petition drive for democratic reform. It collected more than 11,000 signatures.
Fearlessness among the population frightens the regime. For his participation in Varela and his outspoken activism, Mr. Palacios was arrested, along with some 75 other political activists, journalists, writers, poets and librarians, in a three-day crackdown on dissent in March 2003. After summary trials, he was sentenced to 25 years, as were a number of the others. Cubans call that time their Black Spring.
During his incarceration, Mr. Palacios, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall, was jammed in a metal and cement cell measuring just over 5 feet high, less than 6 feet long and 4 feet wide. Shaped a bit like an igloo, it is kept in the sun with the purpose of baking the occupant.
Mr. Palacios developed heart problems. He was close to death when the regime, which tries to avoid the bad PR that dead political prisoners stir up, released him to the care of the Spanish government in December 2006.
Reporting from Spain in 2007, the Cuban exile writer Carlos Alberto Montaner described Mr. Palacios’s imprisonment: “Hector lived semi-recumbent and in semi-darkness. He lost 88 pounds. He breathed through the door slit. His company were the rats and the cockroaches that emerged from the hole into which he defecated.”
Spanish doctors repaired Mr. Palacios’s heart. But his sentence remains in effect, and when he returns to Cuba he, like the other 19 Black Spring prisoners released for medical reasons, can be jailed again at any time. Fifty-five prisoners from March 2003 are still serving time and suffering horrific treatment.
Grim though all this is, Mr. Palacios and Ms. Delgado maintain that freedom for Cuba is near because the failure of the system is by now universally recognized, and Cubans are becoming bolder about breaking the rules. Ms. Delgado, a founder of the independent libraries movement, estimates that some two million Cubans have either visited those libraries or borrowed their books. That so many are taking such risks is impressive, and it jibes with other shifts in behavior. The nation’s youth has become irreverent toward authority, and others are becoming less reluctant to complain. There is even a movement demanding that the Cuban peso be convertible to dollars.
Mr. Palacios told me that the aggressiveness of the ministry of the interior has diminished in the past two years. This supports the theory, which has been gaining currency among Cuba watchers, that there are widening cracks inside the regime and among the traditional pro-government set.
Touring in Spain last month, Cuban-Afro pop star Pablo Milanés startled his compatriots when he said “as a revolutionary, I demand changes.” More recently, the former director of Cuba’s National Library, Eliades Acosta, who acted as the grand inquisitor in the effort to flatten the independent library movement, is reported to have resigned his Communist Party post in disillusionment.
Mr. Palacios believes that if Fidel were to die to tomorrow, Raúl would let the political prisoners go free. That’s a surprising but not necessarily charitable take on the ruthless Raúl. It suggests that he knows the nation is near insurrection and that only with change can he survive. He certainly knows that dissidents are not going away. Asked by Mr. Montaner when he arrived in Spain whether he could recover his health, Mr. Palacios said, “What’s important is that they couldn’t crush me.”