October 06, 2003,
It has been a turbulent several days for René Montes de Oca Martija. Then again, it has been a turbulent life. Regular readers may recall that Montes de Oca is a dissident in Cuba, an official of the Human Rights party, which takes as its "patron saint," if you will, Andrei Sakharov. In May 2001, I interviewed him when he was on the lam he had escaped from prison and expected to be caught at any moment. He was, indeed, caught three days after our conversation. (My first piece on Montes de Oca may be found here, and a follow-up piece here.)
I talked to René as I have come to know him again two mornings ago. He had been released from prison in July. But then, on Wednesday of last week, he had been arrested again. He was detained for just a couple of days, until shortly before we spoke together.
As before, we spoke through a translator, a supporter of the Cuban cause here in the United States. I asked René whether he thought our conversation was being monitored by the regime. He said that it surely was, but that this was to be expected, and we should just forge on.
He recounted what he had been doing since his release from prison on July 5. He, of course, had gone right back to his opposition activities. They all do. It's an amazing thing about these Cuban dissidents: The second they get out of jail, they go right back to what they were doing before, knowing they will be rearrested and imprisoned. René has been in and out of jail all of his life.
I asked him, "What motivates you to take the risk of being imprisoned once more?" He answered, "I've lived in a prison for 40 years." (René was born in 1963.) He did not mean it glibly; his words were self-evidently sincere and honest. He cannot keep still while his country is under this brutal fist.
He had spent the two and a half months since his release shoring up the Human Rights party, and he seemed especially pleased about a committee of mothers who do what they can to aid political prisoners. He further noted that, every Wednesday night from 7:30 to 8, he and many other Cubans hold "la vela," a type of ceremony at which they light a candle and pray for the prisoners. This Wednesday-night "vela" has been going on across Cuba and among their supporters in the United States for about two years.
René very much irked the authorities when he denounced the visit of Brazilian president Lula da Silva to the island. "Lula," as he is known throughout the world, is a great friend and supporter of Castro. As I mentioned in a column of mine the other day, Lula said about Castro in 2001 "In spite of the fact that your face already is marked with wrinkles, Fidel, your soul remains clean because you never betrayed the interests of your people. . . . Thank you, Fidel, thank you because you continue to exist." Da Silva also smeared Armando Valladares the great Cuban dissident and memoirist as a "picareta," which is Portuguese for "liar" or "fraud."
In any case, it is Montes de Oca's position that democratically elected leaders should not visit countries under dictatorship at least without doing something to help the people who suffer from it. Needless to say, Castro's regime did not care for this talk. René was told, during his recent detention, that if he kept it up, he could be sent away for a full 20 to 30 years.
I asked René whether he thought the opposition was making progress whether Castro was stronger than usual or weaker. He thought weaker, because "they arrested 75 members of the opposition [last spring] independent journalists, independent librarians. And if the regime applies force in this way, it means that they are weak, that they have lost the battle of ideas."
I further asked, as I'd done two years ago, what he wanted to say, in particular, to an American audience. He mentioned a name that NRO readers may be familiar with: the Rev. Lucius Walker. It is a name that makes Cuban democrats and human-rights supporters shudder, for Walker is the head of Pastors for Peace, an organization dedicated to propping up the Castro regime. In July '01, Ross Douthat published a piece on our site that explained what Walker and his group are all about.
Montes de Oca warned Americans not to cooperate with these people, as the goods they bring to Cuba computers, telephones, etc. are all used by the regime to repress the opposition. The Cuban Interior Ministry is not interested in forests (believe me). They are interested in control and persecution. René is most eager that well-meaning people not be fooled by organizations, such as Walker's, that pose as charitable.
He also said that he was deeply distrustful of the "visa lottery" that takes place in Cuba the process by which certain individuals are allowed to leave for the United States while others are not. René believes that Castro uses this system in a devious way, and wishes that the U.S. government would accept only those Cubans whom the opposition movement at large certifies as being in real danger.
While I had him on the line, I thought I'd ask René what he thought of the Bush administration, and of U.S. policy in general. He is not only in favor of the U.S. embargo, but also believes that there should be a "total [worldwide] blockade." Tourism, he says, only lines the pockets and serves the interests of the regime, keeping them in power long past their time. I asked whether dissidents on the island were unanimous in the pro-blockade view. He answered, "That's certainly the position of my party. I respect whatever other opinion anyone else may have." I reminded him that people often claim that the longstanding U.S. embargo hasn't "worked." He replied, "It has worked in the sense that the government of the United States has not cooperated with the Castro regime in oppressing the Cuban people."
He ended our conversation essentially as he did before: "God bless the people of the United States, because that's the country that has been a welcoming home to those who have been oppressed throughout the world."
René Montes de Oca is one of the most fearless and loving and selfless people I have ever encountered. It is terribly humbling to speak to him: to hear the urgency and conviction in his voice. He will almost certainly be arrested again, to face the worst abuses of the regime. After I hung up the phone with him on Saturday, I sat down to a delicious lunch and then dressed for a matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, which I was covering. Somehow, it didn't feel right.