In a cramped ground floor office in Madrid, Alejandro Gonzalez Raga recalls the day of his arrest in Cuba, 13 years ago.
There was a knock at the door. It was Cuban state security.
“They said, ‘You are detained in the name of the people,'” he recalls. “Well that’s one I’d never heard before — ‘in the name of the people.’ Then they took me away.”
Gonzalez, now 58, is a Cuban opposition activist. By definition that’s illegal in Cuba, where the Communist Party is the only political entity allowed.
He was arrested on March 18, 2003, in his hometown of Camaguey, one of 75 Cuban journalists, librarians and human rights activists arrested by Fidel Castro’s regime over two days.
After years of mediation by the Catholic Church and the Spanish government, the detainees were freed in 2008 and 2010 — under the condition that some go into exile in Spain.
It was known as Cuba’s Black Spring, which happened within days of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. While the world was watching the U.S. military operation, many Cubans believe their government took advantage of the moment to carry out one of the harshest ever crackdowns on Cuban opposition activists.
President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba coincides with the 13th anniversary of the Black Spring.
A Brief Trial, A Long Sentence
In a one-hour trial a month after his arrest, Gonzalez was convicted of receiving illegal funding from the U.S. government, and sentenced to 14 years behind bars.
He admits he got $650 US dollars from a Cuban exile in Florida once, which he used to fund a Christian Democrats party in Camaguey, and a local human rights group — all of which he knew was illegal.
“I’m sure they were tapping my phone,” Gonzalez says. “But this wasn’t cloak and dagger stuff. I did this in broad daylight, and that was the point. To do it in the face of a repressive regime. So I expected to be arrested. I told my wife so.”
Gonzalez traces his political awakening back to the 1990s, after he watched a close friend drown trying to reach the U.S. in a raft.
“Cubans were trying to get out in any way possible,” he says. “And I thought, the only way is to form an opposition and try to change the situation — peacefully but decisively.”
At the time, Gonzalez was doing lots of odd jobs, like many Cubans, to support his family. He worked as a telegraph operator — Cuba still has those. He worked construction, sold shoes on the black market — and also studied law.
He also started delivering cigars to some of Cuba’s political prisoners under house arrest and was drawn in to their political debates. Eventually, he started working for them.
He’s able to rattle off the exact articles of the Cuban constitution he knew he was violating.
He was at the local university, drumming up support among students, when Cuban agents arrested him. They surrounded his home nearby with police dogs, he says, to make it look like a drug bust. But Gonzalez says his neighbors knew exactly what he’d been up to and many supported him.
A Rapid Exit
For more than five years in prison, Gonzalez says he endured psychological torture. Then one day in late 2008, he was in the first group of Black Spring detainees to be freed.
“They got me a passport, a suit and tie, threw me in a car and went straight through immigration,” he recalls. “The Spanish government had sent a plane.”
His wife and three children were allowed to go into exile with him. They left with only the clothes on their backs.
Within a year of arriving in Madrid, Gonzalez founded the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights, which monitors the situation in Cuba and lobbies the government there to grant two-week travel permits for young Cubans to come to Madrid and get training in the tools of democracy. The non-profit foundation gets some financial support from the U.S. State Department and the Spanish government.
On this day, half a dozen Cuban visitors sit in a classroom at the Observatory’s office, learning about computers, the Internet, how to write a business plan or start a non-profit group.
“These people who are coming over, could potentially run for the presidency of Cuba someday. They’re Cuba’s future,” says Katie Gortz, an American who lives in Madrid and works part-time at the Observatory’s office. “Sooner or later, we hope it will happen. It’s really exciting.”
Visitors From Cuba
Three of the Cuban visitors, who are on their first trip abroad, say they’re amazed by Europe — the cold winter, the traffic, the fancy cars.
“For someone like me, who’s never traveled outside [Cuba] before, it’s astonishing — the feeling, the people,” says Rafael León, 33, from Havana. He says state media in Cuba have reported on Spain’s economic crisis, and he expected to arrive in a country in shambles. But the quality of living is much higher than he expected, he says.
León earns a little more than $25 dollars a month back home, fixing people’s computers. In Madrid, he’s seen snow for the first time. He surfs wi-fi on a 4-G smartphone, a sharp contrast to Cuba where Internet access is limited.
“We have to go to a wi-fi spot, and most of the time it doesn’t work. It’s like 0.5-G,” he says, laughing. “It’s very slow, and only for email — provided by a government company.”
When he returns to Cuba at the end of March, León wants to be part of a tech revolution as his country opens up.
“I’m very excited about it. We’ve been in the same thing, same place, same everything for the last 50 years,” he says. “It’s about time.”
These Cubans believe their government allowed them to come to Madrid and visit an exiled dissident because it would look bad for the government to deny them travel permits, while Obama is visiting Cuba. And they believe the Cuban government trusts them to come home.
What keeps them from refusing to go home, and staying in exile, in Europe?
León thinks for a moment, and shrugs.
“It’s just home. All my memories are there. It’s my place,” he says. “And I want to fight for my place. That’s what we are all doing.”