Magazine | December 22, 2014, Issue

The ‘Spirit of Struggle’

Juan Carlos González Leiva
An interview with a blind Cuban dissident

Washington, D.C. — The man sitting across from me has a mouthful of a name, but it’s worth knowing: Juan Carlos González Leiva. He is a Cuban dissident, and he has much in common with his fellow dissidents, both in Cuba and around the world. He has endured imprisonment, torture, beatings, psychological torment — relentless persecution. He is impossibly brave.

One thing that sets him apart from most dissidents, however, is that he is blind. He has a counterpart in Chen Guangcheng, the Chinese dissident, who fled to the United States in 2012. Both are blind, and both are lawyers, specializing in human rights.

González Leiva tells me that, if he had not been blind, he probably would have been “a pilot for the government or a farmer. But I don’t think I would have become a human-rights defender.”

People in the Cuban democracy movement are in awe of González Leiva, and it’s easy to see why: He is smart, articulate, personable, resolute, and compelling. We are sitting in the Washington, D.C., home of supporters of his. González Leiva has not fled Cuba. He is on a tour, drumming up support for the democracy movement, and telling people about the dire human-rights situation on the island.

Why has the regime let him out? As a rule, he explains, they like to keep about 100 dissidents outside the country, at any given time. This keeps the country calmer. It eases pressure on the regime. Well, would they like him to go into exile? Oh, yes, he says. “They have done everything to get me to go into exile. If I did, they would probably hold a national celebration.”

Even now, while he is away, his home is being subjected to actos de repudio. The regime is harassing his family and friends. One friend, the regime has arrested, with the usual violence. At González Leiva’s home, they arrested Omara Rodríguez Aparicio, a journalist. Though she offered no resistance, they put her in a chokehold and beat her up.

Actos de repudio are “acts of repudiation.” In these charming instances, a government mob stands outside a dissident’s home, screaming obscenities and threats, throwing rocks, assaulting people who come and go, and generally intimidating.

González Leiva says, “They are trying to implant terror so that I don’t return.” But will he? Yes, indeed, very soon. “I have a commitment to my country and to Jesus Christ.” And what is that commitment? “To work so that people in Cuba have a better country.”

Well, why doesn’t the government simply expel him? Exile him? The government seldom uses forced exile as a tool, says González Leiva. They have other tools at their disposal, which they prefer. “For example, house arrest, as in the case of Antúnez. Or physical elimination, as in the case of Oswaldo Payá. Or prison.”

“Antúnez” is the nickname of Jorge Luis García Pérez, a prominent democracy leader. Payá was another prominent democracy leader, almost certainly killed by the regime in 2012. He was in one of those car accidents that are not really accidents. Stalin used to order these, too.

Juan Carlos González Leiva is a year short of 50, born in 1965. The seeds of dissidence were planted early. His father would get up and make coffee, before going to the fields to work. While having his coffee, he would listen to an exile radio station, and also to the Voice of America. He thought his son was sleeping. Actually, he was listening.

Did Juan Carlos ever have a flirtation with Communism? Did he ever believe? When he was about 20, he says, he was involved with a governmental organization for the blind. During a few activities, he screamed, “Long live Fidel!” like everyone else. Every Cuban has these moments, he says.

Like Castro, González Leiva went to the University of Havana law school. (I tell him he is a better representative of the school.) In the beginning, his family read his law texts to him. “Some of my nephews learned to read by reading my law books,” he says. He allows that he has a phenomenal memory (when I ask him). Eventually, he learned Braille. “But the revolution came for me with the computer,” and a Windows program designed to help the blind read. “I was able to have access to all literature like any other person. I had a big banquet.”

How is it that he turned to dissidence? How did he come to embrace it as a way of life? “I had read the Bible a lot, and also the works of José Martí” (the Cuban writer and hero from the second half of the 19th century). For González Leiva, dissidence was an “obligation.” There was “a disaster in the country, with so many abuses, and so much poverty. So many people in need. As a Christian, I had to do something.”

The last straw, he says, was July 13, 1994: the Tugboat Massacre. In this atrocity, the Cuban government killed 37 people, most of them women and children, as they tried to flee the island. The killing was accomplished this way: State agents swept people off the deck of the boat with high-pressure water hoses; then they rammed the boat until it sank.

#page#Over the years, González Leiva has founded many organizations, including the Fraternity of the Independent Blind of Cuba, the Human Rights Foundation of Cuba, and the Council of Human Rights Rapporteurs. For two years and two months — starting in 2002 and ending in 2004 — he was in prison. His torturers sprayed a chemical on him, which burned his skin and caused hallucinations and other problems. He was imprisoned with common criminals — murderers — as political prisoners usually are. They threatened him day and night.

In 2008, something quite satisfying happened: The president of the United States paid tribute to him, at a prayer breakfast. That was George W. Bush. I ask González Leiva whether the regime reacted badly to this. Oh, yes. “They were always furious when Bush talked about any of us Cubans,” says González Leiva. He further says, “I would like to take this interview as an opportunity to thank Bush.”

Last January, González Leiva and nine other activists, including his wife, Tania Maceda Guerra, were savagely beaten. One agent held González Leiva’s hands behind his back while another agent pummeled him with his fists. Then they choked him until he passed out. During this episode, he was naturally trying to help his wife, who was also being attacked.

I ask him a slightly odd question — one I have asked other dissidents and victims: “Do they say anything to you as they are beating you?” Yes, they always do, says González Leiva. They say “gusano,” meaning “worm” — Castro and his supporters, at home and abroad, have always called their democratic opposition “gusanos.” They say “counterrevolutionary.” And they say, “We’re going to kill you.” (Sometimes they do — kill them.)

Where can these people be found? Where can you find people willing to pummel a helpless and innocent blind man? Aren’t they ashamed or embarrassed? González Leiva cites Animal Farm, George Orwell’s parable from 1945: Napoleon the Pig, who is the Stalin figure, trains dogs to be his enforcers — his Chekists, his secret police, his brutes. Castro has done the same.

Not all agents are equally enthusiastic, however. González Leiva remembers an episode from 2002: A lieutenant named Amauri was giving him one of the worst beatings he ever received. The man was pistol-whipping him about the face. All the while, the man was screaming, “Long live Fidel!” González Leiva heard the voice of another agent, also screaming, “Long live Fidel!” — but in a tone that suggested disapproval of the beating.

According to González Leiva, almost no one in Cuba believes in Communism anymore, and that includes the leaders. “All that they’re interested in now is to continue in power until their deaths.” Opposition to the government is increasing, and the government is responding furiously. In the first six months of this year, some 6,000 people were arrested (with the accompanying violence). In the past ten years, more than a thousand people have died in prison, from maltreatment.

Opposition on the island lacks money, says González Leiva. But “there is a tremendous spirit of struggle. The people are disposed to confront anything. We breathe a glorious air, an air of combat” — moral and political combat.

The Castro brothers will go to their reward, someday. What then? González Leiva says that many people abroad, including here in Washington, believe the dictatorship must continue, to spare the island a “social explosion.” This is false, he says. “After the deaths of Fidel and Raúl, no one will be able to maintain or save that government. I think there are people in Cuba who are capable of putting together a national salvation front, taking the people to a constitutional convention, and holding free elections.”

Before I leave, I put another question to him, sort of theatrically: I like comfort and dislike pain. Why does he stick his neck out? Why not opt for a less risky life? Where does this spirit of sacrifice come from — love? “I’d like to stay in Miami,” he smiles. “I like air-conditioning.” But “if everyone leaves Cuba, who’s going to struggle? Martí said that human beings have to participate in politics. Because if people who have human feelings leave politics, you only leave behind bad people, who want to devour the country.” He also notes the example of Jesus — who said, “Let this cup pass from me”; but then, “Not my will, but thine, be done.”

I have a final question, perfectly standard, almost a cliché: “Is there anything else you would like people to know?” Yes, says González Leiva. “I would like them to know that Cuba will soon be free. And that Cubans will have a prosperous country. Happy. And that people will want to leave Miami for Havana.”

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