Reporters Without Borders voiced relief today at the decision by imprisoned Cuban journalist Víctor Rolando Arroyo Carmona on 4 October to end the hunger strike he had begun 25 days before, but the organisation stressed that it was still very worried about his state of health.
“We are reassured by this news but at the same time we stress that prison conditions for Arroyo and the 22 other journalists detained in Cuba continue to be deplorable,” Reporters Without Borders said.
Arroyo’s wife, Elsa González Padrón, was allowed to visit him on 4 October. Doctors told her he was delirious when he was brought to Holguín hospital the day before and thought he was still in Guantánamo prison, in eastern Cuba.
It was only after he finally realised he had been removed from the prison that Arroyo agreed to be put on a drip, thereby ending his hunger strike. One of his demands when starting the hunger strike was to be rid of a Guantánamo prison guard known as Armesto who subjected him to psychological torture.
Arroyo is beginning little by little to eat again, but he is still in a critical condition, like Félix Navarro, a political prisoner who began a hunger strike three days after Arroyo and ended it when he has been transferred to Bamayo in the southeastern province of Granma.
While he was still refusing to eat, Arroyo’s response to those who asked him to end his hunger strike was: “I am not gambling with my life, I am trying to save it.” As going on hunger strike often seems like a last chance to make onself heard in desperate situations, Reporters Without Borders has decided to publish a letter of support for Arroyo which fellow journalist Raúl Rivero wrote just before he called off the hunger strike. Rivero, who is also a writer and poet, has been living in exile in Madrid since April.
The text of Rivero’s open letter follows:
Death offers only relief in Cuban prisons
After 25 days on hunger strike, journalist Víctor Rolando Arroyo is in a critical condition. He is part of a group of 75 dissidents imprisoned by Fidel Castro.
At this very moment, Arroyo is in the process of dying. He began his 25th day on hunger strike this morning. He went on hunger strike to demand that interior ministry officials rid him of an officer called Armesto who has had the job of persecuting him in Guantánamo prison since the spring of 2003.
Arroyo was born in December 1952. He is serving a 26-year sentence. He is one of the 75 Cubans who were imprisoned after a wave of arrests ordered by the Castro regime. The others, fellow independent journalists or activists in peaceful movements that form the internal opposition, were also given long prison sentences.
Guantánamo is at Cuba’s easternmost tip. The Arroyo family lives in Pinar del Río, no less than 1,074 km from the spot at Guantánamo where hundreds of prisons are kept in a concrete and steel hangar called “El Combinado.”
As soon as Arroyo arrived at the prison more than 30 months ago, Armesto was put in charge of “taking care of him.” This is the euphemism used there for the treatment inflicted on political prisoners - harassment, surveillance and control.
Abusive and humiliating treatment
In December 2003, while I was still in prison serving a 20-year sentence, I learned that Arroyo was beaten on New Year’s Eve. We later learned from his family about the abuse, humiliation and degrading treatment he was receiving at the hands of Armesto. His letters were kept from him, he could not make phone calls although this is permitted under prison regulations, and he was not even allowed to receive visits from his family.
A search of personal effects was due to be conducted a while back. Knowing the prison world, Arroyo refused to let it take place without his being present. He feared that Armesto would slip something compromising into his personal effects with the result that he might face another trial on additional charges.
Arroyo refused to leave the wing and sat on the ground. With the help of two other guards, Armesto dragged him all the way along the corridor to another cell, where Arroyo announced that he would go on a hunger strike to the death.
Felix Navarro is another political prisoner. He is serving a 25-year sentence. Although from the western province of Matanzas, he has also been shut away in Guantánamo. He saw Armesto drag Arroyo along the corridor and decided soon afterwards that he would go on hunger strike too, in solidarity with Arroyo.
Of course, all the attention is on Arroyo because of the extreme gravity of his state of health. He was imprisoned for the first time in 1996. He spent a year in prison for writing an article criticising tobacco farming methods in his province, which is the kingdom of the famous Havana cigars.
He was back in prison in February 2000. This time he was given a six-month sentence for an offence that has become obsolete. He had bought toys with dollars in the special dollar shops as presents for poor children on the Day of the Three Wise Men. The money had been donated by Cuban organisations and families based in south Florida. He was accused of hoarding public goods and the toys were confiscated. In Cuba, the Wise Man had been travelling on a bicycle instead of a camel. He found himself in a rural prison called Kilo 4 in the western part of Cuba where Cuba almost touches the Yucatan and you can see the prison’s two wings, the north and south wings, from the main highway.
When sentenced in 2003, he was the director of the Union of Cuban Independent Journalists and Writers (UPECI). He ran a library with nearly 5,000 books that was not under state control.
In the past few days, we have received reports of his family, who are extremely anxious. His wife, Elsa González Padrón, went to seem him in Guantánamo and get direct news of him. They let her spend two minutes with him. A doctor known by the name of Chediak (no one gives their complete name) told her that, although he was making an exception this time, she “was not authorised to see him or anything.”
She asked for him to be moved to another room in case his condition suddenly deteriorated. The doctor replied: “He is here because he wants to be. We are not going to use a bed that someone else may need. If he wants to die, let him die.”
In view of the gravity of his condition, Cardinal Jaime Ortega called on the three prisoners on hunger strike to abandon their protest and their demands. Last Thursday, the European Union asked the Castro government to take measures to improve the situation of the three dissidents on hunger strike.
I have received a message at my home in Madrid that came direct from Pinar del Río. It is signed by Pedro Pablo Arencibia and his family, who are friends of Arroyo. He writes: “We are desperate. Marta, Arroyo’s mother, knows nothing. Elsa has remained in the eastern part of the country. It is very sad. He is a brother who is in the process of dying.”
In collaboration with Cuban Democratic Action