“Before we returned to the pink house with the parched yard, I asked him if he dreams of going back to Cuba,” I wrote after my first face-to-face meeting with Cuban journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, upon his arrival in Miami. “He answered in Spanish, but his reply was as American as Tom Joad’s monologue at the end of The Grapes Of Wrath.
“ ‘I haven’t left Cuba!’ Hernandez Gonzalez said, his eyes glinting in the Florida sun with tears of passion. ” ‘I’m physically here, but I’m still in Cuba. I’m standing right there next to the 12 Apostles, who did not accept the condition of leaving. I’m standing right there next to that common prisoner who was forced to commit a crime in order to feed his family. And I’m with my sister, my father, my nephew, my friends, standing right next to everyone. I’m right there.’ ”
As human-rights columnist for Bloomberg News, I had written frequently about the the vicious and near-murderous incarceration of Cuban journalist and poet Hernandez Gonzalez, the youngest of the dissident journalists and artists rounded up in the Black Spring of 2003. Normando spent years at the notorious prison Kilo 7 in Camarguey, much of it in solitary confinement and on a diet of what his colleagues called “dog vomit.”
“Other Cuban dissidents have been freed since then, while Hernandez Gonzalez remains imprisoned,” I wrote in 2009. “ ‘I believe it is because he insists upon his status as a political prisoner,” his wife told me at the time. “He refuses to subjugate himself. The prisoners look up to him. So the prison authorities hate him even more.’
“Reyes planned to visit her husband this week with their daughter, Daniela, who turns 7 on March 22 and who hasn’t seen her father since December. They are allowed a 2-hour visit every 45 days. Asked if she wished her husband would bend a little in order to come home to his family, Reyes’s response was no. ‘He’s been through so much — only to cave in now? He would rather be dead than dishonored.’ ”
Normando Hernandez Gonzalez was finally freed six years ago, and I will never forget the emotional meeting we had in Miami, and his words to me and our readers then. As one who grew up with the somewhat sanitized version of Fidel Castro’s legacy (Michael Moore, are you listening?), I’d found myself reporting about a man sentenced to 25 years in prison for criticizing the quality and scarcity of bread. It had been, for me, a reckoning — one worth reconsidering these days in the aftermath of Castro’s passing.