At the age of twenty-three, in December 1960. Armando Valladares who had supported the overthrow of Batista but criticized the emerging Communist character of the Castro regime, was arrested, swiftly tried and sentenced to thirty years in prison. For twenty-two years he remained Castro’s prisoner. The injustice done him transformed him into a poet of great power. Two collections of his poems, smuggled out of prison, appeared before his release: From My Wheelchair (1977) and The Heart in Which I Live (1980). Catholicism in Crisis is proud to publish the address Valladares gave to the Conference on Religious Freedom East and West on July 11. 1983. as well as a selection of his poems.
Remarks By Armando Valladares
Cuban poet and prisoner of conscience to the Conference on Religious Freedom East and West, sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the National Association of Evangelicals, July 11, 1983.
My dear friends:
For reasons which I will share with you later, this award which you are giving me tonight has a very special significance for my brothers in Castro’s prisons. Before discussing this, I would like to share some thoughts about my personal religious experience.
I was unjustly imprisoned when I was 23 years old, accused of crimes that I never committed. At that time my religious convictions were genuine, but probably superficial. My religious beliefs had been learned at home and at school, in the way a child learns good manners or the alphabet. Nevertheless, that minimal religious conviction singled me out as an enemy of the Cuban communist revolution, and somehow helped convince my judges and accusers that I was a potentially dangerous adversary.
However, as soon as I was in prison, I began to feel a substantial change in my religious beliefs. In the first place, I embraced God, perhaps for fear of losing my life, since I was in danger of being executed.
Today, twenty-two years after those nights of horror and fear, that way of approaching Christ seems to me human but incomplete. Later, I had another Christian experience: grieved with pain, I saw many young people — most of them farmers and students — die, shouting “Long Live Christ the King!”
I realized then that Christ could be of help. Not merely by saving my life, but also giving my life, and my death if that was the case, an ethical sense that would dignify them.
I believe that it was at that particular moment, and not before, when Christianity, besides being a religious faith, became a way of life that in my own circumstances resulted in resistance. Resisting torture, resisting confinement, resisting hunger, and even resisting the constant temptation to join the political rehabilitation and indoctrination programs that would end my predicament.
But, resistance as a Christian could not become a blind form of temerity, nor of personal courage, but a thoughtful and calm stance in defense of my democratic beliefs; a firm commitment to maintaining my dignity and self-respect, even in the bottom of a cell, naked and being turned into human refuse.
To be Christian under those circumstances meant that I could not hate my tormentors; it meant to maintain the belief the suffering was meaningful because if man gives up his moral and religious values, or if he allows himself to be carried by a desire to hate or for revenge, his existence loses all meaning.
I should add that this experience has not been mine only — I saw dozens of Christians suffering and dying — committed like myself, to maintaining their dignity and their richness of spirit beyond misery and pain.
Today, I remember with emotion Gerardo Gonzalez, a Protestant preacher, who knew by heart whole Biblical passages and who would copy them by hand to share with his brothers in belief. I cannot forget this man whom all of us called “Brother in Faith”. He interposed himself before a burst of machinegun fire to save other prisoners who were beaten in what is known now as the massacre of Boniato prison.
Gerardo repeated, before dying, the words said by Christ on the cross: “Forgive them, Father for they know not what they do”. And all of us, when the blood had dried, struggled with our consciences to attain something so difficult yet so beautiful: the ability to forgive our enemies.
For God, there are no impossibles. Nor are there impossibilities for those who love and seek God. The more ferocious the hate of my jailers, the more my heart would fill with love and a faith that gave me strength to support everything; but not with the conformist or masochistic attitude; rather, full of joy, internal peace and freedom because Christ walked with me in my cell.
At the beginning of these brief words, I said that the honor which you bestow upon me today would have special significance for Cuba’s political prisoners. I’d like to tell you why.
During those years, with the purpose of forcing us to abandon our religious beliefs and to demoralize us, the Cuban communist indoctrinators repeatedly used the statements of support for Castro’s revolution made by some representatives of American Christian churches. Every time that a pamphlet was published in the United States, every time a clergyman would write an article in support of Fidel Castro’s dictatorship, a translation would reach us and that was worse for the Christian political prisoners than the beatings or the hunger.
While we waited for the solidarity embrace from our brothers in Christ, incomprehensively to us, those who were embraced were our tormentors.
Castro’s political police have used these statements of support for Castro with such skill and for such a long time to confuse the prisoners and population in general, that today the Christians in Cuba’s prisons suffer not only the pain of torture and isolation but also the conviction that they have been deserted by their brothers in faith.
It is for this reason, dear friends, that I said that this distinction you give me will be very important for all Cuban prisoners. When it is known in Castro’s political prisons, and it will be known, they will all be filled with joy. They will feel they are no longer alone; that they have not been forgotten; that their brothers in Christ support them from afar. Also the insidious pamphlets the political commissars read to them containing articles signed by American religious leaders, do not represent the opinion of American believers — but the point of view of a small group. We also have to forgive this small group, because they probably also “. . . know not what they do.”
The lack of religious freedom in Cuba is not fully known. Freedom is an all-encompassing concept; either there is freedom or there is no freedom at all.
I can tell you that there is no religious freedom in Cuba today. Some Protestant churches have been closed. With my own eyes I saw a church on the Isle of Pines turned into a warehouse for fertilizer. The same thing happened to the Catholic churches of Villanueva and San Francisco.
The Seventh Day Adventists, the Congregations of Gideon, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered counter-revolutionary “sects”. If they are discovered engaging in religious acts they go to prison. In prison I met many of them. One was jailed for transcribing Biblical texts, accused of “editing and distributing religious propaganda.”
The celebration of Christmas was banned by Castro and the Christmas tree is also banned, being considered a religious and counter-revolutionary symbol.
If a student is known to attend church, he is expelled from the University.
If a young child talks about God or Christ with his classmates, his parents are called to school where it is explained that those ideas are unscientific and remnants of an obscurantist past.
If the parents insist, they can be accused of the crime of ideological deviationism according to the revolutionary code.
The very few children who attend catechism classes are warned by the priests themselves that what they talk about in church is a very intimate and personal matter and that under no circumstances should they talk about it with friends. This is done to protect the children.
I want to ask you to remember my brothers, my fellow prisoners in your prayers, especially the Protestant pastor, Humberto Noble Alexander. They suffer because of their ideas and beliefs and the only way to help them is to announce to the world that they exist and are humiliated, punished and tortured. To remain silent will never bring them out of prison. Only a campaign to make the public aware and to apply public pressure can set them free. My own case demonstrates as much.
To finish, I’d like to read from another much more successful writer than I, who also knew of persecutions, St. Matthew:
“Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad; for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Matthew 5:11, 12
Poems by Armando Valladares
LEND ME YOUR LEGS FOR AN INSTANT!
You who are there
in a garden that was never yours before
come here to these bars
that cross my face and my eyes
from side to side.
Don’t hide behind warm lights.
Feel my pain too for it is yours
and my shadows
and the portion of terror and bayonets
that for years I have been consuming for you
to fulfill my exact duty
Come here, or at least
lend me your legs for an instant!
LIFE WAS NOT ENOUGH
To an unforgettable brother, to Pedro Luis Boitel.
Life was not enough for you
in that torture chamber
but there were rifle butts and boots to spare
buckets of urine and excrement
thrown in your face.
They could not forgive you
your labors of light and words
they feared your smile
the eloquence of your hands
they feared the fertility of your ideas
and your manner of being silent
they feared your life, Pedro,
and they murdered you …
A MINUTE OF SALT …
To the thousands of men, women and children who have perished in the sea trying to flee Communism.
A minute of salt for the silence of those who could not
return to dust.
Jehovah surely forgot about the waters
about those who died
in the beating wave
their mouths filled with algae
and their eyes devoured by the fish
about those who became anchors of swollen flesh
or modern Jonahs quartered
in the bellies of sharks.
A minute of salt for the silence
of those who dissolved
unnamed and unremembered:
those who sank
while searching for the light and the word;
those who were swept away by lead
while on their rafts dreaming of freedom
those who have neither tombstones
those who lie I know not where
because there are no tombs in the waters…
ONE NAMELESS DAY
A.C. another rose marked by the fences.
One nameless day rifles will flower
and lilies will bloom
for their dark souls.
They will cease to be cannon
giving forth death,
and sad walls
fertilized with blood
gloomy and long
will cease to be.
It will be a nameless day
there won’t be so much distance
there won’t be bars of anguish
or forgotten roses behind the fence.
It will be a nameless day
with an outcry of light
leaping up to hope.
You who can choose
the path your steps will take
who can sink your feet
in the fresh sands
of the beaches of the world
who know not of tortures
of anguished isolation
and obsessant fences.
You who can cast your glances
across the roads
the mountains and rivers
the deep forests
of butterflies and doves
without gray walls
to stop your view.
You who can run
with your children or brothers
stroll along promenades
with lovers and girlfriends
under the same old trees.
You who forgot
or do not know
that there are men and women
with no today or tomorrow
who can only look upwards
at a slice of sky sometimes.
You have no idea how
I envy them, my comrades, who can at least take one step
at the bottom of this concrete hole.
TO THE PREACHERS OF HATE
It was you who erected those facades of lies
telling all that I had bloody claws
and cruel fangs
with a mouth that vomited the fire of all heresies…
They loved me and admired me
women and children kissed me
and all their Marxist philosophy could not stop them.
Neither class struggle
nor membership in the young Communist League
nor the terror of political police
could stop them
They had to convoke assemblies
to demand that I be hated
to forbid that I be kissed
or even greeted with a “Good morning”.
Threats and terror had to be loosed
against those who might come near.
That’s why, once again, they had to isolate me …