Graciela González-Degard is 72 years old. She has salt-and-pepper
hair, long elegant hands, soft manners reminiscent of another era, and a bad
knee that she blames on age. Once a Catholic nun, Graciela moved to the United States from Havana
in the 1960s and now lives in New
York with her husband. She teaches children with
Graciela's sister, her grown-up children, and a brood of
grandchildren live in Miami.
She talks to them every week. But her baby brother, Ricardo González Alfonso, is
in a Cuban jail. His crime: writing for the independent Cuban press. So, as
often as is legally possible, Graciela travels to Havana to see Ricardo, his wife, and three
In April 2003, the Havana Provincial
Tribunal sentenced Ricardo, at left, to 20 years in prison under Article 91 of the Cuban penal
code for "acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state."
A poet and scriptwriter for state-owned Televisión Cubana, Ricardo began
working for the independent press in 1995, founding an association of
journalists and the award-winning newsmagazine De Cuba. He was a
freelance reporter for foreign media outlets and was the Havana correspondent for the Paris-based
press freedom group Reporters Without Borders at the
time of his arrest. Ricardo suffers from hypertension, arthritis, allergies,
chronic bronchitis, and several digestive and circulatory ailments.
In early August, Graciela called me to say that she was
going to Cuba.
On Monday, she called again to tell me about her trip. We met on Tuesday
afternoon in an air-conditioned coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. Graciela looked tired and bruised.
Her 14 days in Cuba
aged her, she told me. If Ricardo weren't there, Graciela said, she would never
again set foot in Havana.
Before leaving, Graciela packed 70 pounds worth
of food and medicine--not only for her brother and his family but also for the
families of the other 19 journalists who have been jailed since the Cuban
crackdown on the independent press. Her friends said it was ridiculous for
someone her age to lug so much weight but Graciela was determined.
She landed in Havana three
hours late, and handed the immigration official her U.S. passport. Graciela was quickly
escorted out of the line. A uniformed man pushed her on the airline's
wheelchair down a hallway and into a small room, where she was questioned
mercilessly for hours by nameless State Security agents, who ravaged through
her neatly prepared bags of goods for friends and relatives. The agents' sole
purpose, Graciela told me, was to get her to convince Ricardo to wear a prison uniform
intended for common inmates, instead of his own clothes, which political
prisoners were allowed to wear until now. Graciela refused, and the agents
invoked the revolution as they continued to question her. Infuriated, she
stumbled out of the wheelchair and ran for the door. "Gentlemen, we are done
here. I am leaving," she said solemnly. But before escaping, Graciela, frail
from the trip and the heat, fainted in a state of panic.
This episode was only the beginning. Authorities refused to
allow her to visit Ricardo on previously agreed upon dates. Their excuse: Coming
from the U.S.,
Graciela needed to be tested for the H1N1 flu. But Graciela is relentless, and
she made her way around Havana
in a run-down taxi with her sister-in-law, Álida, until someone somewhere in a
small bureaucratic office allowed her to see Ricardo.
Her visit to Ricardo was not as hard as the last time, she
said. He seemed to be in better spirits and in better health, though his once
black hair is now a pristine shade of white. Ricardo described his life in
prison with the wit of a poet, she said. He has a cat that he has been able to
keep. He has reasoned with the guards and convinced them that he won't give it
up until an exterminator has gotten rid of the rats that plague his tiny windowless
cell. Following a stint as a counselor to a fellow inmate, convicted of murder, he
gained a devoted bodyguard who he named "The Converted Gorilla." But Álida says
prison authorities forbid Ricardo religious assistance routinely, and they have
stopped allowing her to bring him clean clothes. Ricardo's sheets--that Álida still
washes and brings back to Havana's
Combinado del Este Prison--stink of humidity and are splattered with mold. Ricardo's
only complaint to his older sister, however, is the other prisoners' poor
In tears, Graciela asked that press freedom advocates keep
up our work, and tell the world about what is going on in Cuba. Cameras
hanging on every street corner reminded her that instead of loosening up, the
Castro regime seems to be tightening, and she is beginning to lose hope for her
59-year-old brother. "It's been six years now," she told me. "Six years that could
have been the pinnacle of Ricardo's life."