Friday, May 25, 2012

Pedro Luis Boitel: Cuba's martyr for academic freedom and human rights

"Life on earth is a hand-to-hand mortal combat ... between the law of love and the law of hate." - José Martí (1881)
Pedro Luis Boitel Abraham  (1931 - 1972)

Pedro Luis Boitel was born in Cuba to a family of modest means of French origin. He studied at the University of Havana while working as a radio technician. Opposing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista he joined the July 26 movement led by Fidel Castro. The majority of the movement's members like Pedro were anti-communists.

Once Batista left for exile and Fidel Castro took control the anti-communist members of the July 26 movement became an obstacle to absolute power. Following the revolution, Boitel returned to University were his fellow students nominated to run for the presidency of the Federation of University Students in 1960.  Fidel Castro personally intervened to remove him from the presidency. Pedro Luis Boitel's threat to the emerging communist regime was that he refused to betray the Federation of University Students and sought to maintain academic freedom and autonomy.

As time went on and the dictatorial nature of the Castro regime became more apparent, the student leader became an opponent to Fidel Castro. Condemned to a decade in prison in 1961 he served the cruel and unjust sentence but as the date of his release came and went prison officials refused to free him. In response to the years of cruelty, torture and now denial of his freedom he went on hunger strike on April 3, 1972. Pedro Luis Boitel died forty years ago today on May 25, 1972 after 53 days on hunger strike in Havana in the Castillo del Principe. Academic freedom and autonomy ended in 1960 replaced with fear, repression, and ideological litmus tests to attend university. It has still not been restored today.

The first time I heard about Pedro Luis Boitel was in the 1987 documentary Nobody Listened. The image and testimony of his mother who looked forward to death to be reunited with her son is heart breaking. 

Over the past few days in Geneva there was a review of the current regime in Cuba by the Committee Against Torture. Representatives of the Castro dictatorship made the claim that since 1959 there had been no instances of torture. They say this because, since 1959 the International Red Cross has only been able to obtain access to examine Cuban prisons only once over a small window of time in 1989 out of the 53 years the government has been in power.  Amnesty International has not been able to visit Cuba since 1990. 

The world knows about Pedro Luis Boitel because his mother, Clara Abrahante Boitel, fought to save her son and make known the atrocities committed against Pedro Luis regardless of the threats visited upon her.  The same holds true in the case of Orlando Zapata Tamayo where his mother Reina Luisa Tamayo spoke up for her son in defense of his rights regardless the cost. 

However in addition to Pedro Luis Boitel and Orlando Zapata Tamayo the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has documented additional Cuban political prisoners who have died on hunger strike both before and after Pedro Luis Boitel's May 25, 1972 death:
  1. Roberto López Chávez, 25 years old, died on December 11, 1966 in Isla de Pinos prison on hunger strikewithout medical assistance. Armando Valladares, in his prison memoir, Against All Hope described the circumstances surrounding his death: “When Roberto López Chávez, went on a hunger strike to protest the abusesin the prison, the guards withheld water from him until he became delirious, twisting on the floor and begging for something to drink. [...] He died the next day.”
  2. Carmelo Cuadra Hernández, died in La Cabaña prison in April of 1969 on hunger strike, after suffering mistreatment and torture over eight and a half months, without receiving medical care and was the third political prisoner that has died on a hunger strike.
  3. Olegario Charlot Pileta, died in the infamous "Escaleras" (staircase) of the Boniato prison, in of January 1973 during a hunger strike, without medical assistance and is described in documents as a “black youth.”
  4. Enrique García Cuevas died on a hunger strike, without receiving medical care, in cell No. 4 of the new Provincial Jail of Santa Clara, on June 24, 1973.
International media gave a great amount of coverage around the death of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo on February 23, 2010 but scant coverage around the January 19, 2012 death of prisoner of conscience Wilman Villar Mendoza who left behind a wife and two little girls
Remember Pedro Luis Boitel's life and sacrifice today but also remember that as long as this dictatorship is allowed to operate with impunity that others will continue to suffer the horrors that Pedro Luis Boitel suffered in defense of human rights, dignity and liberty.

Carlos Alberto Montaner, who briefly shared the same prison with Pedro Luis Boitel, speaks about the young man he knew at a May 2011 presentation.

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