Sunday, August 14, 2011

Former prisoner of conscience Ricardo Bofill, an icon of the Cuban resistance

This is the 400th entry of Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter and it is dedicated to a former prisoner of conscience and a pioneer of the Cuban human rights movement. It is an appropriate day to honor this man. Because today is the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the patron saint of political prisoners. Marc Masferrer over at Uncommon Sense posted this important fact because today is his birthday, and this saint also happens to be his patron. Also it is appropriate because today men and women in Cuba were beaten down and arrested for peacefully demonstrating in favor of human rights and thanks to courageous activists on the island the world learned about these injustices today via twitter moments after the attacks and detentions happened. These are the disciples of Dr. Ricardo Bofill.

His name is Dr. Ricardo Bofill and over on the opinion pages of The Miami Herald, filmmaker Joe Cardona penned an opinion piece on a founder of the Cuban human rights movement that for the most part I am in agreement with but have one disagreement that will be raised at the end of this essay. Cardona offers a first hand description of this pioneer and his importance:
Human rights activist Ricardo Bofill helped redefine the struggle against Fidel Castro. He is a beacon to present-day opposition leaders within the island, yet to many exiles, the soft-spoken, mild-tempered Bofill remains an enigma.

Over 20 years ago, opposition to the Castro regime took a seismic shift. The burgeoning, nonviolent dissident movement that grew within the island turned the paradigm of anti-Castro exile politics upside down.

In 1976, Bofill, a former philosophy tutor at the University of Havana, founded and led El Comite Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos (The Cuban Committee for Human Rights — CCPDH).

I first met him when fellow film maker Alex Anton and I were doing research more than 20 years ago for what became our first documentary, Rompiendo el Silencio (Breaking the Silence).

It highlighted the development of this new resistance movement within Cuba.

Bofill challenged stereotypes. He personified the classic anti-hero. His fragile physique, even-keeled demeanor and political maturity defied the über-macho, domineering, Latino caudillo (chieftain). Yet to many Cuban exiles and political powerbrokers, Bofill’s nonviolent methods were — and remain — unsettling. He has no personal political ambition nor has he ever taken sides in partisan American politics.

His struggle has always remained the respect for human rights in Cuba as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 in an attempt to prevent a repetition of the horrors of World War II. Cuba was a signatory of the document.

All the prominent opposition leaders within Cuba hail Bofill, who spent years in Castro’s prisons, as the father of their movement.

Perhaps it’s time exile leaders recognize his contributions and tap into the vast amount of wisdom he can lend.

Some exile leaders have long recognized and honored and continue to honor Dr. Bofill's contribution to the struggle for Cuban freedom. International figures such as Elena Bonner and important human rights organizations such as the International Society for Human Rights (IGFM) have long recognized his good works and collaborated with him in the promotion of human rights in Cuba.

I also had the honor of meeting Dr. Bofill while still a student at Florida International University and beginning the journey to learn about the democratic struggle in Cuba and visited his home in Shenandoah and can confirm Cardona's description of human rights pioneer's abode in his essay:
Bofill’s humble Shenandoah home — which he shares with his wife, Yolanda, and their six cats — stands as a bastion of the Cuban human-rights movement. On my recent visit, I noted that the furnishings had not changed much over the past two decades. The imposing bookshelf that greets visitors near the front door is slowly crumbling under the weight of the books that it sustains. The decaying walls somehow still have the strength to hold pictures of deceased friends and collaborators. And while the newspaper clippings and photographs are yielding to a slight sepia tone, Ricardo and Yolanda’s abode still remains a fortress of ideas — a repository of dignity and compassion.

Inspired by the works of Soviet dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Yuri Orlov, Bofill created the Cuban Committee for Human Rights at a time when the Carter administration brought the concept of human rights to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.

Ironically, the two first heads of the U.S. Interests Section (which opened in 1977), Lyle Lane and Wayne Smith, were too busy trying to normalize relations with Cuba’s dictator to pay attention to Bofill’s reports of human-rights abuses. It was not until the Reagan administration came to power that Bofill’s name and cause gained the recognition they merited.

Bofill’s CCPDH was a unique, clever and daring creation. Before he died, Georgetown professor Luis Aguilar Leon once told me that Bofill’s approach was so effective because “Castro knew how to react to violence, but he had no idea what to do with Cubans who simply disagreed and did nothing more than peacefully, yet consistently, report human-rights abuses.”

During one of my first conversations with Ricardo Bofill, he pointed out that “heroes were not born.” He explained that, “men and women react to given circumstances, and sometimes the situation is so unbearable that one has no choice but to raise one’s voice.”

Bofill may have been forgotten here, but his heroic actions still inspire Cuba’s growing opposition, which continues to fight for the principles he introduced to the Cuban political landscape 35 years ago — human rights and dignity.

I'll respectfully disagree with Cardona's conclusion. Bofill has not been forgotten and is a historic figure recognized by Cuban exile leaders such as Carlos Alberto Montaner and interviewed for PBS on The American Experience documentary on Fidel Castro highlighting the emergence of the Cuban dissident movement. Nor have other founders of the movement, who are no longer with us, been forgotten such as Adolfo Rivero Caro, and the brothers Gustavo and Sebastian Arcos Bergnes.

Its a long and frustrating struggle to achieve the freedom of a country in the grip of communist totalitarian rule. One must neither over estimate or underestimate what has been achieved and what remains to be achieved. This is a marathon not a sprint and requires persistence and faith not despair. Ricardo Bofill told me that 20 years ago and it still holds true today.

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