Friday, August 8, 2014

Remembering Gustavo Arcos: Eight Years Later

The Cuban Revolutionary who broke with Fidel Castro and became a Human Rights Defender
Gustavo Arcos Bergnes (1926- 2006)
 Eight years ago today Gustavo Arcos Bergnes passed away in Havana, Cuba at the age of 79 from a heart attack. He was originally from a small town in central Cuba called Caibarién. As a young men he attended the University of Havana and studied diplomatic law. However, his studies were abruptly interrupted by Fulgencio Batista's coup on March 10, 1952. This is where he met Fidel Castro and later joined him on the July 26, 1953 assault on the Moncada military barracks. Gustavo was shot in the back, touching his spine and damaging the sciatic nerve, and left partly paralyzed by the wound suffered in the assault. [ Anita Snow reported in the Associated Press on Wednesday, May. 18, 2005 that "His sciatic nerve was damaged and has deteriorated over the years, making walking difficult, especially up the one flight of stairs from the street."]

Luis Arcos Bergnes killed in 1956
Brother Luis killed by Fulgencio Batista's forces 
Gustavo was sentenced to ten years in prison but was pardoned and released 22 months later in 1955 and went with the rest of the group to organize a rebel army in Mexico. He traveled through Latin America and the United States gathering money and munitions. His brother Luis Arcos Bergnes was killed when the Granma expedition landed in Cuba in 1956 and were met by Batista's forces.

Gustavo Arcos was appointed Cuba's ambassador to Belgium following Castro's arrival to power in 1959. Wounded in the Moncada assault with a martyred brother, he could have easily remained a privileged member of the revolutionary elite, but that was not why he had taken up arms against Fulgencio Batista. He had fought for an end to dictatorship and the restoration of a democratic Cuba. When he returned to Cuba in 1964 he saw not only that the government had turned communist but that Fidel Castro was another dictator.  At the time Raul Castro personally offered Gustavo a position in the regime leadership. Gustavo rejected the offer. He was already disenchanted and preferred to remain in the diplomatic corps, away from Havana.Gustavo expressed his dissent privately.

"They shot a lot of people," Mr. Arcos told the Associated Press in 2005 during the summary trials held after the revolutionaries took power. "They shot people who could have easily been imprisoned." 

 On March 15, 1966 he was detained and in 1967 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. for alleged counterrevolutionary activity. He served three years in prison before being released after a long hunger strike in 1969, but was not allowed to leave the country.

Logo of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights
 Joining the Cuban Committee for Human Rights
In 1982 at the Combinado de Este prison he and his younger brother, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes, joined the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, formed in 1976. The brothers had been imprisoned in 1981 for trying to leave the country illegally. Soon thereafter, the Committee began to send out proclamations denouncing the deplorable conditions in which political prisoners were kept. By 1986, due to international pressure, the Cuban government was forced to allow a few concessions such as visits by several international human rights organizations and the release of several prisoners, who then extended the work of the Committee to the streets of Havana. Shortly after his release from prison in 1988, Gustavo Arcos succeeded the committee’s executive director, Dr. Ricardo Bofill, who was forced into exile.

In 1990, against the protests of many Cuban exiles, Gustavo Arcos issued a statement to Castro asking him to convene a "National Dialogue," which would include all segments of Cuban society, on the island and in exile. During his address to the Worker's Congress on January 28, 1990, Castro issued his response noting that "the Cuban people" will take care of those activists.

On March 5, 1990 government sponsored mobs attacked Sebastian Arcos's home. On March 8 another mob, led by future Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, attacked Gustavo's home. From exile, many old friends asked Gustavo to dissolve the Committee to save the activists' lives. Gustavo replied: "The Cuban Committee for Human Rights will continue its work, even if it costs us our own terror, nor propaganda will be able to deter the development of humanistic ideas in our country."

On January 13, 1992 the executive board of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights again issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to nonviolence and calling for dialogue:   "Violence is not and cannot be the solution to our problems... We will not tire from insisting that the only possible solution is civilized discussion of our differences. This is an appeal to Cubans for wisdom and common sense... No act of violence is justified... Let us say no to violence and learn to live in peace."

Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, Sebastián Arcos Bergnes and Jesús Yanes Pelletier were arrested at their homes in Havana on the evening of 15 January 1992. Both Gustavo and Yanes Pelletier were released after approximately 24 hours. However, Sebastian Arcos Bergnes was charged with "enemy propaganda" and "inciting rebellion," he was sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. He was transferred to Ariza Prison in  Cienfuegos Province,  more than 130 miles from Havana, where Sebastian was imprisoned alongside dangerous criminals and was systematically denied medical attention. In 1993 the regime offered him a deal: Sebastian would be released immediately if he only agreed to leave the island for good. Sebastian rejected the deal, becoming the first documented case of a political prisoner choosing prison in Cuba over freedom in exile.

Sebastian Arcos Bergnes: Death by medical neglect
Brother Sebastian killed by medical neglect while arbitrarily imprisoned
After an international campaign that included his designation as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and a request by France Libertés, the organization founded by former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand, Sebastian Arcos was released in 1995. A few weeks after his release, Arcos was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the rectum, for which he had previously been denied medical care in prison. After a Cuban doctor was fired from his post for treating Arcos, he traveled to Miami for further care.

In 1996, Sebastian Arcos Bergnes testified before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. Sebastian Arcos Bergnes died in Miami surrounded by relatives on December 22, 1997.

Due to his worsening health in his last years he lowered his profile and ceded much of the work to exiled members of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights. Nevertheless, he met with US Senators visiting Cuba in 2000, with former President Carter in 2002 and signed a letter in 2003 denouncing the unjust imprisonment of 75 Cuban dissidents imprisoned in the Black Cuban Spring.

In the 2005, Associated Press article, Anita Snow reported that he stayed in touch with other dissidents and spoke "frequently with Oswaldo Paya, a devout fellow Roman Catholic who led a signature-gathering effort called the Varela Project, which sought a referendum asking voters if they favored civil liberties such as freedom of speech and the right to business ownership." The article concluded with Gustavo's concern that he would not live to see the return of democracy saying : "I do hope I will see the end of this, but I'm not sure if I will.

When the news agency EFE called me on August 8, 2006 and asked me about the legacy of Gustavo Arcos I responded: "It is with great sadness that Arcos will not be able to be there the day that we expect a democratic transition in Cuba. We will always remember that he was one of the founders of the Cuban dissidence, of great courage, coming from a family that sacrificed much and that fought so much against dictatorship both Fulgencio Batista's and Fidel Castro's." Also made the observation that he left a "strong legacy that will continue to grow" while "in these moments that a giant of the Cuban dissidence has died we have projects that he basically initiated." Compared the call in 1990 by the Arcos brothers to a national dialogue so that "all segments both inside the island and in exile could analyze the Cuban problem and have proposals for the future" with "how presently one sees, 16 years later how  Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas following that example of a national dialogue was able to elaborate a document for transition designed by Cubans in the island and the exiles, in a process of nearly three years."  I also addressed his principled stand and how he entered the dissident movement outlined above and concluded: "We are talking about a man with courage and who is an example of  non-cooperation with the Castro regime."

 Michael N. Nagler, an expert in principled non-violence has observed that nonviolence always works because even when it is not immediately self-evident it leaves seeds and fruits that are always positive. For example, today, Cuban dissidents visited Gustavo's widow, Teresa, and Havana, Cuba and remembered his life and example and continue to be inspired by his principled nonviolence.

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