There is a man in Cuba who would like to talk to you. He is Ren? Montes de Oca Martija, a dissident, a human-rights activist, and a Christian. In his 37 years, he has been jailed or detained many, many times. He escaped from his latest prison on April 20. He expects to be caught again very soon, with severe consequences. He is intent on having his story publicized. To this end, he spoke with National Review Online on Saturday, May 5.
Montes was on the run, of course, trying to evade the authorities for as long as possible. There is a network of people who help oppositionists like him. (This is a kind of Underground Railroad.) But it is extremely dangerous to help a prison escapee. The punishment is harsh.
Ren? Montes told his story in agitated but determined tones. He was born in July 1963, when Castro already had a firm grip on power. The family was full of oppositionists. His uncle, for example, was a prominent dissident and political prisoner. For this reason, Montes himself was singled out at school, denied what privileges there were and marked as an enemy. His mother was a Jehovah's Witness -- which meant additional persecution. Montes himself is a Pentecostalist, and an official of Cuba's Human Rights Party (Partido Pro-Derechos Humanos).
He was arrested and imprisoned on July 4 of last year. A hearing was held on December 19. The authorities told him that if he cooperated with them, they would remove some of the charges against him. Montes refused. So he was sentenced to two years more in prison. The principal charge? "Threatening the security of the state." As Montes explains, his offense was to ask for "the release of political prisoners, free elections, a fair penal code, and the possibility of Christian education in the schools."
Why, I asked, would he risk talking to an American journalist, or to anyone? Why not just try to blend in, disappear? There was no risk, he replied. He and his family could not be in more danger. What they needed was the world's attention, and a determination to practice civil disobedience.
Montes knows that when he is caught again, he will face long years in prison. He also knows that he will face additional, trumped-up charges of "common" crimes, such as thievery. The mother of his child has lost her job because the authorities wanted her to testify that Montes had beaten her up. She refused -- and sacrificed her job.
Mainly, Montes is worried about his son, who is twelve years old. He has been beaten badly five times so far at school, by older boys who are sons of "patriotic" military officials. He is dogged by police to and from school. Montes's great hope is that his son will be able to leave the country for medical care: The child has a hernia affecting his testicles. He is being denied surgery, though, because his father is in the opposition. The boy also has a spinal condition that requires yet more surgery. Montes, however, would be suspicious of Cuban care even if it were offered his son. The doctors, he said, could easily be influenced by the state security apparatus. Montes himself underwent surgery while in prison in 1993. There was a blood transfusion; he came out of it with hepatitis B. It is hard for him to say which is the more risky: to be treated by Cuban doctors or to go without treatment altogether.
Montes is quite simply desperate for the world to know what is going on with him and his country. He has dispatched letters to many important figures: Pope John Paul II, Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, several U.S. congressmen.
I have to ask, Why does he persist? How can he be so brave, and defy so much? He says, "There are many brave people in Cuba, both men and women. We Cubans have always been faithful: a faithful community, a faithful people. We take our strength from the Bible. We believe in love, justice, and peace, and we bear it in mind not to go with what is wrong. We take God's truth to the darkest and loneliest places of human existence: like the prisons."
And what does he want from Americans, beyond specific help for his son? He would like Americans to remember their values: "their sense of unity, justice, and liberty that they have maintained over so many years, which has made them a hospitable and great nation for the dispossessed and desperate peoples of the world." And a final word: "Human rights cannot exist without God."
Those Americans who have not cared to confront the truth about Cuba's regime never will. No amount of testimony, no amount of suffering, could ever move them. But ordinary Americans should not forget the people of Cuba, who are so close to them, physically, but who endure a hell that most of us could scarcely imagine. Castro, lucky dictator, has many friends and apologists in the United States: in the universities, in the media, and in Congress. Two Democrats from New York Jose Serrano and Charles Rangel -- are particularly good friends and apologists. Rangel, of course, is one of the pols whom the Washington and national press corps love most. Good ol' "Chollie"! So quick with a quip or a story, in that endearing raspy voice. There is almost no journalist in the country who wouldn't kill for a drink with Charlie Rangel.
But if you listen to Rene Montes, you cannot even look at Rangel, or anyone like him: It makes you sick.