Raúl Rivero
Roberto Leon
Raúl Rivero speaks with the international media at his home in Havana on Tuesday.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 11/30/2004 3:00:50 PM ET 2004-11-30T20:00:50

Cuban authorities on Tuesday released Raúl Rivero, a dissident poet and journalist who spent 20 months and 6 days behind bars for conspiring with the U.S. government to overthrow President Fidel Castro.

He is the latest dissident to be freed in an apparent drive by Castro to improve relations with the European Union. Spearheaded by Spain’s new Socialist government, the EU is considering renewing dialogue with the island frozen after Havana jailed 75 dissidents in the spring of 2003.

Rivero had been serving a 20-year sentence. He is one of 12 dissidents released this year on medical grounds, including two men Monday and another Tuesday morning.

Last Friday, Cuban State Security moved him to a Havana hospital for a medical examination. Doctors found him suffering from emphysema and a cyst on a kidney.

"My release came as a complete surprise,” he told a group of international reporters at his Havana home.

However, he dismissed the idea that his release was tied to medical reasons, arguing it all boiled down to politics.  “I went to jail during a particular political moment. That passed and we’re now at another juncture."

Isolation cell
Visibly tired and thinner, Rivero shed some 60 pounds in the Ciego de Avila high-security penitentiary, some 250 miles east from the Cuban capital. He spent the first 11 months in an isolation cell, where prisoners are normally sent as punishment for 21 days.

“Wherever I went, I was handcuffed. The cell was 6-feet long by 5-feet wide. It had a bed, a toilet, a light and a boarded-up window. I spent my time reading poetry and novels. Eventually they gave me a radio.

"Like any other Cuban prisoner, I was entitled to visit with family 8 hours a year. Eventually I was given phone privileges of 25 minutes every Thursday. The food was never good but I was allowed to supplement the prison diet with food from home. In the summer it was unbearably hot; in the winter cold and damp.”

The pensive intellectual spent his time reading and writing, mostly poetry about love. “I was only allowed to give my wife love poems that I had to give to a prison official to review first.”  He expects his prison poetry to be published in Spain sometime next year.

Even though he called prison “a learning experience that changed me… made me a better man,” Rivero said he was “obsessed with not dying, under any circumstances.”

He wrote about this and his relationships with other prisoners. These writings came home with him, tucked into a corner of a black duffel bag containing his meager possessions.

“I learned to value relationships and evaluate differently," he said. "You’re locked up 24 hours a day and you can only read for so long. So you spend the time telling each other the stories of your life. You learn everything about each other. You become close friends but you never get to see the other man’s face. A prisoner can spend a year in jail alongside a man and never see his face.”

Uncertain future
Rivero, who founded the independent news agency Cuba Press, is unsure of what the future holds. If allowed to continue writing, he plans to stay in Cuba.

“I never wanted to live outside of Cuba. That’s one reason why I went to jail.  I’ve been offered jobs outside of Cuba. I never took them, not because I’m more patriotic than the next guy. I stayed because Cuba is my country. It felt right living here.”

The Cuban government however has not permitted Rivero to leave the island since 1987. “It’s been 10 years since I last saw my daughter. I‘ve never met my granddaughter.”

But no decision has been made. Rivero said he would begin thinking about these things tomorrow.

Meanwhile, he was looking forward to enjoying a home-cooked meal of Arroz Con Pollo, and surprising his 84-year-old mother who he hasn’t seen in almost two years. “I never wanted her to see me in jail.”

Mary Murray is the NBC bureau chief in Havana.


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