IMAGINE a world in which your home is openly surrounded by thugs waiting day and night to pounce on you if you set foot outside your door. Imagine a world where meeting with friends and associates can mean a beating so severe that you are hospitalized. Imagine your own government directing these activities.
It is the world of Sebastian Arcos Cazabon, his family, and his associates.
Welcome to Cuba.
Sebastian Arcos Cazabon is in Miami to educate us. His message: The human rights so basic to our everyday lives that we ignore their very existence are bitter mockeries 90 miles from our shores.
Young in years -- he is 31 -- Sebastian Arcos Cazabon carries an impressive human rights portfolio. A Cuban citizen and resident of Havana, he has worked single-mindedly for a decade to draw international attention to the widespread human rights violations occurring daily in Cuba.
Only recently has he been allowed outside Cuba. For years he petitioned the Castro government for permission to leave Cuba. Finally, some months ago, through some undecipherable caprice of the Castro government, he obtained a six-month visa; he arrived in Miami in October.
Human rights activism is an Arcos family tradition. His father, Sebastian
Arcos Bergnes, has for decades actively and openly opposed Fidel Castro's
policies, always advocating and practicing nonviolent measures. The elder
Arcos, 61, continues to pay the price for his courageous stance. Arrested
almost a year ago, he was sentenced in October to four years and eight months
in prison for purportedly sending "enemy propaganda" to the United Nations
Human Rights Commission in Geneva, and to Miami radio stations, about murders,
disappearances, and abuses by Cuban authorities. Just in recent weeks, he was
from a Havana prison (where at least his family could monitor his treatment and condition) to a prison more than 150 miles away for "highly dangerous common prisoners." It is not unknown for political prisoners to be killed in such prisons. The Arcos family fears for the life of Sebastian Arcos Bergnes.
Another prominent human rights activist of the Arcos family is Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, brother to the elder Sebastian Arcos and uncle to the younger. I interviewed him in Cuba two years ago and came away with great respect for his courage. Once Gustavo Arcos fought at Fidel Castro's side against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Once he served as Castro's ambassador to Belgium. Now Gustavo Arcos is a leading force in the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and a two-time veteran of Castro's jails. Now he is a prisoner in his own home.
Two other family members -- Maria Juana Cazabon (Sebastian Arcos's mother) and Maria Rosa Arcos (his sister) -- have worked tirelessly for the cause of human rights since they left Cuba in 1983. The two women now live in Miami. Maria Rosa gained international attention last summer when she confronted Castro in the streets of Seville and was kicked and pummeled by a Cuban security agent.
Sebastian Arcos Cazabon's political activism came into full force in 1982 when, at the age of 20, he shared a jail cell for a year with his father and uncle. They had been set up by the Castro government to attempt to escape the island; they were captured and convicted of trying to leave the country illegally. In prison, they were kept in almost total isolation: no contact with the other prisoners . . . fresh air no more than once a week for two hours . . . family visits only once a month . . . censored mail. The elder Sebastian Arcos spent six years under these conditions, and Gustavo Arcos, seven years.
Prison only made Sebastian Arcos Cazabon more committed to freedom. Since then, he says, "I don't do anything but think, talk, and act about Cuba."
Once out of prison, Sebastian Arcos Cazabon found himself, at the age of
21, without a visible future. He had been expelled
from the University of Havana, where his major was biology,
because of his arrest. He could not obtain permission to leave the country with his mother and sister because he had not completed his military service. Yet to the military, he was an undesirable. With his prison record, work was hard to find. Sebastian Arcos lived in his grandfather's house and sold off the family furniture to live. Then, in 1985, he was finally absolved of military service and found work in a company that exports tropical fish. He plans to return to that job when he goes back to Cuba in the next several months.
Or perhaps more accurately, if Sebastian Arcos returns to Cuba. His family is urging him not to return. They fear for him -- Cuba in recent weeks has become excruciatingly dangerous for human rights activists.
There is every reason for concern. What little restraint Fidel Castro exercised for the sake of Cuba's image in the world community appears to have been abandoned in recent weeks. Castro's international public relations campaign failed in recent weeks, according to Sebastian Arcos, when a Dec. 5 vote in the General Assembly of the United Nations condemned Cuba for human rights violations by a margin of 64 to 17.
Since that vote, reprisals against human rights activists in Cuba have
become more open and more violent, says Sebastian Arcos. He cites examples.
Elizardo Sanchez, who heads the Cuban
Commission of Human Rights and National Reconstruction, was arrested a few weeks ago on unknown charges; he was so badly beaten that he required hospitalization. Another activist, 75- year-old Jesus Yanes Pelletier, was kicked and beaten by government security forces. Gustavo Arcos is under virtual house arrest, his home surrounded by plainclothes security agents. Pablo Reyes, the vice president of the dissident National Civic Union, was just sentenced to eight years in prison for providing reports on human rights violations to exile radio stations.
But Sebastian Arcos Cazabon, fully aware of the dangers that he faces in Cuba, says he has not made up his mind. He says he still has time to decide. The decision, though, is not whether to return, but when. He is fully committed to returning some day.
"I will return. I want to participate in the reconstruction of Cuba, to build the basis of a healthy society in Cuba. I'll help however I can. I don't want anyone to live in fear of what is going to happen tomorrow."
Living without fear. Human rights at their most basic. Let none of us ever forget.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.