Mario Chanes de Armas was imprisoned in Cuba for 30 years, longer than any other known political prisoner anywhere. He arrived in Miami on July 21. He wrote this article for The Herald's "Hemispheric Dialogue," an occasional series in which heads of state and other principal figures in the hemisphere discuss issues from their own perspective.
IBARELY remember youth and tranquillity. A brief part of my adolescence was spent in the waning years of Cuba's last democratic government, on the eve of general elections that never took place because the coup d'etat of March 10, 1952 abruptly interrupted the electoral process. The nation then fell under a dictatorial regime that soon became tyranny.
I belonged to a generation of young people who rebelled against the usurpers of power. We had no alternative but to confront dictatorship head on, to act to give back to our nation the freedom and the democratic institutions that Gen. Fulgencio Batista's coup had abrogated.
Getting acquainted and getting together were not difficult. Young people with patriotic sensibilities recognize each other by a simple exchange of opinions. I found my colleagues in the work place, the school room, the trades hall. Soon we formed a nucleus of people cognizant of what we condemned and what we fought for.
Standing out from all the rest, a young lawyer, Fidel Castro, was the man who most clearly expressed our ideas and harmonized our differing opinions.
Against the frustration and impotence that shrouded Cuba's society, we brought confidence and a fighting spirit. We founded a modest but effective publication, The Accuser, which we distributed secretly among the population.
I don't want to rewrite a novel that has more than enough protagonists and that I've lived intensely until today. If I left my youth behind the bars of a political prison constructed by my own companions; if I endured imprisonment under two political tyrannies; if I never accepted the birth of an authoritarian regime that -- far from installing the righteous government we had fought for -- hastened to bar the return of our institutions and freedoms from the very moment it seized power; if I did all this, it's not because I'm an exceptional man.
That, I am not. I consider myself the simplest of persons. I did it because some of us react viscerally to the betrayal of principles that are a revolutionary movement's reason for existence. We had not struggled merely to exacerbate a class struggle that only led to hatred. We were not deposing a dictatorship merely to impose our ideas.
When Castro's campaign against the independent media began, I believed that our government was entitled to express its opinion -- but only if it respected others' opinions. In 1959, when I left prison -- where I had been sent for taking part in the Granma landing and for my overall revolutionary activities -- Fidel Castro was the supreme authority. His incendiary, nine- hour speeches had a vehement irrationality I wouldn't have expected from my former comrade-in-arms. The democratic nature of our discussions, which led to the raid on the Moncada barracks, was gone from his new harangues.
The young man who chose the 26th of July to break into the military fortress at Santiago de Cuba and seize the weapons to place in the hands of the people now addressed an abstract, invisible audience. He was only waiting for the masses' applause and support to activate a machinery of vengeance and terror. Discontent spread through the revolutionary rank-and-file as the Popular Socialist (Communist) Party expanded its participation in government. The party -- which had publicly condemned our objectives and our methods, and which had refused to participate in our acts of insurrection -- became, at Fidel Castro's behest, his sole and trusted ally.
For a while, anyway. At the end, its leaders suffered the same fate of all those whom Castro utilized while pursuing his monomaniac political agenda. Swiftly, the old communists who edged out our colleagues became themselves a thing of the past: members of "the first Marxist party of Cuba," a rhetorical entity. The "true" Marxist-Leninist party would be his creation alone.
It would be naive to think that Castro considered himself a genuine disciple of that ideology. His true leanings go back to the saber-wielders and military strongmen who once stomped through Latin American history and who called themselves "revolutionaries," as if that word were the highest badge of honor.
Fidel Castro is the last vestige of that ilk. Fortunately, his kind is marked for extinction. Look closely at his methods for the past years, and you will find that, behind the young man who professed to love democracy and the law, there lurked an unscrupulous creature who abjures public freedoms and believes only in autocracy. He recognizes only unconditionality and obedience.
That was the character who sentenced me to 30 years in prison. None of the subversive plots attributed to me are true. I was punished for my convictions. Into his hands fell reports on my opinions, my criticism, my disagreements. For 30 years I was a "special case," which over there means one of Castro's prisoners.
Even after I finished my sentence and was released, I remained his prisoner. The efforts of my sisters and friends to gain me permission to travel abroad were in vain. A plea by Costa Rica -- which my relatives thought would surely succeed -- met with the same reply: "You're a special case, and we're not authorized to let you out."
However, the two years I lived in Havana brought me closer to the tragic reality of today's Cuba, to the oppression, misery, and desperation visited on our people. No one could imagine it. And, to me, that experience will be unforgettable.
I witnessed the enthusiastic birth of the revolution and am witnessing the tragic throes of its demise. The only thing left for Castroism is a blood bath.
Now, in a desperate effort to survive, Castro turns to his old adversaries, most of whom live in Miami, and to the international corporations he so often reviled, to save his regime from ignominy and to help him cling to power.
Little does he care that the millions of dollars some exiles may bring in are insufficient to solve Cuba's grave problems. He needs whatever he can get to prop up the privileges of the ruling circle and to turn hard currency into a temporary palliative while he increases police repression throughout the country.
Politically, economically, and morally, Castro's regime is doomed. The day all democratic nations -- particularly the nations of our hemisphere, of our Latin America -- unite and demand that Castro honor those human rights he so insanely ignores, Castro will no longer be able to impose his reign of terror on the people of Cuba.
There's no question that the excessive prudence with which democratic nations have treated Castro has begun to evaporate. The government of Chile recognized the egregiousness of a 30- year sentence for the "crime" of having an opinion and bravely asked Castro to free me. The seriousness and effectiveness of its gesture became patent as soon as my friend Jorge Roblejo Lorie met in Santiago with Interior Minister Enrique Krauss (who at the time was acting head of state while President Patricio Aylwin traveled overseas) and asked for his assistance, at the request of the Committee of One Hundred. Thanks to them, I was released.
I don't belong to any political organization, but I see a bit of myself in the work of all of them. I shall be forever grateful to the government of Chile and to its people. I am convinced that Cuba's freedom is near. Life has not ended for my country, as it has not ended for me -- a man who knows terror, hope, and faith.
© 1996 The Miami Herald.