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Drawing Strength From Gabriel By: Yolanda Huerga Cedeño
Washington Post | Monday, November 24, 2003


My 9-year-old son, Gabriel, recently drew a picture of a bearded man letting out a yell as a crocodile, labeled "The World," bites him from behind. When my son is in a cheerier mood, he draws portraits of our family, in which "Dad," "Mum" and "Gabriel" have the word "free" written on their chests. Gabriel did these drawings while he was convalescing at home after an operation to extract a tumor. But his drawings have to do with his mental, not his physical, state.

Gabriel has gone back to school now. In classes, the subject matter is as political as his drawings, but, of course, very different in outlook:

The teacher tells the children about the "Cuban mercenaries" who sold themselves for miserable dollars to the U.S. government. Together with other children, Gabriel participates in the meetings that heap venom on the enemies of the revolution. Otherwise he might be accused of having "ideological problems."

And while I am busy looking for a lawyer or writing a complaint to the attorney general about the way my husband is being treated in prison, Gabriel completes his assignments, composing sentences in his Spanish class about the "revolutionary justice" that defends the homeland and punishes the mercenaries.

Sometimes he doesn't want to go to school. "Why, my love, if school is so important?" I ask him. "What is important is my dad, and I do not like the school anymore."

The problem is that Gabriel's father, my husband, Manuel Vázquez Portal, is one of those being persecuted by this "revolutionary justice."

According to official propaganda, Gabriel is the son of a counterrevolutionary. For his poetry and journalism, Manuel was sentenced to 18 years in prison. In the same roundup, 74 other dissidents -- poets and peasants, physicians and workers, a tugboat captain and a translator -- were detained and sentenced to an average of 20 years in jail.

We the grownups understand no better than our children what is happening in our country. Why does the state education system oblige children to scream slogans they cannot even comprehend, instead of just letting them be children? How is it possible that writing poems can be considered an "act against the security and the territorial integrity of the republic"? How can expressing opinions in a journalistic text be taken to constitute a violation of the "law of protection of the national independence and the economy of Cuba"? These questions gnaw at children and adults alike.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that Gabriel is disturbed. One day his aunt asked him why he jumps around and does things that the doctor has forbidden. He answered, "Auntie, I had a catastrophe fall on me."

Catastrophe indeed. On March 19, 14 men in uniforms and plainclothes came to our apartment, searched it and confiscated our personal documents, a borrowed typewriter, a radio and the writings of my husband. Then they took Manuel away.

Since then Gabriel and I have traveled three times to visit his father in the faraway prison of Santiago de Cuba, some 500 miles from our home in Havana. Because of Gabriel's operation, it is best for us to go by plane. When I cannot get plane tickets, we take the train, but then I need to buy Gabriel two tickets, because he needs to lie down: The whole trip takes at least 12 hours. Most of the spouses of the 75 political prisoners apprehended in the March crackdown can tell similar stories.

I heard that Cuban parents who have not allowed their children to participate in political gatherings have been threatened with "revolutionary justice" carrying lengthy imprisonment for "acts against the normal development of a minor." So when some well-intentioned persons advise me to take Gabriel to a psychologist, I think it is wise to ignore them. It is better, I believe, if he is at home when he draws those pictures.

The writer is the wife of Manuel Vázquez Portal, an imprisoned Cuban journalist. He is recipient of the 2003 International Press Freedom Award, which will be presented to him in absentia in New York on Tuesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists.




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