TAMPA — Day after day for four months, Roberto Pizano was marched from inside a prison to a pond holding human waste from a tuberculosis hospital nearby.
As punishment for his crimes against the revolution of Fidel Castro, Pizano was held face down until he nearly drowned.
Many died from this torture, Pizano said. For him, it was an introduction to the 18 years he would spend in Cuban prisons.
“I thought those who were executed were lucky,” Pizano, 76, said through an interpreter. “Nobody can conceive the evils we endured in those prisons.”
Starved, forced to stand naked in crowded cells and made to watch friends be executed, few who survived as Pizano did are welcoming the announcement by President Barack Obama that the United States will begin normalizing relations with Cuba.
“Never,” the Tampa man said.
“This hurts him more than the physical torture he endured,” said Pizano’s friend Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa lawyer long active in the movement to overthrow the Castro regime. “The president’s act is equal to pardoning those who tortured men like Roberto.”
Pizano is aware of the arguments in favor of Obama’s decision.
Polls show that most Americans, now even those of Cuban heritage, favor this course after five decades of isolating Cuba failed to bring about regime change.
They have not suffered as he has, said Leonardo Delgado, 88, another former Cuban prisoner now living in Tampa, who was part of the anti-Castro resistance through 1979 and estimated he served three- to six-month sentences on 25 to 30 occasions.
“Cuba has been rewarded for taking away freedom,” Delgado said. “Some people think that is OK. I do not.”
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Both men have heard accounts of how life is improving for people in Cuba. More private businesses are allowed, the government is allowing some artists to voice criticism of the regime, and religious freedom is growing.
But they say that steps toward freedom do not make Cuba free.
“Everything that changed came about only by absolute necessity,” said Delgado, who sees the changes as a direct result of the U.S. policy of isolation.
“Everything in Cuba is subject to be taken away whenever he wants,” Pizano said. “There is no stability.”
Pizano was a member of the Cuban military under President Fulgencio Batista.
He fought against Fidel Castro’s revolution and continued fighting after Castro took power Jan. 1, 1959.
He doesn’t like to say he was “captured”; he thinks that sounds like he surrendered to stay alive.
“I was ready to die for a free Cuba,” he said. “I still am.”
He was shot in the head during a battle in February 1961 in the mountains of the former Las Villas Province — a region that today contains the provinces of Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara. Unconscious, he was tossed in a truck and taken to prison.
A faint scar is still evident on top of his head, under his graying hair.
Torture and execution were part of daily life in prison, he said.
Another form of cruelty Pizano said he endured was a form of “bungee jumping,” where he was tied with one end of a rope and tossed off a building or helicopter, not knowing whether the rope tied at the other end was short enough for him to survive.
He saw people die like this, he said.
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Four times, Pizano said, he was taken on a firing-squad death march but each time his life was spared.
His interrogators, he said, hoped the fear he would not be saved again would break him and he would share information on counterrevolutionary activities or publicly embrace the Communist government.
He never did.
The closest call was a time he and seven other prisoners were tied to posts in front of crude wood coffins.
The executioner killed each prisoner one by one, stopping after each shot to cut down the body so it could fall into the box.
Pizano said it took him a few minutes to realize the killing stopped at the prisoner before him. He was covered in blood from the others and mistook it for his own. As he watched the executioner walk toward him to cut him down, he thought he was already on “the other side.”
He heard tales from other prisoners of mass executions, hundreds of people at a time, but never witnessed one.
Some historians have estimated that more than 13,000 Cubans have been executed for opposing the Castro government.
That number is high based on research by Luis Martínez-Fernández, author of “Revolutionary Cuba: A History,” published in 2014 by the University of Florida Press. Born in Cuba, Martínez-Fernández left in 1962 at age 2 when his parents fled Communist rule.
“My suspicions are they may be counting those who died in other ways,” he said, such as deaths in battle and in drownings at sea during escape attempts.
By the end of June 1959, Martínez-Fernández said, the estimated number of executions was 550 to 1,500 — many ordered by Castro lieutenants Che Guevara and brother Raul Castro.
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Revolutionary trials in the early 1960s have been described as Roman circuses, held in stadiums where crowds participated by booing and hissing at the defendants.
On at least one occasion, Fidel Castro ordered a retrial of three pilots acquitted of bombing civilians for Batista’s military. They were found guilty.
“It is what they called ‘revolutionary justice,’” Martínez-Fernández said.
Torture, he added, was indeed prevalent.
“I have spoken to very credible witnesses who said torture was part of the prisoner experience,” Martínez-Fernández said. “Prisoners would be fed rotting parts of animals that humans never consume.”
Another common form of torture, said ex-prisoner Delgado, was to kick a man repeatedly in the groin.
“It is why many prisoners never had kids when released,” Delgado said. “What they did to the women was worse.”
Asked to elaborate, he shook his head no.
Still, Cubans had grown accustomed to cruelty in their justice system before the revolution.
Batista, who seized power through a military coup in 1952 and enjoyed the support of the U.S. government, also tortured women as well as men when they spoke against his rule.
“Torture was widespread under Batista,” said Martínez-Fernández. “There was a level of savagery to how Cuba was treated then, too.”
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In 1978, President Jimmy Carter allowed a group of Cuban exiles living in the U.S. to negotiate with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 political prisoners.
At the time, the official list of Cuban political prisoners was 4,500, Martínez-Fernández said.
Pizano was among those freed. He walked out of prison at 6 a.m. on Feb. 22, 1979.
He said he was given a jacket and a passport, clubbed over the head, tossed into an airplane and dropped off in Costa Rica. He made his way to Tampa because he has family here.
Obama’s announcement on relations with Cuba included a prisoner swap: Three Cuban spies held in the U.S. were freed in exchange for one U.S. spy jailed in Cuba.
Alan Gross, an American held in Cuba since 2009 on charges he distributed communications equipment used to disrupt the government, was released on humanitarian grounds and was not part of the official exchange.
Cuban leader Raul Castro also agreed to release 53 political prisoners imprisoned in Cuba.
“If you think there are only 53 political prisoners in Cuba you are dead wrong,” said attorney Fernandez. “There are countless. What about them?”
“World Report 2014,” compiled by the research and advocacy group Human Rights Watch, estimates the number of Cubans in prisons or work camps at 57,000.
Since Raul Castro took power, Martínez-Fernández said, executions have largely ended and the number of long-term political prisoners is shrinking.
“The new modality is arrest for a few days and months, then release,” he said.
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The tactics may have changed but the intent remains the same — to suppress dissent, said Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who criticizes the government in the magazine “Voces,” published in the U.S. and available as an Internet download in Cuba.
Pardo Lazo was arrested and temporarily held in March 2012 as Pope Benedict XVI visited the island nation.
Just last week, Cuban police detained at least four political opponents including the husband of prominent dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez. The action came hours before a performance artist planned to stage an unauthorized open microphone event calling for more freedoms for Cubans.
More than 3,600 arbitrary detentions were reported from January through September 2013, compared with 2,100 in 2010, according to “World Report 2014.”
“Barack Obama must know that he cannot trust a man that has killed with his own hands,” Pardo Lazo said.
Obama said during his announcement that he doesn’t expect Cuba to improve overnight.
Fernandez doesn’t expect improvement until the Castros are driven from power.
“People have been saying that the Castros will change for decades,” Fernandez said. “When do we stop waiting and accept they will not? You cannot make deals with men like the Castros.”
Cuban citizens showed they have hope for change, taking to the streets to dance after hearing of Obama’s announcement.
Still, Pizano said, this does not justify the way the Castros have remained in power.
“History has shown that there have always only been a select few in repressed nations strong enough to be the guardians of freedom who are willing to sacrifice everything for everyone,” Pizano said.
“Those are the ones we should be supporting in Cuba. I worry this new development means we may not.”