Twenty-two years ago, Armando Valladares, a young Cuban working as a minor bureaucrat in the new revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison as an enemy of the state.
Last month, eight years short of the completion of his sentence, Valladares was abruptly released as a "good-will gesture" to France following a personal appeal to Castro by French President Francois Mitterrand. Quickly flown out of the country, he now lives with Marta, the Cuban woman he married in a 1969 prison ceremony, in a small hotel in downtown Paris while he decides what to do with the rest of his life.
Thousands of political prisoners were arrested in the first years after Castro's 1959 takeover, most of them, like Valladares, anonymous. But Valladares' case has been special since 1977, when a book of poems he had smuggled out of jail was published abroad. Titled "From My Wheelchair," its story of how the young prisoner had become paralyzed due to prison-induced starvation brought international sympathy and demands for his release.
Cuba said the paralysis was faked to discredit the Castro regime. But it presented no public proof of his health, and cancelled his visit and letter-writing privileges. From 1979 until recently, no one from the outside saw or heard directly from Valladares.
When his imminent release was announced, there was considerable curiosity. The first photographs were taken in Cuba, showing a frail, pale Valladares walking unaided up the ramp of an Air France jet, and he has not been seen in a wheelchair since. Those who had believed his story from the first said they were glad of his recovery. Others, including some French officials familiar with the case, said they were suspicious.
But even the most skeptical agree, as one official here noted, that "there is no mystery for us. The man spent 22 years in prison, and I don't care about the state of his legs or his head or anything else." These officials deny there was a "deal" involved in Valladares' release -- the promise of an invitation, much coveted by Castro, for an official state visit to France -- as has also been suggested in the French press.
It was a question of "principle" that prompted Mitterrand first to write Castro about the poet nearly a year ago, French officials said, after he received an appeal from the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal. On Oct. 18, with only a few days' warning, Valladares was brought to the airport in Havana and handed over to Regis Debray, Mitterrand's adviser on Third World affairs.
The story Valladares tells, with little malice but a constant tapping of his fingers on the table top, is one of faith and fortitude in the face of the arbitrary, almost casual injustice of an all-powerful state. Unlike others before him, he does not denounce his captors, and makes no profound political statements. He survived his imprisonment, he says, because of "my indestructible [Roman Catholic] religious conviction, and the love of my wife. Because of this, there is not one atom of hatred in my heart for anyone, not even my jailers."
A slight man, Valladares appears younger than his 45 years, with a quick, gamin-like vitality that matches the rapid speech of his homeland. There is no evidence of paralysis, and as he describes his 1961 trial as a counterrevolutionary, he kicks his feet easily up on the table in imitation of the guerrilla judge who read a newspaper during the proceedings and casually sentenced him to 30 years.
"I was arrested on Dec. 28, 1960. I had no explosives, no arms, no subversive literature, nothing to implicate me as a conspirator. There were two periods of interrogation, each lasting 15 minutes. There was no proof against me, but they said they knew I was a 'potential enemy of the state.' "
Although the government charged that Valladares had been a member of the police force of Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, he denies this.
"I worked in an office giving tests to police applicants, working part-time, 8:30 to ll a.m., to earn money" for his studies in administration at the University of Havana. After Castro's victory, he was investigated by a revolutionary "purge commission" and got a minor bureaucratic job in the Communications Ministry.
He was arrested nearly a year later, Valladares said, because, "in my workplace, in assemblies, I had spoken out against communism. I refused to join the militia. I wouldn't put on a uniform. I'm not a criminal or a terrorist. I was never involved in violence. If I had been involved in any activities, they would have shot me that first day."
Instead, they held him until Jan. 11, when, with no charges and no witnesses, he was brought before a revolutionary tribunal. Two days later he was in prison at the Isle of Pines, off Cuba's southern shore, sentenced to 30 years.
"It all happened so fast," he said. Three months later, he said, charges were entered associating him with sabotage and bombing, although there was no new trial and no proof submitted.
[A Cuban diplomat in Washington said that Valladares was found guilty of "conspiratorial and terrorist acts" involving a number of bombings, as part of a "group led by someone who was connected to Batista.]"
Valladares appears to remember things in blocks of years -- the years he was in solitary, the years the prisoners got no letters, the year he was moved from one prison to another, the years of visits and those of none. In 1967, political prisoners were ordered to put on the same uniforms as common criminals and those who had agreed to submit to a "rehabilitation" program. Some accepted, Valladares said, but 900 refused, and "we went naked."
In 1969 he and Marta, whom he met when she visited her prisoner father in 1961 at the Isle of Pines, were permitted to marry in a 15-minute prison ceremony.
Marta left Cuba in 1972. From 1970 to 1978, he said, no visits were permitted for those who refused to participate in the rehabilitation program.
It was in 1974, during one of the periodic battles of will between the jailed and their jailers, Valladares said, that he and a number of others were deprived of food for 46 days.
"Six of us ended up in wheelchairs," he said.
Valladares pulled out what appeared to be documents from the Cuban Health Ministry, sent to Amnesty International, describing his condition as "polyneuropathy." Medical dictionaries describe it as a flaccidity of the muscles, sometimes leading to paralysis of the lower extremities, that can be caused by malnutrition.
The condition is reversible with therapy, and although he tried to exercise his muscles, Valladares said he received no professional treatment until 1979. That was the year Castro released about 3,600 political prisoners in one of his sporadic good-will gestures. While other imprisoned invalids were pardoned, Valladares was not, because, he said, the authorities were angry about the book of poems published in 1977.
The first poem in the book speaks of the day when "my wheel chair will grow wings/ [and] I will fly over parks/ carpeted with children and violets./ My wheelchair will be a winged dream/ without the alienating obsession of the prison bars."
Instead, he was sent to a hospital "on the street," outside the prison. He was there nearly a year and a half, and learned to walk fairly well with braces, before being sent back to Combinado del Este prison on the edge of Havana. There, he said, he was kept in virtual solitary confinement, led into another room twice daily for therapy. "They wanted me to be ready," he said. "They wanted to say I was never crippled."
Other than waiting for relatives to join him here, marrying in a religious ceremony, and "doing what I can" to help free what he says are still about 330 "old" political prisoners from the early days of the Castro government, Valladares said he has no plans.
"I'm not going to write any more poetry. That is what I did in jail, to think, to express myself."