Jorge Olivera Castillo has spent his entire life fighting for freedom of expression, and paying dearly for it.
Jorge Olivera Castillo and his wife in Harvard square.
Jorge Olivera Castillo and his wife, human rights activist Nancy Alfaya, in Harvard Square. Photo: Jorge Olivera Castillo. 

These days in Cuba people are clamoring for freedom of expression. Jorge Olivera Castillo has spent his entire life fighting for this right, and paying dearly for it. In 2003, he was sentenced to solitary confinement in a Guantanamo prison after he was rounded up as part of what became known as the Black Spring, when 75 people involved in the peaceful struggle for a democratic transition were arrested, including 29 journalists.

I met Jorge when he was recently a Scholar at Risk and visited several U.S. universities. I became fascinated by his knack for reinvention, his multiple creative talents, and most of all, his perseverance in pursuit of his ideals. In this interview for Startup Cuba, we spoke about the writing practice that was a saving grace for him during his imprisonment, his current musical aspirations, and his thoughts on the recent protests across Cuba. 

Who is Jorge Olivera? Tell us about yourself — where you were born, your career, your family.

I am a Cuban citizen, born on September 8, 1961 in a poor neighborhood in Old Havana. My father, Orlando Olivera Sardiñas, worked as a proofreader for the newspaper of the former Popular Socialist Party (PSP), called Hoy and then for the newspaper Granma, the official organ of the Communist Party of Cuba, until 1967, when he was arrested and sentenced along with some thirty former PSP militants for opposing the policies promoted by Fidel Castro, in a process called Microfracción. My father was sentenced to ten years of deprivation of freedom, and released four years and three months later. My mother, Cristina Castillo González, also of humble origins, worked in a textile factory in her youth. 

Convictions are not negotiable under any circumstances. We must be consistent with the chosen path in order to improve society through change toward a rational and sustainable model.

Jorge Olivera Castillo

I graduated as a technician in communications equipment in 1981, and soon after I was sent to be a soldier in the civil war in Angola from 1981 to 1983. In Cuba, military service is compulsory. I was only 19 years old, and I lived for 26 months in underground shelters deep in the jungle. It was a very difficult experience. Currently [as a Harvard Scholar at Risk], I am writing a book of stories based on those experiences.

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Upon returning from Angola, I took a course as a television editor and began to work at the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT), until 1993. In 1992, I tried to reach the United States on a raft with some friends, but we were captured by the Cuban Coast Guard after over 14 hours at sea. After three days in detention, they released us. Consequently, I was placed in a lower-category position with a lower salary as punishment. Out of fear of worse retaliation and humiliation, I decided to quit my job.

What was the Black Spring and how did you get arrested? You were a political prisoner, even in solitary confinement in Guantánamo. What impact did that experience have on your life? About your perception of Cuba?

In 1993, I decided to become an open dissident. First, I was Secretary of Disclosure and Propaganda in an independent union. In 1995, I became a reporter for the independent press agency Habana Press, which I then led from 1999 to 2003, when I was arrested and sentenced to 18 years of deprivation of liberty, as part of what became known as Cuba’s Black Spring. After a trial without due procedural guarantees —I only had contact with my lawyer ten minutes before the oral hearing— I was sent to the Guantánamo prison, located more than 900 kilometers from where I lived, in Havana. I stayed there for almost a year and a half. For the first nine months, I was in solitary confinement, and then I was held with other prisoners considered dangerous. After going to two other prisons, I was released on a special leave for health reasons, on December 6, 2004. I had spent almost 21 months behind bars for defending the right to freedom of expression.

Those were very difficult times for me and my family. Family visits were every six months and conjugal visits every four. The food we received from the jailers, when not badly prepared, was rotting.

I do not know how or when change will happen, but we are approaching a confluence of external and internal factors that will anticipate what should have happened years ago.

Jorge Olivera Castillo

Literature was one of my lifesavers. I relieved my sorrow by writing poems, sitting in the corner of my bunk or under the mosquito net. Under those circumstances I wrote my first poetry collection, entitled Confesiones antes del crepúsculo (Confessions Before Twilight) and I was inspired to later write the book of stories Huésped del infierno (Guest from Hell).

The six-decade dictatorship in Cuba has been unrelenting toward those who critique or oppose its policies. I am one of its thousands of victims, who survived to show the world the true story of a false revolution for and by the humble.

In recent years you left Cuba and went to the United States for the first time, as a Scholar at Risk at Harvard University, at Brown University, and now in Las Vegas. 

Given my previous incarceration, English PEN took me on as a prisoner of conscience [someone who is imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views]. I was granted a scholarship at Harvard through the Scholars at Risk Program in 2009, but I was prohibited by the regime to leave Cuba until 2016, after President Obama’s visit. Later, I applied for the International Writers Project at Brown University and was lucky to be accepted. During these stays, I have had the time and the conditions to write, share my experiences, and establish ties with writers of other nationalities.

When did you discover your musical talent? What are your musical aspirations?

From a very young age, I discovered my talent for music. I always had a good ear and sensitivity for singing. I never went through any music conservatory. I learned to play the piano with a private teacher when I was 27 years old. Then I continued on my own. In 2019, I met Osvaldo Navarro, an independent rapper and social activist, and I spoke with him about my project to make an album of my songs. He introduced me to an underground music producer and we began recording. Unfortunately I couldn’t finish the album. The police prevented him from working on the project, threatening to confiscate his equipment if he continued the recordings. The music arranger was also intimidated. I was only able to finish six songs, some of them in collaboration with Osvaldo.

I hope to finish the album someday and continue creating songs. I feel a special sensation while I am immersed in the composition process, looking for the best harmonic combinations, outlining the melody and searching for images that give more beauty and meaning to the lyrics.

You were a journalist, but now you are known more for your poetry and your short stories. Do you still write? 

Of course, I continue to write about everything. I have new stories, poetry, and I keep filling my computer screen with articles and chronicles about Cuba. I still have things to say through those three creative outlets. There are things that I prefer to say through verse, others through narrative and others that require the use of journalistic techniques.

Do you see parallels between the Black Spring of 2003 and what is happening right now in Cuba?

There are differences. For example, in 2003, there was no Internet and the figure of Fidel Castro also weighed heavily in the Cuban political establishment, with his mystical aura and his ability to deceive with falsehoods.

This time, the situation provides a little more visibility to the victims, thanks to the use of social networks that, despite internal restrictions, manage to cross the walls of censorship.

This is like a relay race and I think we are reaching the finish line.

Jorge Olivera Castillo

Incarcerations have happened little by little, not with the speed of 18 years ago. There are already more than 150 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. With the detainees in the spontaneous demonstrations that were reported throughout the island on July 11th and 12th, the number will increase considerably in the coming weeks.

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It was a surprise to see the crowds chanting slogans against the president and demanding freedom. The world was able to verify the true essence of a dictatorship that restricts fundamental rights and keeps most of the population in suppression. The system is not working, but they refuse to change it. The U.S. embargo has an impact, but the main reason for this endless misfortune is the internal blockade.

What advice would you give the young Jorge, that political prisoner in a prison in Guantánamo?

Convictions are not negotiable under any circumstances. We must be consistent with the chosen path in order to improve society through change toward a rational and sustainable model. Not with an inventory of slogans and promises that are almost never kept.

Courage and hope. That would communicate to that young man that he resisted in the midst of a stormy existence in the very entrails of a hell made up of more than 200 prisons and labor camps.

Freedom does not fall from the skies like biblical manna, it must be conquered. It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice. In my case, I may not see the result of almost 30 years invested toward that objective, but I planted the seed for new generations. This is like a relay race and I think we are reaching the finish line.

I would tell young people not to be discouraged. The one-party model has been exhausted, its founders are very old and its heirs are forced to ensure an impossible continuity. I do not know how or when change will happen, but we are approaching a confluence of external and internal factors that will anticipate what should have happened years ago. Cuba has been frozen in time and now that catastrophic paralysis must end.

Interview translated by Erin Goodman and edited for length and clarity.

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Erin Goodman has been an editor and a contributor at Startup Cuba. She is a longtime follower of US-Cuba relations and contemporary Cuban culture. Erin first traveled to Havana in 2002, and later founded a travel and translation company, taking groups of women to Havana with a focus on the arts and entrepreneurship. She has translated for The New York Times, OnCuba Travel, and many other publications.

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