By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo is speaking about the need to obliterate the memories of time lost -- specifically, the two decades he spent in Cuban prisons. "You're constantly taking me back to jail and I need to erase that," he tells his interviewer, film director Jorge Ulla. It's one thing to recount the hunger strikes, the beatings, the irreparable damage to his body, but quite another to remember, much less to impart, exactly how during those years in prison the images of his wife and daughter retreated into his mind's deepest shadows.
For this documentary, though, he is willing to make an effort and with a pained expression he manages to convey a general notion of his suffering in places with names like La Cabana, El Principe, Boniato. Finally the discussion winds its way back to the troubling topic of memory: "You said you'd rather forget," Ulla reminds Gutierrez Menoyo. "Yet it's been 22 years in prison. We ask ourselves, 'Why forget?'" The former prisoner takes off his glasses, revealing a determination in his expression that must have been there all along. "Because prison in Cuba has been so brutal, so violent, that it hurts me to think of it," he answers. "For me to recover, I need to forget that. It's been so savage, so violent, so arbitrary. Castro has been so cruel to me, to all prisoners, that to go on living I must forget prison."
The interview is just one of several included in Ulla's 1988 Spanish-language film, Nobody Listened, co-directed by Nestor Almendros, about Gutierrez Menoyo and other plantados A Cuban political prisoners who received brutal treatment because of their refusal to enter the government's "rehabilitation" program. At the time of the filming, Gutierrez Menoyo was recovering both his physical and his psychological strength; photographs taken after his 1986 arrival in Madrid from Havana show an undernourished body lost somewhere in the folds of an enormous dark overcoat. He weighed just 110 pounds. These days he is still a slender man, but now at least there is more than a hint of a belly. Even after he gained back the weight, though, he says, much more time passed before he allowed himself to reflect on the horror of imprisonment, and especially on the beating by guards that cost him vision in one eye and hearing in one ear.
When he moved to Miami in 1987 Gutierrez Menoyo was given a hero's welcome -- rallies and press conferences similar to those that heralded last month's July 21 arrival of Mario Chanes de Armas, another long-term political prisoner. Like Chanes, upon his arrival in Miami Gutierrez Menoyo harshly criticized Castro. But he soon became a relatively quiet voice in the exile community and he has only recently re-emerged, now viewing his memory as something to be exploited rather than feared. These days he keeps his voluminous trunk of recollections open wide, willing to rummage through it with any reporter who comes knocking on his door. His closest friends say he would never parade his suffering without some larger goal in mind A namely, a peaceful resolution to Cuba's current crisis and a desire to draw Fidel Castro into a discussion of how to bring it about.
Gutierrez Menoyo is unique -- a Cuban ex-warrior turned aspiring peacemaker. This is the same man, after all, who founded Alpha 66 and who led the paramilitary organization until he was captured in Cuba while attempting to foment rebellion. But despite his years of militant opposition to Castro, his newfound pacifism in no way runs counter to the deeper motives behind his life's work. His sense of himself as an exile willing -- indeed expecting -- to be sacrificed for a cause predated Castro and even Gutierrez Menoyo's life in Cuba. He is the last remaining son in a Spanish family of exiled and martyred sons, a born underdog who also survived punishment from Castro's predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, and before him, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. For such a man, a stint of more than two decades in prison was not as implausible as walking out of jail and into a life of ease, a life without conflict. And instead of settling into the comfortable place prepared for him by former comrades at el exilio's table, he has set himself in opposition to them.
Earlier this year, Gutierrez Menoyo and a small group of followers formed Cambio Cubano (Cuban Change), an exile organization whose principal objective is to employ dialogue with the Cuban government as a means to achieve a peaceful transition to democracy on the island. With only about 100 contributing members, the financially strapped group is counting on Gutierrez Menoyo's unassailable anti-Castro record to increase its notoriety and, at the same time, to protect it from the inevitable charges -- especially among local exiles -- of cozying up to the Cuban leader.
In the past, a fanatical fringe of the exile community has shown little reluctance to ruin the reputations of people who publicly hold moderate views. Or worse. Radio commentator Emilio Milian had his legs blown off in 1976 by a car bomb after he suggested on the air that exiles tone down their violent actions. Although Gutierrez Menoyo is suggesting something far more unpalatable -- direct talks with the devil himself -- hard-liners are finding it difficult to make red-baiting labels like dialoguero and comunista stick to him.