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A reporter for one of Miami's Spanish-language television stations is hesitant to speak on the record, but having been guaranteed anonymity, he notes that the 58-year-old ex-political prisoner presents the extreme Cuban American right with a conundrum. "If anyone else had come out and said what he has said recently, at least a hundred people would have dedicated themselves to his destruction," the reporter maintains. "He would be censured and burned, and that would be the end of him. But they can't touch this man."
They seem to know, as Gutierrez Menoyo does, that his history of suffering and sacrifice in la lucha provides a shield more durable than conviction.
Any verbal attack on Gutierrez Menoyo must somehow circumvent the idea of a man spending the prime years of his life in prison, with all the consequent physical and emotional trauma -- images hardly conceivable to anyone who hasn't been through it.
In January of 1965, along with three comrades from Alpha 66, Gutierrez Menoyo was captured on an eastern Cuban mountain surrounded by Castro's troops. After a 30-minute trial, he was sentenced to death. In exchange for his agreement to appear on Cuban television to swear that the island's residents had not supported him in his rebellion, the punishment was commuted to 30 years in prison.
Transferred from one Cuban jail to another (he did time in a total of six), Gutierrez Menoyo continued his resistance to the Castro regime. He and other plantados spent years dressed only in their underwear because of their refusal to wear prison uniforms, but his opposition went far beyond vestiary protests. In late 1965 he entered the notorious Isle of Pines prison, whose guards were then forcing some 5000 political prisoners to work from dusk till dawn at a nearby rock quarry. "I told the guards that I was not going to work, because I was a political prisoner who had been captured with an arm in hand, a uniform, and an armband," Gutierrez Menoyo explains with the same note of conviction he must have sounded at the time. "I reminded them that the Cuban government was a signer of the Geneva Convention, which says that political prisoners cannot be forced into hard labor. They feared that all the other prisoners who were working would take the same position, and so they decided to make an example of me.
"They started it in the cell block after everyone had left except those who were sick or without boots to work. They began hitting me and kicking me and finally dragged me to a truck and threw me in the back. They drove me to the quarry, and there in front of all the other prisoners they began hitting me with their fists, with wooden planks, and with the flat sides of machetes. Finally the guards pushed me down the bank onto a heap of stones. That fall did as much damage as anything."
It was months before he could walk again. Sight in his left eye and hearing in his left ear were gone forever. Not that the brutal beating marked the end of his activism; in the mid-1970s the Castro regime added another 25 years to his sentence after finding him guilty of attempting to organize secret resistance groups in Havana and other cities from his jail cell. And again in 1978, Gutierrez Menoyo angered his jailers by telling a group of U.S. journalists who visited him in prison that he opposed an upcoming series of contacts between Castro and certain members of the exile community. The so-called 1978 dialogue, which was limited to the topic of political prisoners, led to the release of some 3600 people. "I made sure [the journalists] understood that I would be willing to talk with Castro, provided that we would be discussing the liberty of the Cuban people," Gutierrez Menoyo recalls. "I would be ready to talk with him about freedom of the press, religious liberty, the right to congregate, and the right to organize unions." His statements almost surely cost him another eight years in jail -- he was one of several hundred prisoners whom Castro refused to release after the dialogue.
Gutierrez Menoyo remained in jail until 1986, when Castro finally granted a request by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez to let the internationally famous prisoner go.
After so many years, freedom was bizarre. "My time in prison was spent in a small space, either in solitary confinement or with a small number of people," Gutierrez Menoyo recounts. "This creates a form of immobility. When you leave prison, you see people in the street and think they're moving at an incredible velocity. And because you've been in prison 22 years, you remain behind. But little by little the distance between you and others closes, and you realize that the people are not traveling as fast as you thought they were -- until the moment arrives that you have put yourself back into time."
On a typical day, Gutierrez Menoyo now runs with the best of them, stopping in at Cambio Cubano's offices on SW 94th Avenue near Bird Road before dashing off to a meeting with supporters and then on to a live interview on Spanish-language radio. Naturally, people are interested in his dark tales from the gulag, but there's more to it than that. Ever since Armando Valladares attained worldwide prominence with Against All Hope, his book about life in Cuban prisons, Miami's media have worn the horrendous treatment of Cuban political prisoners into just another threadbare topic of exile. What distinguishes Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, what makes his pain seem so fresh, and what has won him so much publicity of late, is what a former president might have called "the Gandhi thing." Reuben Hernandez, a Cambio Cubano member, gushed about Gutierrez Menoyo after a recent meeting of the organization: "He has brought a level of integrity and spirituality to the debate on Cuba that was missing before. He is facing the devil on the other side. We view this like Gandhi against Great Britain. This man has been in jail, he knows about suffering, and he wants to spare his people from that same suffering."