No Peace for Paula

In Cuba she was a symbol, the Madonna of the Counterrevolution. But in Miami, it's a different kind of fight for Paula Valiente.

"I have no doubt that the Lord chose me for this struggle," declares Valiente, who was born in Guantanamo on December 12, 1952, the year Fulgencio Batista came to power in a military coup, and six years before he was overthrown by Fidel Castro. Sitting at the edge of the pink sofa in the apartment where she now lives in Coral Gables, wearing an ivory-colored satin robe and curlers in her hair, Valiente speaks of her past in a slightly impatient manner that suggests she thinks little about it.

She grew up without religion, she says; her mother, Rosa Hernandez Diaz, was a devout castrista before and after the revolution. Valiente remembers being conscripted as a child to carry medicine to Castro's rebels fighting in the mountains near their home, and occasionally getting caught in a firefight. Her family had always been poor farmers in eastern Cuba, their race giving them even less of a cushion in life. After Castro came to power promising a new social order, her mother's loyalty was rewarded with a job sewing military uniforms in Santiago de Cuba. After separating from her husband, a laborer who still lives in Guantanamo, Rosa Hernandez raised her four girls and one boy alone. Valiente, the third child, is the only one who has opposed Castro. Perhaps if her circumstances had been different, she muses, she would not have set herself against the order and her family would still be intact. On the other hand, she quickly interrupts herself, springing up from the sofa and spreading her arms at her little living room, she could not have refused to join the fight for justice and freedom, the task the Virgin had chosen for her.

Inspired by a second cousin who worked as a schoolteacher, Valiente answered Castro's late-Sixties call for more youth to join that profession. At age fourteen she attended an academy in the Sierra Madre mountains. "Life was very hard there," Valiente recalls. "We were hungry all the time, but we always had to exercise. We worked a lot and got no vacation. They created a Rapid Response Brigade composed of students; they'd beat you up if it got to be too much and you tried to leave. That's when I recognized for the first time what was going on in Cuba." Still, she completed her training and took a job in Santiago.

In 1975, when Daniel was born, one of the presents Valiente received was the plaster statue of the Virgin of Regla. (She speaks little about her relationships with his father and with the father of Cheila, other than to say they were short-lived.) It wasn't until ten years later, she recalls, that she prayed to the Virgin for the first time. Living with her children in Santiago and desperate to join her mother and the rest of her family in Havana, she was too poor to afford the move. On impulse, she recalls, she implored her plaster Virgin to help her reach the capital. Within hours her prayer was answered, which motivated her to begin visiting the church of the Virgin of Regla.

Valiente settled into a position as a math teacher at the Seventh of November secondary school in the Alamar district of Havana. The following year, at a bus stop, she met a young geological engineer named Jorge Luis L centspez. He told her his phone number; neither had anything to write it down with. Valiente remembered the number for a few weeks and then forgot it. After a month, however, when she was out on an errand with her mother, the number flashed to her mind. L centspez, it turned out, lived only a few blocks away. Not long after, they were married. He was a loyal fidelista, Valiente says, which for the time being put an end to her visits to church.

Life took a precipitate turn in 1987, when, as a member of the workers' union at her school, Valiente spoke out against the director for firing four of her colleagues. She says that the four, who were black, were replaced with white teachers. Her protests provoked the wrath of the director and of higher Communist party officials, and as the months went by, she was fired three times, appealing each termination and being reinstated on each occasion. She claims that after the fourth time, in 1988, her husband was ordered by the party organization to kick her out of their house; it was inappropriate for him to be living with a counterrevolutionary. He followed orders and divorced her, leaving her homeless for three months. It was during that time, Valiente says, that she applied for a visa at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

She also staged a hunger strike outside the office of the Minister of Education, which was publicized by Pablo Reyes, a dissident whose interview with Valiente and little Cheila was broadcast on La Voz de la Fundaci centsn. It was the first word about Valiente on the mainland. Some months later, Reyes was convicted of "practicing independent journalism"; he is serving an eight-year prison term, according to other dissidents and his wife Vilma Fernandez, who arrived in Miami in late March.

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