The SHSU Writer’s Forum held a meeting Friday with guest speaker Rafael Saumell-Muoz discussing his experiences as a political prisoner in Cuba.
Saumell-Muoz is head of the foreign language department at SHSU and has lived in the United States since 1988. Before moving to America, he worked as a television producer in Havana.
He said he was arrested in 1981 after police searched his home and found a manuscript he had written that had various stories about Cubans wishing to leave their homeland.
“It is not rare for people in an oppressed country to go to prison for expressing their opinion,” Saumell-Muoz said.
According to the Cuban Constitution, citizens have freedom of speech as long as they support the government. The book Saumell-Muoz had written was labeled “enemy propaganda” by the Cuban authorities. He protested that he was not an enemy because he wasn’t being paid by a foreign power to write the book, and the stories did not constitute propaganda because the book was in his house and not being distributed to the public.
The police explained to Saumell-Muoz that under Cuban law, enemy propaganda is defined as any information written or spoken against the government, the revolution or the people of Cuba.
The state sentenced Saumell-Muoz to a six year sentence, and he was placed in the dungeon of La Cabana, an 18th century castle overlooking the Bay of Havana that had been converted into a prison. While imprisoned there, he received a breakfast of stale bread and a drink that the prisoners used to call “brake fluid” because of its taste.
“When you are in prison, your family suffers as well,” Saumell-Muoz said. “Your parents, your spouse, your children are discriminated against.”
He said that while he was incarcerated his son was forced to go to a correctional home after fighting with another boy who had stolen his kite, and when the boy was released, the state official in charge of the facility told Saumell-Muoz’s wife that the boy was “too articulate” for his age.
Saumell-Muoz applied to have his sentence lessened in 1983, and the Cuban government agreed as long as he admitted on paper that he had written counterrevolutionary propaganda. Saumell-Muoz refused to sign the document, and had to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
“When I was released in 1986, I could find no employment, because in Cuba the government is the only employer,” Saumell-Muoz said. “There is no private business.”
Circumstances forced Saumell-Muoz to return cans to a recycling center in order to get by. In 1988, however, NBC reporter Maria Shriver came to see him while working on assignment in Cuba after receiving his name from Human Rights Watch.
Cuban President Fidel Castro had the interview interrupted and then accused the U. S. of using a known dissident to spread lies about the Cuban government. After the affair, the state offered Saumell-Muoz and his family visas in order to leave Cuba.
While living in St. Louis, Saumell-Muoz received a scholarship after teaching others to speak English. He went to Washington University in Missouri, and received a doctorate in Spanish-American Literature. Afterward, he decided to take a job at SHSU because of the climate.
“I hate the snow, so I have no connection to the Northeast or Midwest,” Saumell-Muoz said.
English professor Paul Child, advisor to the Writer’s Forum, said he invited Saumell-Muoz to speak at the meeting because he could offer a lesson about an author who had suffered for his art.
“I think what was important to the Writer’s Forum is that writing is so abstract to us, we do it casually, but here is a guy who was imprisoned for his writing,” Child said.
Child said he and Saumell-Muoz have been teachers at SHSU for about the same amount of time, and that he had the professor speak to a group years before.
He said he wanted the new group to also learn a lesson about an author who was actually persecuted for his fiction.
“I hope they realize the great conviction that people have for their art,” Child said. “He was willing to stay in jail rather that sacrifice his integrity.”
Saumell-Muoz said the most important thing Americans should realize is that their freedom of speech grants them the right to speak about the government in any fashion that they choose, without fear of imprisonment for their actions.
“That’s really what happens when you voice your opinion and live in a country where freedom of speech is not allowed,” said Saumell-Muoz.