Activist's Daughter Speaks Against Castro

The Associated Press
Saturday, December 4, 2004; 12:11 AM


PERICO, Cuba - Her political activist father is her hero and Sayli Navarro wants to follow in his footsteps - at any cost. The soft-spoken, articulate teenager was just 6 when her father went to prison the first time, for posting signs reading "Down with Fidel."

Now 18, Sayli Navarro speaks out against Fidel Castro's government as well as the imprisonment of her father, one of dozens of government opponents still behind bars despite a recent string of releases.

Felix Navarro was among 75 dissidents rounded up by Cuba's government in March 2003 and accused of receiving money from U.S. officials to undermine the island's communist system - charges the activists and American officials denied.

This week, the government released six of the prisoners, including writer Raul Rivero. Including seven others freed earlier this year, 13 of the original 75 have now been released, all for medical reasons.

Several of the 62 still behind bars were transferred this week from provincial prisons to major Cuban cities for medical checkups, prompting their relatives to hope they, too, might be freed.

Among them was 51-year-old Navarro, president of an opposition party that held political meetings attended by Cubans and even U.S. officials.

Navarro was transferred Tuesday from his prison cell in eastern Guantanamo province to nearby Santiago. His daughter and wife, Sonia Alvarez, anxiously await news of his fate.

"We are not sure, but we know that something is happening," Sayli Navarro told The Associated Press in an interview. "Hope is something we have yet to lose."

Alvarez was less optimistic.

"I honestly don't think they will release him," she said. "He is really strong, with no illnesses. Hopefully they let all the prisoners go, but I don't think they will - the old man (Castro) is very stubborn."

Castro is far from revered in the Navarro household. A picture of Pedro Luis Boitel, a political prisoner who allegedly died during a hunger strike in the 1970s, hangs on a wall in the modest home in this tiny town 100 miles east of Havana.

Navarro's Movement for Democracy Party, which calls for political and economic openings in Cuba, is named for Boitel.

Boitel's tribulations in prison also inspire the younger Navarro. After her father was imprisoned last year, she began reading about Castro's time as a political prisoner before Cuba's 1959 revolution.

Surprised by his descriptions of relative comfort - clean rooms, abundant water, twice-a-month visits by family members, access to a prison store, the young woman decided to write Castro.

"Cruel treatment, violations of rights ... and lack of access to medical care and religious services" define Cuban prisons today, she wrote in the letter delivered to Castro's Havana offices in September.

She decried the practices of keeping prisoners hundreds of miles from their families in filthy, overcrowded cells, and allowing family visits just once every three months.

"Why is the treatment of Cuban prisoners ... so painful and degrading?" she asked. "What difference exists between an Iraqi prisoner and a Cuban prisoner?"

At the letter's end, she calls Castro's government "the world's most diabolical," and says it is time to reflect on the imprisonment of people "only for thinking differently."

After sending the letter, Navarro said she worried for days that she might be jailed, or that her father would be punished.

So far, there has been no reaction.

"Fear is something all human beings experience," she said. "My love for my father, and his example, inspire me, and this makes me strong."

Felix Navarro was a physics teacher and high school principal when he posted the "Down with Fidel" signs in the early 1990s and was arrested. Released nearly two years later, Navarro went to work in the sugarcane fields - no one else would hire him.

Alvarez said her husband later held political meetings in his home, which were attended by Cubans from various provinces and, at least once, by U.S. Interests Section Chief James Cason.

"He is a very active person, fearless," Alvarez said of her husband. "He will confront anything."

"They are exactly alike," she said of her husband and daughter, the couple's only child.

Sayli Navarro said life as a dissident's daughter is not easy. She misses being with her father, especially on holidays.

Among the most crushing moments was during her father's trial, when neighbors testified against him.

But she said most neighbors treat her and her mother well. Her belief that her battle is just helps keep her going.

"They have not committed any crime," she said of the jailed dissidents. "They are in prison due to the whim of one man."

Whether or not her father is released, Navarro said she plans to keep fighting for change. "I want a Cuba with liberty," she said, "which doesn't exist in Castro's Cuba."