Dr. Nelson Mujica says he never actively supported or opposed Cuba’s communist government - not until mid-1992, when he urged voters to abstain from what he considered rubber-stamp elections.
He and eight friends formed the Cajio Group, named after a legendary local Indian chief. They passed out leaflets urging people to ignore upcoming elections in Guira de Melena, a town of 40,000 surrounded by sugar cane fields 25 miles south of Havana.
Then, in May 1993, police knocked at Mujica’s door. That started a four-year, eight-month journey through the Cuban prison system that ended Friday with a pardon granted to honor Pope John Paul II’s January visit to Cuba.
Mujica, a physician who specialized in stomach ailments, returned to his hometown, where old tractors rumble down the streets, shedding chunks of red soil. He says he was never physically tortured, never beaten. He apparently was treated much like the common criminals jailed with him.
His wife, Norka, a hematologist, said she was not harassed and that neighbors proved remarkably generous during her husband’s imprisonment.
But Mujica paid a heavy cost for his brief anti-election campaign.
The thin, exhausted, somewhat nervous 44-year-old told The Associated Press on Monday about his ordeal, from the early days at Havana’s Villa Marista, a police center for political crimes.
“We did not know what the time was,” he said, because there was no natural light, no clock. His family was permitted to visit for no more than 10 to 15 minutes a week.
After two months, he was transferred to the Avocado Prison in Havana Province. He stayed there for three years, including during his trial.
Mujica said he was charged with distributing “enemy propaganda,” and later the offense was escalated to “rebellion.”
He was sentenced to 10 years.
Cuban officials insist the government does not punish citizens for speaking their mind.
“No measures are taken for thinking differently,” Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina said this week.
But according to the government, those who organize into dissident groups often are backed by U.S.-based organizations trying to overthrow the Cuban government. Therefore, they violate national security laws.
In prison, Mujica said he shared concrete-block cells with between 30 and 50 men, sleeping on stacked metal cots with a mattress in a room as small as 13 feet by 20 feet.
Breakfast was sugared water or wheat cereal and occasionally coffee. For lunch and dinner, rice, sometimes starchy yucca and cabbage soup.
For an hour each day, Mujica was allowed into a yard for sun - a privilege some other political prisoners say they were denied.
Mujica spent his final year at the Calderon Prison, several miles from Guira de Melena, where conditions were similar.
He passed his time “with a lot of reading, some exercise and conversation.” Friends and relatives brought medical books, novels, “whatever there was.”
John Paul’s visit was a big event at the prison, Mujica said. Officials let him and most other inmates watch the papal Masses on television in the prison dining room.
A nominal Catholic when imprisoned, Mujica said his faith grew behind bars, aided by a visiting priest.
Shortly after rising at 5:30 a.m. Friday for the daily inmate count, rumors of an impending release swept the prison.
Soon, a guard came for Mujica, who said he was surprised at how quickly he was released after John Paul’s visit.
“I was told to collect my things. I was going to be moved from the prison,” he said.
Walking free from the prison gates was “tremendous.”
Juan Miguel Perez, another Cajio Group member serving 10 years for rebellion also was released. A friend of Perez drove the two men into town together in his pickup. “Within seconds there was a crowd in the street,” Perez’ son, Juan Jr., said.
Both Mujica and Perez say they plan to return to their jobs. “Work would help me a little to ease my tension,” Mujica said.
But a return to political protest?
“I haven’t thought about that.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: FARRAKHAN TO VISIT Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a longtime critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba, was visiting this communist island Tuesday in one of his final stops on a months-long world tour. The black leader was expected to address university students later in the day in the eastern city of Santiago, according to the government’s Prensa Latina news agency. During his stay, Farrakhan was expected to meet with senior government leaders. He met President Fidel Castro on his last visit in 1996. Farrakhan is nearing the end of a world journey that has carried him to dozens of nations, including Iraq and Libya, which, like Cuba, are under U.S. sanctions.