RENÉ González was released from prison on October 7, but must remain in the U.S. on probabtion. With contradictory emotions, his older daughter Irmita shares details of this new stage in her family’s life.
Above the front door, a moving declaration of principles: "The best dad in the world lives here." No matter that the U.S. government decided to lock him up for being a good man, for saving the lives of millions, and has deprived him of hugs, kisses, constant laughter and jokes, daily conversations. For Irmita and Ivette, for their mother Olga who, under that roof, has seen them grow up and has had to grow herself, René González Sehwerert is and always will be, the best.
Entering their home does not suppose feeling the vacuum of someone who has been absent for more than 10 years, and someone who, having served every minute of his unjust sentence, is not allowed to return to his country. His family brings him to life in every corner of the house, by naming him, by feeling him there. The photos in the living room are not those of a prisoner with his daughters or those of a hero who holds them in an enforced fleeting, frozen embrace. They are those of a man embracing his daughters, a man who, with a clear smile, is hoping, finally, to live the life taken from him.
There is no trace of hatred in the vital space which should have greeted René last October 7, after leaving the Federal Correctional Institution of Marianna, Florida at 4:30 a.m.
Irmita, the older daughter of this modern hero, agreed to an interview with Juventud Rebelde. She is full of the new experiences with her father and, although she has contradictory feelings, because she and her sister were unable to return with him to their mother, at least she spent some time being able to do what was denied them for years.
Before sitting down with us in the dining room, she brings the coffee pot and a voyage of the recent past begins with two steaming cups. And throughout it, "my dad," as she calls him all the time, is presented outside prison bars, but still far from his beloved country.
"We spent those days quietly, doing what I have not done for a long, long time with my dad and which Ivette could never do: sleeping under the same roof, lots of kisses, eating together. He woke us up in the mornings because he woke up earlier. We talked, tried to bring him up to date," says Irmita, who also recalled that, despite the joy of being able to do all of those things, it was also a difficult time, because Olga was not there, because they knew they had to leave him there and because, as she confided, it was like house arrest.
Those initial hours together were very tense, she commented, before getting him back, the man who left Cuba at the age of 33 years.
"My dad left in 1990, he hasn’t been in Cuba for more than 20 years. He has a tremendous longing for his homeland, he wants to walk the streets of Cuba, go to the provinces, he wants to see his people, he wants to talk with everyone who has supported this battle, and he cannot.
"For him, that’s very hard. There wasn’t one day when he didn’t think about his brothers, what those moments during the long trial were like. You should have seen the way he talked with my mom; knowing that he was in some way free and that he can’t see her, that all his family are here."
Irmita needs to let it all out, and notes, "It’s a change, but it’s still unjust. It should be forgotten that my dad completed his sentence down to the last minute, and now he’s serving three years on probation, virtually a prisoner as well, because he’s in the U.S. and there is the risk to his safety, which comes into our minds every day. Over there he’s ‘free,’ but he can’t come to his homeland, he can’t do what he wants, he can’t be with his daughters, he can’t be with his wife. Those are the conditions."
THE DIARY OF EMBRACES
Talking about those days when they were able to touch their father without the presence of guards, the young psychologist has a faraway look and her face lights up. She recalls that in the prison, they could only embrace him when they arrived and left; they could barely touch each other, far less kiss.
"For the first time in a very long time my dad could pick us up. He said that he’s wanted to pick us up for so long. The days passed by peacefully, as a family...
"One day, when he woke us up, he had washed and folded our clothes, but then he said, ‘it’s really difficult to fold women’s clothes, all those ruffles!’ We laughed, of course, because he was used to folding prison pants and shirts."
She recounted how René wanted to fix everything that he noticed was broken in the place where they stayed. He wanted to put everything right, and his daughter thinks that it was about his anxiety for a normal life. He was constantly concerned about them eating or not, sleeping a lot or not resting enough.
"Those were normal domestic preoccupations, even though it was more or less an experiment, because we knew that we couldn’t be with him for long, and that it wasn’t even his home," she observed.
Even so, Irmita recognizes that they had lived a new experience which they had not previously been able to enjoy.
"We talked, we laughed, we recorded a video for my mom, the things that fathers do with their daughters every day, but which was special for us because we hadn’t done them for a long time.
"I was six when he went, and when we were reunited, we were together for a year and a half before they arrested him.
"My sister didn’t know what it was to see my dad at the table; I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him not wearing a prison uniform; to sit down and watch a movie together was a whole event, because we didn’t have to do big things to feel good when everything was so special," she explained, returning to those moments in her mind. She added, "To be in prison for 13 years with a fixed schedule and then, the visits, staying seated in line, with guards and other people, without being able to talk about everything, to laugh like you wanted to or feel relaxed… For us, to sit down beside our father and put our feet up on his lap, was great.
"And luckily, despite the distance, our trust in him is total, because communicating with him is very easy… we didn’t have to force things, we weren’t getting to know each other, it’s just that we hadn’t had a normal space in which to be together," she commented and the breeze entering from the terrace soothed the mixed emotions.
IVETTE ACCORDING TO HER SISTER
"For Ivette, it was simple. Before, on visits, she never found it hard to tell him what she was thinking, and so it’s much easier. But, in any case, it’s something new for her: to see her dad in a space in which she never saw him; it’s to see him walk about, for example, because in the visiting room you could barely take three steps.
"I think what it’s about now is to learn to see her dad in those circumstances, normal ones, but not for her; although it isn’t difficult either, because he has been in each important event in our family, in every one of its achievements," she says and her dignity increases. Her many responsibilities as older sister and daughter seem not to exhaust her; she assumes them as part of the daily battle for the embraces to finally be infinite.
Of course, she cannot deny that that is hard.
"Coming here, knowing that he’s there; knowing that when we’re with him, my mom has to remain here; that we have to be a bridge between the two of them, that they have to communicate via us, because they cannot see each other. They have been all these years waiting and they still can’t be together."
René’s younger daughter spent eight years of her life unable to see her father. They arrested him when she was four months old. Ivette is now 13 years of age, the same time that he spent in prison.
Irmita recalls the first time she traveled with her sister to see their father.
"When Ivette first met him things were a bit tense, because I was the one who introduced her, but then I had to continue to be with Ivette, as she was a child. I was a bit on the lookout to see what would happen, so we prepared it carefully. I think we’ve done that throughout her whole life.
"When the moment came she hugged him and began to talk to him very normally. In fact, I hardly had to intervene in this visit, because she began to talk and talk, bringing him up to date with everything in her life. And my dad enjoyed it very much: he watched her, caressed her, kissed her. Incredibly, it was easier than we had thought it would be."
But she goes back to what changes everything, which casts a shadow on her face: "The complex part was and is coming back, and coming with many recollections of my dad, with lots of moments, with lots of conversations, with ideas, with images, and my mom waiting for us at the airport and saying, ‘Well, tell me!’ And you can’t convey it, because it’s very difficult to convey feelings and very difficult to tell her how he is, because as much as you tell her that he’s fine, she’s not going to believe it until she can confirm it with her own eyes. However much you tell him that she sends him kisses and adores him, he is not going to feel it as he would if she were embracing him, and vice versa."
FREE BUT NOT FREE
"He wants to know every detail of the country he misses so much, for which he feels so much nostalgia, and it’s also very difficult to convey that, because they are sensations which he is not experiencing personally.
"He has plans: he knows where he going to walk, what he wants to see and, of course, he also has a great desire to meet with all the people who have fought for the liberation of the Five.
"I don’t know what I am going to do to be able to thank everyone who has written me a letter, to embrace everyone who has given us hope, who has supported us," René told his daughter.
"There are many things that he wants to do and cannot, because he is where he shouldn’t be. None of my dad’s desires can be fulfilled until he returns to Cuba.
"He is in a country where his movements are limited. He has to take care of himself, he has to bear the scars of 13 years’ imprisonment, which is no easy thing; that has left a mark on each one of us, and continues to do so; first, because he is there, and second, because his brothers are too. In the fight for them the five families have merged in such a way that we never fight for just one. And for that reason the battle continues."
BRIDGES OF LOVE
Given the love which created them, living and suffering the separation of their parents, it is normal that they also assume the responsibility of helping them to maintain a closeness, to shorten the distance between them. For that reason, Irmita recalls with a smile that her mother is always in René’s thoughts.
"That October 7, he immediately said, ‘Let’s call her,’ and then tried to calm her, ‘Try to sleep, rest, I’m fine, I’m out already.’
"Just like that call, in the ones which followed we could see how he enjoyed them, how he moved away during them to have that space alone. At least the calls can be a little longer now, but it’s not enough.
"They are two very happy people, they always were; I can say that, because I experienced that when I was little. And, despite the cruelties, they continue to be. My dad is a very cheerful person, and when they talk he’s always laughing, trying to overcome the pain, and they also do that for us.
"It’s getting harder and harder for my mom, because time is passing, because it costs her more to smile, because she misses him more all the time, and it’s the same for him.
"It’s still the same now. My dad on one side, my mom on the other; one suffering, the other one, too. And the same thing happens with the other four compañeros and their families," she affirms.
Then her mother’s most recent birthday comes to mind, the first one in which the man of her life was not in prison, the first in a certain way different, although not what it should have been.
"We got together and recorded everything that happened for him. We introduced him to each one of the family members he doesn’t know, or who were very young when he left. For example, my cousin’s wife is pregnant: we filmed her belly. He was a part of everything that happened there," she related and her face lights up again, because she knows that she and her sister can soon watch these images with him.
"He knows every details of the family dynamic and wants to be part of it once and for all," she notes.
"He sent a present to my mom for us to keep until her birthday. Ivette had the present and I had the letter…
"I think she finds her happiness through us; when we’re together and do things together, she brightens up a little. But on that day the only thing she said was, ‘Let’s call René.’"
RENÉ AND NEW TECHNOLOGY
From his first day out of prison, one preoccupation for Irmita and Ivette, particularly the former, was to acquaint their father with the new means of communication, especially for when they had to return to Cuba.
"We talked, we tried to update him on how a cell phone and a computer works; how to use Internet to write to my mom, to chat with her. All these things which seem like nothing, but are things that have advanced a lot in 13 years."
During those times of learning and making new discoveries they laughed a lot. According to Irmita, it wasn’t difficult because René was quick to learn.
They had to show him how to operate new computer programs and the cell phone.
"He would laugh and say, ‘Dammit, it was easier when I could just dial the numbers on a public telephone…!’ The keys, the options, glasses. Now we realize that he possibly needs them because he never had his vision tested in prison. He would say, ‘I can’t see’ or ‘I can see fine’ when the keys lit up, and then he laughed a lot."
"I showed him an I-Pod and said, ‘I’ve got Silvio on it, I’ve got various singers from the 60’s,’ and he replied, ‘So much music on that little thing!’ When he went to prison CDs were the latest thing… It was funny, but I felt a bit of sadness mixed with tenderness realizing that he had missed thousands of things during so many years. And once again, he thought about his brothers. ‘We can’t let these guys remain in prison, or they’re never going to catch up with this technology.’"
The brotherhood between these five men who do not see each other and have been unable to communicate with each other for 13 years, is not a thing of slogans or posters. It is in the grandeur of each one of them and the way in which they think about the others before themselves. The message and poem which Antonio Guerrero wrote on the day that René left prison still resounds. It is not surprising that Irmita also shares the way in which the others are constantly in her father’s thoughts.
"He has millions of concerns, above all in relation to his four brothers. The first thing he did was to talk about them, to think about the new battle for the Five.
"We cannot lose sight of the fact that these three years are part of my dad’s sentence and that he has many restrictions. Anything that he doesn’t strictly abide by could be a pretext or justification for his being sent back to prison. And that’s very hard on all of them, because he can’t even communicate with them by telephone, or via email, or letters… That is expressly forbidden. It’s the same situation as in prison.
"You have to remember that when they were arrested, when they saw each other in the prison, the five of them decided independently of each other to dig their heels in and not allow themselves to be manipulated, through their families or anything and thus betray their country. And they admire that in each other, because they did so as individuals. Moreover they shared those months when nobody knew them, when communication was zero, when they had not been brought to trial. And then they shared the six months of the trial which, as my dad told us, were six months of torture designed for just that.
"That was the time when the Five really got to know each other, became brothers and learned to love each other’s families, and that is something that the years have not been able to erase. And more: each one of them has known for himself what incarceration and prison are in the U.S. and so, when you love a person and you know exactly what’s happening to them, your suffering is doubled.
"He told me, ‘I could talk a lot with Fernando, he’s always laughing, despite the seriousness that people identify with him; Tony is very upstanding, Gerardo is always coming up with ideas you can’t imagine, Ramón is very cheerful.’
"He always has something to say about each one, and he feels the same affection for each of them."
HE DOESN’T WANT TO LOSE ANY TIME
Irmita’s voice falters again, but she collects herself and talks about the family’s distress, with the certainty that it must be temporary.
"The sadness it gives us knowing that he was there, and is still there. We are more anxious, although that could seem contradictory; we are more concerned about him being all right, because in one way we fear for his safety, and that is something that every night, in bed, about to go to sleep, makes you ask yourself, Is he all right? What’s he eating? What’s he thinking?"
But thinking about the future sustains her.
"He wants his life with us. There are family plans, to compensate for all the time which we have lost. Plans with my mother. Climbing Turquino Peak, seeing the Sierra Maestra, the Escambray Mountains, touring the streets of his country. Getting to know the family members of his compañeros. Meeting up again with the four; he says that if there is one good thing about them having left him there, it is that perhaps the five can all return together.
"He also wants to be part of the country’s political-social process, to be one more among the people. Not to lose any time. He doesn’t want to lose any time.
"His life is still waiting to begin and, in a certain way, ours is also, because in such a united family, where the figure of my dad is so important, you can’t be totally happy, you can’t carry out any plans, however big or small they might be, if you know that one of the most important members is suffering.
"Does he like reggaeton?" I asked her, and she let out a guffaw of pure surprise.
"My dad’s a very flexible person. One thing that I’m sure of is that he’s going to want to listen to it to find out what reggaeton here is like. And although he has defined tastes, he’s very open to new things. I don’t think he’ll put up any resistance to listening to Cuban reggaeton.
"What is the Cuba that René dreams of?"
"What my dad dreams of is to be in his Cuba. He knows that in all these years of absence, the country has changed, but also maintains the things that he loves. He dreams of continuing to build them and, above all, on the basis of the values which this society is trying to continue fomenting."
There’s a silence and the breeze continues passing through the home of the best dad in the world for his daughters. Meanwhile, here in Cuba, we continue committed to the struggle so that he can read those words above the doorway; so that he can enter his home, find his Olga, rest on the sofa, have a coffee in the dining room, marvel at the breeze, get used to folding women’s clothes, to be able to change the photos in the living room, and begin the time of infinite love for him and for the five Cuban families. (Taken from Juventud Rebelde)