By: Sascha Hannig
The steers graze free through a huge field. The sky shines blue and a cowboy hat shades the face of Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, the Cuban biologist based in Switzerland who has accepted this telephone interview in the middle of his work at that farm.
Ariel has not migrated from Cuba, he reveals, and has arrived in this country for much more than contact with nature. As an opponent to the regime, he accuses having been imprisoned without due process and then biologically tortured by the Cuban authorities. Not only him, but also his family.
In 2018, while Ariel was on a hunger and thirst strike in search of a fair trial and denouncing the conditions in the Kilo 5 prison, his health worsened and he was transferred to the Special Care Unit at the Abel Santamaría Hospital in Pinar del Río. There, he claims, the regime inoculated him with HIV, known in its darkest stage as AIDS. That is why he is being treated outside his country, while he is also paying attention to the health of his sister – who suffers from breast cancer – and is seeking justice before international human rights organisations.
1. The Cost of Dissent
I want to start by talking about your life in Cuba. When did you start questioning your government and the society around you?
Around 12 years old I started to question myself. In Cuba, my father, who was a lieutenant colonel in the ministry of the interior, had greater privileges in relation to my mother, who was a teacher in the literacy campaign of the revolution. I could not understand that Cuba was a country for everyone. It wasn’t true.
The regime oppressed the majority as if they were “beasts”, “stable animals”. Questioning that treatment was very hard.for me. At that time my father was a communist. I remember he slapped me and threw me out of his house because I was a worm. He never thought he would be betrayed, like Ochoa, by the same system that he himself helped to forge and by the Castro family himself.
AUTHOR: Ariel’s father (whom he prefers not to talk about in this interview), is Máximo Omar Ruiz Matoses, who was a high-ranking official of the Cuban army. Ruiz Matoses spent 29 years in the Armed Forces (FAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) as a counterintelligence specialist. In 1989, before the fall of the Soviet Union, he defected and participated in a denunciation of Fidel and Raúl Castro for their inability to lead the country’s destiny. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1991. He was lucky, as other participants in that confrontation, such as General Arnaldo Ochoa and three other Cuban soldiers, were executed in the summer of 1989.
You said your father was a communist until a betrayal, can you tell us a little more about that and tell us how I change your close family?
I’d rather not talk about my dad’s life. We practically grew up with my mom. We were in contact with him because he economically looked after us. That was much more than parents who divorced in revolutionary Cuba and just disappear. That same revolutionary Cuba where the Castro family also commanded parents that raising children was another task of the “revolution”.
2. Cuba, torture and the international community
You left Cuba recently. How do dissidents experience surveillance and persecution in Cuba?
I have not left Cuba, I have simply spent a year and a few months in Switzerland, where I receive my medical treatment against a highly mutagenic strain that the Cuban government inoculated me with in 2018, when I was on hunger and thirst strike, precisely, on the ninth day.
But back to the issue of surveillance and dissent. What is happening at the moment is that there is the Internet, which means that all the barbarity that has happened in Cuba will come to light. It is unfair to say that we are brave people of these times. No, Cuba had atrocious repression in the first two years of the revolution. So the abuses and their effects in Cuba were extremely harsh and aggressive until the internet was installed. That was a turning point, not only in the worldview itself, but also in how we Cubans recognized ourselves inside and outside Cuba.
Today there are also civil groups that attack their dissident compatriots.
These are not “civilian”groups, they are paramilitary groups. All the members of the CDR and the communist party, the Federation of Cuban Women, institutions that are apparently social, are absolutely paramilitary. It is not that they have been penetrated by government forces, but that they are government institutions that appear to be of civil society, to create the illusion, outside and inside, of popular support for the Castro family, its dictatorship, and the socio-economic monopoly that has destroyed a nation.
Michelle Bachelet, and all those who have been enchanted by the mermaid song of the revolution, are accomplices of everything that has happened in Cuba, of all the families that were disappeared and destroyed. It is a mistake to call them civil society groups, especially since they force you to enter these institutions, as happened to me, until my eyes were opened, and I refused to participate in and finance them. They have the aim only of intimidating the population.
When a society confuses fighting with stealing, when people lose those values, they becomes beasts. This is what the Castro family has done, demoralizing society, destroying the family and values to implement its system of terror. What has caused other Cubans to operate against their compatriots out of envy and spite, as happened in the countries of eastern Europe, is not a particular thing about Cuba, it is something that has happened in all communist countries.
There are many people who defend Cuba and accuse that the crisis isn’t the regime’s fault, but the United States’, because of the restrictions, because of the embargo, etc. What would you say to these people?
There is certainly bad intention there. All of them have been accomplices of the Cuban dictatorship, they know perfectly well what is happening there. What happens is that you have all these celebrities, such as Gabriel García Márquez, or Maradona, who enjoyed the corruption and privileges of the Castro family, which only the military enjoyed near the top of power.
There are people who accuse of naivety, for example, that they did not know how people lived.
When I hear those discourses, as I have heard from the Chileans, they are actually bad and stupid people, because it is the people themselves who have been treated as cockroaches.
You went on hunger strike for 16 days for what you thought had been an unfair trail. You have also denounced internationally the greatest atrocities perpetrated by the Cuban republic, That’s why your testimony is so strong. What lessons can be drawn from so much pain, from the experience you’ve had, as a dissident so attacked, and so brutally by the regime?
In 2013, I learned Vipassana Meditation in Germany. That helped me a lot to understand that the only thing that is really objective and important in life, is the present, the moment you are living. That there was no place to look at in an uncertain future, or a dark past. That helped me mitigate the pains of the body and soul.
Secondly, the Cuban State has dealt with violence, biological weapons, medical torture and attempted rape against my family. I am alive, my sister, my father and my mother too, but I can tell you that the Cuban state has dedicated their efforts into interrupting people’s lives. I consider myself to be a very fortunate person, and I consider myself very happy, because others have suffered the same and their voices have tried to be silenced with torture and rape.
Do you feel like you have to be a voice for those who aren’t here to tell their story?
Of course I do, I feel it’s my responsibility.
3. Fighting cancer, AIDS and the regime
AUTHOR: Ariel says that, in the midst of a hunger and thirst strike, the Cuban government inoculated him with the HIV virus, known for its darkest phase: AIDS. For the dissident this is a form of biological torture. Ruiz Urquiola had to leave his country to deal with this disease in Switzerland, and has filed formal complaints with the UN, mediated by experts and lawyers, and with evidence that would rule out any other possibility of contagion outside of his days in a hospital in Pinar del Río, where he was administered sodium chloride and dextrose intravenously. You can watch a video-interview where Ariel shows the evidence here.
In relation to the inoculation of the HIV virus. For a person who doubts your story, how can something like this be proven?
There are two tests that can be used as proof even in legal litigation, about who transmitted HIV to someone else. And I’ve only had unprotected relationships with my partner, a Swiss doctor of science, who is HIV-negative.
These tests allow to establish the source of the transmission with a 95% effectivity, and that is why the Cuban government has had so much difficulty probing could I have been “infected” [outside the hospital], because due to the effectiveness of these tests, they cannot make up a person who would have infected me.
Another element to consider, are the phases of development of the virus: the first phase is the acute phase, which occurs around a month or month and a half due to the low infective level of sexual transmission, unless it is a much larger inoculum. For example, with a blood transfusion. Then comes the mechanical phase, which lasts from 5 to 10 years without medical treatment. That’s why it could be transmitted so easily in the ’80s, because it was a very silent way of spreading. The third is AIDS, which is the immuno-depression picture where the patient dies from other causes.
The complaint is not only denounced by me, who was attempted to be blocked by China, Venezuela, Eritrea, North Korea, and Cuba of course, at the UN. But, my case has been a case study by Swiss and German doctors, the Frankfurt-based International Society for Human Rights, IGFM, for its acronym in German. In addition, there is the international law firm, Gibson and Dunn, which were the ones who evidently implemented a formal complaint to five United Nations rapporteurs, who must be there when deliberating on the ruling.
“In Cuba there is a food and humanitarian crisis for as long as I can remember”
Ariel, I wanted to ask you, what were the charges against you by the Cuban Government?
I don’t even know the charges used against me. Do you know why? Because I don’t have my sentence yet. I was sentenced to one year for contempt, in Cuba, a legal figure that has been removed from most of the legal codes of the world, because it gives the possibility to the police to abuse citizens who try to defend themselves against the abuses of the police. I was informed of the verdict orally. We have a receipt and a signed contract with a lawyer who was asked to get a copy of the sentence; but no answer ever came.
How many hunger strikes have you attempt so far?
The first one I did was when in 2016 my sister was denied immunotherapy treatment for her cancer, because the treatment hadn’t been bought in October, and I wouldn’t be brought back to the island for six months, by the time my sister, and the other women who had the same condition, would have already died if nothing was done. Then I went on hunger strike in front of the Hospital and National Institute of Oncology.
The second hunger strike was the second time I was taken into custody, where I spent 5 days without eating in a police dungeon in the municipality of Viñales. My third strike were 16 days. We had no copy of the sentence in which I was charged and condemned to to be sent to an education, rehabilitation and work camp.
The only moment when they let my sister see me, I realized that my sister’s injuries had worsened, which does not necessarily cause death, but it is a form of medical torture. I could not continue with his activities of dissent and activism for my freedom. The hunger strike was successful and I got back my freedom, with the help of all the people who stood in solidarity. I also managed to get my sister’s medicine into Cuba in 72 hours.
The last one I did was in front of the Wilson Palace, the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner, where even Bachelet, as she left the building on her way home, barely looked at me. I had spent 24 hours without food or water, and she kept walking to his house as soon as he looked at me.
I wanted to ask you why you continually mention your mother and sister. How did the medical torture come about, and how is your relation with your sister?
Medical torture in Cuba is rooted in the system itself. The people who “deserve” first-world medicine are the Castro family, and the leadership of military and civilian buffoons that make up Cuba’s elite. Everyone else is like beasts that by influence or friend we can have access to certain medical treatments.
I’ll give you an example: we arrived at the Hospital Clínico Quirúrgico, Centro de Investigaciones Médico Quirúrgicas (Cimeq), which is equipped for the military, the Cuban “royalty”, and we were able to be there thanks to the influence of a very intelligent friend, independent of the fact that she is still committed to the system. We arrived at the hospital because of that influence, and we received a very differentiated treatment, which began to be noted from the first moment that we had no solution.
In 2005 I took charge of my sister’s cancer treatment, and I took her out of that hospital where she was finally going to be killed. The disease had eaten the entirety of her right nipple, and the ribs four and five could be seen. All the people at that hospital and others said “there is nothing more to do”. That is the reality, they do not have access to top-of-the-line treatments, nor to the technology that exists in the world to treat oncology.
That’s the medicine quality of which they boast about to the world.
In Cuba there is a food and humanitarian crisis for as long as I can remember. There is a technological backwardness inherent in the entire socialist and communist system of the world. Not even the supposedly “glorious” democratic Germany. My sister is the sole survivor of all the women who entered the institute that year, all the others, who were supposedly treated with primary and first-line treatments, all died within 1 to 5 years. Only my sister survives, 15 years later.
Your sister is being taken care of in the U.S.
Yes, this is not the first time this has happened. I prefer to leave that up to that point. In other words, my sister is undergoing not only treatment, but also medical research.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.