At 45, Rolando Rodriguez Lobaina doesn’t know what it’s like to live in freedom.
But he has spent nearly half his life fighting for it in his native Cuba, which became Communist long before he was born.
Shortly after he received his college degree in engineering in Havana in the early 1990’s, Rodriguez Lobaina started actively promoting human rights, and he has paid a heavy price for it– on and off, he has spent years in Cuba’s notorious jails for challenging the regimes of the Castro brothers, and for calling for democracy.
He is one of the many who remain skeptical about real change coming to Cuba in the near future, on the heels of the new relations with the United States.
“The Castro regime is all about strengthening itself, and the United States has given it a new source of fuel,” said Rodriguez Lobaina to Fox News Latino. “Anything that looks like a social change by Raul Castro will simply be theater, just for appearances before the international community.”
As Rodriguez Robaina tracks news of the piecemeal release of 53 political prisoners that was part of an agreement between Cuba and the United States to normalize relations, he thinks back to his numerous times in jail cells for statements and actions the Cuban government denounced as counter-revolutionary.
It’s hard, when you’re sitting in a cell, to accept that you’re behind bars, that you’re caged, simply because of your ideas and values.
“The life of a political prisoner in Cuba is very difficult,” he told FNL in a telephone interview from where he is staying in Syracuse, New York during a month-long visit to the United States. “The government officials throw political opponents in with common, dangerous criminals and use the criminals to intimidate and snitch on dissidents and human rights activists. You feel that your life is in danger – deliberately – in these jails.”
Rodriguez Lobaina, who is from the province of Guantanamo, helped found several pro-democracy groups, including the Cuban Youth Movement for Democracy. He advocates for human rights through marches and social media.
In the mid-1990s, when he started taking part in pro-democracy events and helping to organize meetings of activists, he was arrested and jailed charged with such things as “public disorder” and counter-revolutionary activities.
He recalled how prisoners nearly starved.
“There wasn’t much to eat in general in Cuba, so imagine in prison, there was even less,” he said. “For breakfast, we’d get water with sugar in it. At night, at about midnight, we’d get two potatoes. And that was it.”
Many political prisoners around him fainted, some suffered fractures because they were too weak to handle a fall, he said.
To conserve energy, Rodriguez Lobaina simply remained in bed, where he read and slept.
“On such little food, it was extremely draining, so exhausting, to simply take a few steps,” he said.
Over the years, he continued getting arrested – or threatened with arrest – following pro-democracy meetings with other activists.
In 2010, he and his brother, Nestor, were among five dissidents who were arrested after they met to discuss the jailing of fellow activists and then stood on the balcony of their father’s home and held up a sign in support of their detained peers.
Rodriguez Lobaina recalled the so-called "act of repudiation" organized by the Cuban government, a common practice in which a mob of people from a neighborhood or village are encouraged by regime officials to harass an opponent of the government.
“They vandalized the home,” Rodriguez Lobaina said. “The mob threw rocks, bottles, they broke windows, they came inside and broke furniture. There was a pregnant woman in the house and little children, and the mob did all this anyway.”
The five endured freezing temperatures for several days in the jails, and were denied water for about four days, he said. They were held in separate jails.
The jailing drew the attention of several international human rights groups, which condemned the men’s arrest and detention.
After a month, they were released without being charged.
When he was jailed, he often was denied visits from relatives, and sometimes was held far away from anyone he knows.
“Political prisoners in Cuba have far less rights than criminals,” he said. “Cuba’s political police make sure your family is taunted, watched, you’re held up as an example to others in your village or in the dissident community about what happens when you speak out against oppression or for human rights.”
“It’s hard, when you’re sitting in a cell, to accept that you’re behind bars, that you’re caged, simply because of your ideas and values.”
Rodriguez Lobaina, who arrived in the United States in December and is to return to Cuba, where his wife and two young children live, at the end of January, said that repression persists in Cuba under President Raul Castro. Raul Castro assumed power after his brother Fidel fell ill.
“Repression takes different forms in Cuba, it goes through various incarnations, but it remains repression nonetheless,” he said. “Prison terms used to be longer for political opponents, now they are shorter but there are more of them.”