3 out of 4 stars
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What would you do in the next 22 years and 3 months of your life? That’s more than enough time to build a career, raise a family, volunteer for a cause, or maybe spend a few years abroad. It’s a long time to live your life the way you want to.
Writer and poet Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez wasn’t afforded the right to contemplate his own future. In 1968, at the age of 29, he was imprisoned for being a threat to the “integrity and stability” of his own country. He was 51 when he was finally released—22 years and 3 months after his detainment. Stronger Than Tyranny: Political Prisoners in Cuba recounts those intervening years, with Rodriguez held as a political prisoner under Fidel Castro’s dictatorial reign. Originally written on scraps of paper that were then smuggled out of prison, Stronger Than Tyranny is a compendium of harrowing stories that lays bare the extremes of human nature, where endurance, conviction, and brotherhood stand in stark contrast to the equally human traits of indifference, cruelty, and barbarism.
When I started reading this book, I braced myself for the (very likely) possibility of coming across graphic scenes of torture, of people being stripped of their humanity. After all, doesn’t dehumanization go hand-in-hand with tyranny? Rodriguez, however, leaves the things that happen in the punishment pavilions (ironically dubbed “human rights” by the prisoners) to the reader’s imagination. What he chooses to divulge instead are much simpler—but surprisingly much worse.
In narrating his and his fellow prisoners’ ordeal, Rodriguez anatomizes the concept of freedom down to the basics. As he details what they’d lost with their imprisonment, he reframes freedom in ways that are more disturbing than the gruesome scenarios I’d been expecting. Freedom is having privacy, the right to communicate with your friends and family, the choice to stay or leave. To be free is to revel in the simple matters of living—having decent food to eat, water to bathe with, a bed to sleep in. Freedom is never having to notice such insignificant matters as the lack of cutleries, pillows, or clean underwear. Freedom is requisite to being human.
Rodriguez depicts his incarceration with all the mastery of a painter capturing a scene on canvas. I was especially moved by the way Rodriguez described the fate of Pedro Luis Boitel—a student leader who went on a hunger strike for 52 days, fell into a coma, and eventually died. Of this young revolutionary, Rodriguez writes:
The narrative is often poignant, heartrending, with a smidgen of wry humor in between. It’s also factual, exhaustive, even a little dry in some places. It often reads like poetry…but also very much like a court affidavit. Names are painstakingly documented; dates and times of events are specified; and conversations are almost verbatim. Nothing appears to be embellished. Everything is just what it is. There’s an undercurrent of something here, perhaps a fear of forgetting—or of being forgotten. Far from bogging down the narrative, however, this approach further immerses the reader in Rodriguez’s memories and makes his experiences feel more real.“Pedro Luis’s arm dangled down, which, given the careless progress of the guards, swung like a slow pendulum, like the pendulum of a clock that has exhausted all its cord and is about to stop. A lieutenant with a protruding belly…lifted the bony limb back onto the bed of the dying one.”
If half points were allowed, I would have rated Stronger Than Tyranny 3.5 stars. Despite the strength of the writing and the gravity of the book’s message, the text is not as well edited as I’d hoped. There were missing punctuation marks, missing articles and prepositions, and a few confused words. The book was translated from the author’s native language, so these problems may just be an issue with the translation.
I give Stronger Than Tyranny a final rating of 3 out of 4 stars. The plight of Rodriguez and his fellow plantados—the “rooted ones” or those who refused to relinquish the fight against oppression—must be heard. This is a book for anyone who fears for their country’s future. This is for people who wish to know what it takes to fight tyranny. This is for anyone who simply wishes to find proof of the “indomitable nature of the human spirit.” You don’t have to love history to appreciate the value of this book. You don’t even have to be Cuban. You just have to be human.
Stronger Than Tyranny
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