Rafael Saumell sits back in his chair, his eyes calm, and looks out the window. For a moment he is silent, and then he says, “To overcome adversity, you have to overcome first your own personal limitations,” Saumell said. “ It is not a matter of philosophy or religion, but also the will. You must have patience, perseverance, and remember your goals. It doesn’t mean that it is easy. It is an uphill battle with many failures. But you will meet people who, in the midst of adverse circumstances will give you their hand, and their heart. That is how you overcome it.”
Saumell, a native of Cuba and a Spanish professor at Sam Houston State University since 1992, knows these things from his own experience.
Before he came to the United States, he was working in Cuba as a TV scriptwriter and director and in the radio and TV industry. Following the Mariel Boatlift Crisis of 1980 and subsequent exodus of Cuban citizens from the country, Saumell felt it was his duty to write about what motivated these people to leave their country. He published a book of anecdotes, which called the attention of the Cuban political police.
On the morning of October 14, 1981, the Cuban secret police searched his house and arrested him for having “enemy propaganda.”
“At the end of the search they told me I had to come with them, and they took me to a police station in my neighborhood,” Saumell said. “Then they took me to the secret police headquarters and I walked out of prison five years later.”
Those five years, he said, were “an outrageous experience.”
“It is tough for anyone, no matter what you’ve done,” Saumell said. “You have to surrender your freedom of movement, your privacy. There is a scale of daily life that is meant to control you – your body and your mind – for years. The food you eat is what they choose for you, and how they choose to cook it. Private letters you receive or write are censored. What you read is chosen for you. I remember we were only allowed three books, to receive from our families every six months, but they had to be written in Spanish, published in Cuba, and published after 1959, which was the year Castro came to power. They treat you as a modern slave.”
In these conditions, Saumell said he discovered that “what brought me to the ground was eventually what built me up again.”
“I began to write short poems that were easy to memorize, since we weren’t allowed to have paper or pens or anything,” Saumell said. “You are totally isolated from the world. You’re not even allowed to read the newspaper. So I wrote about my family, and my destiny. You don’t get used to living there, but I began to accept what I had to do and how I had to persevere, endure and grow through this time. One of my cellmates said to me that it was acceptance, he said, ‘Rafael, we are just lucky, we have to dance with the ugliest woman in the world, and we have to love her and we have to keep dancing.’ ”
Eventually, he was moved to a larger prison, where he wrote many long letters to his wife and children, even if they couldn’t read them. He started keeping a journal secretly, and learned the jargon of the prison, which he says he was fascinated by because “it was a part of the Spanish language I had never heard before.” He became more involved in his spirituality and read “voraciously, even the worst literature available.”
The lonely days, he said, dragged on in the sweltering heat of the tropics in the windowless prison.
“Christmas was the worst time to be in prison, and weekends,” Saumell said. “No one is around. Sundays were one of the most horrible days to be in prion for me. The silence is deafening.”
But then, in 1986, it was the time of “perestroika” (restructuring) and “glasnost” (openness) in the Soviet Union and communist countries, when Mr. Gorbachev, the Secretary General of the Communist Party started to make changes in the way countries conducted their business.
And finally, six months before the end of his sentence, Saumell was granted freedom.
“There was an openness in Cuba and they were relaxing,” Saumell said. “I found out I was going to be released six months early. In prison, six seconds is an eternity. It was good news. Usually they would release people in the middle of the night, but just after lunch, maybe around 2 or 3 p.m., as I was talking to my friends, a guard came and said, ‘Rafael Saumell! You are free!’ and I felt so cold and it was silent. And then I was walking in the halls of the prison where I hadn’t been allowed to walk before, and I just kept thinking, I am free. I am free. When I had to change out of my uniform to civilian clothes, it was unbelievable that I was wearing a t-shirt. It was like I had a new identity. When I crossed the last fence, I remember thinking, ‘free at last, free at last. It was beautiful.’”
But Saumell realized that his beautiful city of Havanna was not the same since he had been gone.
“I knew at that moment, that I had lost my country,” Saumell said. “It was not the city I remembered. The country for which I loved, for which I wrote, that was gone. I would only be living through memories. Only my friends, my wife and my children made sense.”
In the years following his release, Saumell said he had the immense privilege and luck to have the opportunity to go to Washington University in St. Louis, where he experienced a completely different side of education and life in America that was not possible in Cuba.
“I always say that if someone had predicted the future that I would be here, I would ask the person, what kind of drugs are you smoking that the future is so beautiful, so wonderful?,” Saumell said. “Looking back I can tell you that it was a very formative experience that I regret to have had but it made me a better person that values things more – freedom, love, family. Freedom is very complicated, and there are many flaws in every government – but it is immensely better than the alternative from which I came.”
These days, Saumell said that his journey has reminded him of the blessing of the reality of his life – in everything, no matter what it is, that he has done and everywhere he has been.
“I have nothing to regret. I am very happy,” Saumell said. “Because for the quarter of a century that I have been living here, I have been blessed. For me, the idea of freedom, no matter how many people blame the U.S. for problems or how many enemies this country has or how many enemies there are of democracy – they don’t have a better alternative. America can always improve. It would never fail like the Soviet Union. That’s why the idea of America and what it means will always prevail, no matter how many difficult journeys lay ahead. I would do it again, for that, with no hesitation.”