Saving Forgotten Lives in a Forgotten Cuba : Valladares Foundation helped defector rescue his family. But it fights indifference over human rights issues so close to home.


On Dec. 19, Orestes Lorenzo Perez, a Cuban military pilot who had defected to the United States in 1991, took a daring risk. Flying a small, aging plane back into Cuba, he landed in the middle of a crowded highway, picked up his wife and two sons and returned to this country.

When Lorenzo's plane landed in the Florida Keys, it was met by a group of supporters, including a representative of the Valladares Foundation, the Virginia-based human rights organization that helped set up the rescue.

The foundation had initially taken up Lorenzo's cause by organizing a letter-writing campaign urging Cuban leader Fidel Castro to release Lorenzo's family. When that didn't work, the organization's vice chairwoman bought the $30,000 plane that Lorenzo used to carry out his dangerous plan.

"Last year we decided the foundation should focus on the rights of children," said Kristina Arriaga, its executive director. "And then Orestes came to us with the case of his children (who were not allowed to leave the country), and we started to take it up. But no one cared about Lorenzo. I even begged People magazine for a one-line mention, and their response was: 'No one's interested in Cuba at this time.' "

The same sort of indifference had dogged the foundation's namesake, Armando Valladares, who spent 22 years in the Castro regime's jails before being released in 1982.

While human rights organizations seemed to concentrate on abuses in Chile or South Africa, conditions in Cuban prisons were under-publicized or ignored, Valladares said, leading him to set up the foundation in 1988.

"There is a double standard in the world today regarding human rights," Valladares said. "People will condemn (Augusto) Pinochet in Chile but not abuses in Cuba . . . . Since I came out of prison I have dedicated myself to the fight for human rights."

Valladares was a 23-year-old clerk in the Cuban Postal Savings Bank when his criticisms of communist influence in the government led to his incarceration. In his 1986 book, "Against All Hope," Valladares detailed more than two decades of brutality and torture, an escape attempt and a paralysis caused by malnutrition. But he now shrugs off the horror of those days. "I never lost my liberty. I simply lost space to walk around in."

Adopted as a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International, Valladares was finally released after a personal appeal by French President Francois Mitterrand. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan named him as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, a position he held until 1990.

Valladares' connection with the Reagan and George Bush administrations has caused some major human rights groups to question his commitment to the cause. Amnesty International and Americas Watch have criticized the Republicans for the politicization of human rights issues.

In addition, the presence of several right-wing members of Southern Florida's Cuban community as well as conservative lawmakers--including Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove)--on Valladares Foundation boards has caused Ramon Cernuda, a Miami businessman who acts as a liaison for a number of Cuban-based human rights groups, to call the foundation "more a political organization than a human rights organization."

There have also been allegations of competition between the Valladares Foundation and the Miami-based Cuban-American Foundation, the most well-known and well-connected Cuban lobbying organization in the United States.

Critics have charged that the groups are engaged in a public-relations war over high-profile defectors like Lorenzo and Carlos Cancio, a Cuban commercial pilot who defected with a planeload of passengers 10 days after Lorenzo's flight.

Arriaga denies that there is any competition between her group and the Cuban-American Foundation. "We are a human rights group, and they have other goals in mind. We are parallel organizations."

In addition, Valladares vehemently denies all charges of political partiality in his human rights work. To illustrate his independence, he cites his outspokenness about the Chinese massacre at Tian An Men Square in 1989. The U.S. government, he says, specifically instructed him not to speak out at the United Nations about the massacre, but he said he refused to follow those orders.

Despite losing 22 years of his life, Valladares said he is neither bitter nor vindictive. He defends economic sanctions against Cuba but draws the line at terrorism or military invasion.

Valladares has adopted a pragmatic attitude toward Castro. He has encouraged the Cuban leader to resign and has offered to help arrange for safe passage to a neutral country where the dictator could spend the rest of his days in peace.

However, he has no illusions that Castro will accept. The most logical scenario for change in Cuba, he says, is a revolt by younger, more liberal military officers, eventually leading to a democratic government.

But Valladares can still dream. The ideal situation, he says, "is if Castro becomes a monk, goes to a monastery and spends the rest of his days praying for forgiveness for what he's done to the Cuban people."

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