• The San Juan Daily Star

Raúl Rivero, disenchanted poet of the Cuban revolution, dies at 75

The poet and journalist Raúl Rivero in 2005. A loyal supporter of the Cuban revolution, he later broke with President Fidel Castro and was jailed as a dissident.

By Sam Roberts

Raúl Rivero, a revolutionary Cuban journalist and poet who eventually became disillusioned and accused Fidel Castro’s Communist dictatorship of stifling dissent, emerged as the dean of Cuba’s independent press and was jailed for subversion, died on Sunday in Kendall, Florida, a suburb of Miami. He was 75.

He had been treated for emphysema for years and died after being taken to a hospital emergency room with cardiorespiratory complications, his wife, Blanca Reyes, said.

Rivero was the chief correspondent in Moscow for Cuba’s government-sanctioned news agency from 1973 to 1976. After that he was a culture editor for publications associated with the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.

His idiosyncratic and fervidly pro-Castro poetry and prose — he hailed “the dreams of human redemption sung by the bearded victors of 1959” — earned him a reputation as the poet of the revolution. But his writing also ventured outside the confines of Communist orthodoxy and was welcomed in belletristic circles, and his journalism palpably deviated from the party line, mainly after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

In a petition that he and other Cuban intellectuals issued in 1991, Rivero appealed to the government to grant civil liberties, hold democratic elections and release political prisoners.

He derided the journalism that he and his colleagues had been practicing until then, within the rigid confines imposed by the government. It was, he said, “fiction about a country that does not exist.”

In the 1990s, he founded the independent Cuba Press news agency; began publishing his poetry and articles in the United States and other countries; collaborated with various publications at home and abroad; and was featured on a weekly program conducted by telephone from Cuba on Radio Martí, the Miami-based station financed by the U.S. government.

By the end of the decade, the droll, barrel-chested Rivero’s campaign for free expression in Cuba was gaining global recognition.

He was honored by Reporters Without Borders in 1997 and received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University in 1999. In 2000, the International Press Institute named him one of the world’s 50 heroes of press freedom.

He and Ricardo González Alfonso founded the Association of Cuban Journalists in 2001. The next year they managed to publish two issues of De Cuba magazine before a crackdown by the Castro regime as part of the so-called Black Spring, which crushed the petition drive by the movement of dissident intellectuals.

Scores of political renegades were arrested, including Rivero, who was charged in March 2003 with “spreading of false news about the current situation in our government, in compliance with the indications received by the U.S. government.”

Cuban officials said he was detained not for his views but for being a paid collaborator with a hostile country — the United States. Rivero said that whatever fees he had received were from publishers for his writing.

“This is so arbitrary for a man whose only crime is to write what he thinks,” his wife told The New York Times in 2003. “What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade.”

Rivero was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was confined for nearly a year in a cramped, windowless one-person cell and was denied contact with anyone outside. In November 2004, he was one of a half-dozen political prisoners released in what was interpreted as a gesture to court favor with the European Union.

“There, at 57 years old, condemned to spend two decades behind those bars (they are like eight thousand nights), I wrote down every day in a lined notebook the memories of past episodes of my life, and I designed others that I would have liked to happen to me,” Rivero recalled, referring to his anthology of poems, “Life and Offices” (2006), written while he was imprisoned.

“Every morning I tried to erase the reality of the environment in which I lived,” he told his fellow journalist Wilfredo Cancio Isla on, a website founded in Spain by Cuban exiles. “Many times, almost always, I succeeded. That allowed me to experience this extravagant situation: to be imprisoned as a journalist and as a citizen and to be, as a poet, a free man.”

The following April, he and his family went into exile in Madrid, where he wrote weekly for the newspaper El Mundo and later for the website Diario de Cuba. In 2004, he was awarded the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for his life’s work by UNESCO. He moved to Miami in 2014.

Raúl Rivero Castañeda was born on Nov. 23, 1945, in Morón, a city in central Cuba.

After being one of the first post-revolutionary graduates of Havana University’s journalism school, he worked for the government’s news agency La Prensa and other state-owned media. He was a founder of the satirical magazine El Caimán Barbudo and the secretary of the National Union of Writers and Artists. In 1969, he published a prizewinning collection of poems, “Papel de Hombre” (“Man’s Role”), one of 20 books of poetry and journalism that he would publish.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Cristina, Maria Karla and Yenny, and three grandchildren.

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