By Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES – Ariel Ruiz Urquiola has agreed to sit down and talk a few days after his historic appearance before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The Cuban government was so afraid of his statements -and he was only allowed 90 seconds to speak-, that they formed an alliance of countries against a single Cuban farmer, interrupting him five times just to stop the world from hearing what he had to say.
Ruiz Urquiola, a PhD in Biology, was inoculated with HIV by political police officers in his country. The dissident scientist refuses to become the martyr his Homeland has ordered him to be.
What did you know about Human Rights before your appearance at the United Nations? What do you know now?
ARIEL RUIZ URQUIOLA: Many Cuban opposition members have presented their complaints against the dictatorship before me. I remember Rosa Maria Paya demanding justice for the murder of her father, who won the European Union’s Sakharov Prize. Cuba signed the universal declaration of human rights in 1948, but it hasn’t ratified it, which has led us to this situation when the dictatorship consistently commits human rights violations.
Were you going straight into facing another difficult stage in your life?
The Cuban government’s behavior, alongside China, North Korea and other countries who commit human rights violations, was already expected, they complement each other. I also knew that every representative in that theater isn’t equal, they aren’t all Communists, but many of them that assume a neutral position, were willing to support our complaints. There is a mafioso attitude in that arena headed by High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. Nevertheless, we had the honorable case of Australia, which paved the way for my words.
I could see that they were really listening and taking it seriously, on the one hand, while you had the baddies ganging up together to hide the truth, on the other.
A researcher of Nature in Cuba, you have stood up to Fidel Castro’s revolution, with Castro able to project an international image of defending Nature. What do you think about the omnipotent leader of our country?
After the Liberation Army razed sugar cane fields down to the ground, in times of colonial Spain, Fidel Castro has been Nature’s worst enemy.
At this point, Ariel asks for a few seconds and then begins a long list which, respecting his words, I will summarize for this article:
– Introduction of exotic animals, predators, like two species of freshwater fish, the Clarias macrocephalus and gariepinus, which had a devastating impact because they reproduced and spread, wiping out other native species of Cuban fish, rodents and reptiles. The reason given? To feed the population. Today, the Cuban people live off help from abroad, but the environmental damage has been vast.
– Fidel’s policy of “not a single drop of water goes back to the sea”, the indiscriminate building of dams, which was extended to every river in the country. This sped up the extreme salinization of our coastal areas, destroying natural breeding grounds for larvae belonging to many marine species.
– The extremely high price the country paid for the 10 Million Sugar Harvest in 1970, because years before, brigades of workers/soldiers razed areas of forest and fruit trees down to create more land for growing sugar cane. They never managed to reach the promised sugar target. Today, Cuba’s sugar industry is in crisis.
I remember, from my experience as a speleologist, the military’s intervention in the country’s large cave system, and worse still, under the leadership of the Academy of Sciences, whose president was Antonio Nunez Jimenez, who used to be a captain of Fidel Castro’s army and then became a PhD in Geography.
They turned caves into shelters, warehouses, military units for a war that didn’t exist. Nunez Jimenez was one of the greatest ravagers of Cuban Nature. One example is the prehistoric mural at the tourist center of Vinales, paintings that attack the natural environment, which were anti-science, and changed the landscape.
Tell us about sea turtles, an unavoidable case in your biography as a Nature rebel. The reprisals you endured included having your PhD renounced, they kicked you out of Havana University and they ended your contract as a researcher at the now obsolete Ministry of Fishing Industry. What was going on with this species that is protected worldwide, under international agreements that Cuba has itself signed?
Turtles are a philopatric species, they always return to the place they were born, especially sea turtles who are loyal to the place they nest. No sea turtle is from anywhere, most of them are pantropical, but because they are a migratory/philopatric species, they leave and mix in the sea, but Cuban ones always return to Cuba.
These animals were being hunted indiscriminately? How was this linked to the tourism industry?
How hotels affected sea turtles in biological terms was in the intensity of lights, and the lack of protection from lights being projected towards the sea, because when places are lit up, it stops sea turtles from coming to lay their eggs. They become disorientated and go elsewhere.
Then, there is the consumption of their meat, a well-paid exotic dish, a booming business, in addiction to the indiscriminate fishing of Carey turtles, whose shell is very precious in Japan. The State was deliberately lying to international bodies about just how much they were fishing.
Even though you paid for the broken plates, accused of spreading a bad image of your own government, Cuba was finally forced to decree an indefinite moratorium on the fishing of these turtles. Removed from every state institution, in 2016, you decided to go to a family farm in Vinales, leased land, where you tried to set up an organic farm. Is your way of farming possible in Cuba?
My way of farming isn’t practiced in Cuba, it’s impossible. The thing, though, is that Cuba is my Homeland, it’s the only place where I am responsible and have a civic duty to make my ideas hold weight. Our farm has become a means for family survival, it has also been where we have proved we can produce, in spite of state harassment and all of the obstacles we have suffered in our work there.
It’s enough to say that between 2016 and 2019, 4500 coffee plants, 500 valuable cocoa plants, 14 kinds of bananas, fruit and timber trees, 4 different varieties of sugar cane were destroyed on the dreaded State Security’s orders; and, if that wasn’t enough, they also killed cows, sheep and horses. This harassment climaxed with the arrest of Ariel himself, when he protested because of one of these attacks.
In Cuba, when we are faced with an extreme situation, with no way out, we normally say, I’M SCREWED. Do you feel this way now?
Yes, but way before I was arrested even. Ever since my university years, especially in 2005, when I saw the absolute helplessness of a person when they go to a hospital for medical treatment, like what happened to my sister, a patient with advanced breast cancer, who had been tortured using treatment methods which weren’t suitable for her diagnosis. They even went so far as administering her a placebo instead of the medicine she needed.
My sister Omara and all of the women in the same situation thought that they were being given proper treatment for their breast cancer. My sister had been given 6 months more to live, and she is the only survivor from that year, because most of the other patients (some 120 maybe) are no longer with us.
Your sister was saved because making the most of your specialization in cellular and molecular biology, you became an oncologist. Did this mark the direction your life was taking?
I understood as a researcher, as a scientist, that there were these problems which were above my own physical wellbeing. I was the middleman between a monster (the government) and the Cuban people.
Social media has given your struggle, our struggle, greater coverage. Do you have a viral message?
Freedom. Cubans begin to understand their country once they leave it, when they reach other countries with democracies, with social behavior outside of our offline country, when we were cut off for years. When they humbly return as tourists, they are treated just like foreigners in their own homeland.
Cubans can’t live like beggars forever, depending on our brothers and sisters in exile, abroad. We can’t live and die at the same time. I have never wanted to be a Zombie.
NOTE: Dr. Urquiola has presented a formal complaint before the UN High Commission for Human Rights, against the Cuban State for a crime against humanity: the inoculation of HIV into his body when he was admitted in Pinar del Rio’s provincial hospital in June 2018, after he had held a hunger and thirst strike while being held as a prisoner of conscience.