- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba

He’s on the Vatican’s 30-member peace and justice council, but his state-appointed job in Cuba consists of spending eight hours a day in a shed guarding palm-tree stalks used to make cigar boxes.

One might say Dagoberto Valdes has failed to reach his potential. But the 49-year-old Roman Catholic layman says punishments, including his latest job assignment, have emancipated him.

“There are people who have all the power in the world, and they’re unhappy,” said Mr. Valdes, speaking from the church’s bishopric in the western city of Pinar del Rio. “I trade that for the interior satisfaction in knowing that I’ve been able to walk as a free, responsible person. That is priceless.”

Mr. Valdes is a man of faith, and an innate optimist. His spirituality helps him overcome the daily challenges of pushing for increased civic and economic freedoms in communist Cuba, where he is a strong alternative voice.

He spends his nights as volunteer director of the independent Vitral magazine, writing and editing provocative articles on the state of affairs, religious and otherwise, in Cuba. During the day, he works his shift at the shed on state-controlled grounds not open to the Associated Press.

“It’s what I call the palm-tree cathedral,” Mr. Valdes said with a chuckle as he described a soaring, long storage area filled with rows and rows of the stalks. “As the day passes, I just meditate, and pray.”

Equally devoted to Catholicism and freedom of expression, Mr. Valdes is among the most consistent, and eloquent, critics of Fidel Castro’s government.

He is marginalized by his location at the western extreme of Cuba — an island where most political activity and international press attention is generated in Havana — and perhaps by his religious zeal in a nation once officially atheist.

But his deep connection to the church gives him credibility. It’s difficult to swallow the idea he is a “mercenary” controlled by the United States — a blanket accusation used against government opponents here.

Mr. Valdes has no specific political agenda. But through his magazine and the nongovernmental Center for Civil and Religious Rights he runs in Pinar, he has created an independent channel to express himself — and encourage other Cubans to do likewise.

“The soul of Cubans has no price,” he wrote in a Vitral article this year that criticized a highly touted government distribution of rice steamers at subsidized prices. “Each Cuban man and woman is worth more than all the material and psychological incentives that can be invented.”

In the article, Mr. Valdes argued that Cubans should receive just wages in lieu of rice steamers and urged his countrymen to open their eyes to government attempts to buy their loyalty.

“This is now the price of unconditional support,” he wrote.

When Mr. Valdes speaks, it is often in metaphors. For him, communist Cuba is a log cabin. The doors and windows are sealed shut, and only slivers of light glint through the cracks in the logs.

“Those of us inside don’t have light, but we know that there is light outside,” he said. “The problem isn’t whether light exists — it’s that the cabin is closed off.”

In the decades since Mr. Castro’s socialist revolution, thousands of Cubans have fled the cabin, leaving behind homes and families. They’re searching, as Mr. Valdes sees it, for light.

“This has been the greatest tragedy of the Cuban people these last 46 years,” he said. “They confused the solution. The one who has to leave is the one who sealed the house, not the inhabitants.”

Mr. Valdes remained, despite having plenty of reasons to leave.

In his youth, he wanted to study sociology and become a professor, but religious discrimination of the 1970s limited his academic choices and he became an agronomist.

He worked several years in a state-owned tobacco company, making his way up to president and managing groups of engineers. But in 1996, two years after founding Vitral, he said the government told him: “It’s Vitral or your job.”

He chose the magazine, and was sent to the fields to collect palm stalks with a work brigade. Four years later, he was told he was a negative influence on the other workers, and was moved to the shed. He has worked in solitude there for five years.

“What a human being values more, costs more,” said Mr. Valdes, who is of stout build and serious nature. “Yes, I have felt injured, and discriminated against. But that’s also been the most enriching experience of my life.”

The Cuban government, which considers him an undesirable, declined to comment.

Five years ago, however, it attacked him in state-run media after he met with a Polish advocate of nonviolent resistance to communist rule. In May 2000, the Communist Party daily newspaper Granma described him as “a harsh enemy” who tries to defend his actions by wrapping them in the respect, consideration and opportunities that the Revolution gives to all of the Catholic Church’s religious activities.”

The church defended Mr. Valdes, calling him a man of integrity who loves his country. He also is the only Cuban on the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which investigates claims of human rights violations worldwide.

Mr. Valdes said he still draws inspiration from Pope John Paul II, who gave Cubans a gentle but candid prod during a visit to the island in 1998 that the layman helped organize.

“‘You all are, and must be, the protagonists of your own personal and national history,’” Mr. Valdes quoted the late pope as saying, beaming at the mention of his hero.

Cuba’s smear campaign against him was overt, but Mr. Valdes has mostly dealt with subtle limitations. He has never been jailed and has been able to travel freely, including to meetings at the Vatican in Rome.

It is just a matter of time, Mr. Valdes said, before Cubans swallow their fear and demand more political, economic and religious freedoms.

“I am someone who has spent decades hoping,” he said. “For decades, I have been putting forth, I have been forgiving, I have been staying.

“And I’m still waiting,” he added. “But hope is invincible.”

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