A Family's Courage: The Siglers

Thursday, July 9, 2009
by Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat

Varadero, the most renown of all beaches in a land of beautiful beaches, lies on the northern coast of Cuba, in Matanzas province. If the droves of European, Canadian and Latin American tourists who flock to the tightly-controlled tourist enclaves there dared to venture beyond the invisible but implacable barriers that separate the resorts from the daily travails of Cubans living under the region's longest-lasting dictatorship, they would find that there is far more to Matanzas province than sun and sand.

According to Cuban folklore, Matanzas, which means "slaughter" in Spanish, was the legendary place where in the 18th century Cubans fought off a swarm of demons, driving them deep into underground caves. The angels which aided the denizens of Matanzas in this fight warned them that they should remain ever vigilant, should the demons ever reappear. And so they have.

A mostly flat land of sugar fields, swamps and soft hills, Matanzas' country folk put up a stiff resistance against the Castro's Communist take over. Well into the mid 60's poorly armed guerrillas greatly aided and abetted by the population, persisted in a hit and run war against the Communist forces. Eventually they were overwhelmed by the Russian-armed and advised Cuban military. Few survived. Matanceros still remember how the firing walls worked non-stop in the regime's assembly-line drive to rid Cuba of its patriots.

Later, after Che Guevara returned from China awed by the Maoist concentration camps, the Castro regime implemented its own version of forced labor settlements: the infamous UMAPS (Military Units in Support of Production) where among others, seminarians of different denominations, disaffected youth, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and prostitutes were thrown together to be cleansed of their "sins" and re educated along the lines of Guevara's idea of the "new man." The location of the UMAPs? Matanzas province.

However, the Castro dictatorship's bid to crush the province's spirit of liberty failed. Today Matanzas is once again at the center of open resistance against the now 50-year old tyranny.

One courageous family, the Siglers, is at the forefront of the growing civic non violent challenge to the regime. And they have paid a high price for it.

Gloria Amaya was one of the daughters of Matanzas whose spirit would not be broken. She was too small and frail to take up arms, and she wasn't sent to the UMAP's, but she turned the inside of her home into free territory, raising her children on Christian love, democratic principles and anti Communism. Castro had turned Cuba into a Soviet puppet, Gloria taught her children, but the Sigler Amayas would remain a sovereign family.

So it would be that her young sons would lead a new generation of their fellows in the struggle for freedom.

Ariel Sigler, the youngest of her five children, was a tall, strong young man who excelled in sports and became a regional boxing champion. He was expelled from his job as a physical education teacher because he voiced his discontent with the government. On November 16, 1996 he founded the Independent Alternative Option Movement. He led his brothers and scores of other youths into the sugar fields and the countryside, organizing workers to defend their rights against the State as the sole employer, carrying out public peaceful demonstrations, setting up soup kitchens for the poor and hungry supposedly non existent under a "people"s dictatorship," and establishing an independent library in their family home where the books censored by the government could be accessed by the population.

Emboldened by Ariel's leadership and the unshaken support of his family, dozens of Matanceros joined the movement. Eventually Ariel met and collaborated with Havana-based Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner serving a 20-year sentence in a Castro prison for his commitment to freedom.

The regime retaliated ruthlessly against the Siglers. A gang of thugs invaded the family home, hurled Gloria Amaya, now more than 80 years old to the floor, and beat her, breaking her ribs. Police repeatedly arrested the Sigler brothers, earning Ariel the recognition of prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Finally, on March 18, 2003, the Castro dictatorship tried to use the US invasion of Iraq as cover for its attempt to destroy Cuba's civic resistance with one fell swoop. Seventy-five activists were arrested. Ariel and his older brother were sentenced to 20 years each. Weighing 250 pounds at the moment of his arrest, Ariel is now at less than 100 pounds. He lies in a prison hospital suffering from a battery of illnesses he did not have before being imprisoned. His family is convinced that, as has been the case with other Castro opponents in the past, the regime is using a combination of induced illnesses and medical negligence to get rid of one of its most tenacious foes.

As Ariel Sigler lies dying in a hospital bed for the sole "crime" of refusing to live as a slave, not a word on his behalf has been uttered by, for example, Jose Miguel Insulza and the Organization of American States, which should be looking out for the respect for human rights and democracy in the region. Not one of the Latin American leaders who has stopped by Havana to visit an ailing Fidel Castro has dared to inquire about his health.

Sadly enough, this is not a new thing in Cuban history. It was in Matanzas that the Cuban flag first flew, raised by a band of freedom fighters led by Venezuelan Narciso Lopez who briefly captured the provincial capital from the Spanish before being defeated, captured and garroted, abandoned by the Latin American governments he believed would come to the aid of Cuba's right to freedom. Pedro Luis Boitel, a courageous student leader, was also born in Matanzas. He dared to challenge the Castro picked candidate in elections for the student government of the University of Havana in 1959. Imprisoned and sentenced to 10 years, he died as a result of the same combination of induced illnesses and medical negligence that Ariel Sigler may now be suffering. Boitel was protesting his continued imprisonment after his sentence had been served.

A cry goes out to the international community from Matanzas, one that sun-bathing tourists and Communist apparatchik may not hear: In the name of freedom, let the slaughter of Cuba's best sons and daughters cease, aid Cubans in this new fight against the demons of tyranny.