Cuban survivor of `hell' retains his fighting spirit
BY CARLOS FRIAS
Palm Beach Post
There's a stranger in the photograph that friends have placed in Ariel
Sigler Amaya's Jackson Memorial Hospital room.
The muscles in the stranger's shoulders merge with the ones in his neck,
and his chest swells through a plain white T-shirt. His eyes are bright,
energetic. He looks like a human fighting machine, a man who once was a
heavyweight national boxing champion in Cuba.
The man in the hospital bed has deep inkwells for eye sockets, like
someone who hasn't seen the sun for years. His sallow skin stretches
tight over the bones in his face like a fist through a plastic bag. It's
impossible to reconcile that these two images -- the vibrant boxer and
the frail, newly released political prisoner -- are the same man.
``He was a tronco, a tree trunk of a man,'' a new friend and
Cuban-American blogger, Valentin Prieto, says later.
Cuba trained Sigler to fight. He learned discipline, endurance and how
to take a punch. But Sigler also learned to think for himself, and
that's when the trouble began.
Sigler, 46, used those lessons to become one of Cuba's most strident
dissidents, a decision that earned him a 20-year sentence in the spring
of 2003, when more than 75 journalists were jailed in a mass roundup.
Thanks to intervention from the Catholic Church, Sigler was among the 50
or so dissidents Cuba agreed to release. He arrived in Miami on a
humanitarian visa July 28, the only one of released prisoners allowed to
enter the United States so far. The others have been exiled to Spain.
Physically, the man who entered prison is not the one who came out. He
rolled off the plane in a wheelchair as a paraplegic, his body withered
from seven years of malnutrition in Cuba's gulag. But between those
emaciated temples remains the mind of a fighter. And that helps explain
how a six-foot, 210 pound boxer, trained under the government, is still
chanting, ``Down with the revolution!'' from his hospital bed.
``I wanted to lend a hand to change the way of life in my country,'' he
said amid a constant stream of phone calls from media, friends, family
and local politicians. ``I wanted to be part of the solution.''
It was this resolve that led him to another dissident's house on the
morning of March 18, 2003, to witness the secret inauguration of a
private library, a collection of contraband such as the United Nations'
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the complete works of Cuban
patriot Jose Martí.
Police arrested Sigler that day. He waited 39 days in jail before he was
arraigned, tried and convicted of treason -- all in the same day.
Labeled a traitor of ideas, he was imprisoned alongside rapists and
murderers. His first cell, where he spent a year and a half, was a
seven-by-five-foot cage with a hole in the concrete floor for a toilet.
RATS AND ROACHES
He was awakened at night by rats racing across his lap, roaches tickling
his face. For 10 minutes a day, he had running water with which to bathe
and drink and rinse the rags he had for clothes. He was fed an
unwavering diet of rice and a gruel nicknamed patipanza, ``feet and
belly'' consisting of leftover animal parts, complete with tough, stray
``Living in one of Castro's jails is a living hell, befitting something
less than a human being,'' he said.
He interrupts his story as a pair of young physical therapists come into
the room. They get Sigler out of bed, put him in a wheelchair, and have
him push himself around the corridor with trembling arms twice before
returning to his room, where lunch is waiting.
Though four friends are in the room, no one speaks to him while he
carefully tears the meat off a pair of chicken thighs and eats a couple
of spoonfuls of vanilla custard. The man, they all figure, has waited
long enough to eat.
In prison, he had managed to stay near his fighting weight from a
lifetime ago by doing squats, push-ups, sit-ups and dips from the edge
of his metal bunk and shadowboxing the way he'd learned as a boy. But in
early December 2008, after five years in prison, his knee buckled going
up a step. By Christmas, he was paralyzed from the waist down.
He was moved to a military hospital, where he continued to serve out his
sentence with a pair of guards posted at the door and no diagnosis on
his worsening condition.
Here, another phone call interrupts his story. This time he takes the call.
``. . . I'm sorry, mi amor. I'm still learning how to make calls on this
phone. . . .''
After what sounds like a bittersweet conversation, he hangs up and sighs.
``My wife. She's losing her mind,'' he says and smiles weakly. Last
week, she was granted a humanitarian visa to join him, eventually, with
her 9-year-old son.
In prison, she was his ray of light. Noelia Pedraza, a girl he had never
met, often visited Sigler's mother to check on her. She liked him from a
picture his mother kept and wanted to meet him. But the prison guards
wouldn't let her in unless she was a spouse. So they got married.
Each undertook a three-day hunger strike until the government allowed
them to wed. He saw her for the first time the day they exchanged vows
in a holding cell. He wore a gray tank top and cutoff shorts, a uniform
made for prisoners from the same material used to line coffins.
``I got married inside a prison, dressed like a dead man,'' Sigler said.
They wed with no aspirations. Men who were given 20-year sentences in
Cuba serve 20 years, if not more. His wife dressed in white and silently
marched through the streets of Havana with the wives and mothers of
other political prisoners, the Ladies in White, praying for a miracle.
On June 12, the Catholic Church performed one. Sigler was one of about
50 political prisoners Cuba agreed to free. That same day, he was taken
by ambulance to his mother's house, where the international press was
The media was not there a month later, he said, when he and his wife
were beaten outside the government office where they had gone to pick up
their visas. The memory still makes his face flush like the 210-pound
boxer who burns behind his eyes.
As a boy, he just wanted to box. His mother was afraid his nose and
brain would be mangled, but Ariel, one of four brothers, had already
learned to stick up for himself in schoolhouse tussles.
He was a stylist, not a bruiser, sticking and moving out of the way,
compiling a 120-2 record by the time the government determined he'd
reached his potential as a fighter at 18. He went on to study how to
mold young men's bodies as a trainer and earned a college degree in
Only when he returned to teach at the sleepover boxing academies did he
realize what was being done to mold young men's minds. At daily
meetings, administrators told the staff to lie to the students, to keep
them engaged by telling them that better food and thicker mattresses
were on the way.
He argued with his bosses about the substandard food, the broken
toilets, the rats and the one-sided curriculum until he argued himself
out of a job at 31 and was labeled an ``untrustworthy citizen.''
At night, he would listen to radio broadcasts from circling U.S. C-130s,
which revealed growing acts of dissent around Cuba that the state-run
media never reported. He began meeting secretly with like-minded men to
talk politics, but also about the struggling economy, the failing
medical system, declining education, even sports.
In November 1996, he and the others officially broke their first law:
They started a club, the Alternative Option Independent Movement. In
Cuba, any group not sponsored by the state is considered illegal and
What kind of explosive activity did Cuba fear? The men lay flowers and
read the poetry of Martí by a bronze bust. They marched silently in a
park square on Dec. 10, declared International Human Rights Day by the
United Nations. They held up signs that read, ``Human Rights for All.''
Police would drag him out of bed and dump him miles away to keep him
from a dissident rally the following day. Or, he says, they would beat
him and haul him off to detention.
Doctors have told him they expect he will regain feeling in his legs and
that, with a steady diet and physical therapy, he most likely will walk
But none of that will change the drive of a boxer who was never knocked
out in 122 fights or in seven years in prison.
``I won't stop denouncing those tyrants,'' Sigler said. ``Whether from
this hospital bed or a wheelchair, whether I regain my strength or not,
you can rest assured that will always be my goal.''