But last week, George did one thing that redeemed him just a little bit (and I mean just a tiny little bit in the overall grand scheme of things) in my eyes.
Last Wednesday, October 10, 2007, my beloved friend, Laida Carro, with whom I do human rights work on behalf of Cuban political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, traveled to Washington, DC, to update the Inter-American Commisson on Human Rights of the Organization of American States on the health situation of Cuban political prisoners, many of whom are in danger of dying in prison from everything from tuberculosis to cancer. She arranged for Yamile Llanes Labrada, the wife of Dr. Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, one of the prisoners for whom we have done a tremendous amount of work lately, to accompany her.
Dr. Garcia Paneque, a plastic surgeon, independent librarian, and independent journalist, has been in jail since March 19, 2003, at which time he was arbitrarily arrested and summarily tried along with 74 other leading non-violent opposition leaders on the island. Since then, he has developed Intestinal Mal Absorption Syndrome, chronic diarrhea, anemia, and pneumonia. In addition, he has lost half of his body weight (he's below 100 lbs. now), and he is housed in the psychiatric ward among the most dangerous criminals in one of the worst prisons in Cuba.
Yamile, a lawyer, has suffered tremendously since her husband's incarceration. To make a long story short, after suffering four years of continuous harassment and experiencing the terrible psychological impact her husband's situation was having on their children, she agreed to her husband's wish to leave him and bring the children to the United States. She and the children arrived recently.
Here's where George Bush comes in. It just so happened the president learned of Yamile's trip to DC to testify, and he requested a personal audience with her to learn of her story. Yamile's daughter, Shirlen, and Yamile were invited to meet with him in the Oval Office, and when they entered the Oval Office, Yamile told the president she would not have been able to come to the States, let alone adjust to life here, had it not been for Laida Carro. So Laida, who had been waiting for Yamile outside the president's office was also invited in. (In the photo, Laida is sitting on the couch with Shirlen, and Yamile is in the chair to Bush's right. The man in between her and the president it the interpreter.)
Laida said she thinks the president was genuinely touched by Yamile and Shirlen's presence. She said he listened attentively to Yamile's story and her description of what her life was like in Cuba. He wrote down Dr. Garcia Paneque's name, practiced it in Spanish, and then invited them to accompany him down to the Rose Garden for his speech in honor of Hispanic Heritage Day. (That's Yamile to the right of the president.)
As the president spoke to the dignitaries assembled in the Rose Garden, he mentioned Yamile and Dr. Paneque not once, but three times (!) in his speech. For Yamile, who has endured such tremendous sadness that she once said she could never laugh again, the experience was life-changing. She feels like there is hope for her husband, and she has heard the president of what she considers to the be the most powerful nation on earth call for his freedom. Laida said it has been a transformational experience for this woman who has watched her husband waste away and her children withdraw from life.
I have the text of Bush's speech posted on The Coalition of Cuban-American Women's blog: http://www.coalitionofcubanamericanwoman.blogspot.com/
I believe at this point it's the third post down on the blog.
I've also posted the testimony Laida and Yamile gave at the OAS on the post before the Bush speech. Both women give powerful testimonies (in Spanish). You can click on the site to either hear or watch the speeches. And, if you "google" Yamile Llanes Bush, you'll see that news of President Bush's interest in Yamile's situation has made news across the globe.
Laida and I frequently talk about how human rights work is about disseminating information, making contacts, connecting people to people, persistence, and patience. While the world is very aware of the recent situation in Myanmaar, human rights violations in China, the atrocities of Darfur, and the famine in Somalia, relatively little attention has been focused on Cuba. With this surprise meeting last week, people heard about one situation out of many that take place in Cuba on a daily basis.
So, thank you, George Bush, for taking time with Yamile. She now feels some hope. All of us who work with matters in Cuba are very appreciative. Even I say ¡muchismas gracias!