As shoppers in Havana mobbed electronic stores looking for DVD players, writer and independent journalist Normando Hernandez Gonzalez was quietly returned to Kilo 7 prison in Camaguey, Cuba.

Hernandez’s continued detention – amid an economic flowering – suggests Cuba is forging its own brand of tropical reform: cha-cha-cha capitalism with an iron smile.

The message so far is clear and troubling. Consumer monsters and their enablers across the Straits will be tolerated. Free-thinkers, a far more serious threat, will not.

Hernandez was arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 in Camaguey and sentenced to 25 years in prison. His crime: criticizing the government’s management of tourism, agriculture and cultural affairs. For his cheekiness, Hernandez and some 75 other writers and dissidents were charged with “endangering the state’s independence.”

In prison, his health rapidly began to fail. A healthy 33-year-old man when he was arrested, by 2007, Hernandez had developed stomach lesions, gallbladder tumors and tuberculosis.

”The only thing these poor devils have accomplished is to reaffirm my idealism, my patriotism and make me a slave of my own dignity,” he wrote in a statement smuggled out of prison last year.

Hernandez was moved to Carlos J. Finlay Military Hospital last September and his family privately hoped that it meant his eventual release. He had by then lost 35 pounds.

”He’s very skinny, but has tremendous spirit,” his mother Blanca Gonzalez, who lives in Hialeah, told me in November.


But according to information received by PEN American Center, which has been following his case, Hernandez was discharged from the hospital May 7 and sent back to prison.

He’s reportedly in an isolation cell, and not receiving medical care.

”We are deeply dismayed that the Cuban government, which recently signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, would renege on international obligations to protect and respect the universal right to freedom of expression,” Larry Siems, director of PEN’s Freedom to Write program said in a statement Friday. “Normando Hernandez Gonzalez’s ordeal is known around the world, and the international community is watching these latest developments with great concern. We urge Raúl Castro to rethink this misguided move and instead to order his immediate release.”

Hernandez’s ordeal is known worldwide, thanks in good part to the efforts of PEN, which in 2007 awarded him the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.


The organization has continued to press for his release. But Cuba, which last year rejected a Costa Rican offer to grant Hernandez a visa, so far seems unwilling.

It’s nice that Cubans are now allowed to watch Raiders of theLost Ark in the comfort of their own homes. But freedom to spend is a poor substitute for freedom to think.

If change on the island is to be meaningful and lasting, it cannot be defined by narrow ideological goals. For decades, Fidel Castro enjoyed the blinkered support of many progressives while delighting in the enmity of conservatives. Normando Hernandez Gonzalez is in jail to remind everyone that those old dualities no longer explain the world we inherited.

Until both sides in this tired, dusty battle join to condemn his imprisonment and that of other dissident writers, Cuba’s reforms will remain a dollar deep.