Recently freed, paralyzed Cuban political prisoner arrives in Miami; greeted by well-wishers

By Suzette Laboy, AP
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Paralyzed Cuban political prisoner arrives in US

MIAMI — A recently freed Cuban political prisoner arrived in the United States on Wednesday, where he greeted 100 well-wishers who cheered as the paralyzed former boxer called for the overthrow of the Castro government.

Ariel Sigler, 44, addressed the crowd at Miami International Airport after arriving on a charter flight from Cuba. He had been released from a Cuban prison last month as part of a deal between the communist government and the island’s Roman Catholic Church after serving seven years of a 25-year sentence for treason. He obtained a U.S. visa quickly, and subsequently was given permission to leave the island by Cuban authorities.

Gaunt and sitting in a wheelchair, Sigler wore boxing gloves adorned with the Cuban flag as he addressed the crowd, which often interrupted with chants of “down with dictatorship.” He is paralyzed below the waist.

“I feel a mix of happiness and hurt,” Sigler said in Spanish. “Happiness because this is a free country. A country where in reality human rights are respected. Happiness because this beautiful country has taken me in to try to re-establish my health. And hurt because in reality I am a patriot.”

“Down with the dictatorship. Down with the Castro tyranny. Down with the assassins Castro,” he yelled as the crowd echoed him. Many in the crowd held Cuban flags and signs that read “Welcome to Miami” and “Human rights for the Cuban community.”

After his speech, he was given a check for an undisclosed amount by leaders of a local Cuban-American group and taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital. He was listed in stable condition, but doctors were continuing to evaluate him. Sigler did not answer questions at the airport, and it is not clear how he became paralyzed.

Mercedes Cubas, president of the Cuba Corps, which supports the Cuban opposition, said she was cheered by Sigler’s release.

“At least he will have a chance to regain his strength and his health and continue to fight for freedom,” Cubas said. “Because if you see his image, it looks like a man who had just been released from a Nazi concentration camp.”

Sigler was among 75 opposition activists rounded up in March 2003 and charged with taking money from Washington to destabilize the Castro government. Those imprisoned denied that, as did U.S. officials.

Before leaving Havana, Sigler told reporters Wednesday that he planned to return to Cuba “because this government’s days are numbered.”

“This dictatorship has very little time left,” he said, “and I think this will be a temporary departure.”

Sigler’s release came shortly before Cuba agreed on July 7 to release 52 more political prisoners, a landmark deal that, if completed, would empty island jails of all 75 Cubans arrested during the crackdown seven years ago.

So far, 20 political prisoners have been released as part of the government’s second agreement with the church, and all have flown into exile in Spain with their families.

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