On October 22, the death of my close friend Jorge Valls affected me deeply, reawakening a pain always close to my consciousness after the sudden death of my oldest son years ago. Even though Jorge was 82, his demise was unexpected. We talked by phone only recently. His funeral Mass took place in Miami on October 27. His ashes are to be returned for burial in Cuba, a country he never wanted to leave in the first place.
Jorge was a renaissance man: philosopher, poet, playwright, professor, art curator, fluent in three languages, and international secretary of the Democratic Social-Revolutionary Party, a party in exile. He had fought against and been jailed by Batista. A staunch supporter of our work at Amnesty International, he was a keynote speaker at one of our annual conferences. I translated much of his prison poetry, spirited out on scraps of toilet paper, and his play, The Wild Dogs, was performed in my English translation in New Jersey, where Jorge was an adjunct philosophy professor. Fidel Castro cast out so many talented and dedicated people like Jorge who could have helped Cuba move forward and prosper! I was privileged to have met numerous other disillusioned loyalists, representing a wanton waste of human capital due to the whims and vindictiveness of just one man. Cuba, once a relatively self-sufficient country, must now import 80% of basic food, including sugar, despite having ample productive land. With a low birthrate, high suicide rate, and exodus of young people, it has a shrinking and aging population.
In my interviews with Jorge published after his release "Jorge Valls: the Ordeal is Over," (Washington Times, June 29, 1984) and ("After 20 Years in a Cuban Jail, Life is Like a Deck of Cards," Washington Post, May 26, 1985), he declared, "The cellblock of La Cabaña, where we were locked up, was intended for 60 inmates; there were 304... A firing squad was set up and five or six were executed each night. We had no water, were beaten, abandoned, filthy, stinking, alienated, crazy... My treatment in prison consisted of the worst physical and moral excesses imaginable." Just before his release and forced exile, Jorge reported having been given a tour of Lenin Park, a Havana hospital, the university, and other accomplishments of the Revolution so he wouldn't leave Cuba with a bad impression!
The case that landed Jorge in prison is detailed in a book by Spanish author Miguel Barroso, Un asunto sensible [A sensitive matter] (Mondadori, Barcelona, 2009). The book unravels a convoluted tangle of intrigue involving CIA defector Philip Agee and the murder of four student revolutionaries by Batista forces in 1957, two years before the revolution. Seven years later, in 1964, Jorge's close friend, Marcos Rodríguez, a Communist Party member in good standing, was accused of having betrayed the murdered students to Batista operatives and was arrested in Prague, where Castro had sent him on a special mission. Jorge, who had been with Marcos at the time of the murders, was convinced of his friend's innocence and so testified at his trial, appearing as the only defense witness. Marcos was summarily executed and Jorge was sentenced to 20 years, entering prison at age 31 and leaving at 51, several months after completing his full sentence. Valls later mused that at least ''free thinking dwelt behind prison walls; it was truly the free territory of Cuba.'' As for freedom of expression at the time of the revolution, he said: ''None of that in 1959! Just extraordinary exaltation, the fanatical idolatry of the victorious warrior, and rampant folly that made everything acceptable."
Another friend of Jorge's and I have mourned and comforted each other together. She expressed it well: "Jorge era un padre sabio que estaba a nuestro alcance en cualquier momento que lo necesitasemos. Su grandeza espiritual e intelectual permeaba el espacio a su alrededor." "Jorge was a wise father available to us whenever we needed him. His spiritual and intellectual greatness infused the space around him."
Photo: Author at bookstore reading with Jorge (left) and two former cellmates who shared his two decades of imprisonment