She endured two decades of hell in Castro’s prisons. Now she faces foreclosure in Miami

This article published in the Miami Herald is a heartbreaking story of an 80 years old Cuban lady worthy of reading to the end.

Miami Herald

When Ed Goldfarb pulled up at the modest three-bedroom house a few blocks off Southwest Eighth Street, he knew there would probably be a sad story lurking inside. Homes headed to foreclosure almost always have one, and as a real-estate agent specializing in so-called short sales — where a bank is trying to quickly sell a foreclosed house to get it off the books — Goldfarb had heard them all: Lost job. Death in the family. Divorce. Drugs and booze. Just plain old bad luck.

Goldfarb usually sympathized with the occupants of the homes he sold, but there wasn’t anything he could do for them. He was not a financial adviser (and the people in the houses were always hopelessly past that point anyway) or a grief counselor, just a guy there to get some pictures to show prospective buyers. He never stuck around longer than it took to snap the photos.

But this one was different. When an elderly woman opened the door, Goldfarb’s gaze was immediately riveted by a framed book jacket hanging on the wall: “Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women’s Prison.” A solemn but graceful young female face peered out from a corner of the cover.

“What’s that about?” asked Goldfarb, unable to contain his curiosity. “About me,” replied the woman, 80-year-old Ana Rodríguez, now six decades or so past the age of her photo on the cover. “About my time in Fidel Castro’s prisons.”

And for the next 45 minutes, it all poured out — everything Ana Rodríguez, Cuba’s longest-held female political prisoner, endured during her nearly two decades of incarceration:

The beatings. The hunger strikes. The brutal days of forced labor under the broiling Cuban sun; the endless months in the suffocating dark of sealed cells. The ferocious guards, the wily rats, the eternal cockroaches.

After he’d heard her story, Goldfarb went home with a copy of the book and a steely conviction that he could not help a bank take this woman’s home.

Ana Rodríguez’s life story — medical student, longtime Cuban political prisoner, exile in Miami — was turned into a book. Now 80, she is facing another crisis.

“Oh my God, she’s paid her dues in life, so many times over,” Goldfarb told a reporter last week. “I think she’s way beyond a hero. This can’t be the way her life ends, living in a car. …

“I’ve spent a day in jail, twice, for mouthing off during divorce cases. And I can tell you that you don’t want to do one day in jail. Twenty years, nobody should ever have to endure that. We’ve got to help her.”

Goldfarb has been writing letters, calling bankers and churning out press releases trying to work out a deal to keep Rodríguez in her home, which is snarled in a thicket of bad loans and worse luck.

Earlier this month, in a last-ditch effort, he created a gofundme account for her. Goldfarb figures it would take $300,000 for Rodríguez to regain control of her home and avoid her Plan B, which is to live in her car.

“I know it’s a lot, “ he said. “But I’m hopeful some well-to-do individuals in the Cuban community can step up and help.”

If not, she’s due to be evicted from her home by the end of the month.

Rodríguez appreciates Goldfarb’s help, but seems resigned that she’ll soon be homeless.

Prison taught me that there’s always hope,” she said. “But this will require something much bigger than hope.”

Repeated rebellions

The first thing people always ask when they learn that Rodríguez spent nearly 20 years in prison is, what did you do? The answer is — to her eternal regret — not much. As an idealistic teenager, sickened by the corruption and authoritarianism of Cuban politics, she turned conspirator, running messages and raising a few pesos here and there for the rebel army of Fidel Castro.

And when Castro took over Cuba and steered his revolution toward communism, Rodríguez — by then a medical student — rebelled again. She scattered propaganda leaflets from rooftops and bus windows and commandeered the school public-address system for fiery speeches.

The most ambitious revolutionary act she ever attempted was mixing sulfuric acid with gelatin caps in attempts to set off timed arson fires after hours in Havana stores that had been seized by the government. But Rodríguez never quite got the hang of it and almost all her incendiary devices were duds.

“My great blow at the government was to scorch a few coats in a department store,” she remembered drily.

When a spy inside her rebel group ratted out its members to the government in 1961, Rodríguez expected to do a few months in jail, maybe even a year or two. She was stunned when — at the end of a show trial at which prosecutors informed her of the sentence even before she was convicted — she was sent to jail for 30 years.

Ana Rodríguez endured brutal treatment as a political prisoner in Cuba. When she got out after nearly 20 years, she was able to make her way to the United States and carve out a life for herself. She and a friend owned a home in Miami for a long time. Now that her friend has passed away, lenders are coming after her home and she is due to be evicted by the end of the month.

“I couldn’t even look out into the courtroom when the judges announced the sentence,” she said. “I was afraid to see my family, I was afraid to see the looks on their faces.”

For the next two decades, while most of the world’s eyes were fixed on a Cold War between Havana and Washington that always seemed about to boil over — the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis, proxy warfare in Africa — Cuba’s 600 or so female political prisoners fought a war that was much quieter but equally savage.

The guards beat the women viciously, starved them, locked them up with deranged and sexually predatory sociopaths from the prison’s common-criminal cellblocks. Prisoners more than willing to fight back against guards thought long and hard about taking on a madwoman who had chopped up her husband and cooked him, as one notoriously insane common criminal had.

For weeks at a stretch the women were stuffed into tiny, windowless sweatboxes, so dark and airless that they became known as tapiadas, sealed cells. They got barely enough water to survive, with none left over for cleaning off the gritty cement dust that coated every surface of the tapiadas.

“When we got out of the tapiadas the first time, after about two months, our skin was covered in a crust of mud, dust, sweat, and even blood, because inside they didn’t even give us anything to clean up our menstrual blood,” Rodríguez said. “The guards had to let us use razor blades to scrape the stuff off our skins.”

Yet for many of the women, the bleakest moments had nothing to do with physical abuse. As the years rolled by, they saw their families drift away and disappear. Husbands found other women, children turned sullen and hostile under a cascade of schoolhouse propaganda that their mothers were gusanas, parasites who preyed on Cuba’s brave revolutionary population.

“At first, we loved visiting days, because we got to see our families and get little gifts of cookies or coffee,” said Rodríguez. “But as time passed, they were also some of our worst days. Visiting days were the times when we’d learn that a woman’s children had turned against her and wouldn’t be coming to see her any more. …

“The woman would be sobbing and saying, ‘The only reason I’m in here is that I was trying to make a better future for my kids! What was the point if they only hate me for it?’ And I never had an answer for that, never.”

Rodríguez knew their pain; she had deliberately picked a fight with her fiancé soon after she entered prison and used it as an excuse to break up with him. “He was interested in medicine, not politics,” she said. “I had chosen this life, but he hadn’t. It wasn’t fair to keep him waiting for 30 years.”

For all the damage the political prisoners suffered at the hands of the prison system, their war with it was not as one-sided as you might expect. The prisoners, who largely came from middle-class families where a hand was never raised in anger, developed into surprisingly tough street fighters who gave nearly as good as they got. Rodríguez herself once caught a guard in a headlock during a brawl and kneed him in the groin so repeatedly and so savagely that, she heard later, he lost his testicles.

They also learned to disrupt prison operations with hunger strikes and toques de lata — literally, beating the cans, hammering silverware and tin cups against cell bars for hours at a time, driving the guards out of their minds.

The results were sometimes spectacular. While being transferred out of one prison, Rodríguez and several other women managed to leave slow-burning fires inside their cells that eventually erupted into a blaze that destroyed the roof, all the doors and everything else made of wood.

And during one period when the women were being forced to do agricultural labor outside the walls, they managed to slip into the supply building where the administrators’ food was stored — and ate their steaks.

“They didn’t understand what happened — they thought the guards were pilfering, and punished a lot of them — so we kept going back and stealing more,” Rodríguez remembers with a laugh. “Those few months were the only time while I was a prisoner that I actually gained weight.”

The world’s burgeoning human rights communities rallied to the cause of political prisoners in other countries, but little attention was paid to those in Cuba. “Nobody cared about us or the conditions in our prisons; the United Nations didn’t form committees to demand inspections,” Rodríguez said. “Nobody noticed a tenth of Cuba’s population had fled to Miami.

“We had committed an unforgivable sin — we were practicing anti-communism out of season.”

Eventually some of the women broke and joined the ranks of the “re-educated” who swore allegiance to the Castro government. Others completed their sentences, were released, and almost always began looking for a way to reach the United States.

The handful who remained were known as plantadas, the unbending ones. Little was known of them outside the prison system, but inside they were the subject of awe. Guards were wary of them; the common-criminal prisoners who had once fought them treated them like heroes. On the day in November 1979 when Rodríguez and the other two remaining plantadas were finally released, the result of broader talks between Castro and Jimmy Carter’s White House, the common prisoners thronged the prison fences, cheering them.

Like many of the other women, Rodríguez eventually reached Miami. But picking up the pieces of her life proved more difficult than she expected. It was difficult to get U.S. authorities to accept her Cuban med-school records, and she eventually had to return to college in the Dominican Republic to retake some classes.

Then there was a dispute — possibly fueled in part by disapproval of Rodríguez’s bitterly resolute anti-Castro politics — in getting her diploma certified. It dragged on for years; by the time it was resolved in Rodríguez’s favor, she was in her 50s and too old to get the residency she would need to practice medicine in the United States.

Instead, she took a job as a phlebotomist, a technician who draws blood, at an Eighth Street clinic. But her main job remained the same as it was in prison: harassing the Castro government.

Rodríguez traveled the world, appearing at conferences on human rights and political prisoners, denouncing Castro and begging that more attention be paid to his prisons. She also wrote down everything she could remember about her life in prison and began circulating it to agents and publishers in hopes that her memories could be turned into a book.

That’s where I briefly become a character in her story. Some of her prison vignettes landed on the desk of my New York literary agent, who asked if I thought there was a book in them. I did, and Rodríguez — whose Coral Gables apartment was only about a mile from my house — spent much of the next year in long interviews about what happened to her in prison. The sheer cruelty of her stories often left me speechless, and sometimes when I got home, I cried.

“Diary of a Survivor” was published in 1992. It got good reviews from publications like The New Yorker and The Washington Post, but sales — like those for most books about Latin America — were only so-so outside of Miami. Rodríguez quit her job to promote the book, in hopes not only of more sales but more publicity about Cuba’s human-rights record. But what happened to her next was sheer luck — very good, and then very, very, very bad.

Betrayed, then jailed

Like Rodríguez, Maria Antonia Mier had fought first against Cuba’s Batista dictatorship, then against Castro. And like Rodríguez, she was betrayed by a spy and jailed. They served time in the same prisons, but never met; they were always in different cellblocks.

They did, however, know of one another. Rodríguez’s fame as a hard-ass had spread throughout the prison system, and Mier’s height — at 5-foot-9, she towered over most Cuban women — made her stand out even across a prison yard. She, too, had a certain amount of fame, for capturing a live bat in one of the vermin-ridden prisons and teaching it to smoke cigarettes.

Mier had some contacts inside the French Embassy in Havana, and they helped win her release in 1964. She made her way to the United States and took a job with CIA counterintelligence, helping the agencies weed out Castro spies from the growing influx of refugees turning up on American shores. Later she became a social worker affiliated with Jackson Memorial Hospital.

In 1981, when Mier was invited to speak at an international human rights conference in Denmark, she declined. “I’ve been out of prison too long, I don’t really know what’s going on in there,” she told the organizer. “Why don’t you get that from Ana Rodríguez? It’s only been a few months since she was released.”

The organizer agreed and Mier helped track down Rodríguez, who was living in New Jersey. Rodríguez agreed, but quickly found she needed assistance. “I barely spoke any English, I didn’t have a typewriter to prepare the speech, I didn’t know how to arrange the trip. I had no experience in anything,” Rodríguez remembered. “She did almost everything.”

Rodríguez appreciated not only Mier’s help but her wit and intelligence, too. By the time the conference was over, they were fast friends. When Rodríguez said she was thinking of moving to Miami, Mier offered her apartment for a temporary stay that would eventually stretch into more than two decades.

“She was a close friend,” said Rodríguez, “and because she had been in prison, I could be friends with her in a way that I couldn’t with most people. Everything that had happened to me had happened to her. Everything I thought or felt, she thought or felt.”

They shared expenses, but Mier handled everything to do with money, because Rodríguez knew literally nothing about it. Going straight from her parents’ home to prison, she had never paid bills or even opened a bank account. Even grocery shopping — those vast American supermarkets, all those foods, all those prices — was a complex task for someone who had been eating whatever soggy, spoiled thing the guards put before her.

“Her skills were much better than mine,” Rodríguez said. “She had been in the United States much longer, she knew how things worked. I was just learning.”

One thing on which the women did not agree was casinos. Mier liked to visit them occasionally and sip a martini as she played the slot machines. Rodríguez hated it. “You could feel the desperation in the room,” she said. “I didn’t like to go.”

In 1995, however, Rodríguez had to rethink casinos, at least a little bit, when Mier hit a $95,000 jackpot at the one on the Miccosukee reservation. They were able to buy a house — held in both their names — near the intersection of Southwest Eighth Street and Le Jeune.

But that good luck was followed, two years later, by some that was downright terrible. Mier was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the help of chemotherapy, she was able to beat back the disease.

But with the turn of the century, the cancer recurred. And this time, the chemo didn’t stop the disease, only slowed it. It spread to Mier’s liver and then her brain.

But Rodríguez didn’t know that, or at least not all of it. Mier was intensely private — even secretive — about her illness and its treatment.

“I knew she was sick, because she was still being treated, but I had no idea how serious the cancer was,” Rodríguez said. “If she was just someone I saw once in a while, the changes might have been obvious from visit to visit. But when you’re with them every day, it’s gradual and you just get used to it.”

Whether it was the disease itself or the brutally toxic chemicals that doctors used to treat it — or both — remains unclear. But Mier’s brain began to go haywire. The first sign was the lies, silly and harmless, which made them all the more puzzling to Rodríguez.

“She would be late to meet me and say it was the traffic or something like that,” said Rodríguez. “But later I would find out she was chatting with one of our friends. What was the point? There was none. It was baffling.”

Then there were the occasional references to money that seemed amiss. “Somebody would say, over coffee, ‘Oh, thank God for Mari [Mier’s nickname], I don’t know what we would have done if she hadn’t helped with the mortgage,’ ’’ said Rodríguez. “And then I found out she had given someone $3,000 to buy a truck. Did we have an extra $3,000 for a truck? I wasn’t sure about that.”

This is the home that Ana Rodríguez fears she will lose to foreclosure.

But Mier had been successfully managing the household accounts for 20 years without a problem, so when she lightly brushed off questions, Rodríguez didn’t press. Maybe it was just an oddity of age — they were both nearing 70.

It was the falls that finally convinced her that something was seriously amiss. Rodríguez would come home from work to find a trail of disarranged or even broken furniture winding through the house.

Mier (who had retired in 2002 as the cancer sapped her strength) would explain that it was no big deal, that she had tripped over something on the floor. But there was never anything lying on the floor when the fall had taken place, and the pattern of wreckage suggested that sometimes she might have crawled 20 or 30 feet before getting up.

Quietly, Rodríguez began looking at financial file folders when Mier was asleep. What she found horrified her.

“It was like she had gone crazy,” Rodríguez said, shaking her head in despair even now. “She had 60 or 70 credit cards. She was buying things we didn’t need, or that I had never seen. She was giving money away — lots of it — to TV evangelists. She had borrowed money against the house and on some of the papers she had forged my name.”

It didn’t help that those were the days of go-go mortgages, when banks were dumping boxcar loads of money on people who could never possibly repay it. One of the loans Mier took out — which Rodríguez dutifully signed — using the house as collateral was from Countrywide Financial, which became something of a poster boy for the swashbuckling loan practices of the era.

Rodríguez believes Mier may have taken out as many as half a dozen loans against the house. It’s hard to know for sure, because her record-keeping turned spotty toward the end, and the loans have been bought, sold and resold so many times that even the real-estate agent, Goldfarb, has trouble figuring out exactly who controls them now.

So does her attorney Daryl Jones, who said attorney-client confidentiality prevents him from saying much about the case. But Jones did observe that federal banking authorities significantly tightened the rules on adjusting mortgages downward and easing repayment rules in early 2018, just before Rodríguez came to him for help.

“Just a couple of months earlier, we could easily have gotten her some help, and I’m certain she would have been able to stay in the house,” Jones said. “Now, she’s going to need outside help. I hope she gets it. She’s a great person with a great story.”

Mom’s words to live by

The full story of what happened with the loans — how many there were, from whom, and where the money went — will probably never be known. Those secrets died with Mier, who lapsed into a coma a few days before her death on March 23, 2008.

It’s a date engraved on Rodríguez’s brain: On that same day, a few hours later, her mother, Juana, died at the age of 105. Juana and Mier had grown to be close friends over the years, but Rodríguez didn’t realize how close until a couple of days before her mother’s death.

“My sister called to tell me that my mother was delirious and was talking to somebody who wasn’t there,” Rodríguez said. “My sister listened for a while, and she realized it was Mari. They had a lot in common. They were both tough.” Rodríguez’s mother, after all, had whispered to Ana in a steely voice as the police led her away in 1961: “Don’t let the sons of bitches get you down.”

It was a motto that Rodríguez lived by for years, even after she was released from prison.

“I had a real problem with authority when I got out,” she recalled. “A lot of us did, but I was one of the worst. If I saw a sign that said, ‘Don’t walk on the grass,’ I’d go straight over to walk on it. If I got a traffic ticket, I would shout and wave my arms and send the policeman straight to hell.

“My whole life had been refusing to be pushed around, and it took me a long time to understand that nobody was pushing me around now. They were just trying to do their jobs. Communities have rules. It doesn’t mean they’re out to get you.”

Now, nearing her 81st birthday, all but a bare handful of her friends dead, much of the fight has gone out of Rodríguez. In a whispery voice — old age has taken something from her vocal cords —she sounds almost resigned to losing her house.

“I can live with very little,” she said last week. “I did it all those years in prison, and I can do it now if I have to. I don’t like the idea of living in my car, but when you’ve lived in a tapiada for months at a time and survived, you know you can survive in a car. I can do it. I will do it. Because when it comes to surviving, you do what you have to.”

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