One La Habra resident shares his action-filled story of human will and his determination to escape capture and his perseverance to rejoin his family and start over in the United States.
By Jay Seidel
La Habra Journal
After 54 years, the United States government opened the doors to relations with the government of Cuba. The doors to the Cuban embassy opened in Washington D.C., and next week the US will open its embassy doors in Havana. However, for one La Habra resident, the government of Cuba will
always be a closed door.
The story of George Duarte is a testament to the drive and determination of the human spirit. In an effort to join his mother in the United States, Duarte was arrested trying to leave the Communist island country and spent the following 10 years of his life locked up as a political prisoner in Cuban prisons.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “I did what I had to do.”
Duarte explained that he had a will that wouldn’t allow him to be stopped by the Castro government. He was imprisoned, with others, because he tried to leave the country and emigrate and join his mother in the US.
He escaped from captivity three times in the 10 years, spending days and nights in sugar fields, traveling the countryside and dodging Cuban authorities as much as possible.
“When I was in the first prison, La Cabana, I said to myself that I wouldn’t be here more than three months,” he said. “I escaped the first time after two and a half months in prison. I never accepted my sentence.”
However, escaping the prison was just part of the challenge. The island of Cuba acted as a natural prison itself. Duarte even titled his memoirs “The Caribbean Alcatraz”, relating to his exploits trying to escape the island.
Duarte’s book details his story and challenges as an architectural student who tried to leave the country and ended up spending 10 years as a political prisoner, but never giving up hope to join his family.
His exploits of escaping from the prisons made friends start to compare him to the noted French prison escape artists and called him the “Cuban Papillion.” It even garnered him the respect of his captors.
“When Lieutenant Breto picked me up after my third escape, he was friendly,” Duarte explained. He spoke highly of me to the chief of the police department that I was at. He said ‘this is the guy who escaped from me from Camp Fajardo a few months ago and planned a tremendous escape from Taco Taco.”
Duarte didn’t start out wanting to become a notable escape artist. He tried to get a visa to leave before the Castro regime clamped down on Cubans wanting to emigrate from the island. However, Duarte missed the final boat to the US.
“I took three buses to get to the dock,” Duarte explained. “The boat left that morning and I missed it. After that day, I was a dynamo! I felt I had to get out of here no matter how. And I was going to do it. “
Life as a political prisoner was not easy. It meant maximum security prisons and long hours of work in the labor camps.
The prisoners themselves banded together to support each other. Many of the political prisoners were professionals, doctors, lawyers, priests, and many others who did not support the Communist government’s belief and mission.
They learned from each other and held classes that taught each other various skills to pass the time. Duarte himself said he learned French while in captivity.
However, after his escape attempts and recapture, life became harder for Duarte.
He was sent to the maximum-security prison Pinar del Rio and was placed into a dungeon that was referred to as “the toaster.”
The cell was a windowless 10x10x10-foot room with an iron door. It was called the toaster because it shared a wall with the prison’s ovens.
“It was so dark that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” Duarte explained.
After his eyes became adjusted he saw three concrete bunks and a hole in the ground.
He explained that he also saw something else.
“After my eyes got used to the dark, I saw a dark spot along the wall,” Duarte explained. “It was moving. It was thousands of roaches.”
Duarte spent the next two weeks battling the roaches until he could declare victory.
While in the toaster he was served three condensed milk cans of water to drink and two condensed cans of food each day.
Duarte said he spent the days walking to get tired to sleep.
He explained that he used to visualize himself somewhere else. He used it to pass the time and to motivate him to get through the captivity.
One time he imagined himself in a nice suit in a nice car driving to perform at the Tropicana. He said the vision was so real that when he saw himself introduced on stage, he started singing classic Nat King Cole songs.
“So, imagine, a guy in his underwear and wearing boots in the dark pretending to have a microphone and singing ‘Stardust,’” he said with a smile. “I was living for the moment.”
He explained that after he finished the song he heard a voice though the walls, “Hey politico, do you know ‘Smile’? Can you sing it for me?”
So, he sang and realized that he wasn’t alone. He spent the remaining nights entertaining unknown prisoners through the walls of the dungeon.
While he entertained to pass the time, he never forgot his goal to escape, and continued to plan another escape.
Duarte explained that his drive to escape was due to the desire to join his mother and to see his daughter, who was 5 years old when he went to prison. According to Duarte, her mother married a man who worked for the government and she limited her daughter’s visits to the prisons to see Duarte. He said he saw her four times in his 10 years of captivity.
When Duarte was finally released and allowed to go the United States, he asked his daughter, then 16, to come with him. She declined and decided to stay in Cuba, where she still lives today.
Duarte also details how his faith gave him strength. Despite the challenging conditions, his faith never waivered and he points to times throughout his exploits where he feels that God intervened.
“I was in a sugar cane field at dusk surrounded by guards on horses and soldiers with German Shepards and a corporal with a machine gun ready to shoot me,” he described. He felt that he was going to die, but was ready for it. He even cussed out the corporal who pointed the gun at him. It would have been very easy. After all, what is one more dead prisoner? However, Duarte said that God intervened and the chief of the camp, saved his life. He told the corporal to “leave him alone.”
“What is that? It’s the hand of fate, ”Duarte explained about the camp commander. “So he helped me survive. Then, I escaped from him.”
Duarte’s imprisonment finally came to an end in October 1979 when President Jimmy Carter negotiated the release of political prisoners in Cuba, in exchange for money.
At the age of 39, Duarte said he was “born again” when he landed in the United States. He reunited with his mother, built himself up as a general contractor and became a US citizen.
He runs his own contracting business with his wife Liz and daughter Lizette. He is currently looking for a publisher to commercially publish his memoirs. However, he will sign copies of his book for anyone who is interested.
Duarte’s story of perseverance and commitment to family and freedom is something that he feels many will find inspiring.
“I’m proud of what I went through and how I behaved,” he said. “I want to share my story with everyone.”