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Ricardo Bofill, an icon of Cuban resistance

Because of geographical proximity, a continuous succession of mass migrations and palpable social, cultural and political links, Miami is a treasure trove of Cuban history.  Several days ago, I met with an unappreciated icon in the modern history of that country. Human rights activist Ricardo Bofill helped redefine the struggle against Fidel Castro.  He is a beacon to present-day opposition leaders within the island, yet to many exiles, the soft-spoken, mild-tempered Bofill remains an enigma. Over 20 years ago, opposition to the Castro regime took a seismic shift.  The burgeoning, nonviolent dissident movement that grew within the island turned the paradigm of anti-Castro exile politics upside down.  In 1976, Bofill, a former philosophy tutor at the University of Havana, founded and led El Comite Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos (The Cuban Committee for Human Rights — CCPDH). I first met him when fellow film maker Alex Anton and I were doing research more than 20 years ago for what became our first documentary, Rompiendo el Silencio (Breaking the Silence). It highlighted the development of this new resistance movement within Cuba. Bofill challenged stereotypes.  He personified the classic anti-hero.  His fragile physique, even-keeled demeanor and political maturity defied the über-macho, domineering, Latino caudillo (chieftain).  Yet to many Cuban exiles and political powerbrokers, Bofill’s nonviolent methods were — and remain — unsettling.  He has no personal political ambition nor has he ever taken sides in partisan American politics.  His struggle has always remained the respect for human rights in Cuba as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document created by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 in an attempt to prevent a repetition of the horrors of World War II. Cuba was a signatory of the document. All the prominent opposition leaders within Cuba hail Bofill, who spent years in Castro’s prisons, as the father of their movement. Perhaps it’s time exile leaders recognize his contributions and tap into the vast amount of wisdom he can lend. Bofill’s humble Shenandoah home — which he shares with his wife, Yolanda, and their six cats — stands as a bastion of the Cuban human-rights movement. On my recent visit, I noted that the furnishings had not changed much over the past two decades. The imposing bookshelf that greets visitors near the front door is slowly crumbling under the weight of the books that it sustains. The decaying walls somehow still have the strength to hold pictures of deceased friends and collaborators. And while the newspaper clippings and photographs are yielding to a slight sepia tone, Ricardo and Yolanda’s abode still remains a fortress of ideas — a repository of dignity and compassion. Inspired by the works of Soviet dissidents Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Yuri Orlov, Bofill created the Cuban Committee for Human Rights at a time when the Carter administration brought the concept of human rights to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, the two first heads of the U.S. Interests Section (which opened in 1977), Lyle Lane and Wayne Smith, were too busy trying to normalize relations with Cuba’s dictator to pay attention to Bofill’s reports of human-rights abuses. It was not until the Reagan administration came to power that Bofill’s name and cause gained the recognition they merited.Bofill’s CCPDH was a unique, clever and daring creation. Before he died, Georgetown professor Luis Aguilar Leon once told me that Bofill’s approach was so effective because “Castro knew how to react to violence, but he had no idea what to do with Cubans who simply disagreed and did nothing more than peacefully, yet consistently, report human-rights abuses.”During one of my first conversations with Ricardo Bofill, he pointed out that “heroes were not born.”  He explained that, “men and women react to given circumstances, and sometimes the situation is so unbearable that one has no choice but to raise one’s voice.”Bofill may have been forgotten here, but his heroic actions still inspire Cuba’s growing opposition, which continues to fight for the principles he introduced to the Cuban political landscape 35 years ago — human rights and dignity. 

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