Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cuban wife waited 27 years for imprisoned husband

Posted on Mon, Mar. 10, 2008

Fidel Castro took her husband away from her in 1961. This time, it's a deadly disease that has separated the couple.

Twenty-seven years and 22 days she waited.

Twenty-seven years and 22 days he knew she would.

Gloria Lizama Pujals could have left Cuba any time between 1961 and 1988 while her husband, José Pujals Mederos, suffered in prison as an accused CIA operative who'd plotted against Fidel Castro. She could have joined her children in Fort Lauderdale, where relatives were raising them.

Instead, she remained in Cuba, even returning after a U.S. visit in 1981. She saw José when permitted -- seldom more than monthly -- arranged clandestine sightings and kept faith through his seven years in solitary confinement, her steadfastness equal parts love and duty.

''She did not seek sacrifice,'' her husband said, ``but when it came, she embraced it, with modesty and humility. . . . She was always happy.''

She died March 4, at 82, in hospice care near her Tallahassee home. The cause was transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder.

Now the husband who called her ''my queen, my doll, my jewel'' is the one who waits -- for the heavenly reunion in which he believes.

''I jokingly say that she will not have to wait for me another 27 years and 22 days,'' said José Pujals. He is 83.

Gloria Lizama was born in Havana to Felipe Lizama and Amalia Verdeja, Spaniards who operated a small department store. She was the next to youngest of five daughters and a son.

She graduated first in her class from the Colegio Teresiana and met her future husband at 17. They courted for five years.

He proposed at a café, while a band played As Time Goes By from the movie Casablanca. It became ''their song,'' as in the film the soundtrack to a romance doomed by world events.

José could not believe his good fortune, when Gloria said yes.

''I was shy, and I thought she was too much for me,'' he says. ``She was beautiful in every sense. I never thought I could reach her.''

On the eve of their June 1949 wedding, José told Gloria: ' `You must keep in mind, for me, country is first.' Have you ever heard a man tell that to a woman he is about to marry, instead of how much he loves her? Crazy . . . but it got in her ear, so when difficult times came, she never complained or raised any objection.''

When I was arrested, she never backed away.''

José, who had studied agronomy at the University of Havana, took his urbanite bride to the country: a 230-acre dairy farm east of the city, home to 180 Holstein and Jersey cows, assorted pigs and chickens -- for which Gloria had an affinity.

''She developed a love for birds, for the freedom they represented,'' said son Victor Pujals, a Coral Gables engineer. ``In her house, there was a [toy] caged bird with the door always open.''

Victor came along in 1950, followed by sisters Gloria in 1952 and Beatriz -- ''Be'' -- in 1953, all born to an idyllic life divided between the farm and grandparents' homes in Havana.

''I had my own horse and a saddle with my initials on the back,'' Victor recalls.

In 1952, José met Fidel Castro through a close friend. At the time, Castro was planning his attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, which failed in 1953.

Although they shared a fierce opposition to then-President Fulgencio Batista, José soon realized he had serious philosophical differences with Castro and could never support his goals.

In 1960 and '61, the Pujals sent their children to José's sister and brother-in-law in Fort Lauderdale.

The children would grow into adulthood -- and become parents themselves -- before seeing their mother and father again.

José knew by staying in Cuba he was in jeopardy. Still, when he had the chance to remain in Florida during his last trip in '61, he declined. That would have meant leaving Gloria and her mother behind, which was unthinkable.


Besides, he was coordinating groups opposed to Castro.

That August, Gloria and José were arrested, one day apart. Gloria was taken to the Havana headquarters of G2, Castro's secret service. She was held without charge for three months.

''There was no communication'' between Gloria and José, said Victor. ``They were going to put her away for 20 years and take him to the firing squad.''

During interrogations, she was subject to ''psychological pressure'' to reveal her husband's activities, Victor said.

``One time her mother went by and they wouldn't tell her anything, but a guard took pity on her and moved my mother from one room to another so my grandmother could see she was alive.''

When she was released, Gloria learned that José and 47 other When she was released, Gloria learned that José and 47 other men and women would go on trial for their lives. Through connections at the Mexican embassy, she and a well-known aunt of José's were able to get Mexico's president to intercede.

Instead of death, José got 30 years. Transferred 22 times among seven prisons, he was a plantado -- a political prisoner.

Gloria lost everything but supported herself by managing a tiny laboratory that went unmolested by the government because diplomats used it.

But her main task ''was trying to maintain my father's sanity,'' Victor said. ``She knew we were in good care here and that my father would have been left alone there.''

Added Jose: ''She married `for good or for worse, and the ``worse'' came. Many people think, 'Poor Gloria,' but when you devote your life to something that goes beyond your own self-interest, that life takes on a new view.''

Her attitude was: '`Let's live this day and don't have concern for tomorrow,' because then you get crazy,'' José said. ``You lose your mind. That's what kept [up] her spirit.''

The lab was next to a convent that Mother Teresa visited in 1986. Gloria approached her, asking that she seek Jose's freedom while meeting with Castro.

Instead, Mother Teresa prayed that Jose ''will be released in heavenly terms. She was going to a higher authority,'' Jose joked.

Her prison visits buoyed not just José but fellow plantados, among them Ernesto Diaz, who now heads Alpha 66, the militant, Miami-based anti-Castro group.

''She was always ``She was always supporting us,'' said Diaz, who called Gloria Pujals ``a great lady. She took care of him in prison for more than 25 years. She wanted to stay because it helped him with morale and spiritual support, and they were very much in love.''

For a time in the 1970s, José was locked up in La Cabaña, Havana's waterfront fortress prison, permitted to exercise on the roof once a week.


Gloria -- in a bright red dress -- would drive to the opposite shore and pretend to wave to ships' passengers, but she was really waving to her husband, who waved by doing jumping jacks.

''How much [of a burden] she took on for herself, nobody can answer,'' José said. Someone once told her, 'You are courageous without knowing it.' ''

Victor remembers the frustration of trying to keep in touch with his mother.

``I would try to call her once a month. You had to wait and wait and it was hit or miss.''

In 1981, she came to Florida on a three-month visa. Leaving was so traumatic that she vowed she'd never come again without her husband.

That would take another seven years, most of which he spent in solitary at the notorious Boniato prison. Through the efforts of U.S. human-rights activists, José Pujals was freed from Combinado del Este prison.

He told the warden: ``Neither you nor Castro is going to take me. I will call my wife who has been waiting 27 years and 22 days and tell her to pick me up.''

She did, in the ancient Peugeot she used as an unofficial taxi. Within hours, the two were on a chartered plane headed for West Palm Beach. It was Aug. 30, 1988.

Part of the deal, said Victor, was a low-key arrival in South Florida.

''Mom looked glorious'' in a beige-and-white striped dress, Victor remembers.

The Pujals ultimately settled in Tallahassee, where their daughters live. José worked for the state attorney general's office and Gloria worked part-time in retail.

In 2003, she was diagnosed with the disease that slowly took her life.

Still, said her husband, ``these last five years when she was sick were the most happy years of my life. She became my everything -- mi todo -- my love, my heaven. She liked it.''

Saturday, she was buried next to her mother-in-law in Fort Lauderdale -- in the dress she wore leaving Cuba.

In addition to her husband, son, daughters Gloria Pullen and Be Whitfield, Gloria Pujals is survived by sister Olga Bufill, brother Felipe Lizama, and seven grandchildren.

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