More than 100 portraits of Cubans executed by the Castro regime are on display at the European Parliament offices in Brussels thanks to the support of three parliament members from Spain and the Czech Republic.
The three politicians are “sensitive to Cuban issues and know that Cubans have the same right to live in freedom as any other human being,” said Juan Abreu, the Cuban artist and writer who painted the striking series of portraits.
“I believe that Cubans who live in freedom should thank these Euro deputies for the opportunity to put the cause of a free Cuba before the parliament,” he added. “Because it’s not a show of my paintings. It is an event of great international significance.”
Titled “1959,” the exhibit features portraits of 120 Cubans executed by the Castro regime’s firing squads. The artist says it amounts to an indictment in the halls of the European Parliament of human rights abuses in Cuba since the late Fidel Castro seized power that year.
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“I did not try to paint conventional portraits, but rather focus on the faces, often blurry because they come from old photographs, in a straightforward and quick manner, with the goal of creating a powerful and musical image,” Abreu said during the show’s opening Tuesday. “I hope that together, they have a common language and function as one pictorial image. ‘1959’ is one painting made up of dozens of paintings.”
The exhibit was sponsored by Euro Deputies Teresa Giménez Barbat and Javier Nart of Spain and Dita Charanzová of the Czech Republic.
“I am very concerned about the situation in countries with totalitarian regimes,” Giménez Barbat said. “I believe this had to be seen by parliament. Aside from the quality of Juan Abreu’s work, he’s also very concerned about human liberties in his homeland and other countries.”
During the exhibit’s inauguration, Maria Werlau, the Cuban-American president of the nonprofit Cuba Archive and Free Society Project, outlined the violence and political repression that Cubans have suffered under the Castro regime.
OBEY OR DIE
Abreu said he decided to undertake the project because of his “outrage, one of the main drivers of my work.” He started “painting some scenes of firing squad executions. Then I looked into this a little and I saw the faces of all these people, murdered. And I say murdered because there’s never been independent justice in Cuba under Castro, so there was never a fair trial for these people.
“The Castros have used the death penalty from the start of the dictatorship as a dissuasive strategy,” he added. “All Cubans know they can be sent to the firing squads if the government considers it necessary for the good of the revolution.”
He said that the Castro slogan, “Motherland or death,” has always meant “Obey or die.”
The invitation to the exposition notes that in the first year of the Castro regime, nearly 1,000 people were executed by firing squads. The last known execution by firing squad was in 2003 following a swift and secret trial for three men who hijacked a ferry in a failed effort to reach the United States. The Cuban government issued a statement at the time saying the three men — Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Barbaro Leodan Sevilla García, and Jorge Luis Martínez Isaac — had been convicted of “very grave acts of terrorism.”
Although the exact total of Castro regime executions is unknown, “it is estimated that the number of victims stand at 5,000,” the invitation states.
Pedro Corzo, a former political prisoner who saw other inmates taken away to their executions and now directs the Institute for the Historic Cuban Memory against Totalitarianism, praised Abreu’s work.
“The work he’s doing deserves all our respect and admiration,” Corzo said. “It is important that the bloody record of the Castro regime be known in and out of Cuba. I wish other artists who are sensitive to the suffering of our nation would follow the example set by Juan. I am personally very proud of his project and the way in which he’s carrying it out.”
It is important that the bloody record of the Castro regime be known in and out of Cuba.
Pedro Corzo, former political prisoner
Abreu left Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, lived several years in Miami and settled in Barcelona, Spain, where he continues to paint and write. He started the portraits in 2012 and now has painted 302, each roughly 10.5 inches by 14 inches, from photographs of the victims.
He said that one of his biggest difficulties has been finding the photographs, even though Werlau’s Cuba Archive has helped him, and former political prisoner Luis González Infante has made available his collection of books and other materials on firing squads.
“Without them my work would not have been possible. Some relatives of the victims, when they learned about my project, sent me their photos. But very few,” said Abreu, who stressed that each of the portraits was based on a photo. “Although sometimes a very bad-quality photo,” he added.
Angel Cuadra, a poet who heads the ExClub, the association of former political prisoners, also welcomed Abreu’s work.
“This is a very smart effort. It makes history speak through the faces of those who sacrificed their lives for Cuba’s freedom,” he said, adding that exhibiting the portraits at the European Parliament offices is also a great opportunity.
“They sealed those painful pages of sacrifice with their lives, and this exhibit is a way to rescue them and give them a new life,” Cuadra said. “Abreu puts a face on those valiant Cubans. For many of them, we have no photos, only their names and the history of their fight against Castro.”
They sealed those painful pages of sacrifice with their lives, and this exhibit is a way to rescue them and give them a new life.
Angel Cuadra, ExClub
Abreu said he’s not stopped painting the portraits since he started.
“As soon as I finished the first, I could not stop. I knew it was a colossal task, impossible in some ways. But I never doubted that I have to do it,” he said. “I believe the Castro regime is vile, darkness and death. And my goal with this work is to counter-pose that vileness, that darkness and that death with a grand mural of faces full of life and color, the life and color that their murderers took from them.”
Finding photos of the victims proved difficult.
“It’s not easy to find photos of the Cubans executed, which are known to be in the thousands. It’s like an enormous black hole had swallowed that part of our history,” he said. “I believe that it was a Castro policy to erase the trail of blood it left along the more than 50 years of dictatorship. And it has done that well, we have to admit.”
Exhibiting the portraits at the European Parliament office has given him great satisfaction, Abreu added, “because putting the faces of the victims of executions in that place is something of a victory, no matter how small, over the Castro regime’s silence and lies.”
El Nuevo Herald photographer Pedro Portal contributed to this report.