Fabiola Santiago

This former Cuban political prisoner, 82, has been denied U.S. citizenship. Shameful | Opinion

What has happened to Francisco Verona after four decades of living in the United States is an apt story for the times.

Between 1978 and 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s administration negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of some 3,000 political prisoners.

A few were Americans, but most were Cuban.

One of the freed prisoners flown to Miami was Verona, now 82, a self-described guajiro from western Pinar del Río, a simple country man who in his youth conspired against the communist takeover of the island and was jailed three times.

In Miami, men like Verona were embraced as heroes.

The U.S. government, which plotted for decades to oust Castro and fomented insurrection and regime change, did too. Actions of sabotage, fleeing the country, and helping and hiding conspirators were seen as patriotic, not criminal.

“I remember when we went to el hipódromo [Hialeah Park] for an event and all the people were cheering [the political prisoners],” says Verona’s daughter, Edelyn.

Yet — after living a quiet life of family and hard work in his brother’s small construction company for 40 years, away from any limelight, political or otherwise — the Trump administration’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has denied Verona citizenship.

He doesn’t understand why.

“The American government got me out of prison and brought me here,” Verona says. “I conspired in Cuba, not here.”

The reason given in the denial letter: His activities against the government in Cuba and his jail time in 1961, 1966, and 1972 make him morally questionable.

And Verona couldn’t provide the “criminal records and court dispositions” immigration officials needed for him to prove otherwise from the government that jailed him. As if the Cuban dictatorship were like an American police station, accurate and truthful records at the ready.

The paperwork is necessary “in order to demonstrate you meet the Good Moral Character requirement for naturalization,” says the denial letter signed by local director Enid S. Stulz and sent from the USCIS office in Northwest Miami-Dade.

Is the denial due to the ignorance of a bureaucrat — or to the bad policy and practices of an administration cracking down on legal immigration as well as illegal on every front?

Hard to tell as USCIS won’t discuss the case nor the issues, but this much is certain:

The Cuban government doesn’t give you documents saying your jail time there was public service — and, for the most part, they don’t make any distinction between political and common prisoners.

Most of the time Cuban court proceedings are shams with only one possible verdict: guilty.

“I only conspired in Cuba taking things from here to there and recruiting people,” Verona says. “But I’ve never had a single problem in this country.”

He describes his interview for citizenship as “an interrogation” with the insinuation that he was a terrorist.

It felt like “a leftist blow,” he said.

When he was asked, as is normal in the naturalization process, if he was willing to take up arms to defend the United States — to which he proudly answered “yes” — the interviewer kept probing him about gun trafficking.

Had he been a gun trafficker?

He says he also was asked how many times he has voted.

His answer: “How could I vote? I’m not a citizen.”

“I was treated like a criminal,” Verona says. “It was like they wanted to catch me with something.”

It wasn’t until 2016 that Verona sought citizenship — and it took nearly four years for him to get an interview.

For decades, Verona says, he was too busy working and raising a family and thought “I could live forever” with just his parole first, then the permanent residency granted under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

But after retiring, he had the time to want more as he shuttles from family homes in Miami and Naples, where he has enough land to grow vegetables and tropical fruit.

Self-deprecating, he says he is still, “un guajiro bruto,” a dumb peasant. Grateful for his freedom, he wants to die a U.S. citizen — and to vote in the next election.

He shuns talk of politics, though, and all he would tell me is that he’s a practicing Catholic, anti-abortion (he considers this the most important issue), and favors no party, only measures a candidate’s mettle.

“All I wanted to do was to vote for Marco Rubio and Mario Diaz-Balart,” he says.

But he admits disappointment with those Cuban Americans in Congress.

“They haven’t helped me with this [citizenship issue],” he says.

If Verona’s case illustrates anything, it’s that any semblance of special treatment for Cubans in this country is over.

And — despite President Donald Trump’s rhetoric calling Bay of Pigs veterans “heroes” — Cubans aren’t even getting fair treatment. As it is with the mass deportation of Cubans to a human rights-violating state, denying citizenship to a former political prisoner flies in the face of Trump’s hard-line Cuba policy.

How can a government bureaucrat question the morality of a man who fought a dictatorship — and, based on that fact, deny him a last wish to become a full-fledged American?

If anything, Verona is a man of courage.

Denying him the end-of-life wish of citizenship is shameful.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”