From remarks by Cuban poet and human-rights activist Armando Valladares upon receiving the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Canterbury Medal in New York, May 12:
I was 23 years old I did a very small thing. I refused to say a few
words, “I’m with Fidel.” First I refused the sign on my desk that said
as much, and after years of torture and watching so many fellow fighters
die, either in body or in spirit, I persisted in my refusal to say the
few words the regime demanded of me.
My story is proof that a
seemingly small act of defiance can mean everything to the enemies of
freedom. They did not keep me in jail for 22 years because my refusal to
say three words meant nothing. They kept me there that long because it
For me to say those words would have been
spiritual suicide. And though my body was in prison and abused, my soul
was free and flourished. My jailers took everything from me, but they
could not hijack my conscience.
Even when we have nothing, each
person and only that person possesses the keys to his or her own
conscience, his or her own sacred castle. In that respect, each of us,
though we may not have an earthly castle or even a house, each of us is
richer than a king or queen.
For many of you, particularly the
young people, it may seem I come from another time and from a remote
place. Young friends, you may not be taken away at gunpoint, as I was
for staying true to my conscience, but there are many other ways to take
you away and to imprison your body and your mind. There are many ways
you can be silenced.
I warn you: Just as there is a short
distance between the U.S. and Cuba, there is a very short distance
between a democracy and a dictatorship where the government gets to
decide what we believe and what we do. And sometimes this is not done at
gunpoint but instead it is done one piece of paper at a time, one
seemingly meaningless rule at a time, one silencing at a time. Beware
young friends. Never compromise. Never allow the government—or anyone
else—to tell you what you can or cannot believe or what you can and
cannot say or what your conscience tells you to have to do.