By Kristen M. Daum
WASHINGTON -- Forty years ago, José and Argelio Mejias endured the harsh brutalities of Cuban prison under Fidel Castro's regime.
The brothers survived on limited rations of sugarcane, bread and water.
Guards tortured them regularly -- whether by needles under the fingernail, food and sleep deprivation, or burying them up to their neck in the hot sand, Mejias said.
José received amnesty after four years' imprisonment and fled to the United States, but Argelio was killed by his interrogators in front of José and other inmates after a lengthy torture session.
Fidel Castro at a glance These family stories make Fidel Castro's resignation Tuesday all the more significant, said Dave Mejias, Nassau County legislator and José's son.
Castro announced he would not seek another term as president and commander in chief of the communist country due to continual health problems.
"This is a tremendous day for me and my family," Dave Mejias said. "We're very, very happy about this." During the late 1960s, José and Argelio Mejias protested the communist government of their native Cuba, and after police issued an arrest warrant, the brothers tried to flee to America.
But their best friend betrayed them, and the pair were arrested by a military contingent before boarding the boat that would have taken them 90 miles to U.S. soil.
The Mejias brothers spent the next four years living under the "deplorable conditions" of Castro's prisons -- limited food, minimal family visits and consistent brutality by guards seeking information from the detainees, Dave Mejias said.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "The human rights violations in Cuba are disgusting, and this is just one example."
Castro's resignation and the possibility of change in Cuba leaves the Mejias family and others calling for human rights reform and better diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.
New York's Democratic Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer said the new Cuban government should promote a free-market economy, international trade and democratic reform.
"The new leadership in Cuba will face a stark choice -- continue with the failed policies of the past. . . or take a historic step to bring Cuba into the community of democratic nations," Clinton said in a statement.
Clinton's presidential campaign rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, issued a similar statement, calling for the release of Cuba's political prisoners, like José and Argelio once were.
Such prisoners were "wrongly jailed for standing up for the basic freedoms too long denied to the Cuban people," Obama said. "It's time for these heroes to be released."
Amid the stories of torture and totalitarian tactics, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Jamaica Estates) encountered a different side of Castro during a visit with the Cuban ruler in 1994.
At the time, the U.S. and Cuba had both changed their policies in regard to refugees, resulting in yet another political conflict between the two nations.
In a meeting with a Cuban government representative in September 1994, Ackerman was invited to meet Castro in person.
For the first day, Cuban representatives showed Ackerman around Havana and took him to various social events. But that night, his guesthouse telephone rang at 1 a.m. -- "There's a car in front of your residence," the caller said. "The president will see you now."
"That's just how Castro operates," Ackerman said Tuesday.
Castro and Ackerman spent the next four hours talking about their nations' policies, with only an interpreter in their company. Castro did all the talking for the first hour and a half, Ackerman said.
"He was trying to win a friend; he was clearly reaching out," Ackerman said. "He knew how to play the game." At the end of their meeting, Castro and Ackerman had a photograph taken, but then Castro told the photographer to put the camera down.
"He said in English, 'I'm going to embrace you, but I don't want to do anything to harm you (politically),'" Ackerman recalled. "He gave me a big bear hug."
Ackerman arrived back at his guesthouse that morning to find a box of Cuban cigars waiting for him -- a gift from Castro.
After seeing a softer but equally powerful side of the dictator, it makes Tuesday's resignation all the more surprising, Ackerman said.
"I never suspected that he would retire; nobody ever suspected," Ackerman said. "But he's not doing it for any reason other than health."
The 81-year-old Castro ruled Cuba for nearly 50 years as president and commander in chief but has had no public appearances since 2006 due to chronic health problems. His brother, Raul Castro, is expected to assume power.
Other Long Island legislators said the U.S. government needs to take this chance to develop better relations with Cuba, although the nation's policies might not change much under new rule.
"On the face of it, we're just substituting one dictator for another," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). "We need to look carefully for diplomatic openings to see if we can make any progress."
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said it's important to take advantage of whatever opportunity this might present -- especially concerning reforms in human rights.
"Castro's departure could represent a new era in relations with the United States, but Castro's departure needs to usher in a respect for human rights and freedom in Cuba," Israel said. "If it continues to go in the same direction, it will remain one of the isolated countries in the world."
"If the departure of Fidel Castro doesn't create opportunity for the United States and Cuba, then nothing will," he said.
Note: A shorter, less-detailed version was featured on Page A7 of Newsday's Feb. 20, 2008, edition.
Due to constrained space in the paper, I offered to write a more in-depth composite of these stories for a web-exclusive version.