TAMPA — Roberto Pizano had lost hope.
For his efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro in the years after Castro rose to power, Pizano was sentenced to life in a Cuban prison, tortured, and put to work in labor camps.
"I saw lots of people lose their lives," said Pizano, 80. "I thought I would die too."
Then, without notice, 18 years into his sentence, on Feb. 21, 1979, Pizano was escorted to the airport in Havana and flown to Miami.
"I was freed," he said. "I felt hope again."
He moved to Tampa, and ever since then he has worked to help those in Cuba who oppose the socialist government and its ruling Communist Party.
He became a leader of the movement by organizing rallies, lobbying elected officials — including President Bill Clinton, who strengthened the Cuban embargo — and raising a son to follow in his footsteps.
On Thursday, the 40th anniversary of Pizano’s release from prison, the Tampa City Council — at odds politically with his stand on Cuba — will honor him with a commendation that celebrates his life’s journey and dedication to his cause.
"Whether you agree with Roberto politically or not is irrelevant," said Councilman Luis Viera, who pushed for and drafted the commendation even though he supports normalization of relations with Cuba while Pizano opposes it.
"What is relevant is his story and passion," Viera said. "He came here and became a fierce advocate for his values."
Pizano said he will accept the commendation but doesn’t believe he deserves it.
“Naturally it feels good to receive recognition,” he said, “but I don't see myself as a man to be prized."
His son, Rafael Pizano, welcomes the gesture as a way for political prisoners past and present to have their stories told.
"My dad's life is something we could never imagine experiencing," said Rafael Pizano, 38, who works with international movements seeking democracy for Cuba and the release of its political prisoners. "Yet it happened to him and others. We cannot let what they endured be forgotten."
A native of Santa Clara, the central Cuban city now known as the resting place of revolutionary Che Guevara, Pizano rose to the rank of sergeant in the Cuban military under President Fulgencio Batista, he said.
When the revolution prevailed in January 1959, Pizano headed into the mountains to help lead a guerilla warfare campaign.
Shot in the top of head during battle in 1961, Pizano still carries a faint scar under his graying hair from the injury that knocked him unconscious and led to his capture.
Convicted as a counter revolutionary by what he called a kangaroo court, Pizano was sentenced to life in prison. He was shuttled from prison to prison, six in all, including detention centers in Santa Clara and the Isle of Pines off Cuba’s southwest coast.
"The first 18 months were the hardest," he said.
Because of his rank, he explained, he underwent regular torture — often smashed repeatedly in the groin with rifle butts.
On one occasion, Pizano said, he and seven prisoners were lined up in front of trenches. One by one, the others were shot dead. When the executioner came to Pizano, he said, the gun fired a blank.
"They wanted to break me mentally, so I would give them information. I wouldn't talk."
After 18 months, the torture ended and Pizano was sentenced to labor camps where he worked sunrise to sunset.
At a labor camp near Havana in the late 1970s, he heard prisoners say freedom was coming.
They didn’t know the details, though — that President Jimmy Carter had allowed a group of Cuban exiles living in the United States negotiate with Castro for the release of 3,600 political prisoners.
"I will always be grateful to President Carter," Pizano said. "He did something no one else had been able to do."
On the night of February 20, 1978, Pizano joined some 150 prisoners who took turns putting on the same blazer over their prison uniforms and having their photos taken.
"I did not know why at the time," Pizano said.
Early the next morning, he was given a passport with that photo, along with a change of clothes, and told, "From this day forward you lose your Cuban citizenship."
Once he arrived in Miami, an overwhelmed Pizano called his older brother Julio Pizano, who had moved to Tampa in 1960.
Pizano went on to raise three children, worked in a Kash n' Karry supermarket warehouse, and drove a Sunshine Shuttle for Hillsborough County.
Never, he said, has he stopped “fighting for Cuba."
He organized local dissidents among the Cuban community, sat down with Florida governors and senators as well as U.S. presidents, and traveled to Geneva to speak before the United Nations about human rights abuses in Cuba as a representative of former Cuban political prisoners.
Pizano still has the orange polo shirt with the pattern of white umbrellas that he was handed at the Cuban prison when he was released. He holds onto it as a reminder of why he continues his resistance, even four decades later.
"You are a man of action, and your acts are guided by love," reads the city’s Pizano commendation. "Here in Tampa, your life, as well as your sentiments, values and passion, will live on forever."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.