Cuban poet Valladares to receive Becket’s Canterbury Medal

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WASHINGTON – “They’ve taken everything away from me – or almost everything – I still have my smile, the proud sense that I’m a free man, and an eternally flowering garden in my soul,” wrote Armando Valladares, a Cuban poet and artist jailed for 22 years after refusing to align himself with Fidel Castro.

In May, he will be awarded the Canterbury Medal by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in recognition of his fight for freedom of conscience and liberty.

“I have known Armando Valladares for many, many years,” Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace prize winner and a previous Canterbury recipient, said about the poet.

“He is a very good person, an honest fighter for peace and for justice,” the Holocaust survivor said in a statement. “I think he has something heroic about him.”

Wiesel will present the Canterbury award to Valladares at a May 12 ceremony in New York. Other past recipients include Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, an author and professor of Judaic thought; the late Charles Colson, an imprisoned White House aide to President Richard Nixon and the founder of the Prison Fellowship; Barbara Green, co-founder of Hobby Lobby Stores, R. James Nicholson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and secretary of veterans affairs, and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Catholic church.

Notable guests and religious-liberty advocates are expected to include Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order; New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Catholic church, and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Becket Fund is a Washington-based advocate representing individuals and organizations involved in religious freedom and freedom of conscience cases. The fund currently represents groups like the Little Sisters who are fighting against health-care mandates from the Obama administration, and individuals like U.S. Army Capt. Simratpal Singh, a Sikh adherent who successfully resisted the Pentagon’s demand that he cut his hair, shave and remove his turban while serving.

“Armando Valladares has often told me that during his imprisonment every inch of his body was tortured and imprisoned but he was still a free man because no one could touch his faith,” said Kristina Arriaga, Becket’s executive director. “He personifies courage and strength and has devoted his life to the defense of human rights around the world.”

After refusing to display an “I am with Fidel” placard, Valladares, then 21, was jailed in 1960 and spent 22 years in Cuban prisons. He was subjected to relentless beatings and eight years of solitary confinement without clothing in a windowless cell, yet he resisted by engaging in several hunger strikes – one leaving him bound to a wheelchair for years.

As his wife, Martha, smuggled his poems and writings out of Cuba, Valladares gained attention, with the Amnesty International organization naming him a prisoner of conscience under the Castro regime.

Several years after his release in 1982, Valladares became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, and published a bestselling memoir, “Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag” in 1986.

When Pope Francis visited the U.S. in September, Valladares penned a New York Post column calling for the pontiff to defend religious liberty in America:

“My story seems entirely alien to the experience of most Americans,” he wrote. “And yet more and more Americans are going on trial just to defend their right to live according to their most basic beliefs.”

“America, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, understands and defends the sanctity of the human mind and the beliefs that flourish and guide it,” Valladares said. “We are still a beacon to the men and women that languish in their jail cells for holding steadfast to their beliefs and for refusing to violate them despite intimidation in places where tyrannical thugs or ISIS zealots reign with terror.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.