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Cuba: Inside Castro’s Prisons

5 minute read

Bit by bit, the story of what goes on behind the walls of Fidel Castro’s political prisons has been carried out of Cuba by refugees. Sometimes the fragments have been recorded publicly; more often they have not. Two and a half years ago, the Organization of American States’ Commission on Human Rights started gathering the pieces from relatives and friends of prisoners, and from many ex-prisoners themselves. The OAS report, now published, is the most comprehensive and authoritative study yet put together on Communist Cuba’s treatment of political offenders.

All told, the OAS commission studied 1,350 case histories. It is estimated that there are some 75,000 political prisoners (one out of every 94 Cubans) behind bars. The commission found that they have no human rights, that they are treated in a “humiliating, oppressive and despotic manner,” and that the Cuban prison system seems openly designed to degrade its victims to the level of animals.

Verdicts in Advance. Arrests are almost always violent and without warrants; arresting officers rarely show proof that they are agents of the law, but burst into their quarry’s home at night, brush off his explanations, wreck his belongings, pocket his valuables and hustle him off to jail in his underwear. Verdicts, said one court stenographer who took part in many of the trials, are “by remote control,” the judge’s opinion often written in advance.

In old colonial fortresses, says the commission, dungeons flooded by underground seepage and infested with rats have been reopened for political prisoners. A former judge testified that “special-punishment prisoners are put into cells too small to lie down in, where they can never bathe and their physiological functions must be performed on the floor.” At a huge prison on the Isle of Pines, off Cuba’s south coast, 10,000 prisoners live in a space for 5,000. Those consigned to solitary are dropped naked into pits and regularly drenched with water. Says one Isle of Pines prisoner, confined to solitary for six months: “An individual can’t go on being naked. It’s really terrible, for one becomes an animal.” The place has also been mined—to kill the prisoners in case of invasion.

Fun for the Guards. Common criminals are assigned as trusties in the political prisons, are encouraged to beat the anti-Castro inmates with clubs and lengths of pipe. The regular guards are even worse. At the Isle of Pines during the Bay of Pigs invasion, all prisoners were herded into the open, stripped, forced to kneel and advised to pray. A prisoner named René Santana prayed aloud that the invaders would triumph; a guard blew his brains out. At La Cabaña in Havana, the guards amused themselves by ordering prisoners outside, where they are stripped, beaten with gun butts and jabbed with bayonets. Among those testifying was a woman whose husband was in prison; he had “a bleeding furrow on his wrists,” the result of his being “strung up like a ham.”

Food is a mockery. Rotten beans—”a special treat”—caused gagging, bloody vomiting and dysentery among 95% of the prisoners on the Isle of Pines. Those who fall sick are usually left to cure themselves, or die. A former Isle of Pines inmate described a typical case: “A man named Yáñez had an attack of epilepsy and fell from the second floor. He remained some ten or twelve hours without attention … A few hours after he was taken out of there, he died.”

Arbitrary executions, carried out by laughing, wisecracking militiamen deliberately within earshot of the crowded cells, are a favorite instrument of terror. Three firing-squad walls at La Cabaña are in use at peak periods, and, according to an ex-soldier, “the executions were done practically pursuing the condemned man with shots . . . Many times, one wounded in a leg would try to escape. Then he would have to be killed like an animal. That’s the way it was at La Cabaña.”

Madness & Suicide. The commission calculated that “several thousand” women are also being held as political prisoners, under much the same conditions as the men. They are beaten with rifle butts, tumbled about by streams from fire hoses, locked up with Lesbians and prostitutes, stripped and abused by male guards. One girl tried to commit suicide with a belt; eventually set free, she was by then so deranged that she killed herself at home “by setting fire to her clothing.”

In the course of its investigation, the OAS commission sent nearly 50 messages to Castro’s government requesting information, asking permission to travel to Cuba, and recommending “progressive measures in favor of human rights.” It got twelve answers, charging that the testimony was malicious propaganda, and demanding that the commission investigate human rights’ violations in “socalled representative democracies.” When he was asked by the commission to respect the rights of the Bay of Pigs prisoners, Cuban Foreign Minister Raúl Roa denied the commission’s right to recommend anything or even to suggest the application of “alien norms to matters in the internal jurisdiction of Cuba.”

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