How Cubans Enjoy The Good Life in Fidel Castro's Politically
by Servando Gonzalez
Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.
In February 1959, Castro passed a decree
named the "Fundamental Law of the Revolution." The
decree not only canceled all constitutional rights, but also
invested legislative power in the cabinetthe equivalent of Hitler's
Enabling Law. Immediately after, Castro took over as Prime Minister,
banning the President from Cabinet meetings.
By mid 1959 the exodus of Cubans fleeing out of the country was
picking up. Day after day hundreds of Cubanssmall children, elderly
people, and young and middle-aged coupleslined up at the counters
of airline companies with flights from Havana. Their personal
luggage included tricycles, blankets, photographs of their loved
ones, their table silver and virtually everything of value that
was movable, including jewels and gold watches. In dramatic scenes
resembling the early flight of Jews from Nazi Germany, Castro's G-2 officers
at the airport seized all their properties. The value of watches
and wedding rings was assessed by the agents at the airport,
and often those agents would take for themselves those watches
and rings on the spot.
In the first months of 1962 opposition to the Castro regime became
widely extended in Cuba. Wholesale roundups by government troops
became commonplace. Though Castro graduated from University of
Havana's law school, he never believed in the rule of law, but
in the rule of men. Within months of taking power he turned Cuba's
entire judicial system upside down. Like in Hitler's Germany,
Führergewalt Führer power soon became the absolute
law of the land, and Castro's every maniacal whim was immediately
translated into codes and regulations.
In mid-1962 Castro created the "mobile military tribunals,"
an extermination technique which made all Batista's crimes look
pale in comparison. Panel and covered trucks traveled around
the countryside conducting on-the-spot trials. Three or five
members of a summary military court were dispatched to an area
where a disturbance had been reported. Infractions, under the
blanket charge of "enemies of the state," ranged from
refusing to attend school or "volunteer" to cut sugar
cane, to speaking against the Castro regime. The trials took
only a few minutes, and most of the accused were executed on
the spot, in many cases caskets had been delivered beforehand
and the "judges" served as the firing squad. The lucky
ones not shot were condemned to 30 years hard labor.
Before Fidel Castro grabbed power in Cuba in 1959 Cuba had only
six prisons. By early 1964, however, Castro had created a large
system of mass detention, with 57 prisons and 18 concentration
camps, holding an estimate of 100,000 political prisoners in
a state of servitude to the tyrant. Though many people believe
that, contrary to other totalitarian tyrants, it has not been
customary for Castro to indulge in vengeful and arbitrary brutalities,
a quite different image emerge from the facts. While he has denied
that prisoners in his jails are tortured or given inhuman treatment,
released and escaped political prisoners have extensively testified
to the contrary. By the way, Angela Davis, a frequent visitor
to Castro's Cuba and an acerbic critic of the American penal
system, has never criticized Castro's prisons, where more than
85 % of the inmates are black. Perhaps the reason for this discrimination
is because she believes that American blacks are racially superior
to Cuban blacks (after all, their call themselves "African-Americans"),
or perhaps because Castro's prisons are politically correct (the
torturers in Castro's prisons are convinced that they are leftists!).
By 1980, widespread repression in Cuba had reached intolerable
levels. Out of desperation, a group of Cuban families seeking
freedom hijacked a city bus, and, after crashing it against the
wall of the Peruvian embassy, tried to gain access to it through
the hole in the wall. The Cuban soldiers surrounding the embassy
opened fire and killed several of them, including young children
and women. The few ones who managed to sneak in asked for political
asylum. A few hours later an angry Fidel appeared on tv and verbally
abused with all types of insults the ones wanting to leave. After
calling them from gusanos (worms) to CIA agents, he ended
his speech by yelling. "No los queremos aquí.
¡Todo el que quiera irse, que se vaya! "(We don't
want them here. Everyone who wants to leave, should leave!) Next
day Castro's words were reproduced in bold, big letters in the
first page of newspapers. But apparently most Cubans took his
advice too literally. The resulting gigantic wave of refugees
came to be known as the Mariel boatlift.
Concerned about the spectacle of thousands of Cubans legally
leaving the Island, Castro back pedalled. He began calling the
desperate Cubans escaping the island "scum" and claimed
that they were criminals. Soon after, his sick mind conceived
the so called "actos de repudio" (repudiation
acts) to physically and psychologically harass the ones planning
to leave the country following his own suggestion. A detailed
description of the "repudiation acts" is out of the
scope of this book, but it is enough to say that they were a
re-enactment of the persecution of the Jews in the early days
of Nazi Germany.6 Finally, in a cynical attempt to taint the
exiles, he conceived the evil idea of mixing in mental patients
and hard-core criminals into the mass of refugees. Though these
criminalelements totalled less than 5% of the over 125,000 Cubans
who entered the U.S., they managed to give a bad name to the
refugees. Very soon, "marielito" became in the
U.S. a synonym for a ruthless criminal, like the infamous one
immortalized in Al Pacino's film Scarface.
Apparently the behavior of his mobs in the "repudiation
acts" gave Castro the idea for the creation of another of
his Fascist abominations, the infamous Brigadas de Acción
Rápida (Fast Action Brigades), groups of government-sponsored
gangs of thugs and common criminals, apparently inspired by Mussolini's
street fighters, the squadristi. The Brigadas, were Castro's
creation for the brutal repression of Cuban dissidents.
Are people tortured in Castro's jails?
Of course. At least this is what Amnesty
International, the U.N Human Rights Commission, the OEA, y numerous
prestigious organizations assure us. It is what we are told by
the victims themselves each time they can tell us anything.
Torture, however, is usually not carried
out using electric shocks or other non-technical means, but with
other techniques mostly learned from the KGB. When they are in detention it is quite common
for the accused to be deprived of sleep. Another type of torture
consists of confining the prisoner to a cell with the floor covered
in a few centimeters of water while a strong draught of cold
air keeps the prisoner near frozen. The idea is to get them to
confess without marking the body. The detention center where
most torture is carried out is known as Villa Marista, and the
"technical" director of this specialty is Colonel Blanco
Oropesa. Once condemned and imprisoned, the blows are frequent.
When they are punished, it is not unusual to place the prisoners
in a sort of coffin (they call them "gavetas") in which
they cannot move. They are kept like that for weeks at a time.
Predictably, the cuisine leaves much to be desired and is in
fact appalling to the extreme that there is an abundance of deficiency
diseases such as beriberi, pellagra and scurvy.
Members of the security forces and prison
officials continued to beat and otherwise abuse detainees and
prisoners. Prison conditions remained harsh. The authorities
routinely continued to harass, threaten, arbitrarily arrest,
detain, imprison, and defame human rights advocates and members
of independent professional associations, including journalists,
economists, and lawyers, often with the goal of goading them
into leaving the country. The Government used internal and external
exile against such persons, and political prisoners were offered
the choice of exile or continued imprisonment.
The Constitution prohibits abusive treatment
of detainees and prisoners, but there were instances in which
members of the security forces and prison officials beat and
otherwise abused human rights advocates, detainees, and prisoners. For
example, human rights groups in Pinar del Rio province reported
that on March 21, police officer Luis Montano and another policeman
beat Luis Reyes Ledesma and then forced him into a crypt at the
Arroyo Mantua cemetery for 3 hours because Reyes refused to answer
the policemen's questions. Individuals linked to state security
forces subjected human rights advocates to physical aggression
and threats. On May 1, state security officers punched, kicked,
and dragged human rights activist Ana Maria Agramonte from her
home after she declined to restrict her movements during the
May Day Communist Party celebrations. Agramonte was subsequently
charged with disrespect and sentenced to 18 months in prison
on May 16, without the benefit of defense counsel.
In June 1997 state security police in Cienfuegos detained human
rights activists Miguel Angel Hernandez and Benito Fojaco. During
the interrogations, they were put in a small storage cabinet
and exposed to noxious fumes for over an hour before being released.
In October state security police detained Fojaco and five other
human rights activists in Cienfuegos. At year's end, they remained
in detention and under investigation on charges of distributing
In July 1997 state security officers conducted a search of the
home of human rights activist Jesus Yanez Pelletier. The officers
threatened Yanez Pelletier and his partner, warning that her
children would be taken away should they continue their activities.
An officer pointed to one of her children's drawings that depicted
a human rights theme and said that it showed that they were not
raising the children properly, that is, "within the revolution."
The officer threatened to bring a government child specialist
to "evaluate" the children and the adults' "fitness"
to continue raising them.
Similarly, in August 1997 state security officers repeatedly
threatened human rights activist Leonel Morejon Almagro (see
Section l.d.) and his wife Zoiris Aguilar Callejas with the loss
of their child. The officers warned that both parents might be
sent to jail and the child might be taken from them to be raised
by the State, unless they ceased their activities in opposition
to the State.
The Castro government continued to subject those who disagree
with it to "acts of repudiation." At state security
instigation, members of state-controlled mass organizations,
workmates, or neighbors are obliged to stage public protests
against those who dissent from the Castro government's policies,
shouting obscenities and often causing damage to the homes and
property of those targeted; physical attacks on the victims are
not uncommon. Police and state security agents are often present
but take no action to prevent or end the attacks. On May 31,
four men attacked independent journalist Joaquin Torres at his
home in Havana; the men then led an act of repudiation against
him as police stood by without intervening. In June human rights
activists in Pinar del Rio were subjected to acts of repudiation
at their work places by fellow workers coerced into participating
by government union foremen; police or local authorities ordered
other activists to go to government facilities where they were
also subjected to these acts.
Prison conditions continued to be harsh.
The Government claims that prisoners have rights, such as family
visitation, adequate nutrition, pay for work, the right to request
parole, and the right to petition the prison director. However,
police and prison officials often denied these rights and used
beatings, neglect, isolation, denial of medical attention, and
other forms of abuse against detainees and prisoners, including
those convicted of political crimes or who persisted in expressing
their views. There are separate prison facilities for women and
The IACHR reported that prison authorities
subjected prisoners who protested their conditions or treatment
to reprisals such as beatings, transfer to punishment cells,
transfer to prisons far from their families, suspension of family
visits, or denial of medical treatment. A member of the France-Liberte
delegation that visited Cuba in May 1995 interviewed political
prisoners and stated that lengthy and often incommunicado pretrial
detention constitutes a form of psychological torture. State
security officials also subjected dissidents to threats of physical
violence, as well as to systematic psychological intimidation,
sleep deprivation, imprisonment in cells with common criminals,
aggressive homosexuals, or state security agents posing as prisoners,
in an attempt to coerce them to sign incriminating documents
or to become state security collaborators. Prison authorities
often placed political prisoners in cells with common and sometimes
violent criminals and required that they comply with the rules
for common criminals.
In December Amnesty International (AI)
called on the Government to stop abusive treatment of Jorge Luis
Garcia Perez, Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina, and Francisco Herodes
Diaz Echemendia, held in Combinado de Guantanamo prison. In September
over 30 guards reportedly beat and badly injured the three prisoners
while they were handcuffed. In October they were being held naked,
in punishment cells without bedding, and being denied medical
treatment. AI asked the Government to stop holding the prisoners
in conditions it termed "cruel, inhuman, and degrading,"
to undertake an impartial investigation, and to punish those
responsible for the abuses.
Jesus Chamber Ramirez, sentenced to
10 years in prison for enemy propaganda and disrespect against
government authority, was regularly denied family visits for
insisting that he be treated as a political rather than a common
prisoner. Chamber was transferred in July from Kilo 8 prison
in Camaguey to Bayamo prison, closer to his family in Santiago
de Cuba, but prison guards continued to bait him and order him
to shout slogans favorable to the President. Chamber responded
with contrary slogans; as a result, he was charged and sentenced
twice to additional 2-year terms for disrespect, with a possible
third charge pending. In September, Chamber, whose prison term
stands at 14 years, was again placed in solitary confinement
for having shouted "down with Fidel." Chamber has held
numerous hunger strikes of short duration to protest poor prison
conditions; he and another inmate, Julio Moralez Gonzalez, reported
that they have been beaten and punished for demanding better
treatment. At year's end, Chamber's third trial for disrespect
was still pending.
The rights to adequate nutrition and
medical attention also were violated regularly. The IACHR described
the nutritional and hygienic situation in the prisons, together
with the deficiencies in medical care, as "alarming."
Both the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) and
the U.N. Special Rapporteur, as well as other human rights monitoring
organizations, reported the widespread incidence in prisons of
tuberculosis, scabies, hepatitis, parasitic infections, and malnutrition.
Prison officials regularly denied prisoners
other rights, such as the right of correspondence, and continued
to confiscate medications and food brought by family members
for political prisoners. State security officials in Havana's
Villa Marista facility took medications brought by family members
for detainees and then refused to give the detainees the medicine,
despite repeated assurances that they would.
In January prison guards placed Leonel
Morejon Almagro in solitary confinement for 4 days for trying
to send a letter to Cardinal Ortega requesting his intercession
for a pastoral visit, which authorities had denied to Morejon
since his detention 10 months earlier. On May 7, officials in
Pinar del Rio's Kilometer 5 1/2 prison denied pastoral visits
to Rosa Maria Pujol Llanes. Pujol's family had requested the
visits because of Pujol's poor health and concern for her state
of mind. Pujol reportedly lost over 50 pounds since entering
prison; she is serving a 10-year sentence for "piracy."
The Government does not permit independent
monitoring of prison conditions by international or national
human rights monitoring groups. Human rights activists continued
to seek information on conditions inside jails despite the risks
to themselves and to their prison sources. On September 5, a
military tribunal sentenced human rights activist Maritza Lugo
to 2 years of house arrest for "bribery," for having
attempted to smuggle a tape recorder into a prison in order to
obtain direct testimony from inmates.
Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Forced Exile
The Law of Penal Procedures requires
police to file formal charges and either release a detainee or
bring the case before a prosecutor within 96 hours of arrest.
It also requires the authorities to provide suspects with access
to a lawyer within 7 days of arrest. However, the Constitution
states that all legally recognized civil liberties can be denied
to anyone who actively opposes the "decision of the Cuban
people to build socialism." The authorities routinely invoke
this sweeping authority to deny due process to those detained
on purported state security grounds.
The authorities routinely engage in
arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights advocates, subjecting
them to interrogations, threats, and degrading treatment and
conditions for hours or days at a time.
On July 16, 1997, the Government arrested
the four members of the "internal dissident working group"
(economist Martha Beatriz Roque, professor Felix Bonne Carcasses,
lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano, and Vladimiro Roca Antunes), because
of their peaceful activities in expressing their disagreement
with the Government. In May and June, the group sought international
support for its political positions and nonviolent dissent from
the Government's policies. The working group also made a public
appeal to citizens to exercise their legal right to abstain from
participating in upcoming national elections. It held two well-attended
press conferences with foreign journalists. During the second
press conference, the group presented "The Homeland Belongs
to All," a paper that outlined a moderate response to the
platform document of the Cuban Communist Party's fifth party
congress. On July 16, state security agents launched coordinated
raids against the working group members' homes and took the four
members to police stations. State security officers searched
their homes and seized books, papers, correspondence, and personal
articles such as typewriters and computers. In November the authorities
transferred the four from Havana's Villa Marista state security
facility to separate prisons: Roca to Ariza prison in Cienfuegos
province; Gomez Manzano to Aguija prison in Matanzas province,
Bonne to Guanajay prison in Havana province, and Roque to Manto
Negro women's prison, also in Havana province. At year's end,
there were still no indications whether the Government would
put the group on trial on charges of disseminating enemy propaganda.
On June 25, 1997, the Government arrested
medical doctor and human rights activist Dessy Mendoza at his
home in Santiago de Cuba. Dr. Mendoza was detained because of
his efforts in February to alert the public, through the international
media, about an outbreak of hemorrhagic dengue fever in Santiago
de Cuba, which resulted in the death of about 30 persons. In
June the Government finally acknowledged the outbreak and began
a belated fumigation effort in Santiago de Cuba, Havana, and
elsewhere. In December the Government tried, convicted, and sentenced
Dr. Mendoza to 8 years in prison for disseminating false information.
The unhealthful conditions of his detention required his hospitalization.
On October 9, 1997, 10 human rights
activists in Santa Clara initiated a prolonged fast to protest
the incarceration of Daula Carpio Matas, who had originally been
sentenced to house arrest for a previous incident. At 4:00 a.m.
on October 14, police raided the home where the fast was taking
place and detained the occupants. On October 23, a court convicted
the fasting dissidents of association to commit crimes and disobedience,
and sentenced them to a variety of terms ranging from 18 months
in jail to 18 months' probation. At year's end, six of the dissidents
were continuing the fast, four of them in a hospital.
The Penal Code also includes the concept
of "dangerousness," defined as the "special proclivity
of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by his conduct in
manifest contradiction of socialist norms." If the police
decide that a person exhibits signs of dangerousness, they may
detain the offender, bring him before a court, or subject him
to "therapy" or "political reeducation."
Government authorities regularly threaten citizens with prosecution
under this article. Both the UNHRC and the IACHR condemned this
concept for its subjectivity, the summary nature of the judicial
proceedings employed, the lack of legal safeguards for the accused,
and the political considerations behind its application. According
to the IACHR, "the special inclination to commit crimes
referred to in the Cuban criminal code amounts to a subjective
criterion used by the Government to justify violations of the
rights to individual freedom and due process of persons whose
sole crime has been an inclination to hold a view different from
the official view."
The Castro government also used exile
as a tool for controlling and eliminating the internal opposition.
Amnesty International noted that the Government had changed its
tactics in dealing with human rights advocates, and "rather
than arresting them and bringing them to trial, the tendency
was to repeatedly detain them for short periods and threaten
them with imprisonment unless they gave up their activities or
left the country." In August the Government used these incremental,
aggressive tactics to compel Diosmel Rodriguez, an activist from
Santiago de Cuba, and Olance Nogueras, an independent journalist
already under state-imposed internal exile in Cienfuegos, to
leave the country.
The Government has also pressured imprisoned
human rights activists to apply for emigration and regularly
conditioned their release on acceptance of exile. On several
occasions, state security officers facilitated passes to prisoners
to come to the capital for the express purpose of initiating
exit procedures with foreign diplomatic missions.
Amnesty International expressed "particular
concern" about the Government's practice of threatening
to charge, try, and imprison human rights advocates and independent
journalists prior to arrest or sentencing if they did not leave
the country, which it said "effectively prevents those concerned
from being able to act in public life in their own country."
In August the Government began a campaign
of intense harassment against Leonel Morejon Almagro, one of
the founders of the Concilio Cubano, in an attempt to force him
into exile. Morejon had been released from Ariza prison on May
9 after serving a 15-month sentence, ostensibly for disrespect.
Upon his release, the authorities warned Morejon not to attempt
to restart the Concilio, which in February 1996 attempted to
bring together over 130 prodemocracy groups for a meeting in
Havana. The Government's state security apparatus prevented the
meeting by launching a campaign of mass detentions and intimidation
against more than 200 would-be participants. State security officers
repeatedly harassed Morejon's spouse and his close relatives,
subjected them to numerous arbitrary house searches, and threatened
them with possible detention if they did not disassociate themselves
from him. Morejon was subjected to intense surveillance, and
the authorities videotaped private, nonpolitical activities in
an attempt to increase their pressure on him by obliging him
to restrict his personal life. Since May, Morejon had been briefly
detained two times and visited or called in for questioning by
state security agents on more than a dozen occasions.
Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the Constitution provides for
independent courts, it explicitly subordinates them to the National
Assembly (ANPP) and the Council of State, which is headed by
Fidel Castro. The ANPP and its lower level counterparts elect
all judges. The subordination of the courts to the Communist
Party--which is designated in the Constitution as "the superior
directive force of the society and the state"--further compromises
the judiciary's independence.
Civil courts exist at municipal, provincial,
and Supreme Court levels. Panels composed of a mix of professionally
certified and lay judges preside over them. Military tribunals
assume jurisdiction for certain "counterrevolutionary"
The law and trial practices do not meet
international standards for fair public trials. Almost all cases
are tried in less than a day. There are no jury trials. While
most trials are public, trials are closed when state security
is allegedly involved. Prosecutors may introduce testimony from
a CDR member as to the revolutionary background of a defendant,
which may contribute to either a longer or shorter sentence.
The law recognizes the right of appeal in municipal courts but
limits it in provincial courts to cases such as those involving
maximum prison terms or the death penalty. Appeals in death penalty
cases are automatic. The death penalty must ultimately be affirmed
by the Council of State.
Criteria for presenting evidence, especially
in cases of human rights advocates, are arbitrary and discriminatory.
Often the sole evidence provided, particularly in political cases,
is the defendant's confession, usually obtained under duress
and without the legal advice or knowledge of a defense lawyer.
The authorities regularly deny defendants access to their lawyers
until the day of the trial. Several dissidents who have served
prison terms report that they were tried and sentenced without
counsel and were not allowed to speak on their own behalf. Amnesty
International has stated that "trials in all cases fall
far short of international standards for a fair trial."
The law provides the accused with the
right to an attorney, but the control that the Government exerts
over the livelihood of members of the state-controlled lawyers'
collectives--especially when they defend persons accused of state
security crimes--compromises their ability to represent clients.
Attorneys have reported reluctance to defend those charged in
political cases out of fear of jeopardizing their own careers.
On July 8, a court sentenced Radames
Garcia de la Vega, founder of the "Cuban Youths for Democracy
Movement," to 18 months at a correctional work center for
having shown disrespect to Fidel Castro. Garcia de la Vega's
prodemocracy group has called for reestablishment of political
autonomy for the universities and an end to the practice of admitting
students to university based on their identification with the
revolution. After the sentencing, group member Nestor Rodriguez
Robaina reportedly shouted "Liberty" and "Long
live democracy." On July 25, a court sentenced Rodriguez
to 18 months' imprisonment in Guantanamo for "contempt against
the dignity of the court." The State deployed uniformed
and plainclothes security agents around and inside the courthouse
to preclude protests that had taken place at Garcia de la Vega's
trial from recurring. Other members of the group were prosecuted
shortly thereafter. Heriberto Fuste was given a 2-year sentence
for disrespect to Fidel Castro, while due to ill health, Heriberto
Leyva was given only a fine of about $50 (1,000 pesos--the equivalent
of 6 months' median salary) and warned by state security officers
to leave the country. In September the authorities transferred
Rodriguez to a hospital following his 14-day hunger strike to
protest the Government's crackdown on prodemocracy youths while
it simultaneously hosted an International Youth and Student Festival
(see Section 2.b.).
According to Amnesty International,
some 600 persons were imprisoned for various political crimes.
Other human rights monitoring groups estimate that 800 individuals--not
including those held for dangerousness--were imprisoned on such
charges as disseminating enemy propaganda, illicit association,
contempt for authorities (usually for criticizing Fidel Castro),
clandestine printing, or the broad charge of rebellion, often
brought against advocates of peaceful democratic change. In an
October 1995 television interview, Castro acknowledged and attempted
to justify the existence of political prisoners in Cuba by stating
that this was a normal practice in many other countries.