How Cubans Enjoy The Good Life in Fidel Castro's Politically Correct Prisons

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 enemy propaganda.

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 for minors.

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" cases.

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.