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CHRONICLE OF AN UNFORGETTABLE AGONY: CUBA'S POLITICAL PRISONS

CONTACTO MAGAZINE. Sep't 96.

By Jesus Hernandez Cuellas

Julio Antonio Yebra M.D. shook the hand of each member of his firing squad and told them that he forgave them. The order to shoot mixed with his own scream condemning communism, and his lifeless body hung from the pole to which it had been tied. Seconds later we heard the final shot to the head. In one of the prison wings at the Presidio Modelo in Isla de Pinos, Cuco Muniz and Armando Valladares were having a conversation in front of cell 35 when a human shadow fell from above and crashed on the cement, down below. It was Jesus Lopez Cuevas. He had thrown himself, in a suicidal jump, from the fourth floor. He was dead.

Pedro Luis Boitel, former candidate to the presidency of the University's Student Federation, believed that human beings should demand respect for themselves through any means. He undertook a tenacious hunger strike which led to international repercussions and complicitous silence. He died dehydrated on May 24, 1972, after 53 days without nourishment in a Cuban prison. Before then he had taken part in many hunger strikees.

Fortunately, Mario Chanes de Armas survived that hell, but at the price of spending 30 years in Castro's prisons, which turned him into the longest held held political prisoner in the world. Chanes de Armas suffered such fate in spite of having participated alongside Fidel Castro in the assault on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, on July 26, 1953; after having taken part in the Granma trip from Veracruz, Mexico, landing on the eastern coast of Cuba, in 1956, which would mark the beginning of the armed struggle against the Batista regime and which found him, on the eve of the Revolution's triumph, in one of Fulgencio Batista's cells.

"I've never felt hatred or wished for vengeance against anyone, I will never be able to be a judge or a prosecutor", Chanes de Armas stated to CONTACTO, who stayed in prison from July 1961 until July 1991, accused of planning attacks against the leadership of Castro's regime. The former prisoner states that he was never involved with any group planning the murder of any leader. In his book Cuba: Myth and Reality, sociologist Juan Clark states that the highest record of political prisoners in Cuba (at a given time) throughout its history amounted to 60 thousand during the 1960's. Amnesty International points out that in the mid-1970's, some 20 thousand prisoners had been freed. Clark concludes that "in a comparative base, these two amounts would be the equivalent, in a country the size of the United States, in the amount of 1,410,000 and 466,000 during that era".

Juan Clark adds that "this would make Cuba the country with the highest percentage (per capita) of political prisoners in the Western Hemisphere, even higher than the percentage for the Soviet Union", a nation which kept the highest number of dissidents jailed before the process of perestroika and glasnost, started by Mijail Gorbachev during the second half of the 1980's.

Historically, the era with the highest number of political prisoners held in Cuba prior to Fidel Castro in power, had been under the dictatorship of General Gerardo Machado, between 1929 and 1933, when some 5 thousand opponents were jailed. During the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, between 1952 and 1958, some 500 political prisoners were held. The testimonies of some of the protagonists can clearly make the comparison between the treatment received by the prisoners during the different periods. Here's one such important testimony:

"I'm going to dine: spaghetti with calamari, italian chocolates for dessert, freshly brewed Cuban coffee and later an H-Upman #4 (cigar). Don't you envy me?.... When I get some sun in the mornings, wearing shorts and feeling the sea breeze, I think that I'm at the beach. They are going to make me think I'm on vacation! What would Karl Marx say of such revolutionaries?"

The above quotation comes from a letter written by Fidel Castro when he was being held at the Presidio Modelo in Isla de Pinos, serving a 15 year sentence for leading the attack on the Moncada Barracks, in which some 100 people died. Castro and his companions served 20 months in jail, after which they received an amnesty from Batista's regime.

The Historical Prisoners.

What is called "the historical prison" of Castro's era, started from the early days of the triumph of the revolution. The first to be condemned were the military officers of the former regime. Among them there were many who were executed under uncomfirmed accusations of assassinations allegedly committed during the brief period of civil war from December 1956 to December 1958. There was the case of a military officer who was accused by a mother of having assassinated her son. Several days after her son showed up in Havana, who had been taken for dead while in exile in Venezuela, sought to prevent the man's execution. He feared that the false accusation would lead an innocent man to death. Everything was in vain.

"Throughout the island the firing squads didn't stop the killing. It was during those days that Captain Antonio Nunez Jimenez said that, from that day forward, 1961, which had been labelled the Year of Education, would be known as the Year of the Firing Squad. His prediction became true", says in his book Against All Hope, former political prisoner Armando Valladares, who stayed 22 years in Cuban prisons.

At one point in time, the then commandant Raul Castro, head of the Army, stated that "the thugs that we are going to execute won't be more than 400", talking about the military and government officials under Batista.

The reality is that the true number of those executed for political causes over these last 36 years of Cuba's history is not known, because the statistics on the executions are a complete secret, and in greater or smaller scale, the executions have not stopped at all.

The "historical prisoners" were strengthened starting in the days just before the Bay of Pigs invasion, which took place in April, 1961. It has been estimated that more than 100 thousand people went to jail during those days. One of them was Eddy Carrera, processed in case file #307 for "attempting to take up arms to back-up the indaders". At that time, Carrera was the coordinator of the Movimiento Democrata Cristiano (MDC) in Havana. He was jailed for 16 years. Carrera, who had also opposed Batista's dictatorship, remembers that the most difficult times during his long prison term: the real executions, the make believe executions using empty shells- a horrible mental torture- being forced to wear the blue uniform of common prisoners, the searches of the cells at the point of a bayonet, the hunger strikes, the murders inside the prison, and many other experiences.

"Towards my jailers, I feel no hatred, I feel no pity, it is a mix of feelings, you must keep in mind that most of them were illiterate, beings close to savages", remembers the former political prisoner. "I'm not opposed to justice, but I would do anything possible so that acts of vengeance don't take place.....all of them, the same as us, have or have had mothers, wives, children", add Carrera.

Chanes de Arma believes, like the majority of former Cuban prisoners, what could be called the "cruelest" act of psychological torture which has taken place in contemporary Cuban prisons, the following. Immediately after the aerial attacks on April 15, 1961, which preceded the landing in Bahia de Cochinos, the ground of the Presidio Modelo in Isla de Pinos was filled with dynamite, in a manner in which, if there was an attempt to rescue the prisoners or an American military operation against the prison, the more than 6 thousand inmates housed there could be "blown to pieces".

We had the impression of sleeping over a powder keg... there were some men whose nerves couldn't stand the torture and were permanently damaged... it was horrible to think that from one minute to the next we could be killed in an explosion", Chanes continued to narrate. Among the prisoners there were explosives experts, and they, in an incredible act, managed to identify and deactivate the cables which connected the numerous piles of explosives to the detonation devices, which had a double mechanism: electrical and mechanic. However, the painful task of deactivating the explosives would "only grant us a few more minutes..... because the genocides, upon seeing that the TNT was not exploding, that we weren't blown to bits, would attempt other means of destroying us....., it would be enough for them to blow us by shooting the cannon against any of the wings of the prison, since each of them would remain a powder keg", Valladares says in his book.

Many soldiers would mock the prisoners, during this period, and from outside would signal that they were about to blow up the prison. The dynamite was taken out shortly after the missile crisis in October, 1962.

The "PLANTADOS'

One of the attitudes which turned the first prisoners into "historical" (prisoners), aside from the time during which they were jailed, was their refusal to wear the blue uniform of common prisoners. This cost them violent confrontations, physical and psychological tortures, and they finally ended almost naked, only wearing their underwear, for many years. There were times in which the repressive forces used experts in martial arts to force the prisoners into wearing the uniform. This happened in all the prisons, but when the government tried to impose this measure, Eddy Carrera was in the farming prison of San Juan and Martinez, in Pinar del Rio. It was 1967. "They took us one by one to a place in the farm, and in the presence of judokas they forced us to put on the uniform... whoever refused would be subjected to strikes and kicks from the judokas... many of us were left with no clothing at all, some were injured or had bone fractures", Carrera says. The former prisoner and currently secretary of matters with the Cuban people for the Coordinadora Internacional de Ex Prisioneros Politicos, tells us about the most emotional time in his life in prison: "It was during our trip from Pinar del Rio to La Cabana, after the incident over the uniform. There we were greeted by out friends, who had also suffered the same fate, by their singing our National Anthem".

VARIOUS PUNISHMENTS

These men suffered, throughout their sentences, various types of punishments. One of the favorite places for the jailers to punish the inmates were in the infamous "gavetas" (drawers), particularly in the prisons in Oriente, which had an approximate size of 4 feet width by 6 feet in length. "The prisoners had to remain in them kneeling. The one who suffered this torture were in these cells from 5 to 6 months", Carrera adds.

Clark cites in his book another type of punishment cell which was called "La Ratonera", in La Cabana prison, measuring 7 by 4 feet, but he emphasizes that over the last few years the punishment cells most used are the "tapiadas" (the walled-in), in Boniato prison, as well as, "los candados" (the locks), and the "rectangle of death" at El Combinado del Este, in Havana. Juan Clark mentions how the "cruelty of the regime's penitentiary system is also evident in the inadecuate provisions of food and of medical health, which at different times has been denied to the prisoners as part of the disciplinary measures against the prisoners."

NEW PRISONERS

Among the "historical" prisoners there was a good many who went above spending 20 years in prison. Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez, former union activist and poet, was freed three months before Chanes de Armas. Eusebio Penalver, revolutionary fighter who fought in Che Guevara's ranks in the war against Batista, took up arms again after Castro's triumph and was captured in the mountains of Escambray. Was in prison 28 years and a half. He is considered to be the longest held black political prisoner in the world, three years longer than activist and presently president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

But in the meantime, a new crop of political prisoners joined the "historical" (political prisoners). From 1970, the Cuban authorities did not allow for both groups to remain together, and they placed the new prisoners, directly, in their "political rehabilitation" classes.

However, in May, 1983, prisoners who had been sentenced after 1979, says Clark in his book, "also refused the re- habilitation plans and formed the Nuevo Presidio Plantado, differentiating it from the former, which they called "historic" and which, according to them, served as their example".

Today, it has been said, the prison sentences for political causes, are shorter but more frequent. A few years ago, the beating which neighbors gave to poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, in front of her own home, caused an international uproar, she was forced to swallow the Declaration of Pinciples which she had written demanding freedom and democracy. After the attack which she suffered at the hands of apparently civil mob, organized by the Interior Ministry, she was sentenced to prison for spreading "enemy propaganda". She was set free a little over a year ago.

"Cuban women, political prisoners, deserve a monument to be built in their name once Cuba is free", says Chanes de Armas. "They too, before and now, were beaten and tortured in prison", remembers the former political prisoner. Conservative estimates indicate that at this time, there are more than 1,200 political prisoners in Cuba.

"Other countries have suffered similarly difficult times...., and that's why I'm convinced on democracy, I don't want democracy for me and dictatorship for my political enemies", Carrera reflects.

"It is repugnant to see how some leaders welcome Castro, I'm sure that the French, for example, don't want for their country a government such as there is in Cuba", Chanes de Armas concluded."Man is a marvel of nature. To torture him, destroy him, ban him for his ideas is, more than a violation of human rights, a crime against all humanity", Armando Valladares has said.


CONTACTO Magazine is a bilingual, monthly publication addresed to the Cuban American community 9/95.
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