The Fidel they never told you about (and still don’t)

When Fidel Castro died, the world lamented. Leading the way, the UN Secretary General said he was “saddened” to learn of it. Castro would be remembered for “his leadership of the Cuban revolution and for advances in Cuba in the fields of education, literacy and health”.  His “revolutionary ideals left few indifferent”, but he had been “a strong voice for social justice”.  Canada’s prime minister called him “a larger-than-life leader who had served his people for almost half a century”.  While admittedly a “controversial” figure, “both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people”. According to a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba, Castro was respected “even by people in Cuba who were opponents of his views”.  Others offered up similar praise, as did much of the mainstream media.

None of it was true – which raises the question why, in international politics, so many succumb so often to the big lie. This time, there was something desperate in the language opinion leaders used to gloss over the reality of things. Note the careful caveating. Castro didn’t leave people “indifferent”, he was “controversial”, he took Cuba “down a path not all Cubans wanted”, he was “a polarizing figure”.  “Human rights violations” was the common euphemism for Castro’s snuffing out of the freedoms of Cubans and incarcerating, torturing and murdering tens of thousands who opposed his 57-year dictatorial rule.  According to one Canadian journalist, Castro’s “durability” wasn’t due to his repressing dissent but his “prodigious memory, a compulsion for self-challenge, the ability to think several moves ahead”.  And he so loved his people. When he was just twelve years old, a CBC reporter recounted, Fidel had threatened to organize a workers’ strike against his father’s agricultural business if he didn’t pay them more. What a guy, even then.

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In 1997, Editions Robert Laffont in Paris published Le livre noir du Communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression. Two years later, Harvard University Press translated and published it as The Black Book of Communism. The work is an 800-page compendium of the crimes of Communist regimes worldwide, recorded and analyzed in gruesome detail by a team of six French, Polish and Czech researchers. Here’s a selection of their findings on Cuba:      

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On 8 January 1959 Castro, Guevara and their forces made a triumphant entry into the capital. As soon as they had seized power, they began to conduct mass executions inside the two main prisons, La Cabaña and Santa Clara. According to reports in the foreign press, 600 of Batista’s supporters were summarily executed during a five-month period. (p. 648)

Although he initially promised to hold free elections within eighteen months, by June he had decided to postpone the elections indefinitely. Castro justified his decision in an address to the inhabitants of Havana, saying: “Elections? What for?” thus renouncing one of the fundamental points of the anti-Batista guerilla program. In effect, he took over the position vacated by the fallen dictator. He also suspended the 1940 constitution and its guarantees of fundamental rights, governing by decree until 1976, when he imposed a constitution modeled on that of the USSR. The new laws 53 and 54 (relating to freedom of association) were particularly important in abrogating civil liberties by limiting the rights of citizens to meet in groups. (649)

(In 1960) the last independent newspapers disappeared, and the rest were muzzled … In the fall of 1960, the last remaining political and military opposition leaders, including William Morgan and Humberto Sori Marin, were arrested. Morgan, a guerilla leader in the Sierra, was shot the following year. (p. 650)      

Cuba’s boat people

The first great wave of departures now began. Nearly 50,000 people from the middle classes, many of whom had originally supported the revolution, all took the road to exile. This exodus of doctors, teachers, and lawyers did irreparable harm to Cuban society. (p. 650)

In the 1960s Cubans began to “vote with their oars”… Castro had tried to prevent people from leaving by sending helicopters to drop sandbags into the balsas (makeshift rafts) when they are at sea. In the summer of 1974, 7000 people lost their lives while attempting to flee, It is estimated that approximately one-third of all balseros have died while at sea. Over thirty years, approximately 100,000 have attempted the journey. The result of this exodus is that out of 11 million inhabitants, 2 million now live in exile. Exile has scattered many families among Havana, Miami, Spain, and Puerto Rico. (p. 663)

Regime change

The workers were the next group to suffer repression. The labor unions had resisted the new regime from its earliest days. One of the principal leaders was the head of the Sugar Union, David Salvador … In June, Salvador went into hiding, but in August 1961 he was arrested and spent the next twelve years in prison. (p. 650)

In May (1961) all religious colleges were closed and their buildings confiscated by the government … on 17 September 131 priests were forced to leave the country. (p. 651)

As minister of industry and head of the Central Bank … Guevara introduced “voluntary work Sundays” in emulation of the USSR and China. He was a great admirer of the Cultural Revolution. According to Régis Debray, “It was he and not Fidel who in 1960 invented Cuba’s first “corrective work camp” (we would say ‘forced labor camp’). (p. 652)

The Escambray revolt

Many of Castro’s opponents went into hiding, where they were joined by people who had fought in the anti-Batista urban guerilla groups. In the early 1960s, this underground movement grew into a revolt based in the Escambray Mountains. Raul Castro sent in all the military forces at his disposal, including armored vehicles, artillery, and hundreds of infantry militia, to put down the rebellion. The families of rebel peasants were moved out of the area to eliminate popular support … Despite these measures, the fighting continued for five years. (p. 653)

Justice was harsh for (the rebels). Guevara took the opportunity to liquidate Jesús Carreras, one of the leaders of the anti-Batista rebellion … Wounded in combat, Carreras was dragged before a firing squad, where Guevara refused to grant him a stay of execution. Some 381 “bandits” were judged in similar fashion in the Santa Clara prison. In La Loma de los Coches prison more than 1000 “counter-revolutionaries” were shot in the years between the triumph of 1959 and the final liquidation of the Escambray protest movement. (p. 653-4)                 

Organs of repression

To control the population, the Dirrección Special del Ministerio del Interior (DSMI) recruits chivatos (informers) by the thousands. The DSMI works in three different fields: one section keeps a file on every Cuban citizen; another keeps track of public opinion; the third, in charge of the “ideological line”, keeps an eye on the church and its various congregations through infiltration. (p. 655)

Dirrección 5 specializes in the elimination of opponents. Elias de la Torriente was killed in Miami and Aldo Vera, one of the chiefs of the urban guerilla group that fought against Batista, was killed in Puerto Rico. Hubert Matos, who now lives in exile in Miami, is forced to protect himself with armed bodyguards. Dirrección 5 carries out its detentions and interrogations at a detention center in Villa Marista in Havana, a building that previously belonged to a congregation of Marist monks. Far from prying eyes and in conditions of extreme isolation, prisoners there are often subjected to psychological and physical torture. (p. 655)

Because responsibility in Cuba was generally considered to be collective, punishment was also frequently collective. The regime exerted pressure on its opponents by forcing relatives to pay a social cost; the children of detainees were banned from higher education, and spouses were often fired from their jobs. (p. 657)

Prisons and labour camps

For many years La Cabaña was the most infamous prison in Cuba, known as the place where Sori Marin and Carreras were executed. As late as 1982, nearly 100 prisoners were shot there. La Cabaña specialized in holding its prisoners in tiny cells known as ratoneras, or rat holes. It was finally closed in 1985. Elsewhere, however, executions have continued including at Boniato, a high-security prison known for extreme violence … hundreds of prisoners have died from hunger and lack of medical care. (p. 658)

One of Cuba’s largest concentration camps, El Manbu, in the Camagüey region, contained more than 3000 in the 1980s … In 1986 some 3000 women were incarcerated in the Potosi camp, in Victoria de las Tunas, mostly for juvenile delinquency, prostitution, and political crimes. There are also special camps for children and adolescents. Situated near Santiao de la Vegas, the Arco Iris (Rainbow) camp was designated to hold 1500 adolescents. The Nueva Vida (New Life) camp is in the southwestern region. In the Palos zone is the Capitiolo, a special internment camp for children up to age ten. (p. 659)

Pierre and Margaret Trudeau visiting Castro in 1978 -- when there were more than 15,000 Cubans in prions or labor camps for "political crimes"

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret visiting with Castro in 1978 — when there were more than 15,000 Cubans in prisons or labor camps for “political crimes”

The price Cubans have paid

During the repressions of the 1960s, between 7000 and 10,000 people were killed and 30,000 people imprisoned for political reasons. (656)

In 1978 there were between 15,000 and 20,000 prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Many came from the M-26 or the student anti-Batista movements, or were still in prison from the days of the Escambray resistance and the Bay of Pigs.

In 1986 some 12,000-15,000 political prisoners were kept in fifty regional prisons throughout the island … From 1959 through the late 1990s more than 100,000 Cubans experienced life in one of the camps, prisons, or open-regime sites. Between 15,000 and 17,000 people were shot. (p. 664)

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Editor’s note

Okay, but didn’t Castro raise literacy rates and give Cubans world-class health care? Actually, no.  Before “The Revolution”, Cuba had already attained one of the highest educational levels in Latin America. To believe it would have improved still further with so many professionals having been driven into exile amidst an economy barely coping with the necessities of life defies logic. The reverse is much more likely.

And health care? Fellow travellers might be willing to rely on the government-generated data of a totalitarian regime, but real travellers rely on sounder sources. Herewith extracts from what The Lonely Planet travel guide advises:

From a medical point of view, Cuba is generally safe as long as you’re reasonably careful about what you eat and drink. Prevention is the key to staying healthy while travelling around Cuba.

There are special pharmacies for foreigners run by the Servimed system, but all Cuban pharmacies are notorious short of supplies, including pharmaceuticals. Be sure to bring along adequate quantities of all medications you might need, both prescription and over the counter. Also, be sure to bring along a fully stocked medical kit.

While Cuban hospitals provide some free emergency treatment for foreigners, this should only be used when there is no other option. Remember that in Cuba medical resources are scarce and the local populace should be given priority in free health-care facilities. If you develop a life-threatening medical problem, you’ll probably want to be evacuated to a country with state-of-the-art medical care.

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The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

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