On February 24,1996, two unarmed U.S. civilian planes, flying over international waters, were shot down by Cuban MiG-29 fighter planes. This completely unjustified attack resulted in the murder of four young Cuban Americans: Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario De la Peña and Pablo Morales. The attack was an outright violation of international aviation law, and it would have been such a violation even if the planes had actually entered Cuba, as the Castro government falsely claimed. The downed planes belonged to Brothers to the Rescue, a humanitarian organization dedicated to rescuing racers fleeing Cuba.
From 1959 through 1993, some 25,000 Cubans managed to escape from the island, mostly by sea in small boats and fragile rags. Others fled by way of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo, which is encircled--on the Cuban side--by barbed-wired fences and heavily mined fields, much like those between the former East and West Germany. (See diagram on page 2) It is estimated that only one of every three or four Cubans who have attempted to escape has been successful. Thousands have died in the attempt or have been captured and imprisoned.
On July 13,1994, 41 persons, including 12 children, perished when the Castro regime sank the tugboat 13 de Marzo, on which 70 people were trying to flee. In August of 1994, an unprecedented event took place on the shores of northern Cuba. Over 35,000 Cubans launched makeshift boats and rags into the Florida Straits aver Fidel Castro tacitly gave his consent to their departure.
In the face of this extraordinary spectacle of massive numbers of people fleeing their own country at such risk. we must ask who these people are and why they are willing to risk their lives this way. For the most part, they are young and of humble origin, precisely those whom the revolution has claimed as its main beneficiaries and supporters. According to various studies, what motivates them is their complete rejection of a totalitarian system that stifles them and deprives them of any semblance of freedom. They have the perception that any opposition is useless. That is why many rakers have said, "I would rather die in the ocean than have to go on living in Cuba."
Since 1959, over one million Cubans have gone into exile legally.
These refugees have come from all areas of the island and represent
all races and socioeconomic groups. It has been a very painful exodus,
tragically dividing most Cuban families. Those who have sought to go into
exile have first suffered discrimination and persecution at home. They
have been sent to forced labor camps and despoiled of all their property.
Those who have remained behind are now encouraged to ask for dollars from
their relatives abroad to buy in Cuba vital goods not available otherwise.
Castro seized power on January 1, 1959, with the enthusiastic support
of the majority of the Cuban people, who believed in his promise to restore
the democratic process which had been interrupted by Fulgencio Batista's
coup d'etat of March 10, 1952. In 1958, Cuba's most serious problems were
political, the constitutional process having been violated and the endemic
corruption in government aggravated. But economically and socially, Cuba
fared rather well. Its standard of living ranked among the highest in Latin
After over 37 years, it is evident that, in the guise of social reform, Castro's true purpose has always been to enjoy unlimited power. To seize power he deceptively held out the hope that democracy would be restored. Once securely in power, however, he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, thus assuring the military and economic aid needed from the Soviet Union to keep himself in power.
Nevertheless, Castro faced strong opposition from within his own ranks. To consolidate his power he executed thousands who defied him, even though they had actively participated in the effort to overthrow Batista.
Taking advantage of his own charisma and of the people's trust in him, Castro managed to impose a totalitarian system in scarcely three years. He used deceit and implacable repression. He eliminated all potential political rivals. He seized control of the labor unions and the student and professional organizations. He took over the media and gradually confiscated all private enterprise, as well as all private education and the excellent HMO-type health care system. Even the smallest businesses were eliminated as private enterprise became a crime.
All religious institutions also suffered a harsh blow. Not only did Castro severely limit their activities, but in 1961 he confiscated their excellent educational system without compensation. In that same year hundreds of member of the clergy, including a bishop were expelled.
Castro has imprisoned hundreds of thousands. Cuba has had the largest number of political prisoners, serving the longest and cruelest sentences, ever recorded in this hemisphere. At one point 100,000 men and women from all walks of life were in prison for political reasons. Many were serving sentences of 10, 20 or 30 years. Most served their full sentences, like Huber Mates, former revolutionary commander who served 20 years, and Mario Chanes de Armas, who served 30 years. Both men had fought side by side with Castro. Many political prisoners have had to serve additional years aver completing their original sentences.
The treatment political prisoners have received under Castro is much more severe than that imposed under Batista's dictatorship. Castro himself was condemned to 15 years for his aback on the Moncada military barracks on July 26, 1953, which resulted in the deaths of over 100 men. After 22 months of a rather comfortable imprisonment he was released under a general amnesty. But Castro has never offered a general political amnesty during his almost 40 year rule.
Violations of human rights have been extensive and extremely serious in Castro's Cuba, particularly in the case of detainees and political prisoners. Many have been assassinated, while thousands have been beaten, tortured physically and mentally, forced into hard labor, and locked into isolation cells (tapiadas) with steel planks for doors for extended periods of time. They have been deprived of family visits for years and their families have been constantly harassed. Detainees have been subjected to electroshock and suffer from lack of adequate nutrition and medical care. They are often humiliated, and they have endured physical and psychological torture in cells known as gavetas (drawers) where they are packed so closely they have to remain standing. In the more recent version of the gavetas the prisoner is locked into a cell resembling a coffin.
When we analyze living conditions in Cuba in the light of The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, we realize how those human rights are
violated directly or indirectly to most of the people. Such evidence
will help us to understand why these desperate people risk their lives
to escape their homeland.
The most obvious abuses started with the numerous unjustified executions by firing squads, brazenly publicized to intimidate. Executions have also been accompanied by the practice of extracting most of the blood from the condemned men before execution. This practice has taken place extensively and appears to continue until now.
The cruelty of the regime is further manifested not only in the exceptionally long prison sentences, but also in the extremely harsh treatment of political prisoners, including the use of electroshock to break their spirits.
Meanwhile, the general population lives under the watchful eye of the CDR's (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), vigilante groups organized by city block to spy on fellow citizens. The male population is under the close watch of the Military Committees which enforce service in the military reserves. Acts of repudiation are performed by Nazi-style mobs, the Rapid Response Brigades organized by the government to terrorize dissidents. They can also be subjected to various forms of blackmail and even "mysterious" accidents.
Arbitrary arrests are justified under the Ley de Peligrosidad
(Endangerment law), under which anyone who poses a threat to the system
can be arrested and incarcerated without due process. Those who criticize
the government or denounce human rights abuses can also be subject to immediate
arrest for distributing "enemy propaganda."
Most violations of human rights are the result of indirect repression, a form much less obvious to the foreign observer. It is a very effective type of coercion, that seeks to control the entire population. It operates through a system that encompasses every aspect of an individual's life: employment, education, housing, health care, food distribution and other necessities. In a country with practically no independent civil institutions, the government is in almost complete control.
Under such a totalitarian system, the power of government is unlimited. It is a power monopolized by the sole legal party, the Communist Party, which in turn is subservient to Fidel Castro as its First Secretary,. In order to advance in such a society, it is necessary to be "politically integrated" (absolute loyalty to the Party). This indirect repression has been carefully crafted by social scientists, and it operates by means of the following:
The Socialist Constitution of 1976 (further amended in 1992). Arbitrarily imposed on the Cuban people, it legalizes the violations of human rights. Article 62, for instance, states that a citizen's rights shall be recognized only if they coincide with the "objectives of building a socialist state." The government readily violates its own laws when it finds it convenient, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. In 1989, this "Hero of the Revolution" and other high-ranking officers were brought to trial for drug trafficking. This offense carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, yet Ochoa and the others were convicted of treason, and promptly executed. The case also serves as an example of the Cuban government's characteristic hypocrisy, given the regime's well-documented involvement in the international drug scene. Also flagrantly ignored is Decree # 54, which supposedly guarantees the freedom of association. All civic groups, labor unions, human rights advocates and independent journalists that have requested permission to organize have been denied that right.
The educational system. The total monopoly of the educational system is another powerful weapon of control and has been used very effectively to indoctrinate students from the earliest grades. The teacher, who becomes a repressive agent and watchdog of "ideological and political integration," must keep a yearly Cumulative Academic Record that evaluates each student on that dimension, among others. This powerful weapon of intimidation hangs over the student and his or her family. Any blot on the Cumulative Record means the student is guilty of political misconduct and could be refused access to higher education or the right to choose a career. The privileged careers, those with "social impact" are normally resewed for the "integrated." And finally, high school students are required to do "voluntary" farm work at the "schools in the counts, side."
The control of the labor force. Control of the workers follows a similar pattern as that with students. There is a Labor Record (Expediente Laboral) that documents ideological conduct besides the working performance. Labor unions are under absolute control of the government and they are utilized to further its economic plan and political objectives, and to coerce workers to perform "voluntary labor" without pay; The right to strike Is forbidden. Attempts to create independent unions have been harshly repressed. Foreign enterprises, now allowed in Cuba, cannot hire labor freely. Workers are assigned to those enterprises like indentured servants; their wages are paid to the government in precious dollars and doled out to the workers in meager, practically worthless pesos.
The struggle for subsistence. Established as early as 1962, food rationing has been one of the Cuban government's most powerful forms of control, since people preoccupied with sustenance don't have the time or energy to rebel. The Supply or Ration Book has controlled the amount and the frequency with which the bare necessities may be purchased, only as they become available and only at the store assigned to the individual. In fact, it has been a crime to buy food from unauthorized sources. Now that the possession of dollars has become legal, many staples are practically available at stores that sell for American currency. This has created considerable hardship. Despite the heavy penalty, the black market has flourished, as Cubans are forced resort to it to survive. Until recently, no attempt at private enterprise was considered legitimate. Today, a number of small businesses such as home-based restaurants (paladares) are permitted, but only family members may work there. The government prohibits the free sale or purchase of homes and automobiles.
Control of travel and movement. From the age of 16, every citizen must carry an Identity Card at all times. This passport-like I.D., designed to control mobility, contains a complete personal history, showing present and past addresses, work history, marital status, and number of children. Most importantly, it is coded to indicate degree of "ideological integration." Permission from the government is required to move to another home or change jobs. Travel abroad is highly restricted and subject to considerable exploitation, since exorbitant fees must be paid to the government by the relatives abroad. The opposition leader Osvaldo Payá has not been allowed to travel abroad, while independent journalist Yndamiro Restano, permitted to leave Cuba to receive an award, has not been allowed to return.
Membership in mass organizations. Adults and children alike are
highly pressured to join government-controlled organizations: the CDR's
(Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), the Women's Federation,
the labor unions, and student organizations, and even the Pioneers (for
children) were created in order to exert even more control over what little
free time Cubans have leg aver their arduous struggle to keep themselves
fed and clothed. These organizations see to it that their members perform
"voluntary work" in the fields, take up sentry duties, and attend all sort
of political meetings. These activities tend to weaken the family unit,
strengthen the state's political influence over the individual, and promote
sexual promiscuity. The incidence of venereal disease has risen dramatically,
as have the number of abortions (estimated as 82 for every 100 births).
Castro's regime has degraded the Cuban people, forcing them into theft, hypocrisy, and a pretense of loyalty--all for the sake of survival. Cuba has become a huge brothel, directly or indirectly backed by the government, in order to attract foreign tourists. The phenomenon of the jineteras (prostitutes) has spread throughout the entire country, and reached such extremes that fathers and brothers are reported to have sewed as middlemen between their daughters or sisters and the tourists. To make contact with foreigners has become a national obsession. Faced with a disastrous system they feel powerless to change, most of the people want to leave the country. As their hope fade, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide (the highest rate in this hemisphere), become all too frequent forms of escape.
Under these circumstances, psychiatry and psychology would seem indispensable to a population subjected to such pressures. However Cubans cannot rely on doctor-patient confidentiality: psychiatrists and psychologists are supposed to report those cases considered suspicious of "ideological deviation" to the State Security, whose agents have full access to their files.
Gynecology has also succumbed to the repressive control of the
State. According to reports, many patients have had intra-uterine devices
implanted after childbirth or abortion, without their knowledge. The objective
is to reduce the birth rate and the excess work required by abortions.
In Cuba there are two types of acute discrimination that constitute in fact an apartheid: one is political/ideological in nature and the other strictly economic. The first applies to the opposition, to the political dissidents and activists or religious militants. The second type is directed at the population in general.
Religious repression. This is a fundamental ingredient of political/ideological apartheid. It targets the individual who seeks to practice his or her faith openly. To be religious has become a stigma. Through the years religion has been strongly repressed, although not regularly in a violent way. This is due to Castro's position of making "apostates and not martyrs," of believers. The government has disguised this policy by neither closing churches nor imprisoning people for purely religious reasons.
Religious repression has operated in several ways. Following the great anti-religious offensive of 1960 and 1961, when all schools and most seminaries were confiscated and a large part of the clergy was expelled or forced to leave, more subtle anti-religious measures were taken. Written forms for personal verification were created to discriminate against the believer in school and the work place. From their earliest years in school, atheism has been instilled in the children. Since 1970, the celebration of Christmas has been eliminated, as was done previously with Holy Week. Also banned is the celebration of the Epiphany on January 6: no longer do children receive gifts from the Three Wise Men; gifts-giving to children was transferred to July 26 as part of Castro's main political celebration. Careers with social impact along with promotions to managerial positions, have been denied to religious believers.
Believers have also been victims of direct repression. Many were interned in UMAP concentration camps (1965-1967), next to ministers, priests (including the current Cardinal Ortega), seminarians, and laymen. In addition, churches have been vandalized and robbed, religious services have been sabotaged and clergymen and well-known laymen have been victims of numerous forms of harassment and blackmail.
In 1995 the Pentecostal seminary and youth camp at Cifuentes was confiscated due to its great success and the Reverend Orson Vila was imprisoned. Foreign priests considered controversial have been pressed to leave or are denied re-entry visas. It should be emphasized that, since 1959, the construction of new churches has not been permitted, and the repair of existent ones has met with enormous obstacles. Many of these churches are in terrible condition, particularly those in the countryside whose roofs have collapsed. In the face of an increase in the number of faithful and the scarcity of churches, "cult houses" have emerged, particularly among the evangelicals. Recently many of these houses have suffered harassment and been closed.
We should also point out the special animosity directed against Jehovah's Witnesses, whose Kingdom Halls were closed and many of whom were forced into exile. More recent victims of violent repression against religion include defenseless women who gather in churches in Havana to pray for political prisoners. Equally significant has been the government's harsh reaction to the Catholic bishops Pastoral Letter of September 1993, that criticized the state system and favored a peaceful solution to the Cuban crisis. Well-known laymen, as well as "controversial" human rights activists, are strongly harassed, in an effort to force them to leave the country.
At present, Cubans suffer another form of apartheid: their own government
discriminates against them in favor of foreigners, especially tourists
who have privileged access to goods and services (like foods, automobiles,
gasoline, beaches, hotels, stores and special restaurants). Since the "dollarization"
of the economy in August of 1993, when, incredibly, the American dollar
became, in effect, the national currency, only those Cubans who have been
able to secure dollars have had access to many of those services or goods,
although not to all. This has created great social turmoil because the
need to have dollars at any cost has generated corruption. crime. and moral
The current economic crisis has reached alarming levels. Cubans lack essential goods. The standards of living have dropped to unprecedented levels, becoming inferior to those of almost all other countries on the American continent. Castro has euphemistically called this situation "special period in times of peace."
The cause of the current crisis lies in the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the subsequent elimination of the subsidy with which the USSR supported Castro (about six million dollars daily). It is estimated that this subsidy, squandered by the system, was several times greater than the United States' Marshall Plan for Europe aver Second World War. The United States economic embargo has not been the main reason for the present hardships. The root of this crisis is the extreme inefficiency of a system that refuses to liberalize itself, and frustrates native individual business initiative. Castro now seeks salvation for his bankrupt regime among foreign capitalists. He wants to sell them the national economic assets and also, at a ridiculous price, cheap controlled labor.
The "new Cuban class." This economic crisis is also due to Castro's inflexibility and that of the elite that surrounds him, managing the island like feudal barons. They prohibit Cubans from exercising their political and economic initiative and constantly proclaim the motto of "socialism or death," without having to suffer the consequences of the totalitarianism they have imposed. While Castro calls himself leader of an ideology rejected by the world, his Cuban nomenklatura (or the pinches and mayimbes, as they are known to the people) has enjoyed unprecedented privileges in Cuba. That elite has misappropriated the national patrimony, enjoying the best housing, unrationed food, and abundant transportation, as well as the best education and health care. They are a privileged breed, a sort of mafia whose main objective is to remain in power forever. It could be said that they "hold property title of nothing but are the owners of everything."
The "achievements of the revolution", a phrase used to describe
the supposed advances in medicine and education, have crumbled due to the
lack of Soviet subsidy. Recent outbreaks of optical neuritis, lice, scabies,
combined with widespread malnutrition and the lack of hygiene in streets,
homes and even hospitals, prove that the Cuban revolution by itself has
been unable to sustain its so-called "achievements." A similar situation
is happening in education where the most basic materials are lacking. These
achievements are also questionable in view of the fact that only the Cuban
elite has access to the best medical centers and to highly privileged university
careers. In short, progress obtained in the areas of public health
and education, is overshadowed by an unjustifiable control and a totalitarian
repression unprecedented in this hemisphere.
Lately, harassment of dissidents and human rights activists has markedly intensified. In February of 1996, the Cuban government arrested more than one hundred activists from the organizations that make up the alliance Concilio Cubano (Cuban Council) to prevent them from carrying out a meeting for which they had requested permission as the current Cuban constitution allows. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss peaceful alternatives for the resolution of the national crisis. Two of the group's leaders, Leonel Morejón Almagro (nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) and Lázaro Gonzalez Valdés, were sentenced to prison. Many others were threatened with jail if they persisted in their peaceful opposition.
Journalists who try to work independently have been repeatedly detained, threatened and sometimes forbidden to leave their neighborhoods, as in the cases of Glance Nogueras and Hector Peraza. The government harasses and coerces recognized activists or dissidents to force them to leave the country. With the infamous downing of the two civilian airplanes on February 24,1996 Castro's repressive measures reached the height of cruelty.
The situation in Cuban prisons is extremely critical: 15 inmates
convicted of common crimes reportedly died of hunger in the Combinado del
Este prison between April and May of 1995. Epidemics, hunger, lack of hygiene
and lack of proper medical attention, along with the cruelty and repression
exercised against prisoners and their relatives, have aggravated a situation
already intolerable. Hundreds of noted political prisoners, like Dr.
Omar del Pozo Hiarrero (15 years), Jesus Chamber Ramirez (10
years) and Francisco Chaviano Gonzalez (15 years), have denounced
repeatedly, from their cells, the abuses and the terrible conditions of
life in Cuban prisons.
The repressive situation described above leads us to the conclusion that the most basic human rights are being violated to the Cuban people, all the time. Undoubtedly conditions will worsen as malnutrition and even hunger reach the highest levels and epidemics continue to develop. Efforts to escape the island will persist in spite of restrictions imposed by the U.S., which since 1995 has been delivering into Castro's hands those who have tried to flee that totalitarian hell. The racers realize they can do nothing to change the destiny of their homeland and to them it seems preferable to die trying to escape than to continue living under that system. The number of suicides can be expected to rise even further.
It is imperative that international support be given to an emerging civil society separate from the state, embracing human rights organizations, independent journalists, political organizations, churches, and fraternal associations that are trying to survive outside state control.
Amid such chaos, Castro, who once confiscated foreign investments now seeks them eagerly. He wants to sell the island to international capitalists, while foreigners benefit at the expense of Cubans who are still denied the right to productive private property.
That is why governments and companies that trade or may consider
trading with Havana must be informed of the violations of the human rights
of the Cuban people. Those who would do business with Cuba are urged to
make any such transaction contingent upon the respect of human
rights in that country. Castro's immense economic need should enable
these governments and businesses to exercise great influence upon his government.
They have the enormous responsibility to promote the inevitable transition
to democracy--whose main protagonists should be the Cuban people--so that
it may take place as soon as possible and without a bloodbath.
The author wishes to thank Julia R. Sabat, Laida Arcia Carro and Prof. Marta Zamorano for their translation work. Thanks are due also to Modesto Arocha, Ricardo Bofill, Angel De Fana, Roberto Fernández, René Izquierdo, Pablo Llabre, Alberto Perez, Yndamiro Restano and Glona Riquelme, for their comments on the content. Special thanks to the Cuban American National Foundation.
For further information on some of these subjects see: by this author, Cuba: Mito y Realidad. Testimonios de un Pueblo (Saeta Ediciones: Miami Caracas, 1992, 2nd Edition) and Human Rights in Cuba: An Experiential Perspective by Clark, Ángel De Fana y Amaya Sanchez (Saeta Ediciones: Miami Caracas, 1991). See also Charles J. Brown y Armando M. Lago, The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (New Brunswick London: Transaction Publishers, 1991), Andrés Oppenheimer, Castro's Final Hour (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992) and Jean-Francois Fogel and Bertrand Rosenthal, Fin de Siglo en La Habana, Los Secretos del Derrumbe de Fidel (Bogotá, Colombia: TM Editores, 1994).