Palm Beach Post
Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Cuba's lost population

Cox News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Ramon Vidal Fuentes keeps his favorite memories in an old spiral notebook. Its wrinkled pages transport him to the late 1940s, when he was a robust, young outfielder with the Havana Cubans baseball club.

There are photographs, yellowed clippings and handwritten captions attesting to his successes on the steamy fields of the class C Florida International League circuit, including the home field of the West Palm Beach Indians.

This is the only notebook he was able to salvage from his original collection of 14 such "albums" he had compiled in his native Luyano, Cuba. He picks it up often on quiet evenings at home now in West Palm Beach because he doesn't want to forget the details of the years spent touring American baseball towns in his proud Havana uniform.

The headlines of the era proclaimed him a terrific slugger, an athlete of some promise. And then, after a sepia barrage of baseball agate, there's nothing, only blank lined pages. That's because what came after baseball in Vidal Fuentes' life cannot be categorized as cherished memories.

What came after baseball was a hellish tour of Fidel Castro's political prisons, years spent in cramped, disease-ridden dungeons, punishment cells and forced labor camps.

Arrested for "counterrevolutionary activities" in 1964, Vidal Fuentes spent nearly a decade in Cuban jails. The cries of inmates facing execution squads for their ideological sins replaced the cheers of baseball fans. Ghastly images of fellow prisoners bludgeoned to a pulp, stabbed repeatedly with bayonets, or shot without warning between the eyes replaced the images of beer-soaked championship celebrations.

"I must have heard more than 700 or 800 executions during those years," recalls Vidal Fuentes, now 80. "Prison in the 1960s was a very, very difficult thing. Beatings. Killings. Torture. The things I've seen . . . "

His voice goes blank for a long breath.

"It still hurts."

He recounts how prison guards dragged him to a punishment cell and injected him with some unknown substance, causing his arm to swell and redden and his body to go numb. He says a fellow inmate, a physician, came to his rescue.

"He operated on my arm with a razor blade. It was brutal, but it saved my life," says Vidal Fuentes, an energetic retiree who now organizes gatherings of former political prisoners in West Palm Beach.

One image he cannot shake from memory is the sight of a political prisoner so intensely beaten with a bayonet across the buttocks that his injuries appeared to have been caused by a meat grinder. He can rattle off the deaths and the incidents of torture.

Vidal Fuentes is not a scholar or an archivist, but simply one random prisoner in many thousands of past and present Cuban prisoners who have journeyed through Castro's jails in 47 years of communist rule.

He belongs to a lost population, adrift in history. Castro's discards. They are torture victims, murdered opponents, disappeared citizens, prisoners of conscience, persecuted civil libertarians, would-be escapees shot in flight and Plantados, those unmovable political prisoners who refused the government's "reeducation plan."

Among the executed there have been children, pregnant women, nuns, priests. It is a tremendously diverse population: blacks and whites, old and young, gay and straight, white collar and blue collar, liberals and conservatives.

Their stories take on a new dimension as the world awaits news of an ailing Castro and the transition of power in Cuba.

These witnesses tell stories of being kept in shuttered cells and drawerlike quarters, of being forced into labor camps for being homosexual, of watching their loved ones die at sea when Cuban gunboats attacked them.

In any other place and time, they might have had little in common. In revolutionary Cuba, they are united by one overriding condition: They beg to differ with Castro.

Their stories have been told and retold to whoever would listen. They have been documented and filed away. They have been dissected by Cuba scholars and human rights researchers. But for reasons beyond the grasp of the victims and their survivors, the enormity of their collective tragedy has never been enough to bring Castro to justice. There has been no lasting international outrage or consciousness. Then again, this population has no brand, no signature beret, no funky Che Guevaresque graphic to galvanize the masses. It offers only a flood of stories, case studies and bodies.

Cuban-American human rights archivist Maria Werlau found the initial context for her work when she lived in Chile in the early 1990s.

In that country, a 1991 government truth commission concluded that more than 3,100 suspected leftists had been murdered or "disappeared" during the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Werlau, a 47-year-old former banker who now heads the New Jersey-based Free Society Project, wondered what the body count would be for Castro's Cuba.

"We have documented more firing squad executions in the first three years of the Cuban revolution alone than there were deaths in all the years of Pinochet. So imagine what the final tally might be," says Werlau, whose organization runs a database called Cuba Archive, an ongoing compilation of all deaths caused by Castro's rule.

The numbers are staggering. Just ask Armando Lago, a Harvard-educated economist and veteran human rights advocate who assembles the archive, or as he describes it, "the net human cost of the Cuban revolution," in his Coral Gables apartment. He initiated his count after suffering a stroke that left him partially paralyzed in 1996. He fell into such a severe depression that fellow rights advocates, hoping to nudge him back to life, offered an ambitious, if ironic, idea:

Why don't you document the dead?

That was nearly 114,000 bodies ago.

To a less resourceful man, the idea of documenting the non-combat deaths caused by Castro's revolution may have seemed to be as futile as counting sheep into infinity. But at 67, Lago is not afraid of numbers. They don't have political passions or hidden agendas. They simply reflect, even as they fluctuate each week when new cases surface. As of a recent count, Lago offered a grim picture of a regime that he says has caused the deaths of 1.2 percent of its population:

—Deaths by firing squads: 5,764.

—Deaths by extrajudicial means: 1,228.

—Deaths in labor camps, prison assassinations, medical negligence fatalities, disappearances and other deaths in prison: 2,295.

—Deaths at sea: 77,879.

Contained within this last number is the story that Werlau finds most disturbing. It's the story of those Cubans killed as they attempted to flee the island.

"When you look at the cases you realize, 'My God, this is a systematic policy by the Cuban government to attack innocent people who are just trying to leave their country.' It's an outrage," says Werlau, who joined forces with Lago five years ago.

Her archive site,, lists a selection of the cases from Lago's offline database:

—"Alexis E. Marquez Rios, age 6, killed in 1999 in Cuban waters, 12 kilometers north of Havana. Assassinated with his mother. Drowned when their boat was rammed and sunk by a Cuban Coast Guard vessel."

—"Orlando Travieso Jr., age 17, assassinated in 1991 in Cuban territorial waters, north of Havana. Killed by Cuban Navy machine gun fire while attempting to flee the island."

—"The reverends Jose Durado, Pablo Rodriguez and Antonio Gonzalez, executed in 1963. The three Protestant ministers left Cuba by boat as part of a group of 19. They arrived in the Bahamas, where the Cuban Coast Guard staged a raid and returned them to Cuba. They were swiftly executed for exiting the country illegally."

At the risk of underreporting the deaths, Lago, who takes a police blotter approach to his chronicles, insists on at least two sources for each case he lists. He also does his best to include home addresses of the victims, the exact location of the incidents and the names of the executioners.

"I do not include them until I can cross all the T's," said Lago on a recent morning, as he peered at his clunky, aging computer screen through a magnifying glass. He is confined to a wheelchair and spends most of his week enduring dialysis and physical therapy treatments. His doctor, he says, suggests he gives up his death count, urging him to "make love, not war."

But the cases that keep Lago engaged in life are also the ones that invade his dreams. Such is the case of a Catholic nun named Aida Rosa Perez. She was a 42-year-old Sister of Charity who had returned to Cuba in 1967 from her assigned base in Guatemala to visit her family. She was arrested for expressing ideas considered contrary to the revolution. She was hastily tried at 2:30 a.m. in a dungeon at La Cabaña prison in Havana and sentenced to hard labor. She later died of cardiac arrest during an interrogation.

And then there's the case of Lydia Perez Lopez, age 25, beaten to death by guards at the Guanajay National Women's Prison on July 7, 1961. She was 8 months pregnant.

It is the women's stories that stump Lago. He believes those stories alone are sufficiently heinous to draw the world's attention to Cuba's tragedies. But they have not.

"The world doesn't know because it doesn't want to," he concludes.

The sentiment is echoed by Ana Lazara Rodriguez, a Miami-based author who spent 19 years in Castro's political prisons for taking part in anti-government protests. Arrested in 1961 as a young medical student, she spent seven years in solitary confinement and survived the infamous "tapiadas de Guananay," the windowless punishment cells at the women's prison in the westernmost province of Pinar del Rio. But even now at 68, she has recurring flashbacks to that era.

She remembers the time prison guards prepared a torture chamber exclusively for young girls who were considered too rebellious. The minors, as young as age 12, were brought from all over the island and thrown into the cell with the most violent female common prisoners, recalls Rodriguez, whose own cell was adjacent to the punishment chamber.

"They would scream, 'Mommy, Mommy . . . God help me! Don't touch me!'" says Rodriguez, whose memoir, Diary of a Survivor, was published in 1995 by St. Martins Press. "We would scream out to help them, but we were powerless."

Rodriguez was one of a dozen survivors of Castro's political prisons who testified before European intellectuals and human rights advocates in Paris in April of 1986, in a tribunal brought together by ex-prisoner and poet Armando Valladares. She described how she was beaten by male guards with rifle butts, boots and electric cables, causing her to suffer a detached retina, hand fractures and spinal damage. The account is contained in Castro's Tropical Gulag, a published chronicle of the tribunal proceedings sponsored by the global human rights coalition Resistance International.

"We were taken to receive visitors, and the beatings began during the visits in front of our mothers . . . " Rodriguez testified. "Those who refused [to go to interrogations] were kicked in the breasts and stomachs while they were dragged by their hair to where the interrogation was held. Some were bleeding from the rectum, vagina. They vomited blood, and it was in their urine."

The testimonies stirred the sympathies of intellectuals who had historically supported the revolution.

"The jury deemed especially heinous the arrests of children of nine years of age and older as well as the torture and sexual abuse of teenagers," the chronicle states. "The jury observed that the following methods used to obtain confessions in Castro's prisons recall those used in Hitler's concentration camps: immersion, strangulation and mutilation."

The Parisian morning daily Le Figaro offered this editorial perspective on April 18, 1986:

"The testimony offered by these former Cuban prisoners unmistakably resembles those made forty years ago by the survivors of Hitler's death camps. Minus the gas chambers, but plus unremitting torture."

The American news media all but ignored the story. A former Plantado who spent 20 years and 7 months in Cuban prisons has a theory on why the human rights story has been chronically dismissed by the U.S. press.

"In the early romantic stage of the revolution, Castro generated an overwhelming amount of sympathy," says Angel de Fana, 67, who heads a politically active group of former Plantados in Miami. "A lot of the folks who are today's news media executives and stars were students at the time, and they fell in love with Fidel Castro. He was the Robin Hood of the era."

One Cuban-American filmmaker echoes that sentiment:

"Most of the developing world sees Fidel as a Messiah. I don't think his human rights record, no matter how horrible, would generate any groundswell of protest," says Rafael Lima, a University of Miami film professor who directed Plantados, a new documentary featuring some of Cuba's most distinguished former political prisoners.

Lima managed to sneak into La Cabana Fortress prison by the seaport of Havana with a palm-held digital camera several years ago. He collected images of what had been one of the most notorious prisons of the revolution, the same prison where an asthmatic warden named Che Guevara signed the death warrants of more than 160 men in a period of 11 months. Lima was surprised to find that the younger people he met who lived in the area had never heard of the "paredon," the infamous wall of executions where Castro opponents faced the firing squads. His visit generated a sense of urgency within him. He felt he needed to tell the story of those who had been held within those prison walls.

In harrowing detail, the Plantados describe their prison years. One of the men interviewed, ex-prisoner Roberto Martin Perez, who served 28 years, describes one of the punishment cells:

" . . . It was completely closed off. You couldn't see anything. Rats came out of a hole in the left corner and mosquitoes flew in from a tube, which was the only place you could breathe through. When our eyes finally got accustomed to the place, we could see there was a cross on the wall, drawn in pencil. On the top it said, 'Does God exist?' And it bore the names of 15 or 20 women who had been there. I fell to my knees and started crying. And I also doubted God at that moment."

In the testimonies, filmmaker Lima found a powerful thread.

"What occurred to me is that all their stories are reduced to one story — the story of family," Lima says. "These men are tough. You put them in solitary confinement for a year, and they don't even blink. But every single one of them is shaken when they speak about not being able to see their wives, their daughters or parents. They never allowed themselves to think about family because they knew it would break them. That's the fundamental tragedy of these 47 years, the separations and the unbelievable pain."

The pain is so devastating some prisoners refuse to dwell on it.

Former prisoner Jorge Valls, a poet and philosopher, wrote an acclaimed prison memoir published by Americas Watch in 1986. He delivered a gripping account of the torture, deaths and racism he witnessed in prison. But today, at 73, he says he cannot live in the past.

"You can't resolve the past," he says. "You can attempt to accomplish something in the present and work for your future. That is all you can do."

He went to prison in 1964 at age 31 on political charges. He was freed 20 years and many deaths later.

Liz Balmaseda writes for the Palm Beach Post.