Human Rights Violations in Cuba

Ambassador Kirkpatrick has in recent years clearly expressed the position of the United States on the phenomenon of “selective indignation,” so common in United Nations pronouncements on the subject of human rights. What she has pointed out is that resolutions are adopted which condemn certain human rights violations or alleged human rights violations in the strongest possible terms while totally ignoring far more serious violations which take place in countries with regard to which the United Nations is willing to look the other way. As Ambassador Kirkpatrick has had occasion to note, one entire region which has been singled out for selective indignation is Latin America.

But even within Latin America, we have not applied a uniform standard. While criticism has been directed at certain chosen countries, some of it justified and some unjustified, one Latin American country, the country which is the most serious human rights violator of them all, has succeeded in escaping scrutiny in United Nations forums. It is, interestingly, one of the countries which comes closest to all the nations in the world in resembling the nightmare state described by George Orwell in his novel, 1984. The country to which I am referring is, of course, Cuba.

Selective indignation is, as we see it, not always the result of a particular political bias. It is often the consequence of our playing back, in this and similar forums, the themes which we have picked up from the media. Information in the media, though sometimes reflective of a particular political bias, is often influenced by the relative ease of accessibility to reporters of the site of a news event. We thus are furnished a great deal of information about human rights violations in countries which permit reporters, including unfriendly reporters, to enter freely and to file their dispatches without being subjected to censorship. We hear little or nothing about countries which severely restrict reporting generally and which will not allow any reporting that will be critical of the country involved and its government.

The observations which I have just made explain, for example, the difference in the discussion in this forum of Chile as distinct from Cuba. My country is indeed concerned about human rights conditions in Chile. We have said so repeatedly and will say so with the utmost clarity later in these proceedings. Nevertheless, as deeply troubled as we are about recent developments in Chile, we believe that it is important to stress that any person dedicated to the human rights cause who compares present-day conditions in Chile with present-day conditions in Cuba and who also projects future developments in both places must agree that Cuba presents by far the bleaker picture. Harsh condemnation of Chile paralleled by complete silence on the subject of Cuba necessarily gives rise to the question of whether we are not guilty of hypocrisy.

Cuba is now and has been for more than twenty-five years one of the world’s most repressive totalitarian police states. Totalitarian control in Cuba serves not only as a straightjacket for the potential dissident, who is deprived of his rights to free expression and free association, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reaching beyond the dissenters, the repressive regime reaches through its elaborate neighborhood monitoring system into every single home, stirring fear in the most humble nonpolitical citizen, who will not utter a word or engage in an act of which Big Brother might disapprove, lest the wrath of the state descend upon him.

The mechanism through which the Cuban state apparatus reaches into every home is known as the Neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. These committees constitute a network of block wardens, persons whose task is to watch the movement of people in their neighborhoods, to observe meetings, parties, to check whether citizens are listening to foreign radio and television broadcasts and see what these citizens read and say. An elaborate system has been created for reporting by neighborhood committees to the central police authorities.

Given Cuba’s badly mismanaged economy, which has resulted in rationing of rice, beans, meat, clothing and shoes, as well as severe housing shortages; and given the state’s total control over job opportunities and education, Cubans are understandably afraid that an adverse report from their block warden can severely interfere first with each family’s day-to-day life, but beyond that, with the future opportunities which heads of families as well as their children might have, both as to educational training that they might desire or the kinds of jobs that might be available to them.

Further interfering with the daily lives of non-political families, the state makes every effort to discourage religious teaching and religious practices, including practices in the home. It insists that children participate in party indoctrination programs, where these children are also taught to spy on their parents and friends.

We are all well familiar with the fact that a good many governments maintain themselves in power by the use of force against political opposition. We also know that some governments seek to maintain themselves through totalitarian control of practically all institutions. But very few have, as I indicated before, come so close to reaching into every home, peering, as it were, through every window, as has Castro’s Cuba.

Repressive measures against political dissenters are, as we know, commonplace throughout the world. But even in this context, Cuba’s approach differs from that of most other countries. Sentences against political dissenters are longer and their treatment is harsher than is the case elsewhere. Moreover, once a person’s sentence has been completed, he is often kept in jail, occasionally to be given away by Fidel Castro personally as an act of kindness to a foreign dignitary, almost in the style of medieval potentates. For example, of the twenty-six political prisoners allowed to leave for the United States earlier this year, a total of twenty-one had been kept in jail more than one year beyond the expiration of their sentences.

As a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights notes, political prisoners in Cuba include not only political activists but also journalists, writers and artists, as well as priests, clergymen and active members Of religious congregations. Having designed a special program of obligatory political indoctrination, Cuban prison authorities have resorted to extraordinary brutality against those who refuse as a matter of conscience to submit to such so-called rehabilitation programs. These courageous persons, who have come to be known as “Plantados,” intransigent prisoners, have experienced treatment which also reminds us of the Middle Ages. Dressed only in their underwear, prisoners have been squeezed into small cells which also serve as their toilet. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission reports the following as to the conditions under which Plantados were forced to live:

There is a pattern to treatment: interruption of mail and visits, in some cases for years; deficient medical attention, especially since many of the prisoners were weakened by frequent hunger strikes and became chronically ill or invalids… poor ventilation and crowded cells; or alternatively, long term incommunicado detention, at times in rat-infested places; the deprivation of food as punishment and the withholding of medicine.

The Commission continues: “Women Plantadas also complained of harsh treatment including coercion, incommunicado detention and deficient medical attention. Attention is drawn to the ‘tapiadas,’ locked in hermetically sealed cells with welded doors with a slat at the bottom to pass through food: hard labor on farms, threats and beatings.”

Let me amplify these conclusions of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission by reading from a personal account of one of the former prisoners who came to this country recently. Speaking of only one segment of the time he spent as a political prisoner, this man, Eugenio de Soso, a former newspaperman, reports the following on his experiences:

In 1977, I was a political prisoner kept at Combinado del Este Prison in the province of Havana. I had been in prison for more than 17 years already. One day, I was suddenly called ‘out of Combinado and taken to the State Security Headquarters in Villa Marista without being given a reason for the move. Little did I know that I was about to undergo one of the most macabre and inhumane episodes of the long list of mistreatments and tortures imposed upon me by the communist government of Cuba.

At Villa Marista, I was interrogated repeatedly regarding some information I was supposed to have passed on to the “counter-revolutionary” exiles back in 1963. Their techniques to make me confess included: (1) constant threats that I was about to be shot; (2) totally false assertions regarding incriminating testimony supposedly given by other prisoners, friends of mine, against me; (3) isolation in a totally dark cell, naked, for days, where I was supposed to lose track of the day and night cycle; (4) involuntary administration of hallucinogenic drugs in the food (finally, when I found a semi-dissolved capsule in the food, I stopped eating); (5) being kept in an anechoic chamber (a “quiet” room with no echoes, where one could hear the sound of one’s own bloodstream rushing and where the slightest sound produced is multiplied many times in intensity) for prolonged periods of time, subjected to extremely loud sounds at irregular intervals.

After my continued refusal to admit any sort of guilt and to incriminate my friends, they changed their tactics. I was then interviewed by a Captain who, in a rather civilized style, informed me that one of my daughters who lived in Texas had been allowed to come to Cuba to visit me with my granddaughters whom I had not yet met. This unusual move was granted, he told me, as a gesture of mercy of the Castro government before my execution for sending secret information to the enemies of the revolution a long time ago. My family, he told me, would come to Cuba by private jet.

After a few days, I was taken to the barber and given clean clothes in preparation for the first visit with my daughter in more than 15 years. When I entered the room, instead of my daughter I ,found the same Captain who, in a profound and grave tone, informed me that there had been a terrible accident with the plane in which my family was coming and that my daughter and my granddaughters were all dead. Months later I was to find out that the accident, as well as the visit arrangement, had all been fabrications of the torturers; but at that precise moment in Security Headquarters when I was told of the “tragedy,” I did believe it. My reaction was swift: I jumped and punched the Captain as hard as I could. I wanted to die. Needless to say that I was mercilessly beaten by the guards immediately. I was told that I would be shot next day in La Cabana fortress.

That night, I was taken out of Security Headquarters and driven through Havana in an easterly direction. Avone point, I was forced to lie down on the floor of the car. Soon we arrived at our real destination: the National Psychiatric Hospital.

The Psychiatric Hospital is one of the “jewels” of the revolution. It is a required stop for all foreign delegations who visit Cuba. The foreigners. of course, are not taken to the Chamber of Horrors in which they put me, known officially as the Carbo-Serbia Ward. There is another ward, called the Castellanos Ward, which is just as bad.

There were about 80 men in this ward, all violently disturbed. The smell of urine and excrement was sickening. There would be brawls among the patients every so often, and beaten, bloody bodies had to be carted out. During my stay there, five patients were killed in brawls among themselves.

My first encounter with group electro-shock treatments occurred one night when I saw a team of four men, directed by one man called Mederos who was dressed as a nurse, enter the ward. Six patients were grabbed and six rubber pieces were stuffed into their mouths. They were thrown to the floor in a row side by side to each other. Right there, on the floor, the electrodes were applied to both sides of their heads, and shocks were given. Six bodies started to contort one by one. The next six were then captured by the orderlies, forced to lie down and the procedure repeated. By then, the floor was already running with urine, excrement and vomit. The shocks were applied to the temples of the patients, but to me, they applied most of the shocks to the testicles instead. I received about 14 electroshocks this way.

One day, some very young boys were brought into the ward. The oldest did not look older than 16. They had been caught writing anti-government graffiti on some building walls, and a “Judge of the People” declared that to do such a thing they must be insane and in need of psychiatric treatment. Before the day was over, all the boys were systematically gang-raped by more than 30 patients in the ward. To this day, I can hear their cries for help and see their bloody bodies as I stood by in impotent rage. Not a single staff member intervened.

This nightmare, this terrible episode, lasted for five months. It took place, I repeat, in 1977, not at the beginning, but in the 18th year of the revolutionary government of Cuba.

But even the worst kind of repression cannot totally extinguish the human quest for freedom. Even after decades of totalitarian rule, there are individuals who have the courage at least to attempt to exercise human rights of which the Castro government has sought to deprive them. Among them were five men who a few years ago tried to organize an independent labor union. They were, of course, quickly arrested, were tried and then sentenced to death. Their death sentences were subsequently committed to thirty years imprisonment. According to reports, not only were the defendants sentenced to long prison terms, but their defense lawyers suffered a similar fate. So did one of the judges who reportedly objected to the manner in which the case was being handled. Cuba’s Minister of Justice, Oswaldo Dorticos, who had once served, by designation of Fidel Castro, as President of Cuba, committed suicide shortly thereafter.

I have offered these examples in support of the point I made at the outset. Cubs is not just another country governed without the consent of the governed. It is not just an ordinary dictatorship. It is not even a totalitarian state on some East European model. It stands, as a violator of human rights, all by itself, guilty of degrading treatment of human beings which, as I said earlier, indeed approaches the nightmare depicted in the novel 1984.

The United Nations system has expressed a special interest in human rights in Latin America. We urge this body to focus on the worst violations in this hemisphere, which take place in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.


  • Richard Shifter

    Richard Schifter (born July 31, 1923) is a United States lawyer. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs from 1985 to 1992, and has held many other important posts.

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