CubaBrief: Prisoners of conscience in Cuba are a six decade outrage that must be strongly denounced

Over the past sixty years the international community has become accustomed to the systemic injustices perpetrated by the Castro dictatorship. During these past six decades there have been prisoners of conscience and political prisoners in Cuba. Between 1959 and 1988 no international organizations were allowed to visit prisons in Cuba. This included the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Independent human rights organizations in Cuba have not been legally recognized by the Castro regime. The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was formally established on January 28, 1976 but did not become fully active until 1983 because State Security arrested everyone shortly after it was founded.

Seven years later, in October of 1983, in the Combinado del Este prison, several prisoners of conscience who had similar aspirations met. Paradoxically, what the regime did was to join together many of those who were already marching along similar paths, and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights eventually re-emerged where many political conspiracies usually end. In truth, there were only seven: Ricardo Bofill, Gustavo Arcos Bergnes (then incommunicado on the ground floor and with whom the others could only speak when they took them out to the prison yard), Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz (who was already in the Boniato prison, but kept in contact with the others through family members), the former director of Pabellón Cuba, Teodoro del Valle, the poet René Díaz Almeyda, the diplomat Edmigio López Castillo and Ariel Hidalgo.

In 1987 the documentary “Nobody Listened” captured the human rights reality in Cuba with interviews with former political prisoners, archival footage of firing squads and other instances of repression. Former prisoners described show trials, extajudicial executions, and cruel and unusual punishment that rose to the level of torture. This in an environment were the international community was not listening.

However things were about to change on the international front.

The Cuban Committee for Human Rights was able to document human rights abuses and smuggle these reports out of the prisons and out of Cuba reaching the international community. It was their work combined with the diplomatic pressure of the Reagan Administration, and their Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, former prisoner of conscience, Dr. Armando Valladares that on March 8, 1988 the Cuban government was finally called to account for systematically denying access to Cuba’s prisons. On March 11, 1988 Havana invited the United Nations Human Rights Commission to investigate human rights in Cuba. Over the course of the next year not only the UN Human Rights Commission, but also the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were able to enter Cuba and document the human rights violations in the island.

This was the first and last time these organizations were allowed into Cuba to visit Castro’s prisons. The lack of outrage turned into a permanent acceptance of injustice in Cuba.

Thirty years have passed since the last time the International Committee of the Red Cross was able to visit Cuban prisons. Meanwhile the International Committee of the Red Cross has visited the U.S. Guantanamo detention facility over 100 times since 2001.

During the Cuban Black Spring in 2003 over a 100 activists were arrested and 75 of them were subjected to political show trials and condemned to prison terms ranging from 15 to 25 years in prison. A Czech film crew in Cuba filmed and interviewed activists before the crackdown and then interviewed their friends and family members after the show trials.

]Out of this crackdown the wives, daughters, and sisters of these activists formed the Ladies in White and began organizing for their freedom. Regular marches, literary teas, and lobbying both the Cuban government and the international community. Some have been jailed, others beaten, and one of the founding leaders, Laura Inés Pollán Toledo, died under suspicious circumstances on October 14, 2011.

There are still prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Prisoners of conscience have died in Castro’s prisons while protesting mistreatment at the hands of Cuban officials. This has gone on for decades. The newest prisoner of conscience is independent journalist Roberto de Jesús Quiñones. There are still extrajudicial executions. Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas, and Harold Cepero died in what appears to have been state security engineered killings on July 22, 2012.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. issued a prophetic warning in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he observed, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The international community has paid a price for its acceptance of these continuing injustices. Venezuela is now suffering a human rights crisis, product of a Cuban occupation and the imposition of these systemic injustices on a new and larger population.

Below is an Amnesty International call to action for the latest Cuban prisoner of action and following it a photograph and description from 1988 in Life magazine describing conditions in the prisons. Six decades and ongoing of prisoners of conscience in Cuba, many of them human rights defenders jailed for their work, is an outrage that must be denounced more vigorously by the international community.

Amnesty International, September 12, 2019


From the archives.

LIFE, April 1988

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THE BIG PICTURE: The Next Move in Cuba

His bread and water left aside, an inmate in Boniato prison, 460 miles from Havana, prepares to push a hand-drawn chessboard across the hall to his opponent, likewise in solitary confinement. This is the first time photographs have been published of the notorious cell block. Political prisoners were held there until 1987, but after international pressure mounted, Fidel Castro’s government moved them to a showcase high-security facility. Common criminals remained. At this month’s meetings of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, the United States is supporting a resolution recommending that outside observers be allowed to investigate reports of unduly harsh conditions in Cuba’s jails. And amid rumors that some 350 inmates would be freed, largely as a public relations countermove, those in Boniato’s six-and-a-half-by-four-foot isolation cells passed their time as best they could.

Center for a Free Cuba