CubaBrief: Soviet Dissident Vladimir Bukovsky on the political abuse of psychiatry in Cuba under the Castro regime

Vladimir Bukovsky 1942 - 2019

Vladimir Bukovsky 1942 – 2019

In 1991 Freedom House and Of Human Rights published The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba (1991) by Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago that reported on the political abuse of psychiatry in Cuba under the Castro regime. The preface was written by Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who passed away in England on October 27, 2019 from a heart attack. Below is the original biographical summary of this courageous man quoted from the above mentioned book. 

Vladimir Bukovsky was a leading member of the democratic movement in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s. He spent twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps, and psychiatric hospitals for his work on behalf of human rights, particularly his revelations about the abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. In December 1976, he was released from prison in an exchange for the Chilean Communist leader Luis Corvalán, and expelled to Switzerland. He now resides in Cambridge, England. Mr. Bukovsky is the author of To Build a Castle: My Life as a Dissenter; Letters of a Russian Traveler; and The Peace Movement and the Soviet Union. His most recent work, USSR: From Utopia to Disaster was just published in Europe. Below is a photograph from 1987 when he was attending a meeting in the Netherlands.

The Soviet dissident had founded Resistance International along with Cuban dissident Armando Valladares in France in May of 1983, and together they campaigned against communist dictatorships. In December of 1986 Vladimir Bukovsky reviewed Armando Valladares’s memoir Against All Hope in The American Spectator in which he described an incident that took place in Caracas, Venezuela when they sought to speak up for the Miskito Indians, who were being massacred by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua at the time. Sadly, his conclusion remains relevant today: 

“No hatred or bitterness disturbs his dispassionate account because those who are not broken only pity their tormentors. Yet Against All Hope is an indictment nevertheless. It is an indictment of the world’s complicity and indifference, an indictment of the Western sympathizers with the “charismatic revolutionary leader” Fidel Castro, who silenced the screams of the tortured. Thanks to them, the names of La Cabaña and Boniato, Isla de Piños and Combinado del Este are not known to the world, as Auschwitz and Bitburg are.” … It is an indictment of Monsignor Cesar Zacchi, the Vatican’s ambassador to Cuba, and of Pierr Schori, secretary of the Swedish Social Democratic party, of all the advocates of “quiet diplomacy” and the architects of the silence that surrounds the crimes of Communism — in the words of Valladares, “the silence of complicity.”

Yesterday, in an interview with Radio Marti, Ambassador Armando Valladares expressed his sadness at the passing of his colleague stating, “Vladimir Bukovsky is my great friend and I feel a tremendous pain knowing of his death.” … “We did the Paris tribunal where we condemned the crimes of Castroism.” … “We have lost a great fighter against communism.” [ Segments of the Paris Tribunal appeared in the 1987 documentary Nobody Listened]

Bukovsky had experienced the abuse of psychiatry for political reasons in the Soviet Union first hand and written about it, and was able to provide a broader context to what was happening (and still happens) in Cuba. Below is his 1991 essay taken from the book The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba .

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On the Outskirts of the Empire

Vladimir Bukovsky

 After reading the documents and testimonies collected in this book, one can feel disgusted and outraged, but not surprised. We have learned long ago that Communist regimes, be they in Vietnam or Cuba, Ethiopia or China, are very much alike: just the sparks, the embers of the huge fire set in the world seventy-four years before. Actually, we would be surprised not to find familiar features in each of them because, to borrow Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor, they are like metastases of the same cancer striving to reproduce itself in every part of the globe. Cuba in this regard is unique only by the hasty pace of the disease: it covered in thirty-two years what the Soviet Union achieved in seventy-three. Within a single generation, Cuba advanced from “revolutionary justice” to “socialist legality,” from liquidation of “class enemies” to “political re-education” and psychiatric treatment of those “apathetic to socialism.”

There are, of course, some differences, too. Strictly speaking, the Cuban regime, where the supreme leader combines in himself Lenin and Stalin, Khrushchev and Breshnev, does not need to employ psychiatric repression. Invented at the time of “peaceful coexistence,” perfected in the era of détente, Soviet political psychiatry was intended as a camouflage, allowing the regime to present a more “liberal” image while continuing political repression. In the Cuban context, however, it became just another form of torture. There is no political need for sophisticated diagnostics, no sudden epidemic of “sluggish schizophrenia”[1] among dissidents, no Cuban equivalents to Dr. Lunts and Professor Morozov.[2]

Quite a few dissidents were actually diagnosed as sane, or not diagnosed at all, before being sent to the psychiatric gulag and subjected to electric shocks. I imagine even Dr. Lunts would have been outraged seeing such a barbaric application of his elaborate theories.

In short, this is not yet a political abuse of psychiatry as we know it, but rather a bad imitation of it by a not too bright apprentice. One wonders why did the Cuban comrades bother at all to borrow this latest achievement of socialism, if they are not using it properly? Could it be a result of a general Soviet pressure to “liberalize” the Cuban regime and make it more presentable? Or, was it just an instruction from Moscow, routinely dispatched to the outskirts of the empire and wrongly interpreted by a lazy official? Perhaps we will never know.

The fact remains, however, that the first steps toward the political abuse of psychiatry have been made, and further developments are quite likely. Once the political need for a more civilized image of the Cuban regime is accepted in Havana, new better dressed, and cleanly shaven leaders of the Cuban Revolution will appreciate the full potential of the Soviet invention. Then we will hear more and more stories about mental disorders afflicting Cuban society, and it will become much more difficult to cure than now.

Vladimir Bukovsky

Cambridge, England

[1] A diagnosis commonly used against Soviet dissidents in order to commit them to mental institutions. The concept of “sluggish” or “creeping” schizophrenia was developed by Professor Andre Snezhnevsky, whose diagnostic framework had a major impact on Soviet psychiatry until his death in 1987. For more on the role of diagnosis in the Cuban model, see pp. 21-22

[2] Dr. Daniil Lunts and Professor Georgy Morozov are probably the most infamous practitioners of Soviet psychiatric abuse. Lunts systematically perverted his diagnosis of human rights activists and other patients while serving at the notorious Serbsky Institutew of Forensic Psychiatry in Moscow. Morozov served as the head of the Serbsky Institute.