CubaBrief: Reflection on the film Plantadas, and the Defiant ones still in Cuba’s prisons today

Over the past sixty four years the Castro dictatorship has systematically violated the human rights of 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. Lilo Vilaplana’s film Plantadas, screened on Sunday at the Miami Film Festival, highlights this chapter of Cuban history, and offers viewers the opportunity to revisit some important works to accompany this important movie.

In 1995  Ana Rodriguez with the assistance of Glenn Garvin wrote her memoir DIARY OF A SURVIVOR: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women’s Prison. Ana Rodriguez, a medical student who first conspired against the Batista dictatorship, first welcoming the arrival of Fidel Castro to power she soon became disillusioned and turned against the emerging communist dictatorship. Captured, Ana was sentenced to a 30 year prison sentence for her non-violent dissent in the anti-Castro underground. Over the 19 years she spent in prison, Ana “consistently defied the authorities’ brutal and at times comically inept efforts to break her will.” She is an example of a plantada, and she was not alone.

Sadly, there were many others like Ana Rodriguez, Gloria Argudín and Luisa Pérez.

The testimony of Luisa Pérez, another former plantada ( defiant) political prisoner about Cuban prisons in “Nobody listened” (1987), a documentary by Néstor Almendros and Jorge Ulla, is consistent with the testimony of Dora Delgado “Japón” on pages. 175-176 of the 2007 book Todo Lo Dieron Por Cuba (They Gave Everything For Cuba) by Mignon Medrano:

… Mother’s Day falls on the 14th again. It was a month full of fights with the militia, of beatings, it was a terrible month. On the 6th they came to galley 1 with a list and called Caridad Roque, me and others. As they called, the others said, “Hey, save me a good bed, and if there are mangoes, pick one for me,” because we thought we were going to the farm. But when they noticed that they were taking five from here, two from there and four from another place, and they heard the names, they said, “This smells rotten to us… that the first transfer to the farm is with these people? … listen, girls, whatever happens, shout!” …

Indeed, at the end of the long and dark corridor, Ramiro Valdés himself was waiting for us in front of about 600 men. I could not shout and alert because the galleys were open and they would have launched into a certain massacre. I kept walking, behind me came Pola and noticing my reaction she also hid it. That helped the others do the same. But when those who stayed behind found out that we had been taken to Guanajay with the general prison population, they began to break everything that was within their reach and clang metal objects against the iron bars of the cells that was so loud that it became famous in the history of the prison…

… I would like to add to the story of the escape from Guanabacoa that when the verdeolivos caught us and they dragged us to the galley, they had some long weapons that looked like old muskets, which we began to make fun of. We didn’t know they were gas launchers. They fired them at point-blank range and with the flashes they burned her face, shattered the face of Luisa Pérez… It was a tremendous fight, blows come and go… They burned all of us with flashes.

Without giving us medical attention, they threw us into the cells like pigs and several days later they separated us in different places…”

In 1987 the documentary “Nobody Listened” captured Cuba’s human rights reality combining interviews with former political prisoners, including some Plantadas, 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 is the perfect documentary to accompany the new film, Plantadas and provides historical context to the new movie, and is available online and for purchase on Amazon.

There was a brief moment between 1988 and 1989 after years of long, hard struggle by Cuba’s human rights defenders that the Castro regime’s human rights record was laid bare before the international community. This was not the fruits of detente, or engagement, but a long hard slog to document and expose Havana’s crimes against humanity.

Independent human rights organizations in Cuba have never 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 after it was founded.

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 the last time these organizations were allowed into Cuba to visit Castro’s prisons was a year later in 1989.

Thirty four years later and there are at least 125 Cuban women jailed for exercising their fundamental human rights, and many of them are Plantadas.

14ymedio, October 18, 2022

New Cuban Film ‘Plantadas’ Tells the History of the Island’s Female Political Prisoners

14ymedio, Pedro Corzo, Miami, 18 October 2022 — Cuban filmmaker Lilo Vilaplana recently announced that he had concluded the filming of Plantadas, a more than necessary historical document, which will do justice to the thousands of Cuban women who have been and are in prison for their struggle for freedom and democracy on the Island.

Vilaplana made a fundamental contribution to Cuba’s historiography when he filmed the epic Plantados, which shows the cruelty of the Castro prison system and the rage of the jailers, who apply the rules of Island totalitarianism. It also documents the patriotism of political prisoners.

This film promises to be at least as valuable as the previous one, because it records the experiences of the women who have faced the dictatorship and who, by their actions, ended up in the dungeons of totalitarianism, suffering a systematic violation of their rights, including that of life.

Cuba’s political prison for women has undoubtedly been the largest and most extensive in the American hemisphere for years. Its construction began in 1959 and is not yet finished, as reflected by journalist Yolanda Huerga in a work published on Radio Televisión Martí. In it, a young political prisoner, Rosa Jany Murillo, in response to a blackmail from her jailers, says: “I have nothing to learn. I have only one ideal, one principle, one concept: I want communism to fall, that there be democratic parties, that my people can be defended and served by a government. You don’t do it; therefore, I have nothing to regret.”

The courage of this young Cuban woman behind bars has been known in women’s prisons since the dawn of the Revolution. Behind those same bars, in different dungeons, thousands of women from different generations have demonstrated their commitment to freedom as did Cary Roque, Ana Lázara Rodríguez, Gloria Lasalle, Isabel Tejera, María Amalia Fernández del Cueto, Nelly Rojas, Maritza Lugo and Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello. We will learn about these heroines when Vilaplana and his team deliver Plantadas.

Trying to synthesize the heroism of the Cuban women in prison in these 63 years is almost an odyssey. There are many events to be noted — the shootings of friends of the cause, escapes, tortures, beatings, hunger strikes, deaths, separations from family, from their children for complying “with the Homeland,” the lack of the most essential resources, an infinite list of regrets that honors the deeds of these women, who always demonstrated the most worthy stoicism.

The teacher of every decent Cuban, José Martí, wrote “he who honors another honors himself,” and therefore it is right and appropriate to mention the person who, in my humble view, has promoted the filming of Plantadas like no other: Reynol Rodríguez, an activist in favor of democracy and the freedom of Cubans, who has dedicated his life to the fight against dictatorships.

Rodríguez is one of those people who understand that the struggle has many facets without denying any. He is a man of proven heroism, who participated in armed incursions against the dictatorship and supported with all zeal people like the unforgettable Vicente Méndez, who fell in combat a few days after arriving on Cuban coasts.

This fighter for freedom worked month after month to organize fund-raisers for this historical documentary on Cuban women. The organizing committee fully reached its objective, and I must highlight two members: Pedro Remón, another brave compatriot who never says no, and the son of Osvaldo Ramírez, a glorious martyr in the fight against Castroism who was the second head of the uprising of the Escambray mountains in the early 60s, also named Osvaldo Ramírez, another compatriot who joined all the efforts for democracy.

The exiled filmography dedicated to directly collecting the struggle for freedom has several filmmakers who, like Vilaplana, have demonstrated a commitment to Cuban art and reality: the pioneer Eduardo Palmer, Iván Acosta, Luis Guardia, Daniel Urdanivia and Wenceslao Cruz. We owe all of them, for their quiet efforts, a profound respect.

Translated by Regina Anavy

From the archives

The Washington Post, May 29, 1995


By Carolina Hospital

May 29, 1995

DIARY OF A SURVIVOR Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women’s Prison By Ana Rodriguez and Glenn Garvin St. Martin’s. 325 pp. $22.95 “Every woman who writes is a survivor,” says Tillie Olsen in her book “Silences.” For Olsen, the survivor is she who bears witness to those who did not survive, who passes on ways of surviving and tells of her special circumstances. This view of a survivor aptly describes Ana Rodriguez, a medical student who was serving a 30-year prison sentence in a Cuban women’s prison when Olsen’s book was published in 1978. Olsen focuses on literary silence; in Rodriguez’s case, it was political silence: A totalitarian regime attempted to stifle her political views and halt her work in the anti-Castro underground. She resisted and, during the 19 years she spent in prison, consistently defied the authorities’ brutal and at times comically inept efforts to break her will. Now, 34 years after her initial arrest, Rodriguez makes her powerful voice heard in a compelling book, “Diary of a Survivor.”

With the help of Miami Herald writer Glenn Garvin, Rodriguez tells her story effectively. She poignantly shares the events leading to her arrest and the ordeals of her imprisonment. Because of her refusal to be politically “rehabilitated,” she endured beatings, isolation periods in blackout cells, long stretches without family visits or medical assistance, and the deprivation of most human rights. She vividly describes the ways human beings survive in the face of great cruelty and brutality, unfortunately a topic as timely today as it was in 1961, when she entered the prison.

This is not the first book to offer an intimate perspective on political imprisonment in Cuba, but it is rare in its portrayal of a female prisoner’s experience. Through Rodriguez’s story, we learn about others who likewise resisted reeducation: young students, wives, widows, grandmothers and mothers, some even with their infants inside the cells. We also meet vicious, predatory female criminals, often used to intimidate the political prisoners, and phaclanas, young rebel prostitutes. Along with the female prison guards, these women present a spectrum of the worst and best in human nature. In the end, the book speaks to women’s ability to persevere by establishing remarkable systems of cooperation and support even in the most appalling circumstances.

Rodriguez’s story begins when she was a student actively involved in the fight against the Batista dictatorship. At first, she welcomed Castro’s revolution. As she witnessed the militarization of Cuban society and the transformation of neighbors into informants, she began to question her loyalty. The turning point, she writes, was watching Castro’s kangaroo-court revolutionary tribunals, where trials ended consistently with televised firing squads (even though the Cuban Constitution prohibited capital punishment). Soon after, Rodriguez began working against Castro the same way she had worked against Batista. She distributed propaganda, carried clandestine messages and participated in other support work for urban guerrilla groups. This part of her account gives us a unique glimpse into the thoughts and actions of disillusioned youths involved in Havana’s urban underground in the early ’60s, most of whom eventually landed in prison.

After her arrest, court trial and sentence to a 30-year jail term, she was repeatedly transferred from prison to prison. In spite of beatings and deprivations, she refused to wear the same uniforms as the common criminals, initiated hunger strikes, burned down a jail and even escaped twice from maximum-security prisons. She turned herself in after her second escape. After the initial frenzy of the escape, she confronted the reality that the entire island had become a prison.

One of the most saddening chapters describes how she came to this realization. As early as 1967, during her first escape, Rodriguez encountered a broken Havana. As she wandered throughout the city, moving every few days from house to house, she was shocked to find Cuba worse off than she had imagined it. “During my months on the street, I had seen a strange, disturbing paradox. No one believed in the Revolution anymore. . . . Yet no one was resisting, not even passively. {Castro} had broken Cuba. The streets outside were like those of a foreign country to me.”

After her release, as a result of negotiations with the Carter administration, Rodriguez was given an exit visa for the United States. “As the plane {which was full of former political prisoners, all males except two} passed over the island’s edge, dozens of the men broke into tears. My eyes were dry. I was thinking of a statistic: In 1959, when Castro took over, Cuba had four prisons. As we flew away, there were two hundred.” In revealing the disturbing details of her imprisonment, Rodriguez lets us inhabit her world. For years, people denied the stories of men and women like her. “Diary of a Survivor” reminds us that no totalitarian regime can fully silence its people. There are always survivors. Rodriguez is one worth listening to. The reviewer, a Cuban-born poet and essayist, is the author of “Cuban American Writers: Los Atrevidos” and of the forthcoming “A Century of Cuban Writers in Florida.” CAPTION: In a Cuban prison, Ana Rodriguez defied efforts to break her will.