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In Cuban Prisons’: Another Exchange

In response to:

In Cuban Prisons from the June 30, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

On the last page of his article “In Cuban Prisons” [NYR, June 30], Aryeh Neier reproduces, without indicating his source, a form entitled “Boleta Recogida de Opiniones” which he states is currently used by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to inform on the political views of their neighbors and that this use constitutes a form of “abuse.” Mr. Neier is misinformed and has misled the readers of The New York Review.

The form was never used to report the political views of individuals. The “boleta” reproduced was used by the Party for a short time around 1979–1980 as a mechanism to survey public opinion about any variety of complaints, concerns and issues ranging from opinions regarding shortages of produce to reactions to government policies. It fell into disuse after 1980 because it was completely ineffectual in providing an accurate reflection of public opinion.

Moreover, the form is anonymous. There is no line for either the name or the address of the person stating the opinion. It was ineffectual as a survey device not because it was anonymous, however, but because it did not seek information on a specific subject in a systematic way. The form was distributed to members of CDRs who would fill it out if they heard frequent complaints or responses to policies. As a result, those charged with processing the information could not tell how significant or widespread any particular concern might be. In addition, apparently the form was not uniformly distributed as many CDRs never received it.

I traveled to Cuba shortly after reading Mr. Neier’s article. In six years studying Cuba I had never seen such a form, and I decided to track it down. The search was not easy, because almost everyone I asked had never seen such a form or any other used for the purpose of informing on an individual’s political opinions. I carried several photocopies of the form with me at all times, passed them around and inquired of everyone with whom I had contact. I asked people on buses, cab drivers, friends who had been in charge of vigilance in their CDR, friends who were presidents of CDRs, people who worked for the Party, officials of various ranks and many others. I gave out copies to some and asked them to ask their co-workers and acquaintances.

Finally, several days before leaving I showed it to a Cuban journalist who was visiting me. She said she had seen the form and had even filled several out. However, she had not seen it since 1980. The fact that it had not been in use for about eight years explains why no one could recall it. I then found someone else who recognized it and also confirmed that it had not been in use for a long time. Apparently, not only did it fall into disuse in 1980, it was not even distributed widely.

The purpose of my trip to Cuba was to continue research for a book on the development of the legal system since the revolution, but as a result of my search for the origin of the “boleta,” I learned a great deal about information gathering and public opinion research in Cuba.

Since 1980, the Party has developed more scientific methods to survey public opinion. The Equipo Nacional de Investigaciones sobre el Opinion del Pueblo (National Research Team on Public Opinion) is charged with developing survey techniques and instruments so that the Party can stay in touch with popular opinion. Recent surveys have involved subjects such as the public’s opinion of the police, transportation services and the process of “rectification.” Other entities also conduct surveys. The Institute of Internal Demand, for example, is perpetually surveying consumer demand and tastes. The Federation of Cuban Women recently completed a survey of 5,000 citizens about their opinions of women’s equality and the relationship between men and women in Cuban society today. All surveys are anonymous and voluntary.

Assuming Mr. Neier believed the source who supplied him with the form, he has been extremely careless in his research. Last March Ricardo Bofill supplied the State Department with a fictitious list of persons supposedly executed by the Cuban government. It appears that Mr. Neier has fallen prey of a similar tactic. As a result, he has added to the misinformation and myths that proliferate in the United States press about Cuba. A serious study of human rights in Cuba deserves much more.

Debra Evenson

DePaul University, College of Law

Chicago, Illinois

Aryeh Neier replies:

Professor Evenson makes two points about a document that I said is used for purposes of political surveillance in Cuba: first, that its uses were benign and analogous to a public opinion survey; second, that it fell into disuse after 1980.

As to the first point, I think the document itself contradicts Professor Evenson. It explicitly asks for a political judgment on those whose opinions are recorded by providing a place to check off whether the person is a “revolutionary” or is “disaffected.” More important, the form also provides a place to check off what are referred to as the “repercussions of the comment on the listeners.” The categories that may be checked off are “approval on the part of the listeners,” “disapproval,” and “indifference.” Though Evenson says that “all surveys are anonymous and voluntary,” this makes it plain that responding to the particular form reproduced with my article could not be voluntary. Its function was not to record opinions in response to an interviewer who gave the person expressing an opinion an opportunity to decide whether to respond to a question. Rather, its function was to record opinions without the knowledge that they were being recorded.

As to the second point, I lack information about the specific dates when the particular form published with my article has been used. But the fact that the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) currently engage in political surveillance, and have recently used forms such as the one I published with my article, has been acknowledged by the Cuban government itself. Indeed, on June 28, 1988, a short while after the publication of my article in The New York Review of Books, the Cuban Communist party newspaper Granma carried an article headlined “Submission of Declarations by the CDR Suspended.” The article said that in order “to perfect the work of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” they would no longer submit forms they had collected “about the attitude and conduct of their neighbors” to many organizations and institutions because the forms “have generated problems and complaints from neighbors, since the information has not been accurate in all cases.”

The forms would still be compiled, however. According to Granma, from now on those authorized to obtain such information from the CDRs for certain specified purposes would be only the Union of Young Communists, the State Committee for Work and Social Security, and the Ministry of Justice, and all the information disseminated to them must be public in nature. The Granma story led to a wire dispatch from Havana by Agence France Presse that said that “Cuba’s neighborhood watchdog committees have been ordered to cease preparing routine reports on their neighbors’ political loyalty, morals and general conduct.”

Finally, as long as Professor Evenson brings up the name of Ricardo Bofill, I think it is worth noting that I got a firsthand taste of the pervasiveness of political surveillance in Cuba in connection with a meeting with Bofill. The Institute for Policy Studies group with which I traveled in Cuba wanted to see Bofill. Unable to reach him on the phone, we went to his house on a Sunday morning, but did not find him there. We learned that he might be at church and went to the church he is known to attend and found him there. Subsequently, we discovered that a film record of our encounter with Bofill at the church appeared in a program attacking him, “History of a Charlatan,” that was broadcast on Cuban television. Needless to say, cameras were nowhere to be seen when we met Bofill; our encounter was filmed secretly.

To the Editors:

Aryeh Neier, in his article entitled “In Cuban Prisons” [NYR, June 30] pointed out that Cuban officials, in accepting a proposal for a visit to Cuban prisons from the Institute for Policy Studies, were able to save face because the proposal included a plan for reciprocal visits to the United States and thus did not imply that Cuban prisons were in special need of inspection. Mr. Neier points out that the return visit to the United States “was apparently more important to them symbolically than in practice, as was demonstrated by their willingness to permit the US delegation to visit their prisons before it was determined whether US visas would be issued to their delegation.”

The US State Department has since decided that it will not issue visas to the Cubans who applied for a reciprocal visit to six US prisons. The State Department refusal came despite the fact that officials in charge of the five public prisons involved had no objection to an inspection by the Cubans. Two of the prisons were federal prisons and the Bureau of Prisons gave its consent.

Richard Schifter, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, in a letter to The New York Times (July 11) explained that “the torture and misery of Cuban prison life [is] only one aspect of the Cuban dictatorship,” and that “the innocents come and look, and then announce to the world that Fidel Castro has stopped torturing prison inmates…[while] his totalitarian dictatorship continues without any other change.”

Ambassador Schifter deplores Fidel Castro’s “gall” in demanding that “the United States government allow Cuban operatives to inspect our prisons,” thus indicating that we are not prepared to show the openness that we have long demanded of other countries, and especially of those countries that have not been willing or ready to call what now appears to be our bluff. This is a dangerous position, particularly in the era of “glasnost” when Soviet bloc countries are responding in new and unprecedented ways. The denial of visas to the Cubans came home to roost within days and from an unexpected quarter—the government of Czechoslovakia.

Earlier this year the Czechoslovak government had permitted an unprecedented visit: it allowed two American doctors, representing the Physicians for Human Rights, to visit and examine an ailing political prisoner, Jiri Wolf, in Valdice Prison. To be sure, there was more to the agenda than that. The doctors also performed a second autopsy on Pavel Wonka, another political prisoner who had died in custody and their findings confirmed the fact that his death was not (at least directly) related to his mistreatment in prison. Nevertheless, the examination of Mr. Wolf represented a dramatic change in precious Czechoslovak policy, and the doctors left with the hope that future visits to prisoners in Czechoslovak prisons might very well be in the offing. They immediately requested another visit, naming additional prisoners that they wished to see.

On July 6, however, Gabriel Brenka, head of the Consular Section of the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington, informed the doctors that “while working on your request I was really embarrassed that the US authorities denied granting a visa to four Cuban penal experts who intended to visit some US prisons…. This case leaves me in doubt if our cooperation will not be a one way street.” Mr. Brenka goes on to say that his government would expect reciprocity if any further visits to prisons in Czechoslovakia were to be permitted.

The fact that the Cuban Interests Section is housed in the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington may explain the alacrity with which the visa denials became known. But it does not in any way alleviate the embarrassment that US citizens should share with Mr. Brenka because of this misguided US policy.

The situation is particularly ironic because Richard Schifter himself has taken deserved credit for his dealings with the Soviet bloc countries at a Human Rights Conference that was held in Ottawa in May 1985 as part of the Heisinki process. There, he welcomed Soviet attacks on US human rights policies with statements like the following: “…all participants have the right to discuss reports of human rights violations in the United States…. Ours, as is well known, is an open country…. I do hope that all those who will speak here about the United States will instruct their research assistants to utilize the opportunities for verification that do exist. There are, as we all know, a great many of them.”

Ambassador Schifter has recently been involved in negotiations with the Soviets involving the possibility of reciprocal visits to prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Now he must either advocate that the State Department deny visas to Soviets and Czechoslovaks interested in visiting US prisons in return for opening up their own prison doors, or he must somehow distinguish between the repression in Cuba and that in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

By denying visas to Cubans and others who are willing to open their prisons to us if we will do the same for them, we are denying prisoners in those countries the possibility of some much needed attention to their plight. If the prisons are spruced up for the occasion, the prisoners can only gain from such improvements, to say nothing of the protection that international attention will bring to their cases. US prisoners also stand to benefit from visits by foreigners—our own prisons are certainly not above reproach. By denying such foreign inspection, our government is giving the impression not only that we have something to hide but that we have been insincere all these years in setting ourselves up as an example of openness that repressive countries should emulate. Now that some of our offers might actually be taken up, we are indicating that we never expected them to be taken seriously.

Jeri Laber

Executive Director

US Helsinki Watch Committee

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