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Cuba’s Prisoners

In response to:

Cuba: The Human Rights Show from the June 15, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

With respect to Aryeh Neier’s “Cuba: The Human Rights Show” [NYR, June 15], it should be recalled that in an interview published in Playboy, January, 1967, Fidel Castro admitted that there were 20,000 political prisoners in Cuban jails. It is a safe assumption that on a per capita basis, there were more political prisoners in Cuba than in any other country, with the possible exception of the People’s Republic of China. Sincerely,

Maurice Halperin
Professor Emeritus
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, British Columbia

Aryeh Neier replies:

In the first paragraph of an article that I published in the July 17, 1986, New York Review, I wrote: > Since Fidel Castro took power in 1959, Cuba has confined large numbers of political prisoners for longer periods than any other country in the world. No one outside Cuba knows how many, but Fidel Castro himself has said publicly that at one time there were as many as fifteen thousand, and he reportedly told one of his biographers that the number was twenty thousand.

I was not aware of the Playboy interview, but as Professor Halperin recalls it, the number mentioned is consistent with what Castro said elsewhere.

To Professor Halperin’s citation of China as a possible per capita competitor with Cuba, I would add Indonesia (where, according to the government, there are 1.4 million surviving ex-political prisoners from the 1960s) and Uruguay (a tiny country of 3 million where 6,000 political prisoners at a time were confined under the military dictatorship of the 1970s and the early 1980s). More recently, South Africa imprisoned about 25,000 at the height of the “emergency” in 1986 and, when the pass laws were in effect, about a quarter of a million persons a year were imprisoned for a few weeks at a time for violations. During the past year, with some 2,600 administrative detentions at one time, the Israeli occupied territories probably had the highest number of political prisoners per capita in the world.

Though I think it is important to recall the extent of political imprisonment in Cuba in the 1960s in assessing Fidel Castro’s regime, it is also useful to acknowledge the decline in the number of political prisoners since then in calling attention to the remaining prisoners and to the many other persisting abuses of human rights. That was one of the main points of the article on which Professor Halperin comments.

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