Certain facts are clear about human rights in Cuba. 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. Many of the political prisoners were confined for long periods under degrading and cruel circumstances, and some were prohibited visitors for years at a time. They were denied anything resembling fair trials.

During Castro’s first decade in power, several thousand prisoners were executed; even today, many years after Castro consolidated control and suppressed all violent attempts to overthrow his government, more than a hundred men now in middle age or elderly remain incarcerated from the early days of the Cuban revolution, many of them for defying Castro or for breaking with him over the direction of the revolution. In more recent years, many dissenters have been sentenced to long prison terms for such offenses as drawing defamatory caricatures of government leaders, writing letters to foreign dignitaries criticizing the revolution, and possessing “enemy propaganda,” which consists of a writer’s own manuscript.

By the customary standards of human rights, the prolonged imprisonment of many persons for peaceful dissent, and the execution of thousands after trials wholly lacking fairness, are gross abuses of internationally recognized human rights. That is, they are abuses that violate all of the civilized norms on which the nations of the world have agreed since the end of World War II. By every criterion that has been established and accepted internationally during the past four decades, Cuba warrants severe condemnation for its abuses of human rights.

In addition, Cuba systematically denies civil liberties. Freedom of expression and association are unknown; there are no opposition newspapers, magazines, or radio broadcasts; no independent unions, professional associations, or political groups; the churches are not a forum for dissent. No organization is able to work in Cuba, either openly or clandestinely, to defend or even to monitor human rights; Cubans do not have the right to leave and those who have left do not have the right to return; there is no independent judiciary; and there is no other institution in Cuba that is able to restrain the arbitrary exercise of power by the government and its leader, Fidel Castro.

Despite its terrible record, Cuba has never figured prominently in the concerns of most organizations and people who actively promote human rights. That is not to say that it has been ignored. The largest and most important organization in the field, Amnesty International, has monitored developments in Cuba using the same criteria that it uses in dealing with other countries, and it has organized campaigns on behalf of individual prisoners of conscience in Cuba. An inter-governmental body, the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has published several valuable studies of human rights abuses in Cuba; the organization with which I am associated, Americans Watch, a much newer group, published its first report on Cuba in 1983, two years after we were established, and has recently published another, more substantial report. PEN clubs in the United States and elsewhere have campaigned on behalf of imprisoned Cuban writers. Yet in view of the severity of the abuses in Cuba, its proximity to the United States, the presence here of a large exile community, and its linguistic accessibility—all usually factors in determining the amount of human rights activity—the efforts that have been undertaken by human rights activists seem relatively meager.

There are, of course, those who argue that the relative paucity of human rights activity centered on Cuba reflects leftist bias. This argument seems to me partly true but it also oversimplifies matters and it may do more to obscure the reasons for the relative inattention to Cuba than to explain it.

The chief reason that human rights activists have paid little attention to Cuba, in my view, is a historical one. It was not until the late 1970s that efforts to promote human rights internationally developed into a significant movement in the United States and elsewhere.1 In Latin America, the 1970s was a horrifying decade, marked by tens of thousands of murders and disappearances and the pervasive use of torture in a host of right-wing dictatorships: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay, and Uruguay; and the deaths of forty thousand to fifty thousand persons in the insurrection in Nicaragua, most of them killed in Somoza’s attacks on the civilian population. Calling attention to the slaughter and trying to halt it were urgent concerns. Most of those active in the human rights movement saw little cause to devote their energies to Cuba, where most of the executions had taken place during the previous decade; where death squads and disappearances were unknown; where reports of the mistreatment of prisoners were not so gory as those emanating from the torture centers elsewhere in Latin America; and where even the number of political prisoners was for a time diminishing, especially during the period of détente with the United States in the Carter years.


To some human rights activists, moreover, concentrating on abuses of human rights in Cuba during the 1970s seemed not only misplaced but possibly even dangerous. The most frequent accusation against the victims of abuses elsewhere in the hemisphere was that they were agents of Cuba. Denunciations of Cuba, through a foolish twist of political logic, were probably seen by some as aiding the cause of the oppressors.

At the beginning of the 1980s, human rights activists in the United States concerned with Latin America were principally preoccupied by the firestorm of abuses that swept through El Salvador and, to a much lesser extent, by the comparable carnage in Guatemala. (Guatemala attracted less attention than El Salvador both because the United States had a smaller part in its recent history and because it was far more difficult to gather reliable information on what was going on in Guatemala. Many large-scale massacres went unreported in the American press.) Now, in the last half of the decade, the Reagan administration’s intense concentration on Nicaragua has shifted attention to abuses both by the Sandinista government and by the contras attempting to overthrow it. Cuba, where little has changed except for the release of some additional prisoners, continues to attract little attention.

Other factors have also contributed. The identification of some Cuban exiles with extreme right-wing causes, and with such notorious crimes as the Watergate burglary and the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington in 1976—events that coincided with the rise of the human rights movement—undoubtedly made some human rights activists reluctant to associate themselves with the anti-Castro cause. No doubt, also, some of those active in efforts to promote human rights elsewhere are committed leftists of the kind who are unwilling to criticize “socialist” Cuba. Others are still taken in by the mystique of the romantic revolutionary, Fidel Castro; others argue that Cuba’s proclaimed achievements in health care, nutrition, and literacy should be weighed against its abuses of civil and political rights; others consider that efforts by Americans to promote human rights internationally should be directed only at countries that are beneficiaries of American military, economic, or diplomatic support; others believe that Americans have dirty hands in the case of Cuba because we supported Batista and tried to overthrow Castro and even enlisted the Mafia to help the CIA in trying to assassinate him; and others are ignorant of the extent of human rights abuses in Cuba. I suspect that many people fit into more than one of these categories.

Yet another factor is Cuba’s refusal to permit anyone or any group to conduct a human rights investigation.2 Some organizations that work for human rights have adopted the method of sending investigative missions, publishing reports, and basing campaigns on those reports. Faced with the impossibility of pursuing this method in the case of Cuba, human rights groups have had difficulty in devising other ways of launching campaigns about Cuban abuses. The fact that the United States imposes restrictions on travel by Americans to Cuba further complicates the matter.

Those who are most vehement in denouncing human rights activists for not concerning themselves with Cuba, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams, may themselves contribute to the problem they decry. The manner in which they put their argument suggests that their purpose is to deprecate the significance of abuses elsewhere or to belabor human rights groups rather than to promote human rights in Cuba.

An address by Jeane Kirkpatrick to the United Nations Economic and Social Council on December 8, 1983, is characteristic. Chile was on the agenda, but Kirkpatrick chose to attack the UN’s concern with Chile by claiming that Cuba was worse, pointing out that Cuba “holds many times more political prisoners in its jails.” This was true, though anyone who wanted to respond in similar fashion could have pointed out that extreme physical torture was applied to most political prisoners in Chile, but not in Cuba. What should be made clear, however, is that abuses of human rights in Chile and Cuba are different, and they cannot usefully be measured against each other. Cuba should be denounced for its own sins, not because they are greater or less than those of Chile.

In a similar vein, Elliott Abrams delivered an address to the Cuban-American National Foundation on August 23, 1984, entitled “Cuba in Western Eyes: Reds Through Rose-Colored Glasses.” Abrams told his audience that “many of today’s journalists, human rights activists, and even clergymen, are simply yesterday’s peace activists in a somewhat more decorous garb” and accused those who called attention to abuses by allies of the United States instead of abuses by Cuba of “invincible anti-Americanism.”


That Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams use the issue of human rights abuses in Cuba to oppose efforts to condemn abuses elsewhere or to impugn those who work for human rights elsewhere is certainly not a good reason, however, for ignoring the terrible suffering that the Castro government has inflicted on dissenters. Whatever Mr. Abrams may say or do, it should be obvious that those concerned with human rights must do everything they can to expose such treatment and help those who endure it.

A case that might be selected from many to illustrate the vindictive and cruel character of Castro’s government is that of Edmigio Lopez Castillo, a writer and, at one time, a Cuban diplomat serving in the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to prison in 1968 for his affiliation with “La Microfacción,” an opposition group of orthodox Marxists. While still in prison in 1980, he was resentenced to another eight years in prison for writing poetry and essays favoring human rights in Cuba. When a group of visiting Americans raised Lopez’s case with Cuban authorities during a visit to Havana last fall, they were told that his new sentence in 1980 was imposed because he defamed government officials in his drawings and that he defamed the revolution in letters to foreign leaders. According to some reports, Lopez may be released before his sentence expires in 1988 because an illness has left him nearly blind and because he is approaching sixty.

Over the years, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of those who have been confined in Cuba’s political prisons were sentenced simply for attempting to leave the country without permission. One of those currently serving a prison term for this offense is Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, also a former Cuban diplomat, and also a repeat offender. Formerly Cuba’s ambassador to Belgium, he was sentenced to ten years in 1968 for opposing the revolution, but was released before he completed his term after a judicial pardon. In 1981, Arcos sought permission to leave Cuba to see his son in the United States who had been severely injured in an automobile accident. Permission was denied. The Cuban government charged him with attempting to leave clandestinely, with illegal possession of firearms, illegal possession of foreign currency, and attempting to smuggle property out of the country. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Arcos’s term expires on August 31, 1987, though he may be released earlier for good behavior.

The procedures that have been used to impose such prolonged prison sentences are described in an autobiographical account by a former prisoner, Jorge Valls, a teacher and poet who was released in 1984. Valls had been imprisoned for his revolutionary activities several times under Batista. After a couple of brief terms in prison under Castro, he was tried and sentenced to a long term in 1964. His account of his experience, Twenty Years and Forty Days: Life in a Cuban Prison, was published by Americas Watch in April. Valls writes of his trial:

An officer handed me the indictment. I was accused of leading several anti-government organizations and of activities “against the powers of the state.” The prosecutor was asking for twelve years.

A man wearing civilian clothes approached me, looking bored. He told me that he was a lawyer, and asked if I wanted him to represent me. I answered that my lawyer was Dr. Ibarra. He went away and came back a little later to tell me that my lawyer had not showed up, that he had probably deserted me, and that he was there to represent me if I wished. Since it was all such a farce, I told him it was all right with me, he could do as he pleased.

The trial was conducted behind closed doors, with only military inside the room, which was almost full. A number of soldiers stood guard outside. The trial began with the other defendant. When the court allowed him to make a declaration, he said that he wanted to make it clear that there was no link between him and me, something that no one seemed to doubt. The lawyer stood up very reluctantly and presented his defense according to the common practice. He admitted that of course “the man he represented” (he avoided saying “my client”) was guilty of everything he’d been charged with, but that he was a very uncultivated man, and thus could not understand the revolution. Consequently, he begged for the mercy of the tribunal.

No one paid him much attention, so they went ahead with my trial. The State Security agent who was performing as a witness said that I had spent my life trying to “poison the minds of the people against the revolution.” The prosecutor spoke about the good deeds of the government and the evil of the counter-revolution. Somewhat ambiguously, he hinted that my admitted evasion of the draft could mean that I’d face another trial in the future. He closed by asking for a twelve-year sentence.

When they asked me if I had anything to declare, I said yes. I stood up and recited a small formula that at least gave me the pleasure of stating it. “I believe in God, in the essential liberty of man, in the sacredness of the human being, in the Constitution, and in everything Ignacio Agramonte defended in the Constituent Assembly of Guáimaro in 1869.” And I sat down.

The lawyer stood up and said that though it could not be said that I was uncultured, I was like one of those students who never understood a subject, and I did not understand the revolution. Therefore, he would ask for mercy.

The session ended, but I never learned the final result of the trial. The officials never informed me of the sentence, either orally or in writing. I was taken back to the galley.

Valls eventually learned that his sentence was not for twelve years as requested by the prosecutor, but for twenty years. He served every day of the sentence, and even when the twenty years were over, he was not released. Some other stubborn prisoners like Valls who refused to submit to a reeducation plan, those prisoners known as the plantados, were held a year or two years beyond completion of their sentences. Valls, who had achieved international recognition because a book of his plays and a book of his poems had been published from manuscripts smuggled out of prison, was released forty days after completing his sentence. He attributes his release to efforts by Amnesty International and others who launched an international campaign to secure his freedom.

Another former prisoner, Armando Valladares, has recently published a memoir of his twenty-two years in Castro’s prisons (Against All Hope, Knopf). Like others who survived and were released, Valls and Valladares report appalling conditions: frequent beatings, occasional bayonettings, meaningless hard labor; the repeated use of isolation, malnourishment, and the denial of medical care; and the many, many times that their keepers sought ways to humiliate those who had not demonstrated their appreciation for the revolution or who persisted in defiant attitudes while in prison.

From time to time there have been signs that the Cuban government might relent in its harsh treatment of political prisoners. The most significant headway was made in the late 1970s when the Carter administration was instrumental in securing the release of several thousand. Since then, US relations with Cuba have deteriorated, in part because of the number of common criminals and former inmates of mental hospitals who turned out to be among the exodus of 125,000 Cubans in the “freedom flotilla” from Mariel in 1980; in part as a consequence of the confrontational rhetoric and style of the Reagan administration; and in part as a consequence of the administration’s decision to set up Radio Martí last year, and Castro’s reaction to this, to mention only some of the issues that have arisen.

A central issue between the US and Cuba has been the agreement by the Carter administration in 1980 to permit a large number of former political prisoners to emigrate to the US. The US honored this agreement only for a brief period—between late 1984, when Castro agreed to take back the “excludable aliens” who joined the Mariel exodus, and May 1985, when Castro said he would no longer take back such people because the US had set up Radio Martí to broadcast to Cuba.

Castro has cited the Reagan administration’s refusal to honor the agreement made during the last year of the Carter administration as grounds for not releasing additional prisoners—although some could be released to Spain, France, or other countries that have accepted Cuban political refugees. In effect, it appears that Cuba’s political prisoners have become hostage to the increasingly hostile relations between the US and Cuba. Abrams and Kirkpatrick, who have been so vociferous in denouncing human rights activists for not paying sufficient attention to Cuba, have not used their influence with the Reagan administration to see to it that the US honors its commitment to grant immigration visas to former political prisoners. The circumstances of these former prisoners in Cuba are very difficult. They should not be penalized for Cuba’s actions at Mariel in 1980 or for Castro’s failure to take back the criminals and mental patients he encouraged to go to the US at that time.

Despite the present embittered relations between Cuba and the United States, it may be possible now to bring pressure on. Castro to improve the human rights situation. The most important reason is that, despite continuing high levels of abuses in several countries, the human rights situation in Latin America on the whole is far better than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago. The most prominent new leaders in Latin America, President Raúl Alfonsín of Argentina and President Alan García of Peru, owe a significant part of their international reputation to their efforts to promote human rights. Accordingly, attention to Cuba’s human rights record in Latin America and elsewhere can no longer be deflected so readily by pointing to tyranny and cruelty elsewhere in the region.

In 1984, Jesse Jackson succeeded in bringing twenty-six long-term political prisoners out of Cuba with him. A few months later, in February 1985, a delegation of US Catholic bishops obtained the Cuban government’s agreement to release a larger number of political prisoners. (As yet, only a handful of them have been released as a result of this agreement; according to some reports, difficulties in arranging the emigration of some of these prisoners have slowed the process.)

More recently, responding to human rights pressure—principally from France—Cuba freed one of its best-known prisoners, Ricardo Bofill Pages. Formerly a professor of Marxist ideology and vicerector of the University of Havana, Bofill has spent nearly half of the last two decades behind bars for “ideological deviationism.” He was imprisoned again, in 1983, apparently in reprisal for telling two French journalists about prison conditions. At this writing, Bofill remains in Havana. According to his wife who lives in Miami, he is seeking an exit visa. At the end of May, ten very longterm political prisoners—all plantados—were included in a group of twenty-nine prisoners who were released; several of them had many years to go to complete their sentences.

Another small sign that headway might be possible now is that Fidel Castro agreed to include human rights on the agenda of a meeting he held last fall with a large delegation to Cuba sponsored by the US Commission on Central American Relations, a group headed by the former US ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White. Several prominent human rights activists took part in that meeting, and succeeded in using their visit to get Cuban authorities to furnish them with some information on prisoners. In April, the Cuban government agreed to a follow-up “technical mission” that will take place later this year, during which additional information may be provided.

It is important that human rights activists should not be lulled by such signals into believing that significant progress can be made by restricting themselves to their own brand of “quiet diplomacy.” In the case of Cuba, as everywhere else in the world, quiet diplomacy is an essential means of securing concessions in particular cases. Yet there is little likelihood that it can succeed unless it takes place against a background of public pressure. As much as any other of the world’s leaders, Fidel Castro has been preoccupied with projecting a favorable international image. He makes use of the condemnations of his government that have come from Washington to portray himself as David taking on Goliath.

Loud and sustained criticism of the Cuban government as an enemy of human liberty and dignity would be a different matter, however, if it came from those who have earned credentials in struggles against death squads and disappearances in El Salvador and Guatemala, and against other abuses in client states of the United States. There is little chance that such pressure would transform the Cuban system; as elsewhere, change of that sort may be beyond what can be achieved by international attention to human rights abuses. But strong and widespread protest against abuses of human rights in Cuba could help some victims of its system, and that is reason enough to make it worthwhile.

This Issue

July 17, 1986