In Cuban Prisons

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro; drawing by David Levine

On March 10, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, meeting in Geneva, unanimously adopted a resolution accepting an invitation from the government of Cuba to conduct an investigation of human rights there. A UN delegation is to go to Cuba this summer and will report its findings to the next meeting of the commission in 1989.

During the week before the UN vote, I had a foretaste of what the commission will find, thanks to an unusual agreement negotiated between the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) in Washington and the National Union of Cuban Jurists. A group of Americans, of whom I was one, was permitted to visit six Cuban prisons and conduct confidential interviews with up to one hundred Cuban prisoners.1 We were allowed to choose both the prisons we visited and the prisoners we talked to. A Cuban group was to conduct a similar visit to prisons in the United States, but in May the US government denied the Cubans visas to come to the United States. Our visit to Cuban prisons took place between February 25 and March 5.

During the last two or three years, in part as a consequence of the publication of Armando Valladares’s prison memoir, Against All Hope,2 the question of human rights in Cuba—and particularly the conditions of its prisons—has become important in relations between Cuba and the United States. At the 1987 meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the US mounted a drive to pass a resolution condemning “massive, systematic and flagrant abuses of human rights” by the Cuban government. Despite an intense lobbying effort by the US—and perhaps because of Latin American resentment of the heavy-handedness of its approach—the resolution was defeated by a vote of nineteen to eighteen in the forty-three-member commission. Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela were among the governments voting against the resolution along with Cuba’s predictable allies, Mexico and Nicaragua; Brazil abstained; Costa Rica was the only Latin American nation to vote with the United States.

Earlier this year the United States mounted an even more intense effort to pass such a resolution. Armando Valladares was appointed the US government’s representative to the commission. Having become a US citizen in 1987 by an act of Congress, Valladares, now a resident of Madrid, is probably the first person who cannot speak English ever to serve as an ambassador of the United States. His appointment made it clear that the issue before the commission most important to the United States was condemnation of Cuba.

It also mattered greatly to Cuba. Condemnation by the UN commission would be a heavy blow to the prestige of Fidel Castro’s government. It would interfere with Castro’s ambition to be seen as a leader of, and as a spokesman for, third world nations. It would injure Cuba’s efforts to improve its ties to Western Europe, Latin America, Canada, and,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.