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, ultimately, to the United States. That such a resolution might be adopted in response to the urging of its former prisoner and current bitter critic Valladares would be particularly galling to the Cubans. Valladares has been attacked by the Cuban government as a former Batista policeman, as a convicted terrorist, and as a man whose claim to have been crippled in prison as a consequence of mistreatment was fraudulent. Valladares has denied these charges and the United States has denounced this portrayal of Valladares as slanderous.

Cuba’s willingness to allow our group to inspect its prisons reflected its need to try to refute the charges Valladares and others have made. The IPS proposal that it accepted included reciprocal visits to US prisons and so allowed the Cubans to save face, and to avoid conceding that their practices are particularly in need of inspection. This 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 delegation included two trustees of IPS, Diana DeVegh, a social worker, and the lawyer Adrian DeWind, former president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the author of the proposal for the exchange of prison visits, and four persons not connected to IPS: Peter Bell, president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the principal source of support for prison reform efforts in the United States; Herman Schwartz, professor of law at American University and, for the past twenty years, a leading attorney in court cases challenging prison conditions; Howard Hiatt, professor of medicine and former dean of the School of Public Health at Harvard; and myself. An IPS staff member, Julia Sweig, and another translator, Luis Rumbaud, accompanied the delegation. During our visit to Cuba, both before and after our prison visits, several of us met in Havana with two unofficial Cuban human rights groups. Until recently, most of the leaders of these groups had themselves been in prison, but they have been able to work openly during the past several months.


The central principle of the Cuban prison system, an official of the Ministry of the Interior told us at the beginning of our visit, is “reeducation.” As our visit proceeded, I often found myself thinking that this could also be said to be the central principle of all of Cuban society; but reeducation, of course, is not the same thing as education. The concept of reeducation suggests that a person has gone wrong and that the state must intervene to restore him to the right way. His bad behavior does not reflect his true nature; it is the external influences upon him that are to blame. Accordingly, in the controlled environment of a prison he is to be reeducated to eliminate his deviance.

In one sense, of course, this is reminiscent of early nineteenth-century reformers in the United States and elsewhere where who argued that criminals and the mentally ill should be confined to asylums to be rehabilitated. What gives reeducation a particularly sinister cast in Cuba and in other Communist countries in which it has been practiced is that ideological deviance is one of its targets. In Cuban prisons, where as many as twenty thousand “counterrevolutionary” prisoners were confined in the 1960s, the purpose of reeducation was to make them accept the revolution. The number of those considered to be counterrevolutionaries in the Cuban prisons has dwindled considerably in recent years, however, so that there are now probably fewer than a thousand in a prison population of more than 32,000.3 Today most of those subjected to reeducation are common criminals.

The Cuban approach to reeducation is probably derived to a significant extent from the Soviet system. In a 1980 study, “Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR: Their Treatment and Conditions,” Amnesty International examined Soviet legislation and Soviet theory with respect to prisons, and commented:

The official Soviet viewpoint on the treatment of prisoners is influenced profoundly by the Marxist-materialist tenet that people’s behaviour and attitudes are determined in large measure by the objective circumstances under which they are found and the subjective influences to which they are exposed. On the basis of this principle, it is maintained, Soviet corrective labour institutions are charged with the task of devising and implementing a scientifically sound programme for the “correction and re-education” of prisoners, the goal being that set down in Article 20 of the Fundamentals of Criminal Legislation of the USSR and Union Republics, which states in part: “Punishment is not only chastisement for the crime committed but also has as a goal the correction and re-education of convicted persons in the spirit of an honest attitude toward work, exact compliance with the laws, respect for the rules of socialist public life….”

The Amnesty report goes on to cite an official monograph of 1967 by A.Y. Natashev and N.A. Struchkov, called “The Fundamental Principles of the Theory of Corrective Labour Law,” in which the authors assert:

Correction and re-education must give one result: the person who has served his sentence must no longer be dangerous to society, and more, he must be able to be only of use to society.

How is this to be achieved? In Cuban prisons, work is considered central—regular, disciplined, productive work over a prolonged period. The prison officials like to quote Fidel Castro’s dictum that “in reeducation, as in education, work is the great teacher.”

In the prisons, as apparently in society at large, this attempt to reeducate is pursued with missionary zeal. The result is a system that has some humane features and is clearly regarded with considerable pride by Cuban officials. It is also a system containing practices that can only be described as cruel. The aspects of the prisons that I found to be cruel did not appear to me to be aberrations or contradictions of those that I found to be humane; rather, they seemed closely related.

According to Cuban officials, 85 percent of all their prisoners work. Though I could not determine whether this claim is accurate, it was plain from my visit that it is not a gross exaggeration. Unlike prisoners in most countries, including those in many prisons in the United States, Cuban prisoners are not as a rule idle. Very large industrial enterprises are connected to the prisons in Cuba and it appears that the prefabricated housing industry largely depends on prison labor. The kind of work that is performed, the skills that are taught in prison, and the conditions of labor appear to be the same as for nonprisoners, and almost all prisoners who work are paid the same as nonprisoners, with discounts for the costs of confining them. After these discounts—amounting to 35 percent of the first 100 pesos a month and 50 percent of everything above that—they have enough left over to support their families or, for those without such responsibilities, to accumulate considerable savings while they are imprisoned. After ten years in prison, for example, a prisoner may be released with savings equivalent to six or seven years’ salary. In contrast, a pay rate of ten cents or fifteen cents an hour is common in US prisons—enough for the inmates to buy sodas or cigarettes, but obviously of no use in helping to support a family or to build up savings.


The opportunity for productive, paid labor in good conditions seemed to me by far the most humane feature of imprisonment in Cuba. I was told by former inmates that the system works so well that some former prisoners keep their prison jobs after they are released, getting the same pay as when they were prisoners—but without the discounts. They can be distinguished from those still serving sentences because, like the skilled carpenters, machine operators, and others hired to train the prison laborers, they wear civilian clothes.

I did not see the education programs—academic, practical, or political—being carried out, but I got a sense of what the last of these must be like from the wall posters and slogans that I saw in the prisons, from my conversations with prison officials, from some of the writing by prisoners, and from the patriotic finale to an evening spectacle performed for a steady stream of visitors to a large showplace prison that has become a required stop for political tourists to Cuba, the Women’s Prison in Havana, in which some six hundred to seven hundred women are confined. From these one would suspect that political education in Cuba still reflects the authorities’ enthusiasm for the revolution. The wall paintings are glorified likenesses of the heroes and martyrs of the revolution. The slogans are exhortations to work and to persevere.

In the Women’s Prison one sees decorating the halls and cells a great many dolls wearing satin costumes with buttons and bows. The show we saw ended with all its talented inmate performers on stage singing “Here, Nobody Surrenders” as the screen behind them filled with scenes of Cuban guerrillas battling what looked like Yankee troops and taking some of them prisoner. The audience, consisting of hundreds of inmates, a few guards, and the energetic back-slapping female warden, cheered, applauded, and sang along at deafening volume and danced in the aisles.

Though watching all this made me extremely uneasy, and I sensed the pressure to join in the singing and cheering, I was unable to discern any sign of discomfiture or strain on many other faces. Only a few prisoners sat stoically, resolutely demonstrating their disenchantment. With a couple of exceptions, all of the inmates I interviewed privately in this prison expressed the same sort of enthusiasm for the general conditions in the prison as seemed to be demonstrated at the evening performance. The exceptions were both political prisoners who were reluctant to talk about the reasons for their discontent.

Discipline—“exact compliance,” as it is labeled in the fundamental rules of the Soviet prisons—like the other elements of reeducation, is taken seriously in the Cuban prisons I saw. As I walked through the corridors and dormitories of the men’s prisons, all the inmates snapped to a rigid version of the position known as “parade rest.” Though I saw literally thousands of prisoners’ beds during my tour, I did not see one that seemed less than perfectly made up. The prisons I saw were also spotlessly clean. Prisoners who resist such discipline are dealt with harshly, as I found when I visited the punishment cells in Boniato prison. Aside from such punishment cells, the only other cell block in which I saw less than perfect discipline was one reserved for psychotic inmates. I was told that those prisoners would shortly be transferred to a new facility that was just being completed in a nearby psychiatric hospital.

One of the humane features of each of the prisons that I visited in Cuba is the conjugal pavilion where prisoners may sleep with their spouses. In one of the prisons I saw, Nieves Morejon in Sancti Spiritus, which is more than three hundred kilometers from Havana—and not usually seen by tourists—the pavilion is set in a part of the prison that has a small wildlife park containing a few tame deer, a flamingo, and a number of other exotic birds. In all of the prisons, the conjugal facilities seemed attractive, but I was told that most prisoners had been able to use them only once or twice a year. The day I arrived in Cuba new rules were announced making them accessible several times more a year. I have since been informed that some prisoners have been allowed more conjugal visits, but just how the system now works is not yet clear. Whatever the frequency of visits, in this respect the prisons in Cuba are much more humane than in the United States, where conjugal visiting remains relatively rare and has only been established for a long period at the Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi.4

Other kinds of visits have also been rare. During the 1960s and 1970s, many of the “counterrevolutionary” prisoners waited years before they were allowed to have visitors. Until the arrival of our group in Cuba, many prisoners were permitted only one visit every six months and to send only one letter every three months. The new rules, again announced the day I arrived, permit prisoners to get visits every sixty days and to send a letter every thirty days. Every prisoner I spoke to knew of the new rules, and I have since learned that they are being carried out. When the prison officials decide that prisoners are doing well in the reeducation program, they may have somewhat more frequent visits and may be allowed to write more often. Even in the case of those prisoners who were allowed the most visits or who may send letters more frequently, however, the rules show a determination to isolate prisoners from the outside world as part of the process of reeducation. That is, they are to be kept away from the environmental influences thought to have made them deviant.

Before going to Cuba, I had obtained maps of some of the prisons I would visit from former inmates, and these proved to be of great value. In the first prison I saw, the Boniato prison in Santiago de Cuba, a map showed me where to find a prison within the prison known as Boniatico—little Boniato—and a special cell block, 4C, where the punishment cells are located.

If a visitor did not know where to look and did not insist on seeing these cells, he could easily miss them. Though Boniatico is in the middle of the prison, I could see no corridors leading to it. When I demanded to see it, my companions and I were led through the entire prison and out the back and then had to circle around to enter. Boniatico consists of two cell blocks, one above the other, capable of holding more than a hundred prisoners. The cells are tiny and most confine one prisoner in each. The prisoners could be seen only from the corridors through a four-inch-wide space at the top of each iron door.

Until a year or two ago, when these cells were primarily used to confine nonviolent dissenters and other prisoners held for political offenses, the only opening to the corridors was a four-inch space at the bottom of the door, through which food could be passed. When I visited, these openings were closed and food was handed through the space at the top. The opening at the top is a small improvement: the prisoners need not crouch or lie on the floor to look out and a little more light gets in from the corridors. Some natural light is available in the cells in Boniatico in the daytime through a foot-square barred window without glass, but they lack electric lights. In the generally warm climate of Santiago, these cells must be stiflingly hot. When the weather is cool, as it was during our visit, the cells must be very cold at night. To relieve their boredom, many of the prisoners had carved chess sets from soap and played by calling out moves to one another.

I selected at random a number of the prisoners in Boniatico to interview, and found that all those I talked to had been confined for common crimes such as burglary and had been put in this wing of the prison for disciplinary infractions such as refusing to follow orders. The conditions under which they lived helped to explain the almost perfect order and discipline elsewhere in the prison. They had been in those cells for many months and got out only for an hour a week to take the sun in large iron cages in which they could walk no more than two or three steps. They usually wore shorts in their cells, but they had been issued new clothes a few days before our group arrived. I also learned that our visit was responsible for a few days of better food, for fresh bedding, and for the distribution of additional reading material—some of it incongruous, such as a chemistry manual. (Another prison had a fresh coat of paint for our visit, as I discovered when I leaned against a wall and found paint all over my sleeve.)

Although I did not encounter any prisoners held for political offenses in Boniatico, at least one political prisoner, a “plantado,” was ordinarily held there. Amado Rodriguez Fernandez, forty-five, has spent about half his life in prison. A “historic plantado“—known that way to distinguish them from new plantados—one of the defiant prisoners who has refused to accept reeducation, Rodriguez was released in 1979 after eighteen years behind bars. He was reimprisoned in 1984 for another fifteen years on charges of rebellion, enemy propaganda, and speculation. Amnesty International has recently reported that it is investigating the possibility of adopting Rodriguez as a “prisoner of conscience” because the organization believes he “may have been convicted solely on account of his known opposition to the present Cuban government.”

Rodriguez was one of the prisoners at Boniato I had asked to see in advance and I was able to talk with him in a courtyard, just as I saw others I had asked to see in advance. Before the interview, however, I saw him in the infirmary at Boniato, where he had been transferred a few days earlier, apparently in anticipation of our visit. He was the only “historic plantado” at Boniato; the other sixty-eight remaining in prison when I visited (nineteen have since been released and more releases are expected shortly), most of them since the early 1960s, are all confined now at Combinado del Este, the large men’s prison near Havana. An intense and apparently a strongly principled man who told me he identified with those committed to nonviolent resistance to the Cuban government, Rodriguez told me his main concern was to be transferred to Combinado so he could be with his colleagues, a point I pressed with officials at the Ministry of the Interior. This request was apparently granted since an Amnesty International delegation saw him in Combinado a few weeks later.

As bad as the cells were in Boniatico, they were worse in the punishment section of the Boniato prison, 4C. In this cell block, as in cell blocks at two other prisons I saw, prisoners had only bare cement slabs to sleep on; there was no bedding. At Kilo 7 prison in Camagüey, the sixteen punishment cells I saw measured five feet by seven feet and held three prisoners each on three slabs, with a few half-dollar-sized holes in a steel door to admit a tiny amount of electric light from the corridor. There was no natural light. The toilet is a hole in the ground; a spigot provides cold water to flush, to bathe with, and to drink; and the meals consist of a sparse breakfast and one other meal a day. Prisoners told me that they had been confined naked in such cells.

The most severe punishment cells are apparently used now for twenty-one days at a time to punish infractions of prison rules, such as not showing respect to the guards in the regular prisons—again this suggests the methods by which discipline is maintained. But some prisoners in only marginally better circumstances in a ninety-nine-cell punishment building at Combinado del Este have been held there for years.5 One prisoner I talked to there had been locked up in such conditions for six years; another for seven years. The punishment building is known by the prisoners as “Rectángulo de Muerte” (rectangle of death) or as the “pizzeria,” apparently a reference to the ovenlike conditions in hot weather.

With more than three thousand inmates, Combinado del Este is the largest prison in Cuba and holds a disproportionately large share of the prisoners charged with politically motivated offenses. At Combinado and at Boniato, though not at the other prisons we visited, my colleagues and I heard a large number of complaints of beatings by the guards—with rubber hoses (mangueras), sticks, fists, and kicks. The beatings did not seem to be systematic; rather, we heard of their use against prisoners who were disrespectful to the guards in the punishment cell blocks, or defiant, or in some other way aroused the anger of the guards. We did not encounter complaints that torture was used or—as was reported years ago—that prisoners in Cuba had been stuck with bayonets. We did not learn of any “disappearances,” though the US Department of State, in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1987, has started reporting disappearances in Cuba. Nor could we confirm accounts of extrajudicial executions (also reported by the Department of State), though a number of prisoners at Combinado del Este reported that one prisoner had been kicked to death by guards in 1987.6 (This case was cited in a January 1988 report on Cuba by Amnesty International.) Prisoners also told us that at least one guard was demoted for this incident.

While our group found no evidence that outright torture, disappearances, or extrajudicial executions are currently practiced in Cuba, confining prisoners for extended periods in bare, tiny, dark cells and subjecting them to beatings are cruel practices. In several other Latin American countries, the security forces torture the people they arrest in order to extract confessions from them or to get them to implicate others, but mistreatment ends when they get to prison. Confinement for extended periods in terrible conditions such as those I saw at the men’s prisons in Cuba and beatings in prison are uncommon.7 Why do these cruel practices prevail in Cuba, where the prison buildings are superior to those in most other Latin American countries; where very good health-care facilities are available; where educational programs are reportedly pursued seriously; where there are attractive conjugal pavilions; and, above all, where so much effort has been spent on getting most prisoners paid employment under good conditions?

The answer, I believe, lies in the regime’s central concern with reeducation. Moreover, because productive labor by prisoners is the most important part of reeducation, they are seen as taking part in building the society while they are imprisoned. Under the circumstances, those prisoners who resist, or who disrupt the state’s efforts to reeducate them, are considered subversive of the entire enterprise. Inevitably, of course, the zeal with which reeducation is pursued elicits a comparable determination by some prisoners to resist, especially since the reeducation programs glorify the revolution the prisoners oppose. The extraordinary determination to resist exhibited by the plantados, who endured much cruelty over many years, seems to me to be a counterpart to the determination with which the Cuban state pursued efforts to break their resistance. As prison officials seem to see it, such prisoners must be punished severely. Not to punish them harshly, in this view, would be to jeopardize the entire enterprise of reeducation.

The conditions of imprisonment in Cuba became a matter of international concern in the last few years because of the testimonies of plantados who were finally released after serving twenty years or more for politically motivated offenses. Some of these, like Castro’s one-time comrade in arms, Huber Matos, and the anti-Batista poet Jorge Valls, were imprisoned for peacefully expressing their disagreements with the regime; others, like Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, for trying to overthrow Castro in the same manner that Castro overthrew Batista.

Though most of the historic plantados have by now been released, there are still at least six hundred prisoners in Cuba held for politically related offenses, according to a January report by Amnesty International. The actual number is probably higher than this, especially if one includes draft resisters—who are confined in military prisons (which I did not get to see). It is also probable, however, that in view of recent releases, the actual number of prisoners now held for politically related offenses is not much higher than the six hundred known to Amnesty. Cuban officials have indicated that several hundred prisoners in this category will be released soon, and the impending visit by the UN delegation may put pressure on them to do so.

Amnesty has adopted thirteen Cuban prisoners as “prisoners of conscience”—meaning that Amnesty has investigated their cases and is satisfied that they neither used nor advocated violence. One of these is a prisoner convicted of “enemy propaganda”; it turned out that he was charged with possession of his own unpublished manuscript, which was critical of the government. Among the other prisoners I saw were those who told me they had taken up arms against the Castro regime in the Escambray mountains, or that they had set fire to sugar cane fields to commit sabotage. I also interviewed prisoners who were arrested for nonviolent efforts to leave the country illegally and another for “desacato“—showing disrespect to Fidel Castro.

Until two or three years ago, the prisoners who were held on politically related charges were subject to the cruelest conditions of confinement. That is no longer the case. The prisoners now living in the harshest conditions are those convicted for common crimes, who then refused to accept the strict discipline imposed on them or to cooperate in the regime’s education programs. So there is a political element in their mistreatment. Were it not for the Cuban government’s determination to pursue its political goal of reeducating its prisoners, most of them probably would not be treated that way. Though the crimes of most of those now held in punishment cells were not political, many are there because they will not accept the government’s political desire to transform them.

The most important aspect of my visit to the Cuban prisons, I believe, is that it took place at all, and that a closed society opened its doors to expose some of its most secret places, the prisons within its prisons. A few weeks later Cuba opened its prisons to Amnesty International. Now that it has invited the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to visit, it will have to expose these secret places again. Some changes were made in preparation for the visit of our group and, no doubt, additional changes will be made before the UN delegation gets to Cuba. By finding ways to sustain such a process human rights groups may succeed in modifying the practices of the Cuban government.

In Cuba, moreover, external pressure has already produced another change of considerable significance in protecting human rights: that is, two human rights groups with which we met are now able to work in Cuba—the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, led by Ricardo Bofill, and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, led by Elizardo Sanchez.

Bofill and Sanchez are both former prisoners and both years ago were instructors in philosophy at the University of Havana, where they were known as committed Marxists. Their organizations seem to be primarily made up of other former prisoners. Until recently, they were president and vice-president of a single group, but they split on grounds of political principle, as well as personal disagreement. As the words “national reconciliation” in the name of Sanchez’s group indicate, he seeks dialogue with the government; Bofill’s group rejects such dialogue and concentrates on publicizing allegations of abuses internationally.

Both groups now hold meetings, gather information, compile reports, and hold press conferences—but the Cuban government is hostile to them, particularly to Bofill’s group. In February, Bofill’s group organized an art exhibition in support of human rights at a private house. When he tried to hold a press conference there, it was broken up, ostensibly when angry neighbors gathered and the police intervened to protect Bofill and his associates. But members of Bofill’s group told me that they recognized some of these “angry neighbors” as members of the security forces who are often assigned to conduct surveillance over their assemblies.

When I suggested to the attorney general, Ramon de la Cruz Ochoa, that it would be healthy for Cuba if human rights groups were allowed to grow, he scoffed at the idea: “In Cuba,” he said, “it is the state that defends human rights. There is probably no bigger organization defending human rights in all of Latin America than the state of Cuba.” Even so, the government is taking notice of these groups; the lead story in a February issue of the Communist party newspaper, Granma, attempted to rebut point by point a report by Bofill’s group on human rights violations, and by so doing Granma informed many Cubans of Bofill’s report.

Several of the officials whom our group talked to in Cuba attacked Bofill. As a Cuban exile friend pointed out to me before my visit, the Cuban government seems to like having Bofill as its antagonist. My friend suggested that every government wants to choose its critics, and the Cuban government sees certain advantages in the attention that has been given to Bofill and Valladares. In this view, both are vulnerable to personal criticism, and the Cuban government hopes to discredit the charges that it abuses human rights by discrediting its critics.

The campaign to discredit Valladares includes purported reproductions of his identification card as a Batista policeman (Valladares says this is a crude forgery), an article published in the official press in 1960 announcing his arrest on charges of terrorism, which he says were false, and films taken clandestinely while he was a prisoner that allegedly show him doing exercises in his cell at a time when he claimed he was crippled. (Another former prisoner with whom I discussed the matter believes that Valladares was in fact crippled but recovered the use of his legs before acknowledging it to the authorities.) In the case of Bofill, the Cuban government has claimed to journalists that in 1985 he published a novel, El Tiempo es el Diablo (Time is the Devil), under his name that was actually written by the Cuban writer Lorenzo Fuentes. The dispute over the novel has been a factor in the break between Bofill and Sanchez.8 Cuban officials also denounce Bofill as a “Stalinist,” referring to his involvement in the 1960s in a Moscow-line Marxist group that Fidel Castro had dubbed as the “microfracción.”

Both the circumstances of Valladares’s arrest in 1960 and the plagiarism charges against Bofill continue to be subjects of controversy. Both men vigorously dispute the charges against them. The regime may prefer such controversial antagonists, but its attacks on them have made them heroes to many of the prisoners I spoke to. When prisoners discussed with me recent improvements in their conditions, they did not attribute these to the campaign by the United States through the UN Human Rights Commission, or to the efforts of international human rights groups, but to “Valladares’s campaign.” They spoke about getting information to Valladares and Bofill. Indeed, I came away from Cuba believing that the government’s effort to discredit these critics had backfired. Loathe them as it might, the Cuban government will probably be forced to change some of its ways under the pressure it has helped create by concentrating attacks on them. A few such changes may have to be made in the effort to get a clean bill of health from the UN Human Rights Commission.

If Cuba has unintentionally built up the importance of Valladares and Bofill, it also seems likely that both men in turn have played into the Cuban government’s hands. Many of their charges involve allegations of murders, disappearances, and torture that have recently taken place. I doubt that most of these charges can be sustained, at least with respect to 1987 and 1988. That Cuba may not be committing such crimes now hardly suggests that its human rights record is tolerable, however. Its current practices do not wipe the slate clean of the thousands of executions after summary trials during the first decade of Castro’s rule and the harsh treatment of thousands of people for their dissident political views. Moreover, even if the cruel prison conditions that I saw were eliminated, imprisonment for peaceful expression, greatly prolonged sentences, and trials without due process—Cuban defense lawyers act more as adjuncts of the state than as its adversaries—will undoubtedly continue, and these are severe abuses of human rights.

Indeed, the system of criminal justice is only one aspect of the human rights problem in Cuba. The form that is reproduced on this page, and is used by neighborhood surveillance groups known as the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution to inform on their neighbors’ views, involves another kind of abuse. On one side, the form records an opinion that a person may have expressed on a political subject. On the other side, it records such data as the person’s age and profession; where the opinion was expressed; whether the person is considered a revolutionary, disaffected, or this is unknown; whether the listeners approved, disapproved, or were indifferent; and so forth.

The difficulty with a campaign against human rights abuses in Cuba that is based on accusations of current murders, disappearances, and torture is that if these charges are not substantiated, it makes such abuses as imprisonment for peaceful expression and pervasive surveillance over people’s opinions seem paltry by comparison. That is the risk run by Valladares, Bofill, and the US State Department in taking up their cause. It may turn out to be as much of a strategic miscalculation as the Cuban government’s campaign to discredit Valladares and Bofill.

Still, the possibility of improving the human rights situation in Cuba seems to be better now than at any previous time since Fidel Castro came to power. As elsewhere, abuses take place most often when international attention is lacking. For many years, Cuba got by without significant scrutiny of its human rights practices. That has changed, as the shifts of position by the various countries involved in the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva show. If experience elsewhere is a reliable guide, so long as the attention can be sustained, the pressure on the Cuban government to alter its practices is likely to prove irresistible.

This Issue

June 30, 1988