13 June 2003
Cuba Subjects Jailed Dissidents to Harsh Conditions, Inhumane Treatment
(Reports indicate pattern of inadequate nutrition and health care)
By Lauren Monsen
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- Pro-democracy activists jailed by the regime of Cuban
dictator Fidel Castro are systematically subjected to harsh and
life-threatening prison conditions, according to first-hand accounts
smuggled out of Cuba by relatives of incarcerated dissidents.
A recent Associated Press report -- which appeared in several major
U.S. newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Miami Herald --
offers vivid details of prison life in Cuba, as described by dissident
journalist Manuel Vazquez Portal. Vazquez, one of 75 Cuban activists
arrested in March during a crackdown on dissidents that was widely
denounced around the world, kept a diary that his wife secretly
removed while visiting him at Boniato Prison (located about 1,000
kilometers from Havana). The diary's contents were later released to
the international media.
The presence of rats, cockroaches and scorpions, according to Vazquez,
is but one example of the lack of sanitation in his tiny (1-1/2 meters
wide by 3 meters long, or 5 feet by 10 feet) prison cell. That cell,
he said, contains a metal cot with a thin, hard, filthy mattress -- no
pillow, no blanket -- and "a Turkish [hole-in-the-ground] toilet with
no running water ... that regurgitates stench 24 hours a day." The
barred window, "through which enters the sun's rays, the rain, the
insects," Vazquez added, has "no mosquito screen."
Above the primitive toilet is "a spigot that provides water for
bathing and drinking," Vazquez recorded. He said that he receives
three meals a day, yet the food is so bad it is "indescribable."
Although his testimonial could not be independently verified, since
foreign reporters and representatives of human rights organizations
are refused access to prisons on the communist-run island, fellow
activist Elizardo Sanchez vouched for the accuracy of Vazquez's
statement. Sanchez, who served four years in the same prison during
the 1980s for disseminating what the Castro regime refers to as "enemy
propaganda," pronounced the story "authentic."
A co-founder -- along with writer and journalist Raul Rivero -- of the
independent Cuba Press Agency, Vazquez was sentenced to 18 years in
prison after a summary trial. Rivero was given a 20-year prison
The State Department's 2002 Human Rights Report, issued in March 2003,
also documents the brutal conditions that prevail in Cuba's prison
system. Prisoners, "both common and political, often were subjected to
repeated, vigorous interrogations designed to coerce them into signing
incriminating statements, to force collaboration with authorities, or
to intimidate victims," the State Department said. "Some endured
physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the
acquiescence of guards, or long periods in punitive isolation cells."
On May 10, 2002, "political prisoner Carlos Luis Diaz Fernandez
informed friends that he had been held in solitary confinement since
January 2000 in a cell with no electric light and infested by rats and
mosquitoes," the Department noted in its report. Moreover, the State
Department argued, many such violations of human rights occurred --
and continue to occur, unchecked -- in Cuba. On June 20, 2002, "a
guard at Las Ladrilleras Prison in [Cuba's] Holguin province
instructed a common prisoner to beat political prisoner Daniel Mesa,"
the Department said. "Mesa reportedly suffered brain damage as a
result of the attack."
The Cuban government "regularly failed to provide adequate nutrition
and medical attention, and a number of prisoners died during the year
 due to lack of medical attention," the State Department added.
Human rights monitoring organizations, the Department said, "have
reported the widespread incidence in [Cuban] prisons of tuberculosis,
scabies, hepatitis, parasitic infections, and malnutrition."
Unsanitary practices appeared to be rampant, the State Department
concluded. For instance, "political prisoner Osvaldo Dussu Medina
reported that inmates in Boniato Prison were forced to wash their
clothes in water contaminated with feces and urine from a broken sewer
pipe," the Department said. "Prison authorities had been aware of the
contamination for two years, but did nothing to remedy the situation."
Relatives have reported that visits with inmates are sometimes
curtailed or refused, and that jailed dissidents are frequently
singled out for deprivation. "Prison officials regularly denied
prisoners other rights, such as the right to correspondence, and
continued to confiscate medications and food brought by family members
for political prisoners," the State Department pointed out. "Some
prison officials routinely denied religious workers access to
detainees and prisoners. Reading materials, including Bibles, were not
allowed in punishment cells. Prison authorities refused to grant blind
dissident Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leyva access to his Braille Bible."
Meanwhile, the State Department issued two separate press notices in
June 2003, expressing concern about the health of several dissidents
seized in March and urging the Cuban government to provide medical
care promptly to ailing prisoners. Martha Beatriz Roque, age 57, is
believed to be the only woman arrested during the most recent
crackdown against dissidents in Cuba; since her incarceration, she has
been denied "the level of medical attention that she needs," the
In a June 6 press release, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher
cited allegations by Roque's family that "her health has deteriorated
significantly" because of deliberate neglect by Cuban authorities.
"The Cuban government is holding Ms. Roque in complete isolation,"
Boucher explained. "She suffers from high blood pressure and
circulatory problems, is reportedly speaking incoherently, and has
lost a great deal of weight."
Roque "heads an umbrella organization of dissident groups created in
October 2002, [which] have called for democracy and greater respect
for fundamental freedoms" in Cuba, Boucher said. He condemned Roque's
arrest on "trumped-up treason charges," for which she was sentenced to
20 years in jail.
Noting that "the United States remains deeply concerned by reports
that political prisoners Raul Rivero, Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, Jorge
Olivera, Roberto di Miranda and Oscar Espinosa Chepe are also ill,"
Boucher called upon the Cuban government to cease the inhumane
treatment of all political prisoners, and to "allow those who are ill
to receive appropriate medical care, and permit regular visits by
family members and appropriate humanitarian organizations." The United
States, he said, is troubled by the fact that "many of the 75 recently
imprisoned dissidents are being held in inhumane conditions, with very
poor sanitation, contaminated water, nearly inedible food, and little
or no medical treatment."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, during his June 8-10 visit to Chile
and Argentina, also highlighted the Castro regime's human rights
abuses. At a Santiago press briefing on June 8, Powell applauded the
June 5 decision of the European Union (EU) to restrict travel of its
officials to Cuba. The EU's action, signaling strong disapproval of
Castro's latest crackdown on pro-democracy activists, is perceived by
most analysts as a severe diplomatic blow to the 76-year-old dictator
who has ruled his nation since 1959.
The Castro regime was roundly criticized not only for its jailing of
activists, but for the April execution of three men who hijacked a
boat in an attempt to escape the country. (The men were tried and
convicted in just three days, and executed immediately after being
condemned to death. No appeals process was permitted.) Following "the
deplorable actions" of the regime against dissidents in March and
would-be defectors in April, the EU said, it has unanimously decided
to re-evaluate its relations with Cuba. In addition to limiting the
travel of EU officials to the island, the EU announced that it will
reduce the profile of EU ambassadors at Cuban cultural events, invite
Cuban dissidents to EU national-day celebrations, and strengthen EU
ties to Cuban dissidents in general.
In a sharply worded statement issued by Greece on behalf of the entire
15-nation bloc, the EU said it is "deeply concerned about the
continuing flagrant violation of human rights and of fundamental
freedoms of members of the Cuban opposition and of independent
journalists." The EU called for the immediate release of all political
prisoners in Cuba, and insisted that the regime take steps to ensure
that "in the meantime, prisoners do not suffer unduly and are not
exposed to inhumane treatment." The organization noted that reports
about poor jail conditions for prisoners with serious health problems
are on the rise.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana said the EU decision will help
provide "visibility" to Cuba's dissidents while sending "a clear
message" to the island's dictator.
Powell praised the EU initiative, telling reporters June 8 that "the
rest of the world is now starting to take note" of Castro's "crackdown
... against Cuban citizens seeking to act upon their basic human
rights." The secretary of state said that when he attends a scheduled
U.S.-EU meeting later in June, he will raise the subject of how to
help Cuban dissidents. The United States may join with the EU in
adopting a common strategy towards Cuba, he added.
Thirty-four of the 35 nations of the Western Hemisphere "are moving in
the right direction" on human rights, "at different rates and with
occasional setbacks, but Castro's Cuba remains the anachronism of the
hemisphere, and it's not getting better," Powell said. He expanded on
this theme in a June 9 speech to the General Assembly of the
Organization of American States (OAS) in Santiago, recalling that the
2002 Inter-American Democratic Charter "declares that 'the peoples of
the Americas have a right to democracy.'" The charter, which the OAS
formally endorsed, "does not say that the peoples of the Americas,
except Cubans, have a right to democracy," he wryly observed.
A senior OAS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told
the Knight Ridder News Service that "Castro made a very big mistake"
when he imprisoned 75 dissidents and executed three aspiring defectors
after summary trials. While conceding that the Cuban tyrant retains
some support in certain parts of the hemisphere, the OAS official
predicted that if the Bush Administration pushes the OAS to take
action against Castro, "I think they may get something."
The Knight Ridder News Service quoted Foreign Minister Bill Graham of
Canada, who attended the OAS gathering as well. Graham, whose country
usually opposes U.S. policies on Cuba, said "we do need to find ways"
to respond to Castro's crackdown.
In a June 10 telephone interview, a State Department specialist in
Cuban affairs offered his own assessment of the EU action. "It was
very positive, even if it doesn't improve living conditions for
political prisoners," he concluded. "Cuba has traditionally cited
pretexts for its [periodic] crackdowns, but the EU statement clearly
rejects those excuses."
He suggested that even in Latin America and the Caribbean, where
criticism of Castro has often been muted, there are signs that public
opinion may be in the process of shifting. In late April, he pointed
out, the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted to pass a
resolution censuring Castro's persecution of dissidents; Uruguay, El
Salvador and Peru were among the resolution's co-sponsors. Such
progress is welcomed and encouraged by the United States, the State
Department official said, although "we think that Latin America could
be more cooperative" in pressuring Castro to stop harassing and
"It's hard to get some Latin American countries to do the right thing
on Cuba," he added, "but in fairness, it's difficult for them." The
reasons for this, he surmised, are probably two-fold. "The average
Latin American president is about 50 years old, so -- to most of them
-- Castro is a historical figure who's always been there" and has a
certain mythic stature, he explained. Besides, he said, the Cuban
regime resorts to threats and blackmail at the first hint of criticism
from governments in the hemisphere. "Cubans don't play fair; there
really is no limit to what they're willing to do" to coerce regional
leaders into supporting Castro, or to at least refrain from denouncing
him, the official continued.
The Castro regime courts goodwill by sending Cuban doctors into many
Third World countries, including ones in Latin America, to assist the
underprivileged segments of the local population. Whenever Latin
American leaders are critical of Castro's iron-fisted approach to
dissidents, "Cuba threatens to yank its doctors" from these countries,
the official said. "Cuba also threatens to work with leftist fringe
groups to encourage demonstrations and unrest" in countries whose
governments adopt an adversarial stance towards Castro.
Yet "as Secretary Powell said, the countries of the hemisphere are
committed to democracy for all of our citizens," the official noted.
And ultimately, the official said, global pressure has proven to be an
effective weapon against a despot's ambitions. He mentioned the case
of prominent Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya as an illustration of this
principle. Paya is the lead organizer of the Varela Project, which
aims to introduce free elections and other democratic reforms to Cuba.
Taking advantage of a clause in Cuba's communist constitution that
allows citizens to seek a national referendum if they can collect
10,000 signatures, Paya and other opposition leaders delivered a
petition with 11,020 signatures to the Cuban National Assembly,
demanding election reforms. The Cuban government has ignored the
Paya has been showered with international accolades, however. In
December 2002, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize -- the EU's top human
rights award. Named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov,
the prize is bestowed annually on people who defend human rights and
democracy. Paya has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by
former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who himself was once a dissident
against a communist government. A former political prisoner who was
once condemned to forced labor by the Castro regime, Paya says he has
often been harassed and threatened by Cuban security forces. Unlike
Cuba's less renowned activists, though, Paya has been permitted to
travel overseas and has thus far been spared the fate of the 75
dissidents arrested in March. "Precisely because of his visibility,
the Castro regime is afraid to target him," the State Department
Departing from Cuba on December 14 to collect the Sakharov Prize, Paya
then embarked on a 48-day world tour that took him to several
countries -- including Spain, Italy, Mexico, the United States and the
Czech Republic -- where he sought endorsement of the Varela Project.
During his tour, he met with Pope John Paul II in Rome, Secretary of
State Colin Powell in Washington, leaders of Cuba's exile community in
Miami, and Mexican President Vicente Fox in Mexico City. Heartened by
the response to his efforts, Paya said: "The world's reception to the
Varela Project is a solidarity message supporting the Cuban people and
their right" to peaceful democratic change.
If the international spotlight has shielded Paya from Castro's worst
excesses, comparable attention must be focused on the plight of other
Cuban dissidents, the State Department official asserted. The diary of
imprisoned journalist Vazquez, and similar documents smuggled out of
Cuban jails by prisoners' relatives, are a harrowing reminder of the
dissidents' vulnerability. Family members "take a risk in publishing"
these accounts, the official said. He noted that Vazquez's wife,
Yolanda Huerga, has already said that she expects reprisals from the
Castro regime for telling her husband's story to the press.
Powell's June 9 speech in Santiago before the OAS General Assembly
underscored the need for a united front against anti-democratic
currents in the region. "The people of Cuba increasingly look to the
OAS for help in defending their fundamental freedoms against the
depredations of our hemisphere's only dictatorship," the secretary
said. The United States, he added, looks forward to working with its
OAS partners to find ways "to hasten the inevitable democratic
transition in Cuba," because "if our experience over the last
quarter-century in this hemisphere and across the globe has taught us
anything, it is that dictatorships cannot withstand the force of
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International
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