University of Minnesota

Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Cuba, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.48, Doc. 24 (1979).





A. General observations

1. Since for the last 20 years international human rights organizations have not been allowed to conduct investigatory visits, it is impossible to know the exact number of political prisoners now being held in prisons in Cuba. This is because of the repeated posture assumed by the Government of Cuba to the effect that this issue is strictly an internal problem.

2. Another difficulty stems from the lack of agreement among Cuban authorities as to whether some of the detainees are political prisoners. While on a number of occasions, President Fidel Castro has acknowledged the existence of political prisoners, the Vice President of Cuba, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, has stated that there are no political prisoners in Cuba, since “counterrevolutionaries cannot be regarded as political prisoners,” because political prisoners, in Rodríguez' opinion,1 would be those “detained for ideas and not acts,” which does not happen in Cuba.

For purposes of this report, the Commission will regard political prisoners as being all those who have been charged with one of the manifestly political crimes that appear in the penal laws and which have been listed in the previous chapter.

3. Officially, the Cuban Government has admitted to having approximately 4,500 political prisoners. At a press conference held on November 24, 1978, President Fidel Castro stated that the 3,600 prisoners who were going to be released represented approximately 80% of all political prisoners incarcerated as of that time. Of that figure, around 3,000 were classified as “counterrevolutionaries,” prisoners condemned for crimes against the security of the State. The other 600 were convicted for crimes involving emigration regulations.

Presently, according to some statements, following the release of some 3,600 prisoners as a result of the “dialogue,”2 there remain approximately 1,000 political prisoners, some of whom were condemned for crimes committed during the Batista regime. According to information received by the Commission, this group also includes more than 100 “intransigent” prisoners who were transferred with Huber Matos from the Combinado del Este prison to the prison at Boniato and were not included in the pardon probably because of their opposition to the “dialogue.” Also identified was a group of seven individuals, former members of Brigade 2506, captured after the Playa Girón invasion, who have been held prisoner for more than 18 years, while all their other companions, convicted during the same proceedings, have been released.

4. The status of the prisoners divides them into two categories: those that agree to be rehabilitated and conform to the principles of the Socialist State in exchange for concessions and early release, and the self-named “plantados” or “intransigent” prisoners, who refuse to submit themselves to rehabilitation. The vast majority of prisoners agree to rehabilitation under the “progressive plan”; but an intransigent minority, which refuses to do so, is the source of greatest international concern because of the severe treatment they receive.

5. In each of the six provinces of Cuba,3 there is a maximum security prison: (a) Havana – Combinado del Este; (b) Pinar del Río – Cinco y Medio; (c) Matanzas – San Severino; (d) Las Villas – Santa Clara; (e) Camagüey – El Kilo Siete, and (f) Oriente – Boniato, work camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and open fronts, in other words, work sites in the country or the city where security is minimal. Estimates are that there are 23 prisons and at least 56 work camps. The prisoners in the work camps produce prefabricated construction materials, while the prisoners on the open fronts assemble them. In 1973, the prisoners produced goods and services valued at 200 million pesos.4

6. If the prisoner agrees to work under the “progressive plan” he is remunerated like any other worker. Some 30 pesos are subtracted from his salary each month to cover the cost of his maintenance, to assist his family and to cover any civil liabilities declared in the sentence.

7. As mentioned above, the foundation of socialist criminology is the concept of socially defense. The function of the sanctions is to protect the group from “social harmful” persons and to reeducate the convicted. In accordance with the idea of reeducating instead of punishing, the Penal Code limits the maximum period of confinement for any crime to 20 years.5

8. If the prisoner agrees to rehabilitation under the “progressive plan,” his sentence is divided into three stages before he is conditionally released. Historically, the “progressive plan” included forced labor and Marxist indoctrination. At present indoctrination is voluntary. The three stages of confinement are maximum, intermediary and minimum security, which correspond to the prison, the work camp and open front. Each stage represents a reduction in the severity of the sentence which in theory encourages the prisoner to improve his conduct and thereby facilitate his return to society.

9. The three stages of the “progressive plan” provide the following:

a) If the sentence is for a period of more than seven years, it shall be carried out in strict prison establishment;

b) If the sentence imposed is for a period greater than nine months but no more than six years, it shall be carried out in a less strict prison establishment;

c) If the sentence imposed is for a period of not more than nine months, it shall be carried out in a common prison establishment.

In theory, prisoners held under maximum security can receive visits each month; those in less severe institutions every 21 days, and those in minimum security prisons can go to their homes for 48 or 72 hours every forty-five days.

10. According to Article 58 of the Penal Code, conditional freedom is also granted if the convicted party has served at least half of the term of his punishment or if he is under 20 years of age when he begins to serve his sentence. It can also be granted upon completion of one-third of the sentence. In special cases the Minister of Justice is empowered to propose, at any time, to the corresponding chambers of the People's Supreme Court, that conditional freedom be granted.

11. It has been denounced to the Commission that many “intransigent” prisoners, in other words those who refuse rehabilitation under the “progressive plan,” have been resentenced upon completion of their sentences for not having agreed to the plan.

B. Prison treatment during the period of confinement

1. Article 31 of the Penal Code provides that those sentenced to confinement in prison establishments, a) shall be remunerated for the socially useful work they perform; b) shall be given the appropriate clothing and footwear; c) shall be given a normal period of rest each day and one day rest per week; d) shall be given medical and hospital attention in case of illness; e) shall be given the right to obtain the long-term benefits of social security, in cases of total disability caused by on-the-job accidents; should the prisoner die, due to an on-the-job accident, his family will receive the corresponding pension; f) shall be given the opportunity to receive and expand his cultural and technical education; g) shall be given, in the measure and in the manner established in the regulations, the opportunity to correspond with individuals not confined in penitentiaries and to receive visits and articles of consumption; h) depending upon his behavior, and to the extent and in the manner established in the regulations, shall be authorized to use the conjugal bed, shall be given leave outside the penal establishment for a limited period of time, shall be given the opportunity and the means to enjoy recreation and practice sports in accordance with the activities scheduled by the prison establishment, and shall be encouraged to move from one prison system to another, less severe system.

2. From within Cuban prisons, the IACHR has received testimony and information on the Combinado del Este prison, which is the country's largest and is located approximately 18 kilometers from Havana. It houses about 1,200 to 1,600 prisoners, 600 or 700 of whom are political prisoners.

Some of the testimony received by the Commission is as follows:

a) A former prisoner, released in 1978, gave the following testimony on the prison:

This new model prison was built in a valley called “Combinado del Este.” We call it “El Valle de los Caídos” (The Valley of the Fallen). Construction began in 1972. It is a prefabricated building, has four floors and is very poorly constructed. From the outside, the building seems to be modern and attractive. Painted with bright colors, does not appear to be a prison. Once inside, it is a terrifying fortress of isolation and mental torture. There are no windows in the entire building. During the winter, you die of cold and in the summer you suffocate from heat. From the fourth floor, the rain seeps through the wide cracks and the sewer water from upper floors runs down and cannot be avoided. The prisoners are strictly classified and divided in order to prevent any personal contact, except for the building where we live and then only during meal times or three times per week in the prison yard, for an hour and a half each time. There is no physician in residence and medical visits are allowed for a limited number of men, only twice each year.

b) Case 2300

Armando Valladares, still being held in Combinado del Este, included this description of his cell in a letter taken out secretly.

... I am enclosed in a room without ventilation of any kind, as there are no windows. I am practically entombed. The heat is hellish. The walls are heated up by the sun and they reverberate; by then the heat becomes a real torture. We sweat in streams and barely enough room to move... This entire situation is one form of reprisal, especially against me; but the others also suffer. This prison cell has a small passageway as follows:


and two sets of iron bars. The first set of iron bars cuts us off from the rest of the passageway; when it is shut we have access to the passageway if they do not close the second set of iron bars, which is the actual cell door. If the second set of iron bars were open, one could go into the passageway, which would mean more space and air. The air comes through the windows, which have iron bars over them. But there is an attitude of total repression. There are strict orders from State Security not to allow me to go into the passageway. This is a violation of human rights, an outrage and a total disregard for my poor state of health.

c) An incomplete list of 132 names of political prisoners who have died in prison and another list of 770 names of “intransigent” prisoners have been denounced to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

d) In November of 1978 the Commission received the following communication on the prison treatment of “intransigent” prisoners:

The Cuban political prisoners (“the intransigent prisoners”) have been confined for years without seeing their families, without being allowed even to communicate with them, unable to receive or send letters, shut up worse than wild beasts in cells hermetically sealed with steel plates. With a hole in the corner of the cell as the sole sanitary facility where urine and excrement accumulate, making what little air is available so foul as to be almost unbreathable: without sun, without light, in constant semidarkness, almost blind and strictly prohibited from receiving medical assistance of any kind or any medications, they are being submitted to the most inhumane and heartless plan for physical annihilation and biological experimentation ever known in the history of the Western world. Russian, Czech and Cuban Communist doctors direct this extermination and experimentation plan. They are weighed in the cells, they are observed, their reactions are evaluated, their rate of metabolism is altered with unknown substances incorporated into the food, meals consisting exclusively of spaghetti, corn meal and boiled rice, with a daily total of under 500 calories. They go entire months without salt, followed by weeks when the food is so salty that it almost cannot be swallowed. These brusque changes upset the metabolism, and cause the blood pressure to go up, cause kidney problems, and the like. Some are monstrously swollen, with the so-called “hunger edemas” produced by malnutrition.

These are not men, these are specters, skeletons covered with skin, human scarecrows. They are worse than those photographs of Nazi concentration camps that shocked the world; if you could see them, you too would be filled with consternation; but here no one can take photos of these prisoners, as they are “intransigent” prisoners in a Communist jail. The health of these valiant men is worse each day; generalized polyneuritis and avitaminosis play havoc among them, slowly but inexorably. There are problems with reflexes, coordination, lack of balance in some cases; there are nervous and digestive disorders of all kinds. The eyelids are inflamed and red, the gums bleed and decayed teeth loosen and fall out; lips and mouths are cracked and full of sores. Their bodies are full of dark pustules; their groins, genitals, feet and neck have been invaded by fungus; the skin is scaly and gray. Scurvy is now causing nose hemorrhages if one merely sneezes. There are old men, invalids, heart cases, men with tuberculosis, asthmatics who have been deprived of their aids and are denied any liquid during their attacks as one more instrument of torture.

The state of malnutrition and exhaustion, of generalized anemia, keeps many of these unfortunates in a state of total prostration, with no more strength to stand. Despite this, they have been beaten savagely and brutally. Heads, faces and arms have been broken by sticks and iron bars, systematically, cell by cell; this is simply because with these valiant men, with these martyrs for democracy, Communism's diabolical experiment in psychological, scaremongering in order to rehabilitate them has failed. These are men and women who prefer to die rather than falter. Many have died (more than 470), murdered in Communist prisons in Cuba. This is happening in Cuba, in the very heart of America.

C. Individual cases of mistreatment in prison

1. Case 1887:

The case of Huber Matos, former Commander of the Rebel Army, condemned, without proof against him, to 20 years imprisonment for the crime of treason (he had been in prison since October 21, 1959) and released on October 21, 1979, after he completed his sentence. From exile, in an interview with an Italian journalist, Huber Matos explained that four days before his release they mistreated him:

... I am referring to the execution of military men under the Batista regime. During the guerrilla war, many military men under Batista were accused of having committed atrocities in all the provinces and were tried, some were tried in other provinces as well. The feeling was that severe measures should be applied in order to prevent a recurrence of this political crime. In this respect the revolution failed, because if the application of severe measures was drastic, in many cases the death penalty was applied to Batista's followers, there is no doubt that injustices occurred. Without experience, judges handled these matters in a way that could not be called true justice. Then, the greatest error was that once in power the resolution repeated the crime on a large scale and continues that crime up to the present. One proof of this is the following: four days before I was released—I don't know whether you knew of this--, I was physically beaten; they mistreated me terribly. Here I have evidence of the shackles. Four days before my release and without any justification, they led me to the building in handcuffs, under some pretext; once there they ambushed me, they surrounded me. These were military men, fanatical agents of Castro's political police whom the people call, out of both respect and fear, the G2. Castro calls them the Department of State Security. They take a man who is about to complete his sentence, lead him away by force; then they beat him, knock him to the floor, step on him; in handcuffs and surrounded by four or five men, they place him in a car as if he were being kidnapped, just like a band of gunmen in the mountains or a mob of gangsters in any of the cities of the world. They threw me to the floor of the car; two fanatics had their feet on top of me and used their hands to hold me down and cover my mouth. One was here and another there; Colonel Medardo Lemos was in front and directed the operation. If they do this to a man who is about to complete his sentence and to someone whom they know will not break, a man who has proven that he knows how to hold himself erect for twenty years, you can imagine what they can do to others who never had an opportunity to speak.

Huber Matos was released when he completed his 20-year sentence, a sentence which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemns for its severity and for the inhumane treatment Matos received during the seven years he was kept incomunicado.

2. Case 3496

The arrest and mistreatment of Ernesto Arragoitia was denounced to the Commission on December 12, 1978:

One day, the Auditorium at Calzada and D in the Vedado section was burned to the ground. The blase that burned it was classified as arson. It was no longer called the Auditorium; by that time it was called “Amadeo Roldán.” And just like El Encanto, it was left in ashes. The G2 immediately began its investigations. One of those detained was Ernesto Arragoitia, who had been the theater's doorman. They accused him of sabotage and took him to the security jail. There he was interrogated, beaten and tortured.

At the outset he claimed innocence. But after a period of brutal treatment, they say he confessed his guilt. Still, his confession did not convince anyone. It was the product of cruel mistreatment, one means of bringing the terrible beatings to an end. And he did not even convince his torturers.

He was taken to the punishment cells at Combinado del Este. There the mistreatment continued. Arragoitia was only a shadow of a man. According to news received, he is still just that. Many of his companions believe he is dead, either beaten to death or shot.

Ramón Yañiz, a former prisoner now in exile, gave the following testimony as to Arragoitia's status:

At this time, there is one individual condemned to death in what we call the “human rights building” or “House of McGovern” (because of what he said to the effect that in Cuban prisons one breathes the air of freedom.) His name is Ernesto Arragoitia and he is accused of burning down the old Auditorium Theater, today called “Amadeo Roldán.” It was in that building that they hung Rafael del Pino, because of his association with Fidel Castro in the “Bogotazo.”

That building also houses the mutilated “intransigents;” there are some among these who are truly pathetic. Only a regime without even the slightest sense of human compassion would be capable of holding men like this. The names are as follows: Manuel Martín Barrera, Pascasio Díaz, Luíba del Toro, Pedro Santos, Ismael Hernández Luis, Nicolás Morejón Ruíz, Arcadio Peguero Domínguez, Isnardo Fernández, Wilfredo Martínez Vega, Federico González Hernández, and Armando Valladares. Also there is Odilio Alonso, Spanish by birth and condemned to 30-years imprisonment; he has tumors on the head which are the result of blows received at Isla de Pinos and Boniato. Some of those mentioned have been affected by hunger strikes and the like.

3. The Commission has also received denunciations concerning the lack of medical attention in prisons. In case 2300 cited earlier, the situation of Armando Valladares was denounced. He is 39 years old and has been in prison since 1961. He was a 24-year-old law student sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for disagreeing with Dr. Fidel Castro. On June 24, 1974, the prison warden declared all “intransigent” prisoners to be on a hunger strike.6 Two months later the measure was lifted and six of the prisoners were left with polyneuritis, because of the lack of food. One of them was Valladares. The proper therapy would enable him to walk again, but he has been denied that therapy.

The denunciation contains the following details:

Withholding of food for more than 40 days in order to force the prisoners at the old La Cabaña prison (no longer in operation) to accept rehabilitation plans and military discipline as they are political prisoners, gave Valladares the illness diagnosed as polyneuritis, which can be cured with the proper medical treatment. However, that medical attention is denied him because he refuses to accept Marxist indoctrination and go against his Christian and ideological principles. On numerous occasions, he has been subjected to barbarous physical mistreatment. At the prison on Isla de Pinos, he was subjected to the Forced Labor Plan. He spent more than three years in the sealed cells at Boniato prison (located in Oriente Province), where the sun is never seen, the food is extremely inadequate and meager, where there is no medical attention of any kind, and where at the present time, many political prisoners have lived under similar or worse conditions for more than seven years now.

Valladares has not been allowed to receive visits from relatives for more than seven years. There is no assurance that correspondence will be received, either correspondence for him or from him to us. His mother is in Cuba and has not been allowed to see him for years. His visits have been suspended for an indefinite period of time. He cannot receive care packages from his relatives or medicines. I have not heard from him for nine months and I do not know whether he has received my letters. He is being held in total isolation.

Exercising his right to disagree with Cuba's present regime, he has written twenty-five verses which I have compiled in a book we entitled “From my Wheel Chair.” His isolation was intensified with publication of the book, and since that time I have not heard from him and have no idea what his present situation is.

In April 1979, the claimant added information on the status of Valladares as of mid-March:

Each morning they bring him envelopes with the medicine and a box with instructions for him to administer the medication to himself at the indicated time. Since he is asthmatic, they gave him an oxygen tank and an atomizer, ampoules of serum and asthmatic liquids. When he has a crisis, he himself prepares the aerosol and administers it to himself. When he wakes up in the morning, the crises are serious; gasping for air, choking and incapacitated, he himself has to break open the ampoules and prepare the dosage by sight, since he cannot measure the amount of liquid; he prepares the aerosol for himself, turns the knobs on the oxygen, and so on. In addition to being a violation of the international provisions on medicine, this type of treatment represents a total disregard for his poor state of health and the fact that he is a human being.

The harassment has increased. He is authorized to receive visitors daily, for the sole purpose of checking on who visits him. Last Saturday they detained one of his visitors and she was interrogated for hours, pressured and terrorized. Since that day, he has been held in complete isolation. On Sunday a young woman went to visit him and was stopped at the door by State Security; the poor young woman wept and trembled from fear.

A wheel chair sent to him by the Dutch Red Cross last June via the Cuban Red Cross has not been turned over to him; the effrontery of the Cuban Red Cross reached unheard-of limits when those who sent him the wheel chair were informed that he already had it. That is a lie and he needs it since the wheel chair that he has at the present time, which belongs to the State, is broken, rusted, and functions poorly; one wheel falls off. His mother was threatened that if she continued to demand the wheel chair, such behavior would be regarded as a “counterrevolutionary” activity.

4. The lack of adequate food

Case 4402:

On May 29, 1979, a denunciation was received that reported on the hunger strike being conducted by Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo since May 4, in Combinado del Este prison. Also denounced was the fact that Gutiérrez Menoyo has been transferred to a punishment cell for statements he allegedly made against the “dialogue.” (See Chapter VI).

The pertinent parts of the denunciation received by the Commission are as follows:

Since May 4, 21 Cuban political prisoners, including former Commander Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo and the poets Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez and Guillermo Rivas Porta, have been on a hunger strike to protest their arbitrary treatment by the authorities of the Combinado del Este prison (La Habana.)

Nude and held incommunicado in sealed cells, where the heat and the mosquitoes torment them, most of these men have spent more than 16 years in prison and their lives are in serious danger.

After this hunger strike, on July 23 or 24, 114 political prisoners were taken from the Combinado del Este prison to the maximum security prison at Boniato (Oriente Province), located more than 1,000 kilometers from Havana.

The Commission received the following denunciation regarding the prisoners' transfer:

They were taken by surprise and crowded into closed cages. With a great show of force, they were taken to the prison at Boniato, where they arrived two days later, after a trip that only a human being could have survived. There the living conditions are horrific. The food and hygienic conditions are very poor; they receive no medical attention. There are problems with visitors and the prisoners are virtually isolated. To protest their present situation and to demand their rights, they have refused all food since July 31.

All food was refused from July 31 to August 10, the day on which officials from the Ministry of the Interior and from the Prison System offered some solutions.

Huber Matos spoke of this group of prisoners in Boniato prison. He said the following:

... they were transferred approximately three months ago, to be more precise around July 23 or 24, from La Habana del Este prison to Boniato prison, in the northernmost part of the country. They receive very little food, no medical attention, no sun, unless they are allowed to take the sun. These comrades are at the Boniato prison. They are punished. They are becoming thinner and thinner, because their diet is one form of punishment. Their hunger has forced them to conduct a number of strikes. These have been hunger strikes in order to bring a halt to their mistreatment and get them back to the prison in Havana, if not immediate release. This is the group at the Boniato prison. And they are very much in need of freedom.

5. The absence of trials and due process of law

One of the denunciations received is Case 3887 which is an account of the political detention, since June of 1976, of Dr. Marta Frayde, a physician and revolutionary. The claimants state that Dr. Frayde was appointed Director of the Havana National Hospital in 1959. That year, as President of the Peace Movement, she decorated Dr. Fidel Castro with the Order of Lenin. From 1963 to 1964, she resigned from all her official posts for political reasons; by 1967, she had been given Government authorization to accept an invitation to work at the Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinic at the School of Medicine in Madrid. Thirteen days before her departure, set for June 18, Dr. Frayde received a telephone call from the Chief of the Security Services; he told her that on orders from Fidel Castro, she “would not be allowed to leave Cuba for reasons of State Security.” In 1976 Dr. Frayde was detained at her home and taken to the Central Headquarters of the Security Bureau. Her apartment was searched and her furniture and household goods were destroyed. They confiscated her car and her medical equipment. She was then taken to the “Nuevo Amanecer” women's prison and housed in the building for common prisoners, where her diet was poor. As a result of a serious case of poisoning, she was transferred to another prison, “La Benéfica.” Later, in 1977, she was tried before a secret tribunal that accused her of espionage and condemned her to 29 years imprisonment.

The claimant states that it is absolutely inconceivable that Dr. Marta Frayde, a woman who had been a revolutionary, would have been able to work for imperialist interests and engage in espionage, after having honorably expressed her disagreement with the Soviet model stamped upon the Cuban revolution and after having officially requested permission to leave Cuba.

The name of Dr. Frayde appears on the list of those recently pardoned, but her release has not yet been confirmed.



1 The statements made by the Vice President of Cuba, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, were broadcast in an interview held on February 1, 1977, by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

2 See Chapter IV.

3 Today there are 14 provinces, the result of the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party held in 1976. However, reference is made to the six provinces that existed since the seventeenth century, as these are better known.

4 Granma, June 10, 1973, page 11.

5 One exception exist for crimes where prison is established as an alternative to the death penalty, in which case the competent court can extend the period of confinement to 30 years.

6 The prison warden's announcement of a “hunger strike” meant that food was withheld from the prisoners.


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