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Book Review : Worms That Refused to Crawl

May 14, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Against All Hope, the Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares, translated by Andrew Hurley (Alfred A. Knopf: $18.95)

It is one thing to be in jail for 22 years on political charges. It is another to have no assurance, through all that time, that you will actually serve 22 years instead of, quite possibly, the rest of your life.

It is an additional other thing to serve that time under varying but invariably recurring conditions of ferocity, to include: beatings with clubs and chains, stabbings with bayonets, solitary confinement in black cells, hard labor in the quarries, a grossly insufficient diet, the sight of fellow prisoners beaten, shot, bayoneted or machine-gunned to death.

And it is a last other thing, not simply to spend 22 years enduring this, but to resist it; to use your ordeal as a weapon against your captors; to stand up not only against their brutality but against their periodic offers of relief.

A Revelation of Cruelty

"Against All Hope, the Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares" is an extraordinary account of the cruelty that we should know enough to expect from dictatorships but that in the case of Fidel Castro has been more successfully concealed from outside observers--including this writer when, years ago, he served as a correspondent in Cuba--than is usually the case.

What sets it apart from other prison memoirs is not the suffering--though in its particularities, it marks particularities of the regime in Cuba--but its record of all-out resistance. It could almost be entitled "The War Memoirs of Armando Valladares."

Valladares is one of 15,000 political prisoners held in Cuba in the years after the revolution, a number that has since declined to about 3,000. This last figure is an estimate used by the Americas Watch Committee in its preface and afterword to another prison memoir, "Twenty Years and Forty Days" by Jorge Valls, which it has just published. The committee, which the U.S. Administration considers prejudiced in favor of the left, calls this the highest proportion of political prisoners to population anywhere in the world.

Outspoken From the Start

Valladares became an official in the postal savings section of the Communications Ministry after Castro came to power. He was, he writes, outspoken from the beginning against communist influence; by 1960, this had become a dangerous public posture. He was arrested during one of the waves of sabotage and underground activity that took place during those years, carried on largely by initial Castro supporters, though there were Batista elements involved and active U.S. backing.

Valladares is somewhat vague about this. Apart from a maddening lack of specific dates, the main apparent lack in his memoirs is an account of his background and of his political beliefs during the years of Batista and the early years of Castro--where he was coming from, in other words. He says only that he had been "politically inactive." He denies taking part in armed resistance activities or sabotage, though; and at his trial, the prosecution was unable to cite any specific instances. It was, he writes, like being convicted for murder without anyone bothering to establish that a murder had been committed.

Whether Valladares was indifferent to the revolution or hostile to it, whether he was sympathetic to the underground, whether he even had contact of some kind with it, is not essentially important in the context of this book. The scandal that emerges is not that the government arrested and jailed people simply on suspicion, at a time when there was a state of internal warfare. The scandal is the 22 years that Valladares tells about. There is no reason to think that his original conviction was just; there is every reason to conclude that the Castro government convicts itself by the treatment it has given those whom it has imprisoned.

The Opposition of Worms

What emerges from this 22-year account--Valladares was released in 1982 after an international protest campaign--is not so much the individual atrocities. It is an attitude. The Cuban Revolution, asserting its unique morality, declares that all those who oppose it are not merely wicked or mistaken, but subhuman; gusanos-- worms--is the revolution's name for them. Rarely has a metaphor done so much harm. In the enclosed, unchecked world of the prisons, the guards saw no obstacle to treating the prisoners as if they in fact were worms.

But the most striking thing is the perpetual resistance that not only Valladares, but hundreds of others, put up for decades on end. They refused to wear the blue uniforms issued to ordinary prisoners, insisting on the yellow uniforms originally given them as politicals. The government decided to declare that there were no political prisoners; hence, the blue uniforms. So the prisoners went naked. They were beaten and starved for it; and they were offered food, visits and shortened sentences if they would get dressed.

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