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A Conversation With Armando Valladares

November 09, 1986|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

Poet-writer Armando Valladares, 49, was imprisoned for 22 years by Cuban President Fidel Castro for his outspoken opposition to communism. Freed in 1982, he now works to promote human rights in Latin America. 'Against All Hope,' his account of indignities suffered by political prisoners in Cuba, was published earlier this year. Q: How many political prisoners are there in Cuba today? A: There are two groups of political prisoners. Those who reject political rehabilitation and suffer torture as the result number about 125. In addition, there are between 13,000 and 14,000 political prisoners who are in rehabilitation programs and are working on re-education farms. Q: What is life like for those in the first category? A: It is difficult to say which is the most terrible of the tortures employed. Is it more horrible to allow someone to die of thirst, which is what happened to former student leader Pedro Luis Boitel, or to mutilate somebody's hands with a machete, as was the case with Eduardo Capote, a teacher who fought against (former dictator Fulgencio) Batista but nevertheless was sent to the Isla de Pinos when he disagreed with Castro? Some of the worst torture occurred at the Boniato Prison, where biological experiments were conducted on prisoners. Q: You describe different kinds of torture in your book. For example, what are drawer cells? A: They are very narrow cells, about six feet long, that contain five or six prisoners. Prisoners had to sit with their knees against their body. There was no room to move; prisoners had to urinate and defecate right there. All of the tortures had one purpose, which was to break the prisoner's resistance. If a prisoner called a political commissioner and said he understood he had been wrong, if he denied his religious beliefs, saying they were from the obscure ages, and if he admitted that he now understood that communism was the solution to mankind's problems and he wanted to have the opportunity to re-enter the new communist society, then he could escape the cell and be put in a re-education farm. Then he could see his family, receive mail, and the violence would be ended as far as he was concerned.

But for many of us, to accept these things, to renounce our ideals, would have been spiritual suicide. This is why many of my comrades are still in prison today. They've been there for 27, 26, 25 years. Since 1980 they've been in blackout cells, totally dark. They're nine feet long, these cells, and four feet wide. On the floor there's a hole. That's the only sanitary facility. The window and door are sealed with steel plates. On one of the plates there are three small holes about the size of your little finger that allow air, but no light. Amnesty International says men in these cells have been in prison for an average of 22 years. And over this time they've been denied food, clothing, clean water, suffered frequent beatings and all types of psychological tortures. This is the group that I belonged to. Q: Many people today regard Castro as a leader of the nonaligned movement rather than a hard-line Marxist. He's often depicted as a Hemingway - esque peasant hero who plays baseball. I assume you disagree with this characterization. A: Castro is a communist dictator. All dictators should be rejected and repudiated. Unfortunately, many people have a "selective sensitivity." They are quick to denounce crimes and tortures when they're committed by men like Chilean President Augusto Pinochet but keep quiet when these same crimes and tortures are committed by Castro. They keep quiet because Castro is such "a charming man." I think this is a dishonest moral attitude. Crime and torture have to be denounced wherever they occur. Murders by Castro's police are just as contemptible as those by Pinochet's police. Castro's public image survives because of this selective sensitivity.

American Vice President Henry Wallace visited the Soviet Union during the time of Stalin. When he returned to the West, he said there were no concentration camps or political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Stalin was a kind old man who would never torture anybody, Wallace declared. It was only after Stalin's death that his crimes--acts more horrible than anything ever denounced by the West--finally were revealed by Nikita Khrushchev. The same will happen when Castro finally disappears.

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