Saturday, July 31, 2010

The hardest life: surviving Cuban jail

Posted on Friday, 07.30.10

The hardest life: surviving Cuban jail

During their seven years in Cuban prisons, former prisoners say they
were confined to tiny windowless cells, fed inedible food and abused

MADRID -- Boiled plantain-flavored water as soup. A greasy scoop of
bland, yellowing beef fat as a side dish. A stew dubbed ``the giraffe''
because ``you had to stretch your neck to find something in it.'' A
hairy heap of ground pig eyes, cheek, ears, and other unidentifiable
parts served as a main course.

The meal, nicknamed patipanza, is one of the typical dishes served in
Cuban prisons, according to political prisoners freed and expatriated to
the Spanish capital under an agreement negotiated by the Roman Catholic
Church and the Spanish government.

``They didn't even bother to take the hairs off the animal's skin and it
stank,'' says Mijail Bárzaga, 43, who spent seven years in four Cuban

In the Havana prison El Pitirre, where he spent two years, the food was
more edible than in the others, Bárzaga said, but the portions of rice,
watery picadillo and pea stew served to the prisoners kept getting
smaller and smaller.

``The guards would steal from our portions, they would steal from the
prison ministry to feed their families and to sell in the black
market,'' Bárzaga said. ``To steal from a man in prison who can't do
anything about getting himself nourishment is denigrating -- the lowest
point of humanity.''

Often there was dirt at the bottom of the boiled concoctions. Other
times, worms and bugs in the food.

``Kafka couldn't have written it worse,'' said Ricardo González Alfonso,
an independent journalist sentenced to 20 years after his arrest in the
Black Spring of 2003.

Two of the released prisoners in Spain -- José Luis García Paneque and
Normando Hernández -- suffer from life-threatening illnesses due to
malnutrition and confinement. So does Ariel Sigler Amaya, a healthy
athlete when he was imprisoned in 2003 and now in a wheelchair, his body
decimated. Flown from Havana to Miami this week for medical treatment,
Sigler is being treated at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

In Madrid, all of the ex-prisoners interviewed by The Miami Herald said
they suffer from some type of severe digestive disorder. One is under
psychiatric care because he suffered a severe post-traumatic stress
episode at the hostel where some of the Cubans are being temporarily
housed in an industrial suburb of Madrid.


According to human rights organizations -- among them Amnesty
International and the United Nations, which have monitored Cuban prisons
for decades -- conditions have been harsh and inhumane throughout the
51-year-old regime of the Castro brothers.

The Cuban government, however, denies allegations of widespread abuses
and in 2004 sponsored an unprecedented media tour through selected areas
of the Combinado del Este prison. Photos distributed by Getty Images
show well-fed and dressed inmates (white polos and royal blue sports
pants) wearing matching new sneakers, taking classes on computers,
partaking in outside activities and being housed in ventilated cells.

But the newly freed prisoners -- most of them independent journalists
who went to prison for gathering facts about life in Cuba and publishing
and broadcasting their stories abroad -- paint a far different picture.
Their detailed, first-hand accounts support the charges of abuse,
corruption and unsanitary facilities.

The ex-prisoners, accused of plotting against state security because
they reported on events in Cuba and sentenced from 15 to 27 years after
summary trials, were kept in maximum security facilities alongside
hardened criminals.

Rounded up on March 18 and 19, 2003, in a massive crackdown across the
island, the men went to prison under Law 88, known as la ley mordaza or
the muzzle law, which allows the government to jail anyone suspected of
engaging in an activity that authorities perceive to affect Cuba's

The men were shipped to prisons hundreds of miles away from their
hometowns and families in a country where most people don't have cars
and public transportation is overcrowded -- and nonexistent in rural towns.

Small prison cells became filthy with overflowing feces. Rats,
cockroaches and scorpions shared their jail cells, Julio César Gálvez said.

Just when the prisoners and their families adjusted to a prison, they
were transferred.

``I was constantly moved from prison to prison and my family couldn't
visit me,'' said José Luis García Paneque, a plastic surgeon who was a
burly, 190-pound man when he was sent to prison and now weighs 101 pounds.

Paneque takes a reporter's notebook and drew a sketch of one of his
prison cells -- a hole on the floor that served as toilet and shower, a
sink with a spigot turned on only a few minutes a day, a metal bed with
a thin foam mattress.

``The cells are all the same -- tiny, windowless,'' he said.

The solitary cells, used for punishment, were even worse.

Being among criminals posed a threat, but the political prisoners said
they earned their respect by explaining to them why they were in prison.

``We gave them a political education and they were helpful to us,''
Bárzaga said.

When he first arrived in a Villa Clara prison, he added, there were no
utensils available. The presos comunes -- those in prison for common,
rather, than political, crimes -- made him a spoon from a can and a cup
from a cut-up water bottle.

Some of the common prisoners helped the political ones smuggle out
letters and documents denouncing conditions.

The political prisoners also witnessed how common prisoners resorted to
drastic measures, making themselves ill -- setting fires to their
mattresses and wrapping themselves in them, cutting their eyeballs -- to
get a guard's attention to be sent to the infirmary.

``I saw a prisoner inject excrement in his veins. Nobody told me this, I
saw it with my own eyes,'' said Omar M. Ruiz Hernández. ``They sewed
their mouths with wire. They do all this to protest the conditions, to
get something they've been denied.''

Despite the unsanitary conditions and the bad food, the hardest part of
prison life were the psychological effects of confinement.

Family visits and phone calls were scarce and suspended arbitrarily.
Letters were delivered to the prisoners three to four months after they
were written. Several went on hunger strikes to protest the mistreatment.

Two of the ex-prisoners, Léster González, 33, and Pablo Pacheco, 40,
said they smuggled out prison diaries that they've brought to Spain and
hope to publish.

With the help of outsiders, Pacheco published the blog ``Voices Behind
the Bars.''

In standard journalistic fashion, he attributed his information to
``this reporter'' -- meaning himself -- or ``prisoners who were
witnesses'' on posts about overcrowding at Canaletas, a case of
tuberculosis, a prisoner who cut himself after he was denied medical
attention and almost bled to death in his cell. He also wrote of how
authorities quickly confiscated a player with music and family pictures
his wife had brought him, and how he was not allowed to attend a concert
trovadour Silvio Rodríguez gave at the prison.


For some, the prison sentence meant the end of love affairs and friendships.

``The mother of my daughter came to see me and said our relationship was
over,'' Léster González said. ``I felt defeated, my whole life had been
ruined. I wanted to die.''

That night, he said, a guard was posted in front of his cell. He was on
suicide watch for a long while.

Omar Rodríguez, a graphic journalist whose photographs depict a Havana
in ruins and its people living in stark poverty, used his street savvy
to survive in prison. He was serving a 27-year sentence for launching a
news agency from Havana.

Survival, he said, entailed relating to the prison guards ``with dignity.''

``I treated them as members of a people who are suffering,'' Rodríguez
said. ``I never directed toward them what they directed toward me -- hate.''

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