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Castro's Gulag

By Armando Valladares

The Wall Street Journal | March 5, 2007; Page A16 | Like thousands of other Cubans, I was arrested in the middle of the night. Fidel Castro's police raided my parents' home, stuck a machine gun in my face and took me away. It was 1960 and I was 22 years old.

The news that the Cuban dictator is gravely ill floods my mind with memories of my years spent in captivity. I believe that those of us who were political prisoners know his legacy better than anyone. For 22 years, I was an inmate in his vast prison system, mostly confined to an island gulag, for crimes I did not commit.

Like the majority of Cubans in 1959, I cheered Castro's victory over Fulgencio Batista, a dictator on friendly terms with the U.S. Castro called himself the enemy of all dictatorships; he had a cross hanging round his neck and he swore that there would be free and fair elections. But as his near five decades of uninterrupted power proved, he tricked everyone and replaced the dictatorship of Batista with his own bloodier version.

In a famous 1959 appearance on "Meet the Press," Castro answered a question put to him by Lawrence Spivak, "Democracy is my ideal, really . . . I am not communist . . . There is no doubt for me between democracy and communism." Once Castro began making his sympathies overt, I began speaking out against his ideological shift amongst the people in my workplace, the postal savings bank.

At the time, the government was distributing placards with the slogan: "If Fidel is a communist, then put me on the list. He's got the right idea." The phrase was ubiquitous, from decals to billboards. When officials in the bank demanded that I put the slogan on my worktable, I refused. When they asked if I had anything against Fidel, I told them that if he was a communist, then, yes, I did. I had no desire to become a symbol of political dissidence. That decision was made for me that day.

Thirteen days after my arrest, I was tried on charges of threatening the powers of state security, even though there was no evidence against me. The justice system under Castro was a mockery of the rule of law; members of my tribunal were Communist Party apparatchiks who sat with their boots up on tables, smoking cigars and reading comic books. Their very presence was but a formality; the verdicts had already been decided. I was not permitted an attorney.

I received a 30-year prison sentence as a potential conspirator. Two men in the same court room falsely accused of shooting at a government spokesman were executed by firing squad. When their defense attorney (whom they had met just minutes before) pleaded with the prosecutor to reduce the sentence, the prosecutor responded that he had received orders to have them shot, no matter what, as a means of social prophylaxis.

Once in prison, if the guards felt like punishing us, they would put us in cages, with mesh roofs, and walk along the edge while pouring buckets of urine and excrement all over our bodies. Sometimes, guards would shoot prisoners for target practice. That is how they killed Alfredo Carrion and Diosdado Aquit. Many of the men whom Castro had imprisoned, tortured and killed had been his comrades in overthrowing Batista. But most of them were innocent people eliminated in Ernesto "Che" Guevara's psychotic quest for what he and Castro called the "new man."

The impunity of Castro's dictatorship was marked by its cruelty. A prisoner in my block, Julio Tan, once refused an order by a prison guard to dig weeds. The guard struck him with his bayonet, another hit him with a hoe, and a gang of guards beat him until he bled to death in just a matter of minutes. My friend Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader and courageous opponent of Batista, went on a hunger strike in 1972 to protest his treatment. On the 49th day of the strike, Castro personally ordered that Boitel be denied drinking water. Boitel died of thirst, in horrific agony, five days later.

Terror was Castro's main tool. The tactics used for enemies of the regime included the exploitation of phobias such as reptiles and rats; the use of drugs so as to have prisoners lose all notion of time and place; blindfolding prisoners, hanging them by their feet, and then lowering them into wells they were told are filled with crocodiles; the use of guard dogs that had their teeth removed and which were set upon prisoners with hands tied behind their backs. Usually, these dogs attacked the genitals first. All of this was investigated and extensively documented by a visiting delegation from the United Nations. The evidence can be found in Geneva.

The legacy of Castro for Cuba will be much like that of Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot and Ieng Sari in Cambodia and Hitler in Germany. It will be the memories of the unknown numbers of victims, of concentration camps, torture, murder, exile, families torn apart, death, tears and blood. Castro will go down in history as one of the cruelest of all dictators -- a man who tormented his own people.

But his poisonous legacy will also include the double standard by foreign governments, intellectuals and journalists who fought ferociously against the unspeakable violations of human rights by right-wing dictatorships, yet applauded Castro. To this day many of these intellectuals serve as apologists and accomplices in the subjugation of the Cuban people. Rafael Correa, the recently inaugurated president of Ecuador, has declared that in Cuba there is no dictatorship. Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, considers Castro his mentor and has already shown that he is willing to silence his own critics at the point of a gun. Venezuela, once a democracy, is the new Cuba, replete with a growing population of political prisoners.

Castro hemmed and hawed in the early 1960s, concealing his ideological allegiance to the most murderous system of government humanity has ever experienced. Today's Latin American caudillos openly express their allegiance to communist ideals. "I am very much of Trotsky's line -- the permanent revolution," Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said in January.

If we have learned anything from Fidel Castro, it is that the totalitarian impulse outlives even its most hardened -- and ruinous -- practitioners.

Mr. Valladares, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, is chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation and author of "Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag" (National Book Network, 2001).

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