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    The hardest life: surviving Cuban jail

    Posted on Friday, 07.30.10
    RELEASE OF THE POLITICAL PRISONERS | STORIES OF ABUSE

    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
    psychologically.
    BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO
    fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

    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
    prisons.

    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.

    HUMAN RIGHTS

    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
    sovereignty.

    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.

    HUMAN MISERY

    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.''

    http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/07/30/v-fullstory/1754665/the-hardest-life-surviving-cuban.html

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