Armando Valladares: Castro's Gulag

Roundup: Talking About History

[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).]

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....

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.

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