The former prisoner rules as warden

50 years of Fidel Castro   By Gustavo Arcos Bergnes


In steamy July, Cuban television broadcasts nightly shots of an empty hospital room. It is spacious and clean and has big windows. We are shown this room because 50 years ago Fidel Castro was held prisoner there.

 After the failed July 26,1953, attack on the Moncada barracks in Aantiago de Cuba, where the troops of the dictator Fulencio Batista were stationed, Fidel Castro and some 100 other surviving assailants (myself among them) were tried for sedition and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Fidel Castrofs sentence was 15 years, although he was given amnesty, along with the rest of us, after 21 months. He was never again jailed.  He came to power in the 1959 revolution and has since become hHe Who Sends Others to Jail.h

 For me, 1953 was not the last time: In the mid-1960s, when I was Cubafs ambassador to Belgium, I expressed frustration with the Castro government, was recalled and eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, of which I served three. Then in the 1980s I planned to escape from Cube and was jailed for seven more years, but that is another story.

 Four months ago, 75 brave Cuban dissidents were rounded up and two weeks later sentenced to prison terms of up to 28 years. Unlike us so-called Moncadistas, todayfs dissdents did not use violence. Their gweaponsh were typewriters, cameras, radios and tape recorders. They are writers, doctors, lawyers, economists, teachers, peasants and human rights activists who believed, naively, that their ruler and former revolutionary leader would at least tolerate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (of which Cuba is a signatory) instead of jailing people for possessing and distributing it.

 Lately I have been reflecting, after 50 years, on trial and punishment, on the tragic contrast between Fidel Castro, inmate, and Fidel Castro, prison warden.

 Prisoner Castro, a lawyer, had three months before his 1953 trial to prepare his own defense (later adapted into his famoush History Will Absolve Meh speech). Warden Castro allowed todayfs dissidents their first glimpses of their lawyers minutes before their trials, if at all.

 Their quarters do not resemble Inmate Castrofs bright and spacious hospital room of 1953: Most are in cells full of rats and mosquitoes; in many, the tap for drinking water juts from the wall just above the hole in the floor the prisoners are to use as a toilet. When they have family visits, every three months, they come out in handcuffs, some in shackles.

 Because we used violence, the Momcadistas would not have been considered prisoners of conscience by todayfs humanitarian groups like Amnesty International. Nonetheless, the dictators Batista gave us special treatment as political prisoners: We were given our own section of the Isle of Pines prison so that we were not held together with common criminals.

 Todayfs dissident, who were declared prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, have been tossed in with murderers an rapists. The poets Raul Rivero an Manuel Vazquez Potal, to mention the best documented cases, now share wards with some of the most violent alumni of what Fidel Castro himself once called ggenuine universities of delinquency.h

  Back in 1953, two women from our group took their meals at the table of the prison chief; a relative of one of the inmates bought a butcherfs shop on the Isle of Pines and prisoners were allowed cooking facilities. The food in the jails today is another story: Many of the 75 dissidents are sick and one has had a heart attack. Family members report frightening weight loss of 30 or 40 pounds after only four months of detention.

 I am an old man now – 76, the same age as Fidel Castro- and there is not much more harm that the warden can inflict on me for speaking out. (Although there is no doubt in my mind that my younger brother, Sebastian, died in prison in 1997 because of deliberate lack of medical attention.) I have no reason to expect that Fidel Castro will show his political prisoners the magnanimity that he himself benefited from 50 years ago, or that he too will give them amnesty. I hope to be proved wrong. It would be the only fitting way to mark the anniversary.


 The writer is secretary general of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights.