Hunger strike in Cuba
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    Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’

    Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’
    BY NORA GAMEZ TORRES NGAMEZTORRES@ELNUEVOHERALD.COM
    10/26/2014 9:46 AM 10/26/2014 2:46 PM

    On a remote island off the southwest coast of Cuba stands a complex of
    circular structures once described by French philosopher Michel Foucault
    as a perfect model of disciplinary power. Those held there can’t tell if
    an armed guard was watching from a tower situated in the heart of the
    penitentiary.

    But for those detained there, as well as other Cubans, the panopticon
    serves as a symbol of revolution and counter-revolution.

    Originally designed in the 18th century by British philosopher and
    social reformist Jeremy Bentham, the so-called “Model Prison” was copied
    by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado early in the 20th century and erected
    at the Isle of Pines or Isla de Pinos, as it was known then.

    For Miami resident Ricardo Vazquez, the panopticon was the keeper of a
    dark secret that he was tasked with documenting.

    Vazquez was a student in 1962 when he was serving time for conspiring
    against Fidel Castro’s government. His imprisonment preceded the Cuban
    Missile Crisis in October 1962, and Vazquez and other political
    prisoners watched in horror as prison workers drilled holes beneath the
    ground floor of the four circular penitentiaries and filled the holes
    with dynamite.

    Vazquez’s mission: to defy the perpetual vigilance at Isla de Pinos and
    take photos of the loads of dynamite the Castro government had placed on
    the ground floor of each of the buildings.

    The explosives were intended to prevent the “counterrevolutionaries”
    from staging a prison revolt and join an “imperialist” aggression should
    such an attempt take place.

    At the time, Vazquez was a national leader of the anti-Castro 30th of
    November Revolutionary Movement whose objective was to “overthrow
    Fidel’s system,” he said, “because we felt betrayed.”

    Like many others, Vazquez had initially joined Castro in a revolution to
    oust then dictator Fulgencio Batista.

    “I fought against Batista, and Fidel derailed our initial plans for the
    revolution completely,” Vazquez said. “We exhausted all our resources to
    try to overthrow him.”

    But what exactly where the initial plans for the revolution?

    “For it to be based on the constitution of 1940, for freedom to exist,
    for oppression to end,” he said. “And all of that resulted in Fidel’s
    farce. He lied to the people, everything was a terrible lie.”

    In February 1961, just a year after Castro’s “triumph of the
    revolution,” Vazquez was arrested with “sensitive material,” a euphemism
    for guns, explosives, radio equipment or whatever other tools people who
    were against the new regime could use.

    Anastasio Rojas, the driver who transported Vazquez and the “sensitive
    material” was executed. Seventeen-year-old Vazquez was sent to the Model
    Prison.

    Today, Vazquez is 71, has a soft voice and is a man of few words. He
    doesn’t like talking about his prison experiences too much, though he
    agreed to an interview with el Nuevo Herald. He introduces his sister,
    Guillermina Vazquez, who is bed stricken but mentally able to add to her
    brother’s memory.

    The Dynamite

    Guillermina Vazquez was the contact person between the various jails and
    the 30th of November National Revolutionary Movement. She recalls
    receiving a message from prisoners needing a camera.

    In 1962, a prisoner who escaped and managed to make it to Miami spoke
    publicly about the explosives. On September 14 of that year, Patria
    newspaper published this account:

    “We’ve seen the work [the jail]. It’s completely full of dynamite. The
    dynamite can be set off from a far away hill, by two means: by an
    electric battery or by using a material which explodes in sections until
    reaching the dynamite,” the escaped prisoner, whose identity was kept
    anonymous, told the newspaper.

    But the political prisoners still needed proof of the allegations — the
    photos. That’s where Guillermina managed to transport a minuscule
    spy-like camera fabricated by the German company Minox into the jail. In
    order to sneak the camera past the guards, she hid it inside a tampon.

    “They did extensive searches to women visitors,” she said.

    Added her brother: “I was the one who took the photos of the dynamite
    along with another friend. In the cell where I lived, on the first
    floor, there was an opening where the water ducts ran through.”

    With a lot of work, rebar and the help of other prisoners, Vazquez
    managed to break the floor enough to be able to pass through.

    “When we broke it, we already had the camera ready and both of us went
    in there and we began taking pictures of the dynamite,” Vazquez said.

    The mission was accomplished but not without reprisals.

    “Later came the problem of them finding the hole [on the prison floor]
    and punishing us,” he said. “We were isolated in the pavilions, the jail
    cells were barren and they left us there with nothing more than underwear.”

    The photos ultimately made their way to the outside world with the help
    of another Vazquez sister during a separate visit.

    According to Guillermina, “the searches were made when you entered the
    jail but not when you left.”

    Vazquez wasn’t a seasoned photographer and the images, which were
    published in the Miami Spanish-language paper Diario Las Américas in
    1964, aren’t of high enough quality to be reproduced today. One can
    barely make out the bundles of dynamite and holes in the walls.

    “But we did it!,” Vazquez said. “The interesting part of this is that we
    took the photos. Otherwise the world wouldn’t have known about this.”

    The prison

    “Eventually, one day after the October Missile Crisis, they removed the
    dynamite although [and] they never covered the holes,” Vazquez said. “I
    don’t know if they have now, I’ve heard they’re using the prison as a
    museum.”

    For political prisoners like Vazquez, united by a strict moral code,
    their time in prison was another stage of their “struggle.” They, along
    with many others in the rest of the country, lived in a state of
    “permanent war.” The wounds they received because of maltreatment and
    abuses became “combat injuries.” Flaking out was unforgivable.

    Vazquez and his friend, Israel Abreu Villareal, were among the first
    plantados, the term given to political prisoners who rejected forced
    labor. The day they decided to chuck work, the guards responded with
    violence.

    A buff sergeant called “Champion” [Campeón in Spanish] grabbed a gun and
    hit Vazquez over the head.

    “He knocked me out and later woke me up. He was being sarcastic and
    hitting me incessantly until I managed to get up and keep walking,” he said.

    After this incident, Vazquez and Abreu were transported to the hospital
    inside the prison where they started a hunger strike lasting 42 days.

    In a blunt testimony published in the book Cuba: Clamor del Silencio,
    Abreu added chilling details to Vazquez’s tale. In the midst of the
    hunger strike, Campeón and another sergeant, identified as Girón, once
    again got a hold of Abreu and took him to the field where they proceeded
    to beat him repeatedly with a bayonet until the bloody bone of his hip
    protruded from his skin.

    Unnamed Island

    The testimonies of these two men are not exceptional. Abreu’s book
    documented at least 100 other similar stories. Other testimonials also
    were documented in a 1963 report by the the Organization of American
    States’ Interamerican Commission on Human Rights.

    The Cuban government discarded these accusations and made them a mere
    footnote of a political and diplomatic battle it considered more
    important, the battle between Cuba and the United States, one in which
    the OAS and the Latin American governments were touted as “puppets” of
    imperialism.

    Still, a more powerful gesture may have been needed to rewrite Cuban
    history and erase an uncomfortable memory. In 1967, when the Model
    Prison was closed, Isla de Pinos became an island without a name.

    In a speech made on Aug. 12, 1967 Castro said this about the nameless
    land: “…this island is proof of the revolution and this is a starting
    point. This island, which for now we will call, not of the Youth
    (Juventud) and not of the Pines (Pinos), because there’s little of both
    of those things now.”

    But Castro promised to transform the island into “a grand center of
    social experimentation, where we will resolve in the measure possible,
    as a vanguard of our people, the problems which the idea of creating a
    communist society implies.”

    Part of the new experiment was to recruit youth from several provinces
    to “revolutionize nature and revolutionize society.” To add drama to it
    all, the former prison would host 20,000 students.

    Almost 10 years later, the unnamed island was officially baptized in
    1978 the “Island of Youth.”

    Cuban press regularly reports on the anniversaries of this proclamation
    and the social transformation of the second largest Cuban island, which
    was “recognized before the revolutionary triumph by the horrors of the
    Model Prison,” according to the newspaper Juventud Rebelde.

    The Pardon

    It’s no surprise that those born in Cuba after 1959 can only associate
    the Model Prison as the place where Castro and his fellow assailants of
    the Moncada Barracks in 1953 finished a jail sentence of less than two
    years.

    In May of 1955, Batista freed Castro and his group.

    But a pardon for Vazquez and the rest of the 3,000 political prisoners
    didn’t come until 1979, after representatives of the Cuban exile
    community and the Cuban government signed an agreement for their freedom
    in December 1978. The accord stated that the U.S. and Cuban governments
    would facilitate the transport of prisoners and their families to
    American soil.

    Vazquez finally made it to the United States in August 1979. Here, he
    made a career as a banker.

    Source: Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’ | The Miami Herald –
    http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/issues-ideas/article3385936.html

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