Communist governments arrest and imprison citizens who express opinions at variance with official orthodoxies. There is hardly an educated American or European who doesn’t know that much. They are also aware that these citizens suffer torture and abuse for many years in those prisons. But it takes more than knowledge to appreciate what goes on in the prisons of the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Albania, and our nearest example of Animal Farm, Cuba; It requires conscience, sympathy, and perhaps even imagination.

Fidel, that romantic figure of the Sierra Maestra who gives interviews to Barbara Walters and Dan Rather, has managed over the years to be the “good” Communist fighting the evil imperialist to the North. The Cuban economy may be a shambles, his mercenaries are in Africa and Central America, and hundreds of thousands of his countrymen choose to risk their lives rather than stay in the country, but somehow Fidel rises above it all.

Fidel may not be able to rise above his most powerful critic, Armando Valladares, who exposes Fidel as an evil man responsible for the unimaginable suffering of thousands of innocent people. In a stark and simple narrative, Valladares recounts 22 years spent in Cuban prisons. Tortured by beatings, starvation, sleeplessness, prolonged exposures to heat and cold, and biological experiments, he and others were kept in cages and prevented from sleeping by guards who would hit them with poles and urinate on them. Not only was Valladares forced to sleep in human waste, he and other prisoners were forced to swim—quite literally—in human and animal waste while unblocking a sewer system. Prison officials allowed the prisoners no water after their work in the sewer, and they lived for weeks encased in filth. Kept stark naked for years because he refused to wear the uniform of common criminals, Valladares and 6,000 others lived for a time on top of hundreds of boxes of dynamite wired to explode if the “enemy” should try to liberate the prison.

Many prisoners died, submitted to “rehabilitation,” or went mad. Incurable diseases were common among those who survived. Through tremendous heroism, some endured. Some even grew spiritually and gained a new perspective on the world. Some, like Valladares, are now among us, trying to share that perspective. While in prison, the problem of communication was clear enough. They were in jail, behind walls and bars. The trick was to get the writing on some paper and sneak it out of the prison to a friend, a future wife, a mother, anyone. Valladares smuggled out messages better than most, and those messages prevented him from becoming number 26830 erased from the prison roles. But now that Valladares is out of prison, can he get the message across? Who will understand? Freedom to write and speak is not the only requirement.

There is still talk of establishing relations with Cuba. Before we allow Castro to set up an embassy in Washington, we need to consider carefully what he did to his own former comrades. The victims included many major figures in the Revolution. Like Stalin, Castro had to deal with his own Bukharins and Trotskys who had a different idea about what the Revolution was all about. Like Stalin, he tortured, killed, and silenced them.

After the Revolution, some dissidents joined bands that went into the mountains to wage violent struggle against Fidel. Granma, the official Cuban Communist newspaper, reported that “179 guerrilla bands made up of 3,591 men” killed 500 Cuban soldiers through 1970. These figures are probably low, but even so, they testify against the popular support Fidel is supposed to enjoy.

Perhaps the most memorable appearance in Valladares’ prison memoirs is made by Gerardo, known as the Brother of Faith. A Protestant minister who instilled faith by example amidst dehumanizing circumstances, he constantly rallied prisoners on the brink of despair and madness. Guilty of leading prayer meetings in prison and of other acts of pious subversion, Gerardo maintained his tranquillity and his self-possession in the face of torture and beatings. In the midst of an especially brutal attack on the prisoners by guards, the unnamed Brother of Faith gave his most memorable sermon. Valladares quotes this man’s dying words as the valediction to his final summary of 22 hellish years:

As the ears sped along, a flood of memories rushed over me. Twenty-two years in jail. I recalled the two sergeants. Porfirio and Matanzas, plunging their bayonets into Ernesto Diaz Madruga’s body; Roberto Lopez Chavez dying in a cell, calling for water, the guards urinating over his face and in his gasping mouth; Boitel, denied water, too, after fifty days on hunger strike, because Castro wanted him dead; Clara, Boitel’s poor mother, beaten by Lieutenant Abad in a Political Police station just because she wanted to find out where her son was buried. I remembered Carrion, shot in the leg, telling Jaguey not to shoot, and Jaguey mercilessly, heartlessly, shooting him in the back; the officers who threatened family members if they cried at a funeral.


I remembered Estebita and Piri dying in blackout cells, the victims of biological experimentation; Diosdado Aquit, Chino Tan, Eddy Molina, and so many others murdered in the forced-labor fields, quarries, and camps. A legion of specters, naked, crippled, hobbling and crawling through my mind, and the hundreds of men wounded and mutilated in the horrifying searches. Dynamite. Drawer cells. Eduardo Capote’s fingers chopped off by a machete. Concentration camps, tortures, women beaten, soldiers pushing prisoner’s heads into a lake of shit, the beatings of Eloy and Izaguirre. Martin Perez with his testicles destroyed by bullets. Robertico weeping for his mother.

And in the midst of that apocalyptic vision of the most dreadful and horrifying moments in my life, in the midst of the gray, ashy dust and the orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground, a man emerged, a skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger, with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners.

“Forgive them. Father, for they know not what they do.” And a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his breast.


[Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs, by Armando Valladares (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) $18.95]