THE SITUATION OF WOMEN IN THE POLITICAL PRISON SYSTEM IN CUBA
In the “Report of the situation of the political prisoners and their families in Cuba,” published in May 1963, the Commission examined specifically the problem of women in the political prison system of that country, and noted that, as stated in the denunciations, the female political prisoners in Cuba have suffered “extremely humiliating treatment, designed to break down their moral resistance and to degrade their dignity as women.”37
Since that time, the Commission has continued to receive communications and complaints that make special mention of the situation of women in the Cuban political prison system.
The contents of these denunciations lead to the conclusion that female political prisoners in Cuba continue to be submitted to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and are victims of a prison régime which is incompatible with their sex, and in which they are treated extremely harshly, without regard to their age, state of health, marital status, or pregnant or post-partum condition.
Quoted below are the pertinent parts of the denunciations that refer to this situation:
1. In an annex to the communication dated March 3, 1971, it is stated:38
“ ‘Las tapiadas’. This name has been given to female political prisoners in Cuba incarcerated in cells where they are isolated for violations of the iron discipline of the prison. In these cells, there is no where they are isolated for violations of the iron discipline of the prison. In these cells, there is not light and almost no water. The prisoners were kept naked in a very confined space. Their food is served to them at different times of day, so that they lose all notion of time. The do not receive visits or letters. They remain there, in a state of confusion, for weeks at a time."
2. In part of the memorandum dated April 16, the following denunciation is made:39
“Let us begin with a chronological outline account of two known female political prisoners, whose names and addresses will be provided at the end of this report in the event that His Excellency the Chairman of this Commission, or the members of the Commission would like to hear evidence personally from them.
a. May 20, 1961 – Mother’s Day
There were a hundred of us women prisoners in Guanabacoa and they wanted to transfer us to Guanajay, where the conditions were unbearable. We tried to resist, and they took twenty of the women into a cell, from which about 60 guards took them out and began to beat them. The prison was completely surrounded by about 600 armed men and women. In the end, they were able to take these twenty women off in the Black Maria. They turned water-hoses, with a pressure of 200 to 300 pounds, on the remaining eighty of us, which made us roll on the ground. There was one prisoner who was six months pregnant and they aimed the hose directly at her stomach to make her abort. Many of us ran to protect and cover her with our bodies. The pressure of the water left a deep mark on our skin for about two months. After the water, the men again beat us.
b. June – December 1961
Guanajay. The conditions were terrible. There was no medical attention of any kind. In January, Lydia Pérez, 21 years old, died in childbirth, for lack of medical assistance. Her husband, a prisoner in another jail, committed suicide when he learned of her death. In July, August, and September, we were submitted to searching inspections, and they took away all our belongings. These inspections always ended in beatings and punishment. One night, one woman became very ill and was vomiting constantly. We began to shout for a doctor, but they did not hear our cries. We continued to shout until we could make ourselves heard, and they answered–by firing on us. The bullet marks covered the walls. Then, they came into the cell-blocks and beat us mercilessly. More than 50 women were hurt.
In December 1961, Julia González-Roquete, aged 50, died. She had a severe toothache, but was not given medical attention. When her condition worsened, they took her out of the cell so that she would die outside. She died of blood poisoning. Her husband was in jail and her children were in the United States. They buried here scarcely 12 hours after her death.
c. July 4, 1962
A new system of iron discipline was imposed. Punishment without cause became constant. More than half the prisoners did not have visits. At noon on July 4, they called four women into the office, and put them in a truck which had “furniture” on the side, and was completely closed. One managed to escape and ran out of the patio yelling warnings of the transfer. Immediately four or five men caught her and began to beat her up. In the meantime, some 150 armed men and women came into the courtyard, walked towards the women “in the galleys” (N.B.: those of us “in the galleys” were the ones enclosed in cells and unable to go out into the hall), and called off 25 by name followed by the word, “Transfer.”
courtyard turned into a battle scene.
Yelling, insults, threats, blows, profanity, curses, the noise of
broken heads, blood. Inside
the blocks there were still many of us locked up who couldn’t do
anything to help them out there except despair and yell.
A young black, Juana Drake, was taken out of her cell and beaten
all the way bay a militiaman who screamed at her, “Walk, you black
A total of 65 prisoners were taken away in trucks which were totally closed and had no ventilation. They were taken to a military airport and told they were going to Russia amid insults that were hurled at them all the way. They took them to Oriente, the province at the other end of the island. Another time they put them in cage-trucks and set out on the trip to the Baracoa jail for a whole day and a whole night without giving them water or food on the road. On this odyssey there was a little baby 23 days old who had been born in prison, they didn’t give her any water either and when they finally managed to get some for her it was blackish and she became so sick that they later called her Milagritos (the “little miracle”) since only a miracle saved her. At Baracoa the punishment was very bad. Six months with no medical care, almost no water and food not fit for human consumption until the return to Guanajay on January 13, 1963. when they got back here, they tried to undress everybody in order to make “ a good check” of those women who hadn’t changed clothes in six months and still had on the same ones they’d worn when they left! They tried to do the same thing to those of us who had remained “in the galleys.” When we refused to allow ourselves to be undressed, they beat us savagely.
One of us, Sylvia Perdomo, who now lives in Miami, had her hair pulled with such force that they yanked off her pony-tail. They hit us on the breasts and kicked us in the stomach. One of my best friends had her legs held apart while a third man kicked her intimate parts. This went on until five in the morning, and when they went away, they left behind a group of women who couldn’t eat for days, sore, bloody and cold, since the temperature was 5 degrees and we only had pajamas on. They kept us locked up for more than six months with no visitors or the extras they used to bring us in the way of several pounds of sugar, milk, chocolate and homemade sweets.
d. July 1963
We were still “in the galleys” when Manolo Martínez, the Chief of Prisons, visited us one night. We knew he would create problems as usual, because he’s a mental case. Since our punishment was about up (January to July), we had agreed not to do anything to make him angry. We kept quiet to avoid trouble and when he noticed our silence he became hysterical and began to send women to the “walled-up cells.” These have sheets of steel on the doors and windows so there is not light at all, and for a sanitary facility there’s only a hole in the floor. He called out names by change, indiscriminately, until he counted 40, and he kept them walled up with no ventilation and in total darkness, with no bed or water to wash with and with the same uniform on for 40 days. They were only given one meal of boiled flour and two small glasses of water a day. Many were bitten by spiders and rats. When they got out, it took them several days to be able to open their eyes to the light.
e. February 1964
They sent a new group of prisoners to the “walled-up cells” for six months, this time 64.
f. November 1964
Two months after the release of the second group of “wall-ins,” Captain San Luis, of the Department of Prisons, a habitual drunkard came into the block completely drunk and armed and began to insult us. We got scared and asked him to go away because he was drunk and began to fire at the roof. Some militiamen came and took him away, but he got his revenge later, carrying off another 60 prisoners to the “walled-up cells,” this time for four months. Almost all of them were covered with ringworm, athlete’s foot and other ulcerations; one fell into a diabetic coma because they refused her a teaspoonful of sugar she needed. Many contracted liver and gall bladder diseases, and ulcers.
g. January 1965
Every 10 to 16 months they would take us out to interrogate us about what we though of god, the revolution, Cuba, the United States, the rehabilitation programs (indoctrination), what we’d like to do if we were free, etc. it was an annual testing of our minds. On this particular occasion, 60 women refused to submit themselves again to this type of mental torture, but they were forcibly taken away by men who twisted their arms behind them, across the 250 meters from the “tapiadas” to the office. Others were beaten with sticks and taken away in the prison-vans. When they arrived, all were struck in the stomach and kicked. If they refused to submit to interrogation, they were beaten some more in the office.
During these beatings, we prisoners in the “galley” could only shout out “cowards and murderers” until it was our turn to be beaten. One woman prisoner, who is till in custody, was so severely ill-treated the she lay on the ground for five days, unable to move or utter a single word. Despite our entreaties, she was not given medical assistance. For months she urinated blood.
h. November 1966
Forced labor was introduced. We resisted this. There were fresh beatings, fresh “tapiadas,” and fresh spells of confinement. They brought in women prisoners from the common jail–mentally ill women, physically and morally degenerate–and put them in cells above ours. For thirty days and nights, without a minute’s respite, they carried on a “tin tattoo,” striking the bars of their cells with tin plates. The noise was infernal. The strain on our nerves was such that it seemed as though our heads were going to split. One could not rest or sleep. Not content with this, they turned on loudspeakers at full blast playing the Communist anthem The Internationale. After 30 days of this, our resistance reached its limit. Suddenly the noise stopped, and for three days I could still hear it in my mind. Now the silence, in the same way, prevented us from sleeping. It was an experience that shattered the nerves. The noise had become implanted in our brains.
i. February 14, 1965
They gave us an ultimatum: either we submitted to the forced labor or they would bring the “common” prisoners to our blocks. This would have killed the lot of us. We went out to work from 7 to 11:30 and from 1:30 to 5, cutting grass in the country with hoes. When we got back to the blocks, they shut us up until the following day. The food continued to be terrible. For four months we ate only boiled eggs and Russian meat stew. By the third month, I vomited at the mere sight of it. I contracted triple-X hepatitis. For over 15 days I only consumed bread, water, sugar, and a piece of tomato and lettuce and I managed to filch from the field. From November 8, 1965, to April 18, 1967, they kept us shut up in the “galley.” Exactly 17 months.
On April 18 they took us out of Guanajay because they needed more space for the men for whom there was no longer room in other prisons, and they kept us in Guanabacoa jail before taking us to the Concentration Camp ironically named “Free America.” There were about 400 of us women prisoners, with hardly enough space to move, shut up in the galley for a whole month.
In the Concentration Camp (a sort of hacienda that had been confiscated from its real owners) the system of discipline, labor and punishment was intensified. There were two long corridors that were converted into cells. In one (50 by 70 feet) there were 350 women, and in the other (12 by 34 feet), the remaining 50. The set up a “Court” for trials, with a jury consisting of three or four militiamen who punished us for almost anything, canceling our visits from outside, our correspondence, and food-parcels or packets of food.
Every Monday there was “Court”; and an average of 25 people were always sentenced. They suspended my visits, correspondence, and parcels of food for three months because I took some fruit, a mango, from off the ground, after it had fallen from the tree.
One girl, whose parents were about to leave the country and who was taking great care not to have their last visit cancelled, was accused of “looking with hatred at a militia-woman” and punished for six months.
Another was punished for three months for not going to work when she was suffering from a severe attack of asthma that almost prevented her from breathing.
We had no warm clothing at all. Only two uniforms of light tweed and two undergarments and a sheet to cover us. We tried to obtain old newspapers and put them between out clothes and our bodies and inside our stockings. After two months of severe winter cold, they issued a thick under-shirt to the women over 60 years of age.
“Our food: breakfast was at 6 a.m., hot water with black sugar. At 12, we had boiled spaghetti or a clear bean soup, sometimes of the “Guanina” type which is used as hog-food, and a piece of bread. At 5:30 p.m., bean soup with Russian meat stew or flour, boiled eggs or rice, with a piece of bread. They knew that during the night we would be hungry, and they did not let us take bread away to our cells. Sometimes I managed to hide some under my clothes, because I could not sleep with my stomach so empty. By that time, I had already contracted hypercloridia and my gall-bladder was hardly working (if I spent long periods without food I had acute pains), I still had hepatitis, and the nervous strain was causing acute tachycardia. My weight dropped from 140 pounds to 102. Once I became seriously ill, and they gave me intravenous serum and vegetable broth. This was all the medical attention I received. On the following day, I returned to the Russian meat with a large quantity of grease and boiled eggs, which by that time I was unable to swallow.
“Things got worse. The new rules allowed for one visit every 30 days, and permission was given for a letter to be received or sent every 45 days. They went to unspeakable lengths to persuade us to accept the Rehabilitation Plan.
In October 1969, it was the birthday of one of the prisoners and we wanted to celebrate it by singing and dancing for her. The militiamen did not like this and suddenly burst into the cell to carry out an inspection. The smashed everything in their path, and beat us with coated electric cables, sticks, and machetes. I saw four men and three women hurl to the ground one prisoner, and when I tried to help her, they hit me three times on the back with the flat of a machete, and I still bear the scar from one of the blows.
The result of that day was broken arms, one head with 14 stitches, three prisoners with broken ribs, and all with injuries from beatings. One of the girls was so badly injured that for a month it was thought that she would lose her eye.
The women who are still held prisoner in this Concentration Camp called “Free America,” recently renamed “New Dawn,” continue to live in the worst conditions, without food, without medical attention, almost without visits or correspondence, facing the cruel truth that whereas a lot is said about prisoners in other parts of the world, the situation of the prisoners in Cuba remains unknown.
3. In a communication of August 1, 1974, exposing the situation of the political prisoners in the “La Cabaña,” Havana, it was alleged, among other things, that40
“Six women, political prisoners, have been transferred to this prison, and confined in the men’s section, in a cell where they are half-naked in full view of the sentries.”
In view of the urgent nature of the denunciation the Commission, in a cable dispatched August 9, 1974, requested the appropriate information from the Government of Cuba.
The Government of Cuba has not replied.41
Doc. 4-7, cited, Chap. IV, pp. 49-60.
Case 1710, cited above.
Case 1805, cited above.
40. Case 1847, cited above.
41. For the handling of the case, see Chapter II, B, No. 8 of