The Other Gitmo: Where's the Outrage?
By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
October 7, 2005; Page A17
Conditions at the prison at Guantánamo are inhumane. Inmates are deprived their right to religious worship, receive scant nutrition and suffer constant verbal and physical abuse from guards. It's a humanitarian outrage.
I refer, of course, to Castro's Guantánamo Provincial Prison in Cuba proper, the prison across the fence from the U.S. naval base compound holding the terrorists. Fidel's lock-up makes the U.S. prison look like a five-star tropical resort.
Torture, deprivation and isolation of political prisoners at the "other" Guantánamo -- or at any of Fidel's gulags across the island -- are no secret. They've been loudly denounced by prisoners' families and reeported by Cuba's independent journalists. But foreign journalists have paid little attention. It seems they're too busy shredding their hankies over whether enemy combatants at the naval base have enough honey glaze on their chicken.
International apathy toward the plight of the political prisoners is just what Fidel Castro counts on. As the dissident movement has expanded in the past decade, El Maximo Lider has found it necessary to strike at it with excessive force from time to time. But when his repression becomes too public, he has to back off.
A hunger strike at the Guantánamo prison, which ended earlier this week, makes the point. Political prisoners Victor Arroyo and Felix Navarro stopped eating on Sept. 10 and 13 respectively, to protest the extreme cruelty administered by Guantánamo prison director Lt. Col. Jorge Chediak Pérez and "rehabilitation" expert Juan Armesto.
As the strike headed toward a fourth week, dozens of Cuban human rights advocates from all over the island were on their way to the prison in a show of solidarity. On Sept. 29, the EU called on the government to "improve the conditions of detention of these individuals and other political prisoners who are being held in circumstances that fall below the U.N. Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners."
On Monday, as the strikers showed no sign of relenting, Fidel blinked. The two men were removed from Guantánamo. Mr. Arroyo was taken away in an ambulance because he was so feeble, while Mr. Navarro traveled by car. Sources on the island say that Mr. Arroyo is now at the prison hospital in Holguin and Mr. Navarro is at the prison hospital in Bayamo.
In an honest world, the cases of Mr. Arroyo and Mr. Navarro would have raised an international outcry a long time ago. The men were arrested along with more than 70 others in the regime's March 2003 crackdown on journalists, opposition leaders, librarians and writers. All were taken into custody, given summary trials and handed extreme sentences.
A review of the 53-year-old Mr. Arroyo's arrest record shows the regime's pathetic paranoia. One example: In 2000 he was jailed for possessing some toys that he planned to distribute to poor children. The charge? "Hoarding public goods." His real crimes are for things like being director of the Union of Independent Cuban Journalists and Writers and managing one of the most important independent libraries in the country. In March 2003, Mr. Arroyo was working as a journalist in Pinar del Río, when he was detained. On April 7, 2003, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison for "acts against state security."
Mr. Navarro, who is 52-years-old, has an equally "dangerous" profile. An educator for some 20 years, in 1999 he founded the Pedro Luis Boitel Democracy Movement, which led to numerous arrests. His April 2003 conviction for "acts against state security" won him a 25 year sentence.
Mr. Navarro's identification with the heroic Boitel explains a lot about the prisoners and about Fidel's decision to yield to their strike. Boitel was a close prison friend of Armando Valladares, who spent 22 years in Cuban gulags. In his memoir, "Against All Hope," Mr. Valladares wrote of Boitel that he was "the most rebellious of Cuban political prisoners." In 1972, he had gone on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. After 47 days of no food Boitel was gravely ill. But it was Castro's decision to deny him water that sealed his fate. He died on day 53.
Later, according to Mr. Valladares, the prisoners learned that Castro had given the order to "get rid of Boitel so he wouldn't make anymore [expletive] trouble." In a telephone conversation from Miami this week, Mr. Valladares reminded me that through it all "the international community kept silent."
Like Mr. Valladares and Boitel before them, Messrs. Arroyo and Navarro protested Guantánamo's filth, beatings, bad food, lack of water and use of common criminals to terrorize political prisoners. And like their predecessors, their complaints were met with violence.
In December 2003, Mr. Arroyo's opinions earned him a savage beating by three jailers, who also slammed a door on his leg to cripple him. In September 2004, when he was told his cell would be searched, he asked to be present to ensure that nothing would be planted. For that request, the food that had been brought by his family was confiscated and his few belongings trashed. He was then placed in a "punishment cell," which is a solitary confinement cell too small to lie down in, with no windows and a steel door. He was kept there for 15 days. Mr. Navarro was also thrown in the punishment cells for objecting to inhumane conditions.
The men wrote letters to the government to draw attention to ruthlessness of Armesto and jailer Chediak Perez, but to no avail. That's when they took up the mantle of Boitel.
Castro didn't respond until it looked like the strikers might embarrass him by dying. On Tuesday, Mr. Arroyo's sister reported that Cuban officials in Holguin promised him "a just treatment." But the fact that it had to go so far before Castro would agree to basic humanitarian principles reveals much about the dictator that so many Americans admire.