Foreign visitors have been welcome to look at Cuba's hospitals, its farms and its schools. But Fidel Castro has rarely permitted human rights activists to look into his jails.
In those prisons, according to the recently published memoirs of men who spent more than 20 years in them, people are tortured, forced to live in their own filth, starved, deprived of light and beaten mercilessly.
According to Castro, his revolution has been unfailingly merciful to its opponents.
"It's clear that some terrible things are going on, but it's very hard to get a handle on that," said Lance Lindblom, president of the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, which supports human rights projects. "We need independent verification of the charges, and that verification hasn't been allowed."
Lindblom recently visited Cuba with a delegation seeking information on prisoners, and the group hopes to return this year.
Armando Valladares, in the newly published book "Against All Hope," tells of horrors that match the excesses of the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador and of the so-called "dirty war" waged by Argentina's former military government.
He writes of cold-blooded murder: One prisoner refused to pull weeds with his hands, so a guard twisted a bayonet in his thigh to open a fatal wound. Another prisoner was shot for stepping out of line to pick up his hat. Valladares says a guard urinated into the mouth of a hunger-striking prisoner who was begging for water.
When blood tests found some prisoners were alarmingly anemic, Valladares says, authorities simply stopped the tests.
The worst treatment, he says, was reserved for the plantados , the prisoners who refused to accept political rehabilitation, which meant renouncing ideas unacceptable to the regime. Plantados is a peasant expression for those who dig in their heels, an apt description for prisoners who refuse to cooperate even in such seemingly small matters as accepting a blue uniform.
Valladares tells of being kept in an unlighted cell for nine years, of living in crowded cages with overflowing latrines and of being forced to jump into a ditch filled with sewage after being marched barefoot across sharp rocks.
Amnesty International estimated that 140 plantados remained in Cuban prisons at the end of 1984. Another human rights group, Americas Watch, said there were 126 as of April. Valladares puts the current number at about 150.
He adds that 15,000 other prisoners, including orthodox Marxists and many of Castro's former comrades in arms, are in rehabilitation programs.
Castro Denies Claims
Jorge Valls, whose memoir of 20 years in prison was published earlier this year by Americas Watch, writes that prisoners who accepted rehabilitation got more and better food but were subject to endless humiliations.
According to Castro, none of this is true.
"No one in our country has ever been punished because he was a dissident or held views that differed from those of the revolution," Castro said in an interview published in Playboy magazine last year. "The history of the revolution contains no cases of physical abuse or torture."
Valladares, released from prison in 1982 after French President Francois Mitterrand personally appealed to Castro, is a trim, energetic man who shows no lingering ill effects from his captivity. That has led some to question his account of being paralyzed at one time.
Expected Ill Effects
"I expected to see a disastrous physical and mental condition. I did not," said Harold Mayerson, a New York attorney who asked to visit Valladares in a prison hospital in November, 1979. "To draw a conclusion is not fair."
But he said that Valladares was not an invalid at the time he visited him and was held in a large, clean room.
Mayerson said he was told by the head of the hospital, Dr. Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra, that Valladares' inability to walk was the result of hunger strikes.
Valladares says in his book that he was put through a program of physical rehabilitation before he was released to cover up his mistreatment. He says that the rehabilitation was kept secret, and he does not mention Mayerson's visit in his book.
Change in Treatment
Juan Mendez of the Washington office of Americas Watch believes the treatment of plantados has changed since Valladares and Valls were released. Mendez says it is unclear whether everyone was as badly treated.
Valladares said in a recent interview that conditions had not improved. "They keep jailing people without proof," he said.
"The prison stories are terrible," said Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center of Cuban Studies in New York. "We can only point to what the Cubans have said, what Valladares has said. We have no independent way to judge."
She said she believed, however, that Valladares exaggerated his case.
"He was never put in prison for talking against the revolution," she said. "That's a crock."
Valladares says he was convicted of public destruction and sabotage despite testimony from a police officer that no incriminating evidence had been found.
When international interest in Valladares grew in the 1970s, the Cuban government said he had been a member of former dictator Fulgencio Batista's police force. Valladares includes a photo of his purported police ID card in the book, calling it a forgery that listed his birthday and eye color incorrectly. His height and weight are given in metric measures, but Valladares said Cuba hadn't adopted the metric system in the 1950s.
Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana from 1977 to 1982, accepts Valladares' account of brutal mistreatment.
'A Courageous Guy'
"I have no reason at all not to think that such conditions exist in Cuban prisons," he said. "I think Valladares is a courageous guy who suffered more than anyone ought to."
In a preface to Valladares' memoir, Americas Watch said the Cuban prison system was distinctive for "the active, personalized and often vindictive involvement of Fidel Castro himself in using the prisons to punish old friends and settle old scores."
Writing recently in the New York Review of Books, Aryeh Neier, vice chairman of Americas Watch, said that Cuba had confined large numbers of political prisoners for longer terms than any other country.
"By every criterion that has been established and accepted internationally during the past four decades, Cuba warrants severe condemnation for its abuses of human rights," Neier wrote. Yet, he said, Cuba has received less attention from human rights groups than have other nations.
He suggested that is partly because abuses in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay were worse when the human rights movement blossomed in the 1970s. Some people were put off by Cuban exile extremists such as the Omega 7 terrorist group, he said, and some activists were gulled by Castro's rhetoric.