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A CONVERSATION WITH ARMANDO VALLADARES

<i> David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer. </i>

Poet-writer Armando Valladares, 49, was imprisoned for 22 years by Cuban President Fidel Castro for his outspoken opposition to communism. Freed in 1982, he now works to promote human rights in Latin America. ‘Against All Hope,’ his account of indignities suffered by political prisoners in Cuba, was published earlier this year. Q: How many political prisoners are there in Cuba today? A: There are two groups of political prisoners. Those who reject political rehabilitation and suffer torture as the result number about 125. In addition, there are between 13,000 and 14,000 political prisoners who are in rehabilitation programs and are working on re-education farms. Q: What is life like for those in the first category? A: It is difficult to say which is the most terrible of the tortures employed. Is it more horrible to allow someone to die of thirst, which is what happened to former student leader Pedro Luis Boitel, or to mutilate somebody’s hands with a machete, as was the case with Eduardo Capote, a teacher who fought against (former dictator Fulgencio) Batista but nevertheless was sent to the Isla de Pinos when he disagreed with Castro? Some of the worst torture occurred at the Boniato Prison, where biological experiments were conducted on prisoners. Q: You describe different kinds of torture in your book. For example, what are drawer cells? A: They are very narrow cells, about six feet long, that contain five or six prisoners. Prisoners had to sit with their knees against their body. There was no room to move; prisoners had to urinate and defecate right there. All of the tortures had one purpose, which was to break the prisoner’s resistance. If a prisoner called a political commissioner and said he understood he had been wrong, if he denied his religious beliefs, saying they were from the obscure ages, and if he admitted that he now understood that communism was the solution to mankind’s problems and he wanted to have the opportunity to re-enter the new communist society, then he could escape the cell and be put in a re-education farm. Then he could see his family, receive mail, and the violence would be ended as far as he was concerned.

But for many of us, to accept these things, to renounce our ideals, would have been spiritual suicide. This is why many of my comrades are still in prison today. They’ve been there for 27, 26, 25 years. Since 1980 they’ve been in blackout cells, totally dark. They’re nine feet long, these cells, and four feet wide. On the floor there’s a hole. That’s the only sanitary facility. The window and door are sealed with steel plates. On one of the plates there are three small holes about the size of your little finger that allow air, but no light. Amnesty International says men in these cells have been in prison for an average of 22 years. And over this time they’ve been denied food, clothing, clean water, suffered frequent beatings and all types of psychological tortures. This is the group that I belonged to. Q: Many people today regard Castro as a leader of the nonaligned movement rather than a hard-line Marxist. He’s often depicted as a Hemingway - esque peasant hero who plays baseball. I assume you disagree with this characterization. A: Castro is a communist dictator. All dictators should be rejected and repudiated. Unfortunately, many people have a “selective sensitivity.” They are quick to denounce crimes and tortures when they’re committed by men like Chilean President Augusto Pinochet but keep quiet when these same crimes and tortures are committed by Castro. They keep quiet because Castro is such “a charming man.” I think this is a dishonest moral attitude. Crime and torture have to be denounced wherever they occur. Murders by Castro’s police are just as contemptible as those by Pinochet’s police. Castro’s public image survives because of this selective sensitivity.

American Vice President Henry Wallace visited the Soviet Union during the time of Stalin. When he returned to the West, he said there were no concentration camps or political prisoners in the Soviet Union. Stalin was a kind old man who would never torture anybody, Wallace declared. It was only after Stalin’s death that his crimes--acts more horrible than anything ever denounced by the West--finally were revealed by Nikita Khrushchev. The same will happen when Castro finally disappears.

Some people actually justify Castro’s concentration camps, tortures and executions by firing squad with the argument that he has built hospitals and schools, too. I find this argument abominable. If we accept this argument, we must excuse Hitler and Stalin, who also built hospitals and schools. Then we have to justify Pinochet, because in the last few years he also has built some hospitals and schools. Q: But Henry Wallace wasn’t morally dishonest. He simply was deceived. Your example, however, does raise the question of why many people tend to excuse abuses by leftist dictatorships, yet denounce those by dictatorships of the right. A: I have a theory about why there is a greater tendency to criticize crimes and tortures if they’re committed by the right. I think it’s because of a great anti-American feeling. If Castro had been a dictator in Africa or Asia, he would have disappeared a long time ago. But his country is 90 miles from Florida. Many people sympathize with Castro because of his attitude of confrontation with the United States. Many of the people who readily denounce Soviet abuses sympathize with Castro because it’s a way of channeling their anti-Americanism.

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Castro has done what many of them would have liked to do: stand up to America. That’s why there’s so much sympathy for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. What I find curious is that even here in the United States there are many Americans who are anti-American. Q: It’s been more than 50 years since U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua and more than a century since U.S. forces stormed Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. What accounts for the lingering anti-Americanism throughout Latin America? A: For many people, these events took place last week. Others have an interest in keeping latent anti-Americanism alive. In Europe, for example, which is supposed to have a high intellectual level, when I speak about the dictatorships of Pinochet and Castro, journalists will say, “What about Reagan?” and want to include him in that group of dictators. There may be reasons to disagree with Ronald Reagan, but he’s no dictator.

A few months ago I was speaking with an important Swedish politician. He thought Castro was very intelligent because back in 1980 he sent all the Mariel criminals to the United States. I asked him what his attitude would be if (French President Francois) Mitterrand cleaned out all his jails and put the prisoners on a boat to Sweden. Of course he didn’t like that at all. But he thought what Castro did was cute.

Many people privately acknowledge what is going on inside Cuba but won’t admit so publicly for fear it would give a weapon to the Americans. This is a generalized feeling all over the world. Q: How do you assess the human rights situation in Latin America today? A: I think there’s been a considerable improvement throughout the continent. A growing awareness of human rights is one of the elements that has contributed to many dictatorships of the right giving way to democracies. In Central America, human rights are constantly being violated. But they’re being violated by both sides, and both sides should be denounced. Q: Do you believe that a country must be held accountable for a certain standard of behavior, no matter the level of its economic development or political orientation? A: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations in 1948) guarantees the individual spiritual and material freedom of each citizen. It should apply to all human beings, regardless of the political or economic status of their country. Human rights organizations that fight for this principle annoy the governments they criticize, but the fight must go on as long as the abuses continue. Q: There have been allegations that human rights groups in El Salvador have been infiltrated by rebel sympathizers. And last year, the director of the archbishop’s legal affairs office said it counts as innocent civilians all persons killed in battle by government troops. Have human rights organizations in Latin America become platforms for anti-government propaganda? A: Some have. This is well known all over the world. Many of the people who expose human rights violations are very subjective. It’s foolish to insist that every person killed by the army is an innocent civilian. Some of the civilians killed in El Salvador have been secretly carrying weapons or directly involved in combat. But it’s also true that many who have died have been innocent. Q: How can human rights be ensured in a country where terrorism and counterinsurgency are the primary weapons in a political struggle? A: Well, El Salvador has a government that has been democratically elected by the people. The rebels were given a chance to lay down their arms and form a political party. They rejected the proposal because they knew the majority of Salvadorans would not have voted for them. They know their only path to power is that of violence and terrorism. In El Salvador those guerrillas who set off bombs should be arrested and taken to court. They should not be tortured. Q: Are there any factors in Latin temperament or culture that might explain the high level of violence occurring today? A: I think the great amount of violence in Latin America results from a spiritual crisis. This deficiency does not occur just in the Americas; it’s universal. As men drift further away from God, they forget in time that they are men and almost become beasts. A man can’t speak of charity, love and spiritual sensitivity if there is no presence of God within him.


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