Cuban Political Prisoner : ‘But I Have Not Lost My Honor’

Times Staff Writer

Imagine a man sinking in muddy water until it reaches his lips. Then the years go by. Twenty-six years.

Finally, that man is taken out and put in the middle of the city where there is walking and buses and signs of life. Ask that man how he feels, I don’t know that he could tell you.

He has no eyes for wonders. He is amazed only that he is free and his companions are not. He is free--and yet still wishes to be with them. Now imagine I am that man.

That man, Alberto Fibla, is 60 now, a father without his children, a doctor without his license, a man without his country, an aging counterrevolutionary trying to find what has become of his counterrevolution.

Twenty-six years ago, he was sent to a Cuban prison for conspiring against a young government that had turned Communist.

But his war against Fidel Castro did not end with the slam of a cell door. It struggled on day after day, his defiance constant as a heartbeat.

The Rooted Ones

He became one of the so-called plantados, literally the rooted ones. They obeyed few prison rules, agreed to none of the government “re-education” plans, spent year after year in no clothes but their underwear.

For this resistance, they were often put in cells so crowded they fit themselves together on the floor like pieces of a puzzle. Or in dark solitary, left with the mind’s tricks and the body’s stench.

Outside the prison walls, Castro’s power steadily grew. Inside, the years only collected into decades. The rambling path of history moved on, and the long protest of the plantados never caught the urgent attention of the world.

Once there were thousands of them, then hundreds, then dozens. Many finally entered the re-education plans. Others simply endured. Time swept up the rest.

These past months, some of the very last have been released in a trickle, in large part because of recent pressure by the Reagan Administration.

An International Cause

Belatedly--after the young have turned old and the many have become relatively few--Cuban political prisoners are an international cause.

Alberto Fibla, the captive physician, stepped into exile in the pre-dawn of May 13. He arrived much like a thousand other prisoners--leftover icicles of the Cold War, melting into the Miami heat.

So you ask, were my years all a waste? No, no, no, I am sure they were not. It is true I have lost everything--my family, my career, my youth. But I have not lost my honor, my concept of duty.

If I lost that, I would have lost the essence of my life. Besides, what else was there to do? We were like Don Quixotes. That is right. Like Don Quixotes.

Fidel Castro took power on Jan. 1, 1959, and began a triumphant weeklong march to Havana. He was the young statesman-warrior in green combat fatigues. Bravado seemed to lift from the smoke of his cigar and surround the curl of his beard.

His rebels had overthrown the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. Adoring crowds expected an era of reform that would lead to democracy.

Instead Castro plotted a behind-the-scenes transition to a totalitarian state. By autumn, writes biographer Tad Szulc, he was already talking to Soviet emissaries over caviar and vodka.

In rapid but deliberate moves, the revolution seized control of the media, the courts, private businesses--even universities. Schoolchildren were introduced to the virtues of Marxism.

With this lunge to the left, thousands--eventually more than a million--fled the island for America. A temporary time away, they thought.

CIA Schemed to Kill Him

In these early years, Castro was embattled, from within and without. A brigade of U.S.-trained exiles launched a hapless assault at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA schemed to kill him: poison his food, even explode his cigars.

So threatened--and so personally inclined as well--Cuba’s new caudillo was intolerant of opposing voices. Dissent was dangerous.

He ordered 5,000 executions in the 1960s, according to historian Hugh Thomas. Another 20,000 political enemies were imprisoned, Castro himself estimated in 1965.

Among those jailed was the 34-year-old navy doctor Alberto Fibla (pronounced FEE-bla), a respected cardiologist whose early approval of the revolution had turned to bafflement and finally rage: Fidel was a Communist!

It was night when six men from State Security came to get him. His wife was away. His three young children slept.

The G-2 did not tell him why they were there--nor was this perplexing. He was part of a plot to overthrow Castro’s government. He knew they knew.

Months later, there was a trial--a “peculiar” trial, Fibla calls it. Seventy-two men were accused. His own case lasted maybe 40 seconds. He was not allowed to talk.

I had never seen my lawyer before, and he did not know which of the men I was. The judge was sleeping. I guess he was tired, poor man.

His sentence was 30 years, and he joined the many others convicted of politically motivated crimes, kept separate from common criminals.

They were poets and scientists, laborers and millionaires, army officers and union leaders. Some had fought for Batista, some against. Some had tried to topple Castro; others merely had spoken up out of rashness or conscience.

At the start, they did not expect to be in prison long, Fibla says. The international situation seemed so bad for Castro. Surely, Communism would not be tolerated just 90 miles from Florida.

But after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, America’s inclination was toward caution. Then the ‘60s crept past.

You know, in all this talk about democracy and freedom it is easy to misunderstand. Nations have their own interests. We are Cubans. Americans are not Cubans.

In the end, there was nothing to interfere with the blows against our shoulders. Our only choice was to take it and take it.

Prison then seemed a trapdoor into something bottomless. A 30-year sentence might be precisely that.

Conditions were horrible, Fibla says, and the stories of dozens of others match his own.

The doctor was sent to LaCabana prison. More than 300 at a time were packed into rectangular galleries so small the men stood shoulder to shoulder. There was a single toilet and a urinal. Small worms crawled in the food.

At night, they heard executions just outside the walls: the march of the firing squad, the cries of the condemned, the command to fire, the shots.

In time, the authorities offered them a way to escape this terrible life--a re-education plan: to study Lenin and chant approval for Fidel.

In exchange, things would be a bit more tolerable--better food, more space, regular visits.

But few accepted.

To submit was to be weak. Who wants a better life in prison if the price is saying Communism is good? It is a matter of face.

The guards might force them to serve their time, but they could not make them meekly surrender it.

Just as there are monks among priests, there were levels to this intransigence. Some prisoners even refused medical care--in those rare instances when care was offered.

For them, Fibla was a great healer, a man who hid away stolen pills and ointments and operated what they called the “Clinic of the Abandoned.”

A tall, thin man, serious and amiable as a parish priest, he would pull a tooth with pliers, lance a boil with a razor blade.

“He did miracles for us,” one prisoner says. “He could diagnose just by his sense of touch, his ears, even by sight alone. . . . And all the time, he never took a step to better his situation.”

Notorious for Forced Labor

In 1963, Fibla was sent to Isle of Pines prison, a place that would become notorious for dawn-to-dusk forced labor in the quarries and fields.

Political prisoners insisted they should not be compelled to work. They cited the Geneva Convention. But Geneva was far away.

Those who refused were beaten. Slackers were prodded with bayonets, slapped with the flat side or poked with the tip.

Because so many became sick or wounded, Fibla, ironically, avoided the labor. This was one of the few times he was allowed to practice medicine.

Amid a crowded attic of memories there are huge relics of cruelty. Several times, the sick were rounded up and marched into a pond of sewage. The sludge matted in their hair and covered their skin.

They made them fish for stones on the bottom, sticking their heads into that terrible water, baking and smelling under the sun. If they tried to get back to the banks, they were beaten.

Another time, the guards suspected a plot to escape the work. So they randomly jabbed at prisoners with their bayonets.

Ernesto Diaz Madruga, a youth just 22 or 23, was fatally stabbed, the cut so deep it reached from his buttocks up into his intestines.

I tried to suture the wound and this boy kept telling me, “I am going to die so don’t trouble yourself, doctor.” I told him he was just nervous: “Stop talking.”

But he kept on: “Tell the world about these Communist beasts,” he said. “Tell them to never give up the fight. Tell them.”

Ernesto Diaz Madruga, he was plantado.

The stories are ghastly, and each ex-prisoner seems to confirm what the one before has just said. Can there be any doubt it is all true?

Yes, these men exaggerate, says Angel E. Pino, the first secretary of Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington.

How so? Listen, it is true that “some men were beaten by some guards at some time,” but it was never a policy, he says.

And “some prisons were overcrowded in some years,” but space in a prison could not be a priority of a young government.

“We are a very small country, underdeveloped, an island close to the United States, and since the revolution you have become our No. 1 enemy,” Pino says.

“This made us take a harsh position internally in order to repel attacks. Thankfully, the situation in the ‘60s is not the same as it is now.”

But these plantados say they suffered harsh treatment 25 years and more--always singled out, always abused?

Yes, Pino says, and remember that these are the ones who would not accept re-education, who did not want to fit into a new society.

“No prison is a hotel--in the United States or any other place,” he says. “If men don’t obey rules, they must suffer. There has to be discipline.”

In 1967 and 1968, from prison to prison, the authorities ordered the political prisoners to change from the old yellowish uniforms that set them apart to the blue garb of common criminals.

These colors--yellow or blue--quickly became as symbolic as the stripes on a flag. The Communists were playing psychological games, Fibla says.

They wanted to transform our minds in some way, to make us feel like thieves or murderers and rob us of our dignity and political status.

We all talked this over. We were very democratic. We decided we would stay in our underwear rather than give in.

They coined the name plantados ; they were dug in at the heels. In response, the guards threatened them and beat them and worse.

Alcides Martinez and five others were wedged into a gabeta , or drawer. This cell was six feet long and high enough to stand in, but only a few inches wider than a man’s shoulders--a narrow closet packed with flesh.

“We slept standing, or one of us would lie lengthwise on the floor with the rest standing over him,” Martinez says. “We were there, I can’t tell you how many days exactly . . . but it was from March to July. . . .

“There were no facilities so the waste would be all over the floor. We tried to get it out, to push it through the door, but it was no use.”

Awful as it was, they never agreed to the blue uniforms. To do so, Martinez says, might have meant that hundreds of others would be put through the same torment.

Most Joined Up

Yet by the end of the ‘60s not all plantados were so dug in. The re-education plan was emptied of nearly all political content, and most prisoners--estimates range from 70% to 95%--joined up.

There were no longer demands for confessions or the reciting of Communist slogans. Work was required, but token wages were paid. At the same time, rewards were better, including conjugal visits and the possibility of early release.

An acceptable deal, most thought. Only Fibla and a few hundred others held out. It was just another Communist effort at control, he says, a humiliation.

For this resistance there was retaliation, the captors and the captives a mirror image of the other’s tenacity.

The food got worse, visits were cut off, mail stopped. To protest, the plantados went on hunger strikes, some as long as 35 days.

Without food, the body begins to eat itself. The skin dries into the texture of paper, and the smell of rot is everywhere.

You start to vomit on the 10th or 12th day, and this is terrible because you are so dehydrated. Then you start to see less and less and sometimes you see double or triple vision.

Your legs don’t work. If you can stand, you just tremble. You are a trembling man.

Yet they persisted. And not just for principle, Fibla says, but so they would never forget those who had already suffered and died. Each sacrifice then built on the last, a ladder of purpose.

One afternoon in 1967, Fibla’s wife was allowed to visit. She begged him to enter the re-education plan, to make life easier for himself and the family.

She said, “If you don’t do it, I will never come to see you again. Your children will never see you!”

I told her, “Go away! Take the children! You have wasted your time with me if you don’t understand. Goodby.”

And that was the end.

All these sacrifices, all those years! Meanwhile, children grew and lovers loved. In Miami, many a Cuban doctor became rich and comfortable. Could it be the time was just burned off the calendar for nothing?

Yes, I’m afraid so, says psychologist Vladimir Ramirez, a former prisoner who entered the plan in 1968: To him, the sacrifices of the plantados were not only foolish but tactically unsound.

Conditions were incomparably better after 1967 for anyone in the plan, he says. The most sensible thing to do was put on the blue uniform, stay healthy, get back on the street, fight Castro from there.

“Outside, 10 million Cubans were working, laughing, studying, living. This was reality. To fight by staying in your underwear--that was unreasonable.”

But what of honor, of anti-Communism? Unfortunately, these can become a strange addiction, says Dr. Andres Cao. He too was a captive physician--almost 16 years in the prisons, all but the final few as a plantado .

“To suffer so, to stay in your underwear, that is more than machismo, it is masochismo,” he says. “To call people sons of a bitch and get hit for it is one thing. To keep it up 25 years is crazy.”

These words are repeated to Fibla, who seems to welcome them easily, like a familiar melody. Yes, yes, he says, I know these men. Good men. And they are not alone in thinking the plantados foolish.

But they do not understand, he says. Prison had stripped him down to his soul. He lived from spirit.

This was not stupidity. This was a conception of life.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the prison war against Communism went on. The plantados and the authorities were fixed in a competition of will. Divided by ideology, they battled over food and water and paper.

Mysteriously, the spigots would go dry. The plantados , in return, banged the iron doors with cups, shoes, pieces of board. So then the guards “inspected” the cells, taking away photos, letters, books.

One week, the plantados noticed their meals were slowly getting smaller. To fight back, they refused to eat three days in a row.

That meant an “official” hunger strike, the authorities decided. They moved the prisoners to darkened cells and brought no more food for 33 days.

They played games of the mind. It is hard to understand unless you have lived inside the monster. But when you do, you can read the evilness on their faces.

By the early ‘80s, even some of the prisoners with longer sentences had served their time. Yet years later many were not released.

Twenty-five of them declared a hunger strike to the death. As they wasted away, the guards refused them water as well. The men burned up inside. They rolled off their beds, just for the coolness of the floor.

Finally, as they edged near death, the authorities agreed to let them go. Then, as if to deliver one final blow, many were kept another six months.

For Fibla, his last years were the worst--or maybe age and weariness made them seem so. He spent most of the 1980s in a part of Boniato prison constructed especially for the remaining plantados .

The cells held two men. Sheet metal covered what little opening there was in the door. The only window faced a prison wall, painted white to reflect the sun. The glare was blinding.

Except for a few minutes at mealtime, no one was allowed outside the cell. There were no visits and rarely mail.

In 1984, the plantados protested against this pent-up life. They pounded away on the thick doors, hour after hour.

Finally, the guards burst in. They snatched away shoes, dishes and anything else that might be used to make the racket.

So we started to hit with only our hands and feet. We beat the doors until our hands swelled up. Finally, they brought in giant loudspeakers and played a high-pitched noise to stop us. To this day, I can hear it.

Days later, their shoes were returned, though not the better pair the plantados called their “visiting shoes.” They had no occasion to wear them, but possessing so little, each thing seemed a necessity.

Already, they had too much that was ours. To protest , we went barefoot for four months.

This was how it was, year after year: no battle unfought, no grievance forgotten. Every small victory took on great dimensions, enough to heat the blood and anesthetize the pain.

When the visits and mail finally started again, Fibla resumed a friendship with Fabina Olga Rodriguez, a woman he had dated 33 years before.

She wanted to go with him to America when that day finally came. The doctor’s wife had divorced him and he was free to get engaged.

The two married last August in a small salon at Combinado del Este prison. Fibla wore pajamas and his visiting shoes, but refused any wedding-day pleasures. He was plantado even as a bridegroom.

They let you have some kind of party, but I told her: Do not even bring one candy. We are in prison and we cannot make a party in prison.

The officials would have allowed us to stay together for six hours, but I said no. Prison is not for a honeymoon.

Nine months later, he was freed. By custom, the plantados applaud each of their own as he goes out, and that is the end. But when it came time to go, Fibla stood there almost paralyzed.

How do you leave men after a quarter of a century? You are like a finger, severing from a hand. I just stood there saying goodbys, minutes and minutes, and they kept applauding , but I couldn’t leave.

Then a friend of mine pushed me , and he himself closed the door. That is how I finally went through the gray gate that separates the plantados from all the rest.

Why, in all the years, wasn’t more done to help them? After all, the plantados smuggled out poems and letters. The laments circulated in Miami. People knew.

Longtime human rights activist Aryeh Neier has thought much about this. For one thing, he says, the international human rights movement is quite young, flourishing only in the past decade.

Then, as it matured, attention in Latin America was dispersed among so many horrors. Where to go first? There were disappearances in Argentina and Brazil, death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala.

One other thing, too, Neier says. The focus on human rights depends in part on refugees from that country. But too many Cuban exiles have a reputation as “fanatically right-wing and untrustworthy": CIA dupes, Watergate burglars, narrow-visioned zealots.

So the Cuban prisoners were near the end of a long line. The timing was wrong. Wrong until now, anyway. Or until 1986.

‘Against All Hope’

That year, a freed plantado, Armando Valladares, published “Against All Hope.” Many ex-prisoners say these memoirs too often stretch the facts to make its author a hero. But they applaud them as a magnet for attention.

Translated into 14 languages, the book wrinkled the brows of intellectuals all over the world. It aimed a searchlight into Cuba’s prisons.

In the past two years, Cuba has taken a lambasting about its prisons from the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In fact, U.S. citizenship was awarded to Valladares--who speaks little English and lives in Spain--so he could head the delegation.

To many nations, this sudden concern seemed melodramatic, to say nothing of propagandistic--at best, a good cause badly inspired.

Still, as a result, the commission will send a team of diplomats to Cuba in September for a human rights inspection.

Castro Jarred

Already, the attention seems to have jarred Castro into releasing more political prisoners--and improving conditions.

Last month, he agreed to free 433 others, nearly all he says he has, though others put the number at twice that or much more.

And earlier this year, he allowed a few American groups to examine the prisons. Things are not so bad, they have generally reported.

Fibla remembers being questioned by one such group last February. They said they had many to interview and could only spend 20 minutes with him.

How are things right now, they wanted to know.

Only right now! What of his 26 years, he replied.

I said: Everything in life has a beginning and end. Why are you only asking about the end? If we only have 20 minutes, let us discuss the beginning. The end, after all, is where Castro is playing his trick.

The trick that makes all sins vanish.

Imagine a man sinking in muddy water until it reaches his lips. Then the years go by. Twenty - six years. Finally, that man is taken out and put in the middle of the city.

The captive physician has gotten a job in Miami. He works part-time at a hospital, interviewing patients with heart problems. His pay is $40 a day.

Sometime, he says, he will study enough to pass the exam for his U.S. medical license. But for now his energies are only for the last plantados .

He puts their number at 44 and stays in touch through the grapevine. There have been beatings lately, he says. And hunger strikes. They still protest by pounding their fists against the doors to make noise.

And that is all he can do for them here: make noise. He writes articles for Spanish-language newspapers. He appears on Cuban radio talk shows in Miami.

Occasionally, listeners call in. They knew him from back when. He is an old song brought back to life, sad and familiar after all these years.

Repeats Prison Stories

Over and over he repeats for them his prison stories. Has he mentioned Ernesto Diaz Madruga? The sewage ponds? The Clinic of the Abandoned?

Friends who were never prisoners tell him all this is not healthy: Too many years already have been squandered, they say. Quit chewing on the past.

After all, he is in Miami now, and Miami is the new Havana. More than 500,000 exiles are here. Careers have been mended, life has gone on.

Yes, he says, this is all true. But he has no eyes for wonders. He is amazed only that he is free--and his companions are not.

Just a few weeks ago, a doctor friend--a schoolmate--came to visit. He brought along a stiff brown photo, the 1954 class picture of the University of Havana Medical School.

Castro’s Physician

Look how young the faces are, he said, and think of all that has become of us. Beside Fibla in the front row is a student who became Castro’s personal physician. Another is a member of the Cabinet.

“It is funny about life,” the visitor said, and Fibla smiled a tight smile, all politeness and no teeth. Possibly, he sensed what was coming.

“Alberto, you know, many people do not want to talk so much about prison,” his old classmate advised.

And the plantado raised his head from the muddy water. He said:

I want to talk about nothing else .

Times researcher Lorna Nones contributed to this story.