Political prisoners in Cuba

January 1, 1959 – The Beginning of a Betrayal? (Part 2)

January 1, 1959: The Beginning of a Betrayal? (Part 2) / Somos+
Posted on January 5, 2016

SOMOS+, Jose M. Presol , 3 January 2016 — Part 1 enunciated what I
consider to be the four main points of the “Manifesto to the People of
Cuba,” but there are many more. Let’s recall these four points and take
a look at what actually happened.

1. Restoration of the 1940 constitution.

Technically speaking, it was reinstated on January 1. But a little more
one month later, on February 7, the Fundamental Law of 1959 replaced it
by decree, as happened years earlier after a coup d’état led by Batista.
Parts of the constitution were adopted, though with some fundamental
changes. Among them were the dissolution of Congress and concentration
of both legislative and executive power in the Council of Ministers. The
law was revised and modified on multiple occasions, most notably to
allow for appropriation and confiscation of property as well as to
legalize the death penalty.

2. Free and democratic elections after a year of provisional government.

As it happened, Fidel could not forget that as a member of the
University Student Federation (FEU) he had never been able to secure
enough votes for anything. And in the 1952 elections he had to falsify
internal documents of the Orthodox Party in order to get his name on the
ballot. With these experiences in mind, he began coming up with excuses
to postpone the elections.

In April 1959 he claimed, “First we must tackle unemployment and
illiteracy.” Other setbacks came later. On May 24 the Humanist Workers’
Front defeated the Communists for control of the Worker’s Central Union.

Afterwards, Fidel was forced to work behind the scenes to remove Pedro
Luis Boitel, who was backed by the 26th of July Movement (and who later
died in prison during a hunger strike), from the FEU presidency and to
replace him with Rolando Cubela (who later was exiled to Spain).

By May of 1960 a significant proportion of those who opposed Fidel were
dead, in exile or in prison. Only then did he pose the famous question,
“Elections. What for?” The same reply we get today.

3. Freedom for all political prisoners.

Slowly but surely the jails began filling up with a new batch of
prisoners, many of whom were not Batista supporters. One former
prisoner, who had been released, later returned. Strange accidents also
began to occur, like the plane crash that killed Camilo Cienfuegos.
There were strange suicides, like that of Commander Félix Pena. Others
fled into exile, like the commanders Luis Díaz Lanz and Raúl Chibás
Ribas. Among those imprisoned, Commander Huber Matos comes to mind, and
we certainly cannot forget Mario Chanés de Armas.

Chanés de Armas was a revolutionary through and through. He was born in
Havana, where he was a labor union leader. He knew Abel Santamaría and
joined a group “organized” by Fidel. He participated in the assault on
the Moncada Barracks and was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines (now the
Isle of Youth). He was released, along with Fidel, as part of the
general amnesty (though his image was airbrushed out of the release
photo until 2015).

He took part in the Granma expedition — from Mexico to Cuba — and
survived the battle at Alegría de Pío. He got to Havana on his own
initiative and joined the clandestine groups that made up the 26th of
July Movement. He was taken prisoner and on January 1 he was in jail.

For a time he held a position of responsibility but resigned in protest
because he did not like where the Revolution was heading. He was
arrested and accused of conspiracy. Is spite of there being no evidence,
he was sentenced to thirty years in prison, though he served longer. He
was naked or dressed only in underwear for almost his entire captivity
because he refused to wear the uniform of a common criminal. (As we
know, in Cuba “there are no political prisoners.”) He founded the
movement of the plantados,* constantly organizing strikes and protests
over prison uniforms and the conditions of their incarceration.

Eventually, he was released and allowed to leave the country. For the
rest of his life, he continued to denounce Fidel Castro, encourage
peaceful opposition and promote Cuban reconciliation. But I was
forgetting a small detail: Chanés de Armas was the 20th century’s
longest serving political prisoner, serving a longer sentence than even
Nelson Mandela.

4. Absolute freedom of the press.

Again, yes, true in theory. The examples below are from print media, but
there are similar examples from radio and television. Now, you be the judge.

Because of their ties to the Batista regime, Tiempo en Cuba and Alert y
Ataja ceased publication immediately. Mañana and Luz y Pueblo
disappeared in 1959 but Alerta, Revolución, Combate, Verde Olivo,
Adelante, La Calle and others were born (though most no longer exist).

The assumption was that these new publications would be “loyal” but that
turned out not to always be the case. La Calle was “refounded” as La
Tarde and re-refounded as Juventud Rebelde. Revolución and Lunes de
Revolución, edited by Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, have
since disappeared.

Bohemia, under the directorship of Miguel Ángel Quevedo, supported
Fidel, going so far as to concoct a story that 20,000 were killed under
the Batista regime. It never provided any proof; it could only come up
with a list of 700 names. It also initially boasted of 1,000,000 people
being set free on January 1 itself. A year later Quevedo went into exile
and committed suicide in 1969 after confessing his remorse.

To gain control over privately owned media, advertising was banned and a
system of subscription by raffle was invented. Deprived of funding,
publications began to close and their owners to emigrate. Those who
resisted were forced to add a “tagline,” which authorized the
communist-controlled unions to add commentary attacking articles,
photos, jokes and other items that were not to their liking. By 1961
there was no media outlet in Cuba that was not controlled by the state,
at which point publications were no longer required to publish a tagline.

One might say the death certificate of the free press was signed on May
11, 1960, the day Diario de la Marina was shut down. Founded in 1844,
the newspaper was considered the dean of the Cuban press. Its facilities
were attacked and destroyed, and it was symbolically interred in a
“celebration” at the University of Havana.

This discussion only addresses the four promises I have highlighted. I
urge you to read the manifesto yourselves and draw your own conclusions
about the rest.

*Translator’s note: Los plantados, or the planted, were prisoners who
were confined to cells so small there was only room to stand upright,
like trees.

Source: January 1, 1959: The Beginning of a Betrayal? (Part 2) / Somos+
| Translating Cuba –

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