Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulagby Armando Valladares
Arrested in 1960 for being philosophically and religiously opposed to communism, Armando Valladares was interned at Cuba’s infamous Isla de Pinos Prison (from whose barred windows he watched the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion). His life in Castro’s gulag was a hell of violence and disease, putrid food and squalid living conditions, forced labor… See more details below
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Arrested in 1960 for being philosophically and religiously opposed to communism, Armando Valladares was interned at Cuba’s infamous Isla de Pinos Prison (from whose barred windows he watched the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion). His life in Castro’s gulag was a hell of violence and disease, putrid food and squalid living conditions, forced labor and solitary confinement, and hazardous escape attempts. Valladares survived by prayer and poetry. His writing, smuggled out to Europe and the U.S., made him one of the world’s most celebrated prisoners of conscience. As a result of pressure from international human rights organizations, the Castro regime finally released him in 1982.
When Against All Hope first appeared, it was immediately compared to Darkness at Noon and other classic prison narratives about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of totalitarianism. Now, with a new prologue by the author, which tells of his life since prison and brings the story of Cuban dissidence up to the case of Elian Gonzalez, this story of strength and survival is more relevant than ever.
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My eyes flew open. The cold muzzle of a machine gun held to my temple had shocked me awake. I was confused and frightened. Three armed men were standing around my bed, and one of them was shoving my head into the pillow with his machine gun.
"Where's the pistol?"
As the man with the machine gun kept my head immobile, another slid his hand under it to check for that purely imaginary pistol I was supposed to be armed with. Then the oldest of them, a thin man with graying hair, spoke to me again. He brusquely told me to get dressed; I had to go with them.
These were agents of Castro's Political Police. I was to learn later that the older man, the one doing the talking, had been an agent in the Batista regime as well. There was a fourth agent in the living room keeping watch on my mother and sister.
I hadn't heard them come in. When they knocked at the front door, it was my mother who had opened it. I was in a deep sleep in the last bedroom down the hall, with blankets piled on me to keep out the cold.
The three agents made me get dressed in front of them. I reached to open the closet, but one of them cut me off. He opened the door himself and slid the hangers to one side, one by one, and then he gave a quick glance around at the rest of the things in the closet. I began to dress,whilethey stood around me and watched carefully. But they seemed more relaxed now, less nervous. When these agents are sent out to detain some citizen, they are not told who he is or why he is being arrested. They are told, though, as a matter of course, that he is armed and extremely dangerous. Now they knew that I wasn't armed and I didn't seem particularly dangerous; in fact, I never had been either.
When I got my clothes on, they began the search of the house. The search was thorough, painstaking, long. They spent almost four hours going through everything. There was not one inch of the house they didn't go over with a fine-tooth comb. They opened jars and bottles, went through books page by page, emptied toothpaste tubes, and looked at the motor of the refrigerator, at the mattresses.
I tried to reassure my mother and sister. I told them this had to be some sort of mistake, since I hadn't done anything that warranted my being arrested. I kept up a conversation with my mother, who was terribly nervous and upset by this middle-of-the-night violation of the peace of our home, but as we spoke I tried to think who might have reported that I had weapons. It seemed obvious to me that it must have been someone who wanted to see me detained for a while, see me harassed on some trumped-up charge. Of course, sooner or later it would all be straightened out. I figured the denunciation must have come from someone in my office.
At that time, I had a good job in the Caja Postal de Ahorros, which might be termed the Postal Savings Bank, an office attached to the Ministry of Communications in the Revolutionary Government. I had received several promotions, thanks largely to the fact that I was a university student. Some of the people I worked with there, I knew, were out to get me.
A few weeks before, one of the directors, a man I had developed a close friendship with, called me in to warn me that the Political Police had been around asking questions about me. I had had some friction in the office because I had frequently spoken out against Communism as a political system because it went against my religious beliefs and some of my more idealistic notions of the world.
In those days, several things had happened which could be seen as signaling the radicalization of the internal structure of the Ministry of Communications. The Minister, Enrique Oltuski, a professional engineer, had been removed from office and replaced by Raúl Curbelo, who had fought with Castro in the anti-Batista guerrillas. The only thing Curbelo knew anything about was cows; he told me so himself a few days after he had been appointed, when he came around to introduce himself in my department.
"Listen, Valladares, I don't know anything about any of this. I was in the Agrarian Reform Institute, but Fidel sent me here to take charge of this Ministry. The only thing I know anything about is cows, so I'm counting on all of you, to pitch in and help me make this work."
And he wasn't kidding. The only thing he knew anything about was cows, but he was a man Castro could trust.
The subdirector of the Postal Savings Bank was replaced by another Communist, as was the treasurer, by an old Party militant from Camagüey Province. That was when they fired one of my best friends and co-workers, Israel Abreu, because of his anti-Marxist statements. Israel had been a member of the underground groups struggling against Batista's dictatorship, so the new Minister's decision to fire him caused a great deal of discontent among all of us. I personally spoke out against the measure. I called it an abuse of authority and a violation of freedom of expression, which had been one of the basic tenets for which Castro's revolution had supposedly been fought.
It wasn't surprising, then, that I had been marked as an anti-Communist. One of my last outbursts was brought on by a slogan that was being spread throughout the country by the government propaganda apparatus. By that time Castro was accused of being a Communist, so they circulated the slogan, "If Fidel is a Communist, then put me on the list. He's got the right idea." This slogan was printed on decals and bumper stickers and on little tin plaques to be displayed on the doors of private homes; it was published daily in the newspapers; it was blazoned on posters pasted up on the walls of schools, police stations, factories, shops, and government offices. The purpose of all this was quite clear and simple: Castro was presented to the country as a messiah, a savior, the man who would return the country to freedom, prosperity, happiness. Castro could never be linked to anything evil, to anything bad at all. Whatever Castro was, or might be, was good by definition. Therefore, if he was a Communist, then put me on the list.
That was the kind of reasoning the propaganda specialists of the Party had used. The great majority of the Cuban people didn't know much about Communism. They weren't really politically aware, and it was difficult for them to believe the bad things people were saying about Marxism. The Party was using the slogan to prepare the masses, gradually getting them used to the idea of a Communist government.
The Communists in the Ministry came in one day to set a card with that slogan on my worktable. I refused to let them. They were surprised and a little perplexed, because even though they knew I was opposed to Marxism, they thought I wouldn't reject the card, the slogan, since that would be tantamount to rejecting Fidel. They asked me if I had anything against Castro. I answered that if he was a Communist I did. And that I wouldn't be on that list. That set off an argument.
Every day I felt more and more out of place, more and more conspicuous. And I was very naïveI had assumed that the worst they would do to me would be to fire me from my job, as they had Israel. It never occurred to me they would do anything more drastic; it never occurred to me that because I expressed my opinions, because I spoke out against Marxism, they would drag me off to jail. Moreover, the government still hadn't declared itself Marxist. Castro would do that only some months later.
Within the ranks of the revolutionaries who had fought against Batista, there were thousands of people who would not allow themselves to think that Castro was a Communist. They admitted that it was true that Communists were gradually moving into certain areas, that dreadful things were happening, but it was all behind Fidel's back. When he found out about it, he'd put a stop to it. How naive they were! I understood their dilemma, many of them seemed almost willfully unable to come to grips with the fact that Castro had tricked them, used them, gotten them to fight, manipulated them for his own ends. They held to their beliefs by arguing from declarations Castro had made at the very beginning of the Revolution, the statements he had made in Cuba, in Latin American countries, before leaders of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States, and in numerous press conferences. He had held one press conference on April 17, 1959, in Washington, D.C., where he had been invited to speak before the Newspaper Editors' Association at a meeting in the Statler-Hilton Hotel. There he stated, "I have said that we are not Communists."
That same day, Charles Porter, congressman from Oregon, pointedly asked Castro if his brother Raúl was indoctrinating the soldiers in Communism, to which the Leader of the Revolution, "indignant," responded, "Do you really believe that I would permit the Communists to destroy the army that I have built?"
Two days later, on April 19, 1959, Fidel Castro appeared as a guest on the famous program Meet the Press, and there in the NBC studios he responded to the journalists' questions. One of them, Lawrence Spivak, asked Castro point-blank: "I want to know where your heart lies in the struggle between Communism and democracy. Whose side, where is your heart and where are your feelings?" Castro immediately responded, "Democracy is my ideal, really ... I am not Communist. I am not agreed with Communism.... There is no doubt for me between democracy and Communism."
These, then, were the statements always appealed to by those who did not want, or did not dare, to accept the fact of the deception. They were judging Castro by their own system of values, by their own ethical principles.
Dr. Raúl Roa, Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations, also lashed out against Communism, calling it "an inhumane theory, because it enslaves mankind." Saying that they were not Communists, that they never lied, that they would hold free elections, that they would respect human rights, was no more than a smokescreen, a tactic in the struggle. Therefore, the revolutionaries who insisted on believing that Fidel would put an end to the growing power of the Communists were incapable of admitting to themselves that although the government had still not declared itself Marxist, practices were being carried out which were indisputably Marxist in characterforcible expropriation of private property, land takeovers, nationalization, the transfer of privately held means of production to the State, and the constant preaching of hate and praising of the class struggle.
The Political Police officers continued the search. They finished in the bedrooms, the bathroom, the kitchen, and they came into the living room. They examined all the pictures on the walls and all the porcelain figurines. Suddenly they seemed to pounce on one of the figurinesthey had discovered something inside. One of them fished out a piece of paper with the end of a ballpoint pen. It was a piece of shredded paper, the kind used to pack glassware. He opened it, but when he realized that I was smiling sardonically at his absurdity, he crumpled it and threw it out the window. They made us lift up the couch; they turned it over and examined it carefully. The search finally ended, and no weapons or explosives or propaganda or lists had turned up. Nothing, absolutely nothing. They had to leave empty-handed. Or almost empty-handedthey took me with them. Although they hadn't found anything, there were some routine questions I had to answer. My mother argued with them. She said I hadn't done anything; there was no reason to take me away. They told her not to worry, I'd be right back. They'd bring me back home themselves.
The return would take more than twenty years. We went out into the street. It was four o'clock in the morning; the night was very cold and there was a stiff wind blowing in from the bay. They put me into a gray Volkswagen and an agent sat on either side of me. They handcuffed me. Another car joined us at the corner. Not one word was spoken, though from time to time the radio crackled out a message incomprehensible to me. One of the transmissions was for the car I was in. The driver picked up the receiver and responded with a short phrasea coded countersign, I assume.
We came to Fifth Avenue and Calle 14 in the Miramar section of Havana. That was then the location of the main headquarters of the Political Police, the Cuban Lubyanka. Several residences that had been taken over by the government formed the G-2 complex, which was what they called State Security in the beginning.
A white-helmeted soldier armed with a rifle opened the main gate. At the entrance of an office, there was a bench. They told me to sit down. About half an hour later, they led me to the back part of the building, where they had constructed a block of cells. They took off my handcuffs and put me into the first cell. There were already other prisoners in this small dungeon. In one corner, behind a wall, was the toilet. Three tiers of beds were attached to the walls. Some of the prisoners, from up on their perches, stuck out their heads to see the new boarder.
I was called out and taken to the second floor, the records office. They took my fingerprints and photographed me with a sign that read "COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY."
That same afternoon, I was subjected to my first interrogation. It was held in a small office before a one-way mirror of dark-green glass. A group of agents was waiting for me, but only one officer was sitting down, and he was the one who spoke to me. He told me they knew about everything; they knew I was a counterrevolutionary, an enemy of the Revolution. He said they were going to see to it, too, that I was punished for that. I told him in return that I hadn't committed any crime whatsoever, that they had searched my house from top to bottom and seen for themselves that there was nothing in my possession which could make them even remotely consider me a traitor or an enemy of the Revolution.
"But we know about the remarks you've made in your officewe know you've been attacking the Revolution."
I defended myself. I said that I had not attacked the Revolution as an institution.
"But you have attacked Communism."
I didn't deny that. I couldn't, nor did I want to.
"Yes, that's true," I said. "I think that Communism is a worse dictatorship than the one we Cubans have just overthrown. And if Communist rule is established in Cuba, then Cuba will be just like Russia, going from czarism to the dictatorship of the proletariat."
"We didn't fight this revolution for just more of the same privilege and exploitation. Yankee imperialist exploitation is finished in Cuba, and we're not going to allow people like you, in the service of capitalist interests, to interrupt the march of revolutionary progress."
That, then, was my first interrogation. It hardly lasted ten minutes. That same afternoon, they took me along with a group of other prisoners, including one woman, into a small room. They ordered us to sit down on a wooden bench. They turned on spotlights set up around the room, and photographers and cameramen began to take pictures and movies of us. The next day we appeared in the newspapers as a band of terrorists, CIA agents captured by State Security. I didn't know any of those people; I had never even seen any of them before. It was only there that I first came in contact with Nestor Piñango, Alfredo Carrión, and Carlos Alberto Montaner, all three, university students. I also met Richard Heredia there, who had been one of the leaders of the 26th of July Movement in Oriente Province. He had fought in both the Sierra Maestra and the underground, and when the Revolution triumphed he became the first governor of Santiago de Cuba. When they arrested him, they forced him to put on one of the uniforms of the defeated Batista army; they photographed him in it and published a picture of what they called a "recruit of dictatorship" in all the newspapers.
The next day I went through my second interrogation. Each day they would give us the official newspaper, the daily Revolución, which was calling us terrorists. In the interrogation, I protested against that. The officer told me they were sure that I was an enemy of the people.
"You studied in a school run by priests," he said to me.
"Yes in Escolapius. What difference does that make?"
"A big difference. Priests are counterrevolutionary, and the fact that you went to that school is one more piece of evidence against you."
"But Fidel Castro studied in a school taught by Jesuits. He went to Belén."
"Yes, but Fidel is a revolutionary. You, on the other hand, are a counterrevolutionary, tied to priests and capitalists, and so we are going to sentence you to jail."
"There isn't a shred of evidence against me. You have discovered nothing that incriminates me in any way."
"It's truewe have no proof, or rather no concrete proof, against you. But we do have the conviction that you are a potential enemy of the Revolution. For us, that is enough."
When I came out of the interrogation, I heard people shouting and automobile horns blowing. A march had been staged in front of the buildings, along Fifth Avenue, and the people were calling out, "Firing squad! Firing squad! for the CIA terrorists." The Communists had organized not only that demonstration but another one in front of the Presidential Palace as well. That one called for our execution too.
That night, they took Richard Heredia and me out of the cell, into a room where they made a movie of us for the newsreels. One of the reporters said under his breath that it seemed a shame for such a young man to be shot. He was talking about me. The campaign organized by the Communists had reached such vast proportions that it made me begin to fear very seriously for my life. By now, faced with what I was going through, I had discarded my assumption that the worst that could happen to me was being fired from my job. It might actually be the firing squad instead.
The next morning very early, I was taken to my last interrogation. It almost had the flavor of a farewell.
"We know that you have connections to elements that are conspiring against the State, that you are friendly with some of them. If you cooperate with us, we can give you your freedom and send you back to your job."
"I don't know any of those people. I don't have any contact with conspirators."
"This is the last chance you have to get yourself out of this."
"I don't know anything. You people can't send me to jail, you can't find me guilty, because I haven't done anything. There's no proof against me. You have no evidence to show."
"Our conviction is enough for us. We know that you are a potential enemy of the Revolution. Look!" And he tossed several afternoon newspapers at me. In big letters on the front pages was written "FIRING SQUAD FOR TERRORISTS."
"They want an example made of you, so ..." He left the threat hanging in the air.
That night Carlos Alberto, Richard, and I took a can opener and began to make a hole in the wall behind the toilet. We were going to try to escape. It wasn't easy; we had to chip off the stucco that covered the wall before we could even start taking out the cement blocks.
The day after my arrest, my sister went to the police station nearest our house to try to find out what had happened to me. They told her they didn't know anything about me. She went to Fifth Avenue and Calle 14, where I was being held at the time, and there too they told her they didn't have me in custody. When the newspaper stories about me and the others came out, the vigilance committees in my neighborhood, led by several plainclothes agents from the Political Police, organized a march in the street. They stoned the doors and windows of my house. The inflamed mob cried, "Firing squad! Shoot them!" My mother was terrified. She collapsed to the floor senseless. My sister ran out of the house crying for a doctor.
Later, she tried once more to find out where I was, and that time they did not deny that I was at the headquarters of the Political Police. They ordered her to sit down. After a while, they sent her into an office and began to interrogate her, accusing her too of being a counterrevolutionary. Their hatred for my whole family was such that they not only forced her to undergo the interrogation, and the accusations they flung at her, but also photographed her, as they had me, with a sign reading "COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY." They would not allow her to see me.
Carlos Alberto, Richard, and I took turns trying to make our hole in the wall. We knew we were risking reprisals, but we felt we had to try to escape. We didn't manage to finish the job, however; they took us away before we could. We never knew whether it was a coincidence or whether one of the many prisoners held there was an informer or an agent of the Political Police.
In the interior patio, a car was waiting. There was another prisoner already in itZoila, the same woman I had seen when they had taken our photographs. They warned us not to speak.
Those were the first days of 1961. All along the shore in Havana, there were cannons pointed toward the north. The United States had broken off relations with Cuba; and the government was concerned about the threat of an invasion. The wind raised great waves that leaped over the wall of the Malecón, the seawall that runs along the coast of Havana. The car sped down the shore road and went through the tunnel across the bay, and we entered the fortress of La Cabaña. In front of the high fence, its gate opening onto the medieval-looking main entrance of the prison-fortress, they ordered us out of the car. They turned some papers over to the soldier posted at the gate, and the car went on toward the women's prison, the other passenger's destination.
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