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Interviews : Ariel Sigler Amaya

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Interviewed March 2011

Ariel Sigler Amaya was a teacher and an accomplished amateur boxer in his native Cuba. After he began speaking out in favor of democratic reforms, he became one of the 75 dissidents arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 and was convicted of having acted “against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.” In prison he suffered torture and other forms of ill treatment.

By the time of his release in 2010, Sigler’s weight had gone down from 205 to 117 pounds. Once in excellent physical shape, he suffered from a variety of medical conditions resulting from his treatment in prison and his friends and family members feared he was near death. After arriving in the United States, he gradually began regaining his strength and began walking with a cane instead of using a wheelchair.

Sigler remains a vigorous advocate of freedom and democracy, not only for his fellow Cubans but also for others living in countries with totalitarian and highly authoritarian governments around the world. 

Well, the conditions of life in prison are bad anywhere in the world. But if we analyze the situation in Cuba, it is even worse. The prisons in Cuba are inhumane because the prisoners, in this case, we dissidents, were living together with ordinary prisoners, that is to say, there was no sort of distinction. It’s not that we were in one place and the ordinary prisoners in another; we were living together with highly dangerous prisoners, prisoners that have murdered, sometimes committed even more than one murder, but it just didn’t matter.

We are not criminals, we have committed no offense, but if you mix us with them, just imagine those people inside of prison, imagine how they live, and we had to pay for that lifestyle too. So well, regarding drinking water, I’ll explain it like this because really, I’ve said it a number of times, and its´ necessary for people to hear about how someone lives in prison. The drinking water comes from a dam. A dam is defined as a large basin where you store water, that is, stagnant water, and that’s where the water we drink in prison comes from.

Basically it has no chemicals, and by chemicals I mean something used to remove the bacteria, viruses or other contaminants. And you drink it from the turco; turco is defined as the place where you relieve yourself, that is: a hole on the floor where you bend down and to relieve yourself. This hole on the ground is only about a foot away from where you drink water. A foot is what separates your bathroom from the little tube on the wall from where you drink your water. I explain this because maybe people think that it is like an ordinary bathroom that has a toilet, no, none of that.

So, you have to get your water from there. You get 5 minutes a day, that are nowhere near 5 minutes, to get your water to drink, to shower and for anything else you might need it for. At the same time this water contaminates even more when it falls into the hole. The water from the pipe is already mixed with mud and is black, full of bacteria and viruses. That is concerning water. Regarding food, if you can call it that, its´ impossible to talk about.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of patipanza, this is what we call the dish. Patipanza is animal waste, what you throw away: the paws and the stomach. That is what’s given to the prisoner and many times, putrefied, with a bad smell. You can’t eat it; you smell it and it’s impossible to eat it. In the morning you receive a piece of round bread and hot water with sugar and that’s all you get from 5 to 11 in the morning.

And if we talk about health it is even worse. Why? Because I was at the place where the doctor received the prisoners. I was lucky to have been able to see this because now I am an eyewitness. With only one syringe, only one needle, they sometimes injected up to 4 or 5 prisoners without sterilizing it, washing it, nothing. I saw that. The doctors that give medical attention in a prison are very young, recently graduated with no experience. In other words, they go there to learn.

It is like going to a rat laboratory to learn. If they kill someone it’s ok, because they are prisoners, they are criminals, it doesn’t matter. If something happened to the prisoners, if they get infected with a disease, it also doesn’t matter. Now an even more important aspect is the repression within prisons. For the prison and people in charge of it there are two types of torture. Physical torture, that is to say, beatings. There is a round bat called tonfa. With that bat they hit you in the back, and they use their boots to knock your teeth out and to hit you in the head. That is the physical abuse.

Then you are taken to a cell until you heal, until the bruises can’t be noticed. You are not taken out to be around other inmates, so they can’t see the beating you were submitted to or see your bruises. The other torture is the psychological one. This is the one they use the most. What does psychological torture consist of? They lock you in a solitary cell where you have no communication of any kind, no communication with inmates, no communication with guards. Months and months go by without any communication. Sometimes with no electricity, no water, no bathroom. The objective is to destabilize you so one way or another so you stop thinking the way you do, so they can break you down. These are the two types of torture that exist within a prison. Some are used more than others.

The system of punishment in a prison is ordered, ordered by the head of the prison and from his point of view. I hit you and nothing happens to me. I beat you up, I hit you, I send you to the hospital and you just fell off the bed. That’s what happens, and the guard doesn’t care. Far from being tried or reprimanded for his excessive use of force, he is commended or promoted, if he is a lieutenant to captain or from captain to major. The living conditions in a Cuban prison, I believe, are probably the worst in the world. Because it is unbelievable, living with bugs; and by bugs I mean cockroaches, ants, rats, and lizards. That is normal in a prison, it is usual. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a Cuban prison. With the little water you get, the cells are filthy and you can’t clean them. They are covered in mud and dirt.

And that’s another aspect: the overcrowding. The overcrowding consists of squishing 10 to 12 people in a cell made for 6, more than double the capacity. And they have to sleep on the floor, one on top of the other. It’s incredible the brawls and fights inside these cells when prisoners want some space and there really isn’t any, because it’s too small. So that’s how days go by in prison -- some days bad, and others worse, because there really aren’t any good days. 

Cuba, an island nation of 11.4 million people in the northern Caribbean Sea, is a totalitarian state.

Fidel Castro led the 1959 Cuban Revolution and ruled the country for 49 years before formally relinquishing power to his younger brother Raul in 2008. Raul Castro is the current head of state and First Secretary of the Communist Party, which is recognized by the Cuban Constitution as the only legal political party and “the superior leading force of society and of the state.” Raul Castro has said that he will step down from power at the age of 86 in 2018.

Cuba was a territory of Spain until the Spanish-American War. The United States assumed control of the island until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba became formally independent. A fledgling democracy was established, with the U.S. continuing to play a strong role in Cuban affairs.

In 1952, facing an impending electoral loss, former president Fulgencio Batista staged a successful military coup and overthrew the existing government. While his first term as elected president in the 1940s largely honored progressive politics, universal freedoms, and the Cuban Constitution of 1940, Batista’s return to power in the 1950s was a dictatorship marked by corruption, organized crime and gambling. He held power until 1959 when he was ousted by Fidel Castro’s rebel July 26th Movement.

While promising free elections and democracy, Castro moved quickly to consolidate power. By 1961, Castro had declared Cuba to be a communist nation.

Castro’s communist government nationalized private businesses, lashed out at political opponents, and banned independent civil society. As Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union, Cuban-American relations soured, including a U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba. In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came close to war, after the Soviets installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, prompting a U.S. naval embargo.

Since the revolution, Cuba has remained a one-party state. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the evaporation of Soviet economic support, Cuba loosened some economic policies, became more open to foreign investment, and legalized use of the U.S. dollar. By the late 1990s, Venezuela had become Cuba’s chief patron, thanks to the close relationship between the Castro brothers and Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez.

The regime continues to exercise authoritarian political control, clamping down on political dissent and mounting defamation campaigns against dissidents, portraying them as malignant U.S. agents. In a massive crackdown in 2003 known as the Black Spring, the government imprisoned 75 of Cuba’s best-known nonviolent dissidents.

The Cuban government does not respect the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion. The government and the Communist Party control all news media, and the government routinely harasses and detains its critics, particularly those who advocate democracy and respect of human rights. Frequent government actions against dissidents often take the form of attacks by regime-organized mobs. Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening, and the courts operate as instruments of the Communist Party rather than conducting fair trials.

Cuba relaxed its travel laws in 2013, allowing some prominent dissidents to leave and return to the country. It continues to experiment with modest economic reforms but remains committed to communist economic orthodoxy.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, Cuba was designated as “not free” and is grouped near the bottom of the world’s nations, with severely restricted civil rights and political liberties.

More from Ariel Sigler Amaya

Ariel Sigler Amaya: Horrors of a Cuban Prison Describes the conditions in Cuban prisons. Ariel Sigler Amaya: Technology Sheds Light “Technology that didn’t exist before now provides reliable evidence of what is really happening in Cuba.” Ariel Sigler Amaya: Dissident Heroes Explains why he has been inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, José Marti, and Martin Luther King. More + Ariel Sigler Amaya: Empowering Dissidents How U.S. assistance enables democracy activists to communicate with their fellow Cubans and with the world about what is happening in Cuba. Ariel Sigler Amaya: Cuba Regime Fears Technology “The Cuban regime ...loves to say that Cuba is paradise ..., but once you see a video of someone being beaten on the street or a group of policemen entering someone’s home to smashit, you know what they are saying is not true.” Ariel Sigler Amaya: Physical Toll of Prison How he lost half his weight and became a paraplegic while in prison. Ariel Sigler Amaya: Thought Crimes in Cuba Talks about his arrest during the Cuban “Black Spring” of 2003. Ariel Sigler Amaya: Freedom Around the Corner “For all those countries under dictatorships . . . . You are not alone.”