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Interviews : Armando Valladares

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Interviewed April 2010

Armando Valladares, a poet, human rights advocate, and former diplomat, was a political prisoner in Castro's Cuba for 22 years. After international pressure led to his release, he emigrated to the United States and served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Commission from 1988 to 1990.

Valladares was a Cuban Postal Bank employee who was arrested in 1960 when he refused to display a sign on his desk that endorsed Communism. Valladares, then 23 years old, was convicted of being a “counter-revolutionary” and spent 22 years in prison. He was adopted by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, and his prison memoir “Against All Hope” became an international bestseller and raised the profile of the campaign for his release. This campaign finally succeeded after then French President Francois Mitterand made a personal appeal to Fidel Castro.

During his service as ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Valladares succeeded in persuading the commission to adopt a resolution on the human rights situation in Cuba. 

Technology is very important. For instance, before Orlando Zapata died on a hunger strike, while I was in prison, 10 of my fellow inmates died in hunger strikes. I have the sad privilege of having two cellmates who died in hunger strikes. Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader, from whom Castro himself ordered water should be taken away until he died. The other one was Roberto López Chávez, who was almost a child when he got to prison, was my cellmate as I said, and he went on a hunger strike. He was taken to the punishment cells, they took water away from him, and when he was agonizing, asking for water, the guards came in and said: "Do you want water?" And they urinated on his face. He died the next day.

At that time, it took us weeks to get that news from Isla de Pinos, which is South of Cuba, to Cuba. And after weeks, when the news was released to the world, nobody listened. There was not even a single line in a newspaper. There were no statements from anyone. It was as if it had never happened. I am mentioning these two cases because they were my cellmates. I mean, while I was in prison, 10 people died on hunger strikes. One of them lasted 73 days. Olegario Charlot Spileta. It was never published in a newspaper. Nobody ever knew about it, except for us and his family.

However, when Orlando Zapata Tamayo died, thanks to the Internet, 20 minutes after it had happened, the entire world knew about this brutal murder and this cowardice by the Cuban regime towards this poor bricklayer, who could have been saved. It was an unnecessary and avoidable death. That is why bloggers on the island, the new technology, camera phones, the possibility of getting information out of Cuba immediately, all these things have completely changed the situation.

If we had had those means, I am sure I would not have spent 22 years in prison and neither would my fellow inmates. And many of them would not have died. That is why it is so important. And the groups I continue to work with in Cuba and I try to send a computer, a camera, a phone, anything, whenever we can, because that technology is helping us tremendously. This has been proven by the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, which had more impact than anything else we had done over 50 years. That is, all our work denouncing violations of human rights in Cuba, conferences all over the world, all this was nothing compared to the reaction that Orlando Zapata's death caused.

When people listen to news that says: "There is a human being that for 86 days was only asking to stop being beaten and abused, and every time they tried to persuade him to abandon the strike he was beaten, they took water away from him for two weeks, they tortured him and he ended up dead." People wonder, how is that possible? That is why technology is very important, and it helps us tremendously to be able to tell what is going on in Cuba. By making the entire world aware in a few hours of the abominable act which was the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, it achieved what we hadn't been able to in over 50 years of denunciation against Castro. 

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 Armando Valladares

Armando Valladares: Role of Technology How the internet and other modern technologies have made it more difficult for the world to ignore atrocities against prisoners of conscience. Armando Valladares: Denouncing Castro Describes how he accomplished the “impossible mission” of getting a United Nations body to take note of human rights violations by the Castro regime. Armando Valladares: Double Standard at UN Valladares laments the “double standard” United Nations bodies have applied to human rights violations. More + Armando Valladares: What Matters in Prison Armando Valladares remembers his 22 years in Cuban prisons. Armando Valladares: Solidarity Among Prisoners “Solidarity from international organizations, governments, and the press, that means protection for the life of the political prisoner.” Armando Valladares: Business Sustains the Regime The effects of assistance provided to the Cuban government by foreign governments and companies. Armando Valladares: Democracy is the Future “Don’t lose hope. The future is ours. Democracy is the future of mankind.” Armando Valladares: International Indifference Why many democratic governments ignored human rights violations in Cuba, and the impact this had on the regime’s victims. Armando Valladares: International Aid International assistance to pro-democracy dissident movements is necessary for their survival.