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Interviews : Carlos Alberto Montaner

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Interviewed March 2011

Carlos Alberto Montaner is an exiled Cuban author and journalist. He was born in Havana in 1943. Soon after the revolution of 1959, he was imprisoned by the Castro regime on charges of participating in terrorist attacks and working with the CIA. Montaner, who was 16 years old at the time, emphatically denied the charges. He later escaped from prison and from Cuba.

In the 1960s, Montaner began writing a weekly column that was soon appearing in almost every Latin American country. In 1970, he moved to Madrid and began writing works of fiction and nonfiction. In 1972 he established a publishing house, Editorial Playor. His most widely acclaimed books include “Informe Secreto Sobre la Revolución Cubana,” published in 1975; “200 Años de Gringos,” published in 1976 on the occasion of the bicentennial of the United States and analyzing the reasons the United States has developed differently than Latin American countries; and “Fidel Castro y la Revolución Cubana” (1984).

It has been estimated that 6 million people now read his weekly columns, and he has lectured frequently throughout the hemisphere about the defense of liberty, economic development, and the important role of culture in the evolution of societies. He is also a regular commentator on CNN’s Spanish-language broadcasts. 

In December 1960, the political police captured four young students. I was the youngest one, at age 17. They arrested us and took us to a ridiculous trial that resulted in sentencing us to 20 years in jail. First they interrogated us for about a week, threatening to send us to the firing squad. Then they tried us and in 24 hours they gave us the 20-year sentence. Because I was 17, they put me in a political jail for minors.

In that political jail, the youngest kid was 11 years old and the older ones were 17, because from 18 on, we were considered adults. I escaped from that juvenile political prison within a few weeks along with another kid, a 17-year-old peasant who had been involved with the guerillas against the Cuban government. He had once fought with the guerrillas against Batista, and then against the Cuban government. An embassy protected us. With the embassy’s protection, we left Cuba 8 months later.

Jail back then was like it had always been in Cuba, very tough. In my case there were two short periods, they were just a few weeks because I had the luck of escaping. In the La Cabaña prison, which was the prison for adults where I was during the trial, the treatment was very harsh. There were constant firing squad executions; they executed friends of mine. I remember as something terrible and unforgettable the farewell of the students that were going to face the firing squad.

Generally they were executed at dawn and the guards’ treatment was very rough. They used to remove prisoners naked from their cells to carry out inspections; that treatment was really terrible and there was a lot of contempt towards human life. For example, I remember a pregnant woman who went to visit her husband in jail and he had been shot the day before. No one told her or the family and I was behind bars watching her talk to the guards. The way in which they told her was: We killed your husband last night so now you have to find yourself another man. That was how they told her.

The woman logically fainted and they took her away. I insist, there was a tremendous contempt towards human life. That’s all part of a system that begins with the dehumanization of your adversaries. Your adversaries aren’t humans, they’re worms, like they say in Cuban political slang, the adversary is a worm, and a worm can be crushed with minimal difficulty, so starting off from that obscene language a brutal repression begins with no kind of moral consequence to the person that carries out that repression, because he’s killing a worm, someone whose life isn’t worth anything. 

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 Carlos Alberto Montaner

Carlos Alberto Montaner: Prison and Contempt for Humanity “I remember as something terrible and unforgettable the farewell of the students who were going to face the firing squad.” Carlos Alberto Montaner: Solidarity of Victims “There is a secret family of victims of totalitarianism, which can be the families in Burma or the victims in North Korea or in Iran or in Cuba . . . . We feel a special bond with them because we belong to the same family.” Carlos Alberto Montaner: Global Moral Responsibility “Humanity shouldn’t allow that indifferent behavior toward others’ pain.” More + Carlos Alberto Montaner: Economic Ties “This is a fallacy, that having economic relationships bring freedom and democracy.” Carlos Alberto Montaner: Skilled Cuban Diplomacy “International organizations like the UN essentially end up being an instrument used by the Cuban government.” Carlos Alberto Montaner: Europe and Cuba “When an international politician doesn’t want to meet with the opposition, what they’re saying is that they accept the Cuban government’s version that this is a false opposition, artificially supported by the United States." Carlos Alberto Montaner: Democratic Internationalism Distinguishes between the Castro regime’s military assistance to Marxist guerrilla armies overseas and democratic countries’ assistance to nonviolent pro-democracy movements. Carlos Alberto Montaner: International Pressure on Cuba Explains that international pressure on behalf of pro-democracy dissidents has an important psychological effect on the persecutors. Carlos Alberto Montaner: Che Guevara “Che Guevara . . . felt a profound contempt toward his enemies and he made a virtue out of cruelty.”