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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. 

While in prison, I started to write and send reports clandestinely about the human rights violations that were taking place inside the prison. And that was my occupation in prison since the beginning of 1961.

That is, I spent every day, every week, every month, every year, trying to get the complaints about violations of human rights in the prisons, the torture, the murders and the abuse, known overseas. My goal is to try to create awareness in mankind, which, had it existed when I was in prison, possibly neither my fellow inmates nor I would have spent so many years in jail. That is to say, make every citizen of the world aware that when someone is being beaten, tortured, abused or violated in their dignity, it must be felt as your own affront. In other words, to look for that solidarity from one human being to another without having for one moment any kind of ideological or political considerations. That is to say, human dignity is above any political position. And in my opinion, there is no ideology that can justify the violation of human rights. A human being must be respected in his rights. The worst for us was to know that our suffering, our struggle, had no impact on anyone. It was as if we didn't exist.

We felt terribly helpless to see how public opinion was interested in the victims of all other regimes but Cuba's. And that was really sad. When we occasionally got the news that someone somewhere in the world remembered us, that would give us the strength to keep resisting. We felt that there was someone in the world, even though we may not even have known who it was, who knew that we existed, and that was sort of a satisfaction amid the complete abandonment that Cuban political prisoners suffered for 50 years. 

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 on this theme from Armando Valladares

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.”

Other videos from Armando Valladares

Armando Valladares: Democracy is the Future “Don’t lose hope. The future is ours. Democracy is the future of mankind.” More +