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Themes Prisoners of Conscience » Normando Hernández

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Interviewed November 2011

Normando Hernández is an independent journalist who has dedicated his career to providing alternative sources of news and information in Cuba. In 1999, he co-founded the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights, and in 2000, he established the Camaguey Association of Journalists, the first independent organization in Camaguey province since 1959. Declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International following Cuba’s “Black Spring” (2003–2010), during which dozens of dissidents and journalists were imprisoned for their activism, Mr. Hernández was exiled to Spain in 2010 and has since resettled in the United States.

The author of numerous articles and publications, including the book El Arte de la Tortura: Memorias de un Ex Prisionero de Conciencia Cubano (The Art of Torture: Memories of a Former Cuban Prisoner of Conscience, 2010), he has received several journalism and human rights awards, including the Norwegian Writers Association’s Freedom of Expression Award (2009), the PEN American Center’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (2007), and a special mention by the Inter-American Press Association for excellence in journalism (2003). Mr. Hernández is currently a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, where he is examining the Cuban communications monopoly and considering strategies by which independent journalists may combat totalitarianism. 

Once the trial concluded and I was sentenced to 25 years without freedom, I was transferred to a prison located 100 kilometers away from home. It was a Machiavellian plan in the broadest sense. The purpose was not only destroying you or your ideology. They wanted to destroy your family and your friends in one way or another.

I was taken to Santiago de Cuba, to Boñato under the special regime of Boñatico, which is the prison’s death row where people sentenced to life imprisonment are waiting to be executed. This prison is more than 500 kilometers away from home. And what surprised me the most is that it was approximately 4 AM and everybody was awake on death row like it was noon. They put me in cell No. 31, located at the end of the corridor, with no mattress, no cardboard on the bed, with the stench of excrement.

At approximately 9 AM they brought us breakfast. It was the first time in my life that I had something called “chorote”, which is like corn flour boiled in water with a bit of sugar. It seemed to be cold but when you drank it, the taste stayed in your mouth. When I tried it, it burned my mucous membranes and my tongue.

In this cell the toilet hole had leaks so there was always a puddle of urine. They gave me a mattress with vinyl coils and rope knots lined with a sack of woven nylon. It was so small that I could stretch my hands and touch the walls of my cell. The toilet hole was 10 inches away from the bed. The first night that I spent there I thought that I could withstand any type of torture but not the stench coming out of the hole. But around 11 PM for the first time in prison a rat came out of the hole and walked on top of me.

The water that we got in that prison, I would to try to filter it by transferring it from one container to another like 4, 5, 6 times. I tried to filter it with cotton or paper. And you could always see red worms swimming in the water or dirt. The worst food I’ve ever had was there at the prison of Santiago de Cuba in Boñiatico.

I have to use some prison jargon to describe what they gave us to eat because that’s what we called it. For example, "tench" is a very famous fish in Cuba known for its bad smell and taste. If you have to describe this fish I would compare it to a magnet full of pins. It was rotten almost all the time. They served it to you on your tray and you got only a few pieces of fish and the rest was bones. You had to spend more than half an hour removing the bones to be able to eat two or three pieces of fish. For breakfast we had cereal, which you had to eat right away while it was still hot, otherwise it was impossible to eat. It was a kind of cereal that felt like sandpaper in your throat when you swallowed it. If you didn’t swallow fast, it was like sawdust. But you had to drink cloudy water with it because no one ate it cold.

There was another main dish that when the guards served they took off their undershirts to cover their faces or they took out handkerchiefs and used them to cover their faces. This dish was called "burundanga." They say it was made of beef entrails. Its smell was not natural at all; it wasn’t normal, but foul-smelling. We always knew the cart was coming down the death corridor with the “burundanga” because of its smell. The stink filled the place where we were being held. It had a white texture. It’s difficult to imagine it, but people who have lived in the Third World or people from Cuba who have seen dog’s vomit on the highway would know what I’m talking about. It’s the same. You have to describe something similar so that people can have an idea of the food that Castro gave to Cuban prisoners.

Another main dish was elbow pasta or macaroni. They simply boiled and served it. There was no sauce, cheese or ham. They boiled this Italian pasta and it was ready to serve. No salt or anything. And when they gave us soup it was disgusting because it was just water with two or three small pieces of green onion, which women use a lot in the kitchen to season food. And that was the extent of the food they gave us in Santiago de Cuba.

Another thing was that they mixed political prisoners with common murderers on death row. People who were waiting to be executed were together with people sentenced to life imprisonment and also with mentally ill people and people with HIV/AIDS. But everyone had their own cell. We didn’t have direct contact with them because when we went out to see the sunlight they took us one by one. I remember hearing from my cell that someone cut a prisoner who had AIDS.

I also remember the fights. When someone passed in front of a cell, the prisoners would throw their feces and urine using plastic bowls. The same bowl they would eat from. And they left it there for days and days until it got rotten. If they had an enemy or were looking for trouble, they threw feces with urine at them because there was no direct contact. Or if they had problems with a guard, they threw it when they walked down the corridor and then these feces were left there for 20 days or even a month. It would get rotten, left its stench in the whole prison. And that smell was unbearable. It is engraved in my subconscious and now I can resist any type of torture because I survived this torture.

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 Normando Hernández

Normando Hernandez: Life in a Cuban Prison Graphically discusses the appalling conditions in Cuban prisons.

Other videos from Normando Hernández

Normando Hernandez: The Black Spring and His Arrest Relates the story of his arrest during Cuba’s infamous Black Spring of 2003 Normando Hernandez: Does the Opposition Have Support in Cuba? On how average Cubans view the opposition and some of its leading figures. Normando Hernandez: Harassment by the State Discusses how the Cuban government used pressure to keep dissidents in line. More + Normando Hernandez: Background Normando Hernandez discusses his background. More +