I was in solitary confinement in Fidel Castro’s tropical gulag — where I spent 22 years for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Communist regime — when I heard a child’s voice whimpering. “Get me out of here! Get me out of here! I want to see my mommy!” I thought my senses were failing me. I could not believe that they had imprisoned a child in those dungeons. Later on, I learned the story of Robertico.
He was 12 years old when they arrested him. A captain in the political police had left his gun in his open car. When he returned to the car he saw the child playing with it. He slapped Robertico and took him into custody. The child was sent to an adult prison in Havana, where he was condemned to spend the rest of his youth. He would not be released until he reached the age of 18.
Robertico was sent to a galley with common criminals. Within a few days, those soulless prisoners raped him. He spent several days in the hospital for treatment of rents and hemorrhages as a result. By the time he was released, his file had been stamped “homosexual” and he was taken to the prison area reserved for this classification. Robertico was so slender that his body fit through the bars of the cells. One night he slipped out to watch cartoons on the guard’s television. When he was discovered, he was sent to the punishment cells. He was taken out of those cells three times a week for injections because he was suffering from a venereal disease. A guard told me he was so young he did not even have pubic hair.
When I think of Elian Gonzalez, Robertico always comes to mind. This is the Cuban society to which Elian may return: a society where all rights are violated in the interest of subordinating all individuals to the will of the supreme leader.
Sadly, some in America still believe that the Cuban revolution was a triumph of good. It is worth remembering that many also refused to believe the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps. Then, the world had to wait for eyewitness accounts from journalists and photographic evidence from their camera crews before finally accepting the horrible reality of what had happened.
Many other Americans seem to believe that even if savage things once happened under Fidel Castro, the situation has now changed. Yet the same dictatorship, which sanctioned the abuse of Robertico and has tortured thousands of political prisoners, is still wielding absolute power over the Cuban people. Fidel Castro has never recanted or apologized for the atrocities that have been reported by those who have escaped his grasp. And there is a stream of evidence that the brutality and repression continues. Last month the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned Cuba, for the eighth time, for its systematic violation of human rights. Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department have done the same.
It is standard practice around the world to transfer the custody of children to the surviving parent when the other dies. That is what is normal. But Cuba is not a normal place. If Elian is returned to Cuba, he will be sent back to a place where most people dream every day of escape. It is an island prison where a cruel tyranny has now lasted almost half a century. A fifth of the country’s population — around two million people — have fled, and more than half-a-million have been courageous enough to apply for visas to leave. Outside of Cuba, Elian will grow up as a free person with a free conscience. But if he returns, he will be “reprogrammed,” as Castro himself has made clear. The Cuban government has already shown the world the residence where psychiatrists and psychologists will instruct Elian on how to despise and hate anyone who is against communism — including his own mother, who gave her life to bring him to freedom. In a few years she’ll be nothing but a traitor to the Revolution. If Elian returns to Cuba his father will have no authority whatsoever to make decisions related to his education. Cuban “law” gives that authority to the Communist government.
Children are indoctrinated in Cuba from the moment they start to read. They are taught that the Communist party is owed loyalty above everything else. And they are taught that they must denounce their parents if they criticize or do anything against the Revolution or its leaders.
For Elian, absolute control by the Communist party will begin in elementary school with the so-called “Cumulative School File.” This is a little like a report card, but it is not limited to academic achievements. It measures “revolutionary integration,” not only of the student but also of his family. This file documents whether or not the child and family participate in mass demonstrations, or whether they belong to a church or religious group. The file accompanies the child for life, and is continually updated. His university options will depend on what that file says. If he does not profess a truly Marxist life, he will be denied many career possibilities.
From his elementary school days on, he will hear that God does not exist, and that religion is “the opium of the masses.” If any student speaks about God, his parents will be called to the school, warned that they are “confusing” the child and threatened. The Code for Children, Youth and Family provides for a three-year prison sentence for any parent who teaches a child ideas contrary to communism. The code is very clear: No Cuban parent has the right to “deform” the ideology of his children, and the state is the true “Father.”
Article 8 of that same code reads, “Society and the state work for the efficient protection of youth against all influences contrary to their Communist formation.” It is mandatory for all Cuban children over the age of 12 to do time in a Communist work camp in the countryside. Away from all parental supervision for nine months at a time, children there suffer from venereal disease, as well as teenage pregnancy, which inevitably ends in forced abortion.
When the reprogramming plan for Elian is complete, we will see him repeating the slogans of the Revolution. He will have lost his liberty, his ability to dream, his youthful innocence, and perhaps even hope. And should he ever do anything that angers the regime, we must hope he will not end like Robertico, cornered in a cell, calling for his mother. This time, she will not be able to save him.
Mr. Valladares was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission from 1986-1990. He is the author of the best-seller “Against All Hope,” which will be rereleased in October by Encounter Books.
Originally published in the May 5, 2000: The Wall Street Journal as A Firsthand Account Of Child Abuse, Castro Style. Republished here by permission of the author.