The front of the New York Times Sunday Travel page featured some pretty blatant bias by omission, courtesy of contributor Tony Perrottet, on the late Cuban dictators Fidel Castro — a whitewashing of Communist history well-suited to the paper’s Red Century series of articles that glossed over the brutal history of Soviet and Chinese communism.
The headline over the story, which covered three-quarters of the front of the Travel section: “A Cuban Island That Has Played Both Paradise and Prison.” The subhead: “The Isle of Youth — which has been both a Communist Utopian getaway and home to a brutal prison that housed Castro for a time — is a world apart, even by Cuban standards.”
There’s nothing like a total absence of safety measures to add a little excitement to a historical site. Within an hour of landing on La Isla de la Juventud, the Isle of Youth, I was clambering through an underground tunnel in the Presidio Modelo, or Model Prison, Cuba’s most dreaded pre-revolutionary prison, using my iPhone as a torch and trying not to slip on wooden planks and rubble. After squeezing up a rusty spiral staircase, I emerged atop a tower at the center of an enormous circular cell building that resembled a tropical Colosseum, where a single guard would once monitor more than 1,000 prisoners at a time.
….But the most striking sight of all came when I entered the former hospital ward, which in the 1950s was reserved for political prisoners. Posted on a wall was a mug shot of its most notorious inmate, Fidel Castro — without a beard.
Like the few other visitors to the Presidio that day, I had to stop and stare at the clean-shaven, well-fed features of Prisoner 3895, who, instead of his famous Old Testament whiskers, sported a scraggly pencil mustache. It was a sudden step back into a barely remembered Cuba, when Fidel was not yet “Fidel.” ….But almost nobody had heard of him six years earlier, in 1953, when, as a 27-year-old lawyer, he began his rebellious career with an attack on a military barracks in the city of Santiago. Castro had hoped this would spark an uprising around Cuba, but it failed dismally. Many of his 160 or so followers were tortured and executed and most of the rest hunted down. He was given a 15-year sentence and sent with 25 compañeros to La Isla.
The admiration for the rebel Castro comes through:
It was in this prison, improbably enough, that the Cuban revolution was effectively planned. The dictator Fulgencio Batista made the mistake of placing all the conspirators together in the hospital wing, and they proceeded to treat it as a revolutionary boot camp, congregating for daily lessons on politics and conducting secret communications with supporters around Cuba. “What a fantastic school this prison is!” Castro wrote gleefully in a letter. “From here I’m able to finish forging my vision of the world …” After four months, he was removed to solitary, but even there he kept in touch with his men using messages written in lemon juice that were smuggled in cigars or mashed….By the time popular opinion led to the men’s release in 1955, after serving less than two years of their sentences, the once-disorganized rebel group had become a coherent political cell, with a support network and a clear plan for a guerrilla war.
Perrottet does a shameful gloss over the dreadful history of Cuban Communism as actually lived, and how Castro turned on and imprisoned his fellow rebels, and anyone else who dared cross him. Can one imagine the Times printing an article about a facsist dictatorship with the caveat, “whatever their later faults…”?
The Presidio was closed a few years after Castro’s victory in 1959, and is now maintained as a shrine to the revolution’s early struggle, with photos of each prisoner over his bed. It’s a tribute to the resilience of the young rebels who — whatever their later faults once they took power — took on the brutal Batista dictatorship at great personal risk. The aura of idealism becomes particularly poignant today, as Cuba’s revolutionary dream has become as battered as the corrugated iron ceiling of the Presidio itself — its gaping views of the sky letting in the beating sun, the tropical rain and chirping green parrots.
Humberto Fontova at Townhall pointed out the grievous omissions and the fawning over Fidel: “On that very Isle of Pines the Castro regime created the biggest prison/torture and forced labor complex for political prisoners in the history of the Western Hemisphere!”
Fontova also pointed to a review of Armando Valladares’ 1986 autobiography Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag, by Ron Radosh from, of all places, the New York Times:
Mr. Valladares and other prisoners who refused ”political rehabilitation” were forced to live in the greatest heat and the dampest cold without clothes. They were regularly beaten, shot at and sometimes killed; they were thrown into punishment cells, including the dreaded ”drawer cells,” specially constructed units that make South Vietnam’s infamous tiger cages seem like homey quarters….In the punishment cells, prisoners were kept in total darkness. Guards dumped buckets of urine and feces over the prisoners who warded off rats and roaches as they tried to sleep. Fungus grew on Mr. Valladares because he was not allowed to wash off the filth. Sleep was impossible. Guards constantly awoke the men with long poles to insure they got no rest…..
It was a sharp change from how Castro himself was treated, in Perrottet’s ideas of a “brutal” prison. More from Radosh:
When Fidel Castro was imprisoned following his attack on the Moncada barracks on July 26, 1953, he was given good food, large and airy quarters, full mail privileges and even conjugal visits. Mr. Castro himself wrote of ”many pleasant hours” spent in an airy yard, of good dinners with Italian chocolate for dessert and two baths a day. ”They’re going to make me think I’m on vacation,” he quipped in a letter. By his own account, Mr. Castro had ”plenty of water, electric lights, food, clean clothes, and all for free.”
The Miami Herald in 2014 offered another awful angle on Castro’s repurposing of the Model Prison, also totally ignored by the Times.
For Miami resident Ricardo Vazquez, the panopticon was the keeper of a dark secret that he was tasked with documenting. Vazquez was a student in 1962 when he was serving time for conspiring against Fidel Castro’s government. His imprisonment preceded the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and Vazquez and other political prisoners watched in horror as prison workers drilled holes beneath the ground floor of the four circular penitentiaries and filled the holes with dynamite.
Perrottet dutifully passed on Cuban propaganda:
….at the height of the revolution in 1978, Castro returned to the island as Maximum Leader and declared that it would become a unique Communist education center, where high school students from Third World countries could study in a sun-kissed paradise.
Perrottet found perverse strengths in what most of the civilized world would consider fundamental lacks:
Cuba is unique in the Western Hemisphere for its near-total lack of coastal development, he explained. Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, Cuban farmers have had no access to pesticides or fertilizers, so there is none of the chemical flow-off that can devastate marine life. “Farmers on the Isle of Youth have been forced to practice organic agriculture,” Mr. Guggenheim said. “Most of them don’t even have tractors. It’s amazing that such a thing is possible in the 21st century.”