Bloody Tally of a Fifty-Year Long Dictatorship

Maria C. Werlau,
El Nuevo Herald,
December 19, 2008

Translated from Spanish by the author.

Fidel Castro has enjoyed generally favorable worldwide treatment, which stands in sharp contrast with what most tyrants typically get. This is more remarkable given that he is responsible for the bloodiest chapter of Latin America’s republican history and that his regime of terror has lasted five decades.

In fact, Fidel Castro has staged one of the most successful propaganda campaigns of all times. The key to this masterful manipulation has been the effective concealment of his worst crimes and a pervasive unawareness of the large cost in lives of the Castro dynasty. This largely explains the persistent ignorance of the bloody and ruthless nature of the regime and the tendency to justify it on the basis of so-called principles of equality and social justice. But mounting evidence of brutality will make it increasingly difficult to sustain this false legitimacy. When the truth finally comes out, Castro’s singular ability to fool so many, so much, and for so long will be nakedly exposed.

Since the end of the 1990s, Cuba Archive has been confronting the vast Cuban propaganda machine by focusing on its bloody trails. It has created a comprehensive registry of deaths that makes it harder to ignore the worst crimes of the Cuban regime as well as the magnitude and present-day character of the tragedy.

To date, Cuba Archive (www.CubaArchive.org) has documented more than 8,200 fatalities or disappearances caused by the Castro communist government since January 1, 1959. Until 2003 it took almost exclusively from the investigation by one of its directors and founders, Armando Lago, PhD (1939-2008), for a book project he researched mostly from existing bibliography. In recent years, the project has focused on gathering direct testimony and reviewing sources of information previously unexamined. Collaboration with the group “Cuban Memorial” (www.MemorialCubano.org) has helped access the Cuban exile community to improve on documentation efforts.

Up to December 15, 2008, 5,732 cases of execution, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances have been documented. In addition, 515 deaths in prison for medical negligence, suicide, or accident have been recorded. These totals, which constitute partial yet growing numbers, already amount to more than twice the 3,197 disappearances and killings by the military regime led by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Yet while Pinochet was subject to solid worldwide condemnation, Fidel Castro has been lauded by many celebrities and influential global figures.

In 2008 alone, 42 deaths have been registered, all in prison except one – 2 extrajudicial killings, 23 for lack of medical care, 11 reported suicides, 2 in accidents resulting from negligence, plus 1 death for undetermined causes. Between January 1, 1959 and December 15, 2008, a partial tally of deaths attributed to the Castro regime totals 8,237 documented cases, if combat actions against the communist government are included.

Aside from these striking numbers, deaths at sea in exit attempts are estimated to surpass 77,000. Dr. Lago, who had a PhD in Economics from Harvard University, derived an econometric calculation with data from the US Coast Guard and studies by the University of Havana and Miami, respectively. But the exact amount of deaths of Cuban “rafters” is impossible to determine. Cuba Archive has documented only 1,104 cases of death or disappearance in exit attempts, given that no efforts have existed to date to systematically register these cases. Francisco Chaviano González started a registry of such disappearances inside Cuba but was arrested in 1994 and sentenced to 15 years of prison for revealing “state secrets.” After serving 13 years, he was released in August 2007 in very ill health.

One of the most astounding aspects of this tragedy is the killing by Cuban authorities of civilians trying to flee the island. An initial effort to record these cases has uncovered almost 200 victims. This sum compares to the 227 victims killed in Berlin Wall crossings during Communist period in East Germany. This monstrosity in Cuba is largely ignored, but it reflects something never seen in this hemisphere – a state policy of executing defenseless citizens for wanting to leave their country. Cuban border guards have sunk vessels by crashing into them or throwing sand bags from low-flying planes. They have gunned down civilians without regard to age or condition. There are past reports of special units of the Cuban military dedicated to this ghastly task. The Canimar River massacre of 1980 and the “13 de marzo” tugboat massacre of 1994, which left dozens of victims, including many children, are just the better known such episodes. The number of victims suffering a similar fate could be in the thousands. Because generally the only witnesses left to tell the story are the perpetrators, this could only be ascertained if Cuba’s secret archives are ever recovered.

The case of Iskander Maleras Pedraza, age 26, and Luis Angel Valverde Linfernal, in his thirties, bears an exceptional degree of proof of this practice. Both were gunned down by border guards while attempting to swim to the US Naval Base in Guantánamo on January 19, 1994. Of the group of four friends, one made it to the base and related what happened. The other survivor was captured, judged and sentenced to prison. Because Maleras was from Guantánamo and his parents were respected professionals, well-known in their community, the public outcry forced the regime to unleash a campaign to justify the killings. The propaganda was geared towards creating fear among would-be imitators. Photos of the dead bodies were exhibited in schools and the guards who did the grisly deed were awarded medals in public ceremonies. Court documents of the proceedings and official media reports serve as evidence of the crime.

Another case, that of Miguel Guerra Mora, Daniel Cosme Ramos, and Federico Martí Jiménez, is officially reported as a disappearance, yet all indicates they were murdered by Cuban authorities for attempting to escape by sea. Guerra Mora, 36 years old and the father of two children, was a dredging specialist working at the Port of Palo Alto, in Ciego de Avila province. On May 19, 1991, he, a fellow worker, and a friend took command of a small vessel at the port. They were never heard of again. Guerra Mora’s family undertook a desperate search that included inquiries to countries they might have reached. Five years later, a border guard distantly related to the family confidentially sent word that the three had been gunned down during their attempted escape.

Cuba Archive has documented many more cases of extrajudicial killings or executions, each one as terrifying as the others. This aberration stems from the fact, with scarce global precedent, that Cuba’s laws penalize its citizens with jail for attempting to leave their country without government permission. Today several political prisoners are serving sentences of up to 25 years for such “crimes.”

Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and designated successor, is responsible for hundreds of executions in Oriente province right after the revolutionary government ascended to power. Many were carried out without even the pretense of a trial. Moreover, as Minister of Defense during nearly five decades, Raúl was directly in command of border guards with orders to shoot civilians attempting to escape into the US Naval Base at Guantánamo. He is also said to have ordered chemical attacks that left thousands of deaths in Angola in the 1980s.

The cost of the long and dark chapter of Cuban history written by the Castro brothers is enormous. Its macabre tally of extrajudicial killings includes dozens of children as well as women. And the slaughter extends to other nationalities. To date, 68 foreigners are among documented victims of execution, extrajudicial killing, or disappearance by the Cuban government. In fact, Fidel Castro and his brother are responsible for over 100,000 lives if armed interventions overseas are accounted for. Moreover, if foreign victims of Cuba’s incursions in Africa and victims of international subversion sponsored and/or financed by Cuba are added, the death toll could reach several hundred thousand.

But counting numbers can never do justice to the vast human suffering brought on by this calamity. Its effects reverberate among thousands of people directly or indirectly affected. Each case is a story of unimaginable loss and pain. Each life cut short is that of a daughter, a father, a sister, a husband, a grandson, a niece, a friend. How could we quantify the cost of stolen lives and cheated futures? How could we calculate the despair, sorrow and trauma caused by the martyrdom of defenseless people? That of course, is impossible. Yet ultimately, that immeasurable cost – together with all the suffering and misery the Castro regime has caused at all levels – will be its most enduring legacy.

With time, the names, faces, and stories of the victims will be better known. If anything, that should promote more forceful calls for the end of oppression in Cuba. And when Cuba is finally free and the magnitude of this tragedy is fully exposed, it will speak clearly of the need to renounce violence as a means of forging the destiny of the Cuban nation. That would give meaning to the sacrifice of so many and would become a precious gift for a people who deserve to leave in peace.

Maria C. Werlau is Executive Director of Cuba Archive.