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Behind bars in Cuba

This is a re-post from The Blacklisted Journalist and is actually a phenomenal article written by a scholarly writer, Manuel Menendez.  When reading Manuel’s description of prison life in Cuba, I felt as though I was transported through space and time in his writings.  I wish I could find the outcome of Menendez, but searching for “Manuel Menendez” is not unlike doing a search for John Smith….

Preface and post note is written by Al Aronowitz, from The Blacklisted Journalist.


Al Aronowitz, “I herewith present my first guest columnist. During a reading I gave at Reg Hartt’s Cineforum in Toronto in September of 1995, one member of the audience started acting assholish. Reg eventually had to throw him out. I later learned that his name is Manuel Menendez, that he is an illegal Cuban emigre who has been kicked out of a number of countries around the world and who is now anticipating deportation from Canada. It also turns out he is a scholarly writer, fluent in Latin, who claims his disruptiveness resulted from his having had a couple of beers despite doctors’ orders against his ingestion of any alcohol at all. “Ordinarily, I never drink,” he told me. “But I was thirsty and there was nothing else but beer available.” I thought this guy was a little nuts and he now has given me this manuscript to print in this column which explains how he got the way he is.”



“You can know a country just by looking at its prisons,” said French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and I agree. I only wish Fidel Castro allowed those American businessmen so eager to invest in Cuba to make an unplanned and unrestricted visit to any of the 176 penitentiaries and hard labor camps that, like cancerous sores, infest and mar the landscape of that captive island.

Such a surprise visit would enable the naive American entrepreneurs to take a good look at the hidden bestial face of the regime they are willing to help as long as they can earn a fast buck in the process. Let them talk freely to the emaciated, cachectic and skeletal inmates, all dressed in rags, who seem to belong, rather, in Auschwitz. And then, let the hopeful American investors share the scanty single meal served at 4 PM, a handful of rice, the only sustenance for the imprisoned wretches, who chew with bleeding gums and decayed teeth loosened by scurvy. And I would like to see the facial expressions of the polished, urbane businessmen when they scratch themselves and find that their designer suits and their well groomed hair are teeming with lice, fleas, and other vermin that are merely a normal nuisance of carceral life in Cuba.

Take your pick: Combinado del Este, Taco Taco, Ceramica Roja, Kilo 5, Quivican, Boniato, any one will do. But if I myself could choose, I would give those present-day carpetbaggers a tour of the infamous “Carbo Servia” ward.

An asylum for the criminally insane, it is located inside the huge psychiatric hospital of Mazorra, in the outskirts of Havana, although it’s ruled not by the Ministry of Health, but by the Interior Ministry. It looks innocuous enough from the outside: a shabby, one-story building, painted an ugly shade of brown and yellow, with no windows, just a glass double door, and on it a sign explaining the rules and hours to the few visitors. All you can see is a policeman in olive green uniform sitting behind a reception desk.

But all similarity to normal human behavior and civilized standards stops there, and the sign should read instead: “Forsake all hope, you who enter here.” Once inside, an inmate trapped into the arbitrary and irrational Cuban judicial system, you drift into a distorted reality straight out of one of Goya’s most delirious nightmares, the whimsically named “Caprichos.”

A privileged eyewitness of sorts, I was interned in “Carbo Servia” in July 1978, when the Sixth Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was taking place in Havana. The city was full of foreign diplomats and journalists, and the police repression was in full swing. The cops were busily enforcing, indiscriminately and en masse, the “Ley de Peligrosidad,” literally, “the law of dangerousness,” a juridical abortion that overrides all other statutes of the

You can be jailed on the word of a prosecutor without your family ever being informed.  To your family, you become a ‘missing person’

Penal Code and the Constitution. A state’s prosecutor can rule in absentia that you pose a danger to society—or, rather, to the system. Therefore, you can be kept for an unlimited time in a correctional facility, without due process or access to a lawyer. The authorities are under no obligation to inform even your relatives of your whereabouts. It’s up to them to find you. To all effects, you become what, during Argentina’s “Dirty War” or, in Chile, during Pinochet’s military dictatorship, used to be called a “desaparecido,” a “missing” or “disappeared.” [In Argentina, the military dictatorship threw the “desaparecidos” into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean from an airplane.]

A week before my incarceration, I had been expelled from the Cuban shortwave radio for complaining about the regime’s human rights violations, so, according to “them,” I became a a danger to society and a candidate for the nuthouse. Using a ruse, the cops arrested and handcuffed me, and I was taken to Mazorra in a patrol car. I was thrown into “Carbo Servia” naked and barefoot (they had run out of prison uniforms). There were in all 99 rusty, sagging cots, with lumpy mattresses reeking of urine, and about 300 detainees, so I slept over a piece of cardboard on the bare floor for weeks on end.

The next day after my “admission,” I met my nemesis. It was on a dark and surprisingly cold morning for July. At 5 AM. Heriberto Mederos, b.k.a. “El Enfermero,” the nurse, like the sinister Sphinx on the road to Thebes, began asking unanswerable riddles. Even if everything else is wrapped in a merciful haze, I still remember vividly his ungainly image. He was as nondescript as the Kafkaesque executioners in “The Trial,” a short, white and pale man of about 50 who wore a plastic gray raincoat hat he never took off and who radiated vibrations that instilled fear into the most hardened criminals.

He made the rounds every dawn. Preceding him, Julito, the mulatto “mandante,” or ward boss, would look at you and pronounce: “to this one Chloro… to this one Levo…” Playing the role of a makeshift psychiatrist, he meant Thorazine or Nozinan, neurological medicines used to calm down raving maniacs, which, when administered in large doses for long periods, produce irreversible damage in the brain. For both drugs, the recommended maximum daily dose is 100 mg, but we were forced to ingest 600 mg a day.

Following Julito and The Nurse came a towering 6-foot, 4-inch, 250-pound, light-skinned mulatto, a former sparring partner of Teofilo Stevenson, the two-time Olympic heavyweight boxing champion. This particular giant was a psychopath who had killed his common-law wife by beating her in the head with his bare fists. This bully, handing me an aluminum cup of water and two white pills, growled: “Open your mouth… swallow… open again…” I dared to ask: “What’s this?” Immediately, a spark went alight in Mederos’ black, cold, snake-like eyes.

“Arsenic,” he answered.

I replied: “I prefer cyanide.”

Mederos’ look changed to mild interest. He instructed Julito: “Put this one in the list for tomorrow.” That implied I had earned my first in a long series of electroconvulsive shocks, just like that, without medical intervention of any kind. Only because I had given Mederos a seemingly intelligent response. I received at least a dozen shocks that I’m sure of. I had a stub of pencil and whenever I regained consciousness and was helped into the courtyard I made a mark in the wall. The tally went up to 11 until I lost pencil and interest altogether.

How does electroshock feel? I can’t answer, because the trauma is so deep that immediately afterwards you develop amnesia. Combined with the overdoses of drugs, it made a vegetable out of me. After two months I received the first visit by my aged and frail parents and I didn’t recognize them. As my sister later recounted, I looked jaundiced, and my limbs trembled like those of a Parkinson patient. And I looked old, much older.

Electroshock, an empiric treatment developed in the late 1920s by the Italian psychiatrist Meduna and widely used afterwards, became discredited in 1973, when the Soviet Psychiatric Association was expelled from its world parent organization, for using the therapy as a weapon to bend or destroy the minds of political dissidents. Cuba quit the organization in solidarity with its Soviet mentors.

At least, in the late USSR the misuse of electroshock involved some sophistication. During Leonid Brezhnev’s protracted and stagnant reign, illustrious academicians of Moscow’s Serbsky Institute discovered a new syndrome, “sluggish schizophrenia,” whose only visible symptom was to disagree with the regime. You didn’t like Communism, ergo, you were crazy. But in Castro’s Cuba those face-saving, make-believe mechanisms were and still are regarded as trifling and unnecessary. Electric shock abuse was left to the whim of the likes of Mederos, a sadist, a two-bit Lieutenant j.g. of the G-2, the Cuban equivalent of the Gestapo, the most brutal of the four undercover services that operate in the island.

The shocks were given every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, using a Japanese device that looked like a polished wooden box. Judging by the reaction of the patients, the electric discharges were well over any therapeutic voltage. The procedure resembled more an execution on the electric chair. Those undergoing it were locked into a big barred cell, from where they could watch the shocks given in the adjoining room, thus adding to their fears. Four trustees pinned you by the arms and legs to a filthy, sodden mattress on the floor. I saw Mederos apply the electrodes two and three times in a row to the temples of some inmates. In cold blood, without anesthesia or the muscle relaxants regarded everywhere as indispensable.

The political prisoners were mixed on purpose with the scum of Cuban society and its jails: rapists, dedicated drug addicts, multiple killers, some of them aggressive and totally deranged. The trustees administered beatings several times a day, frequently on the instigation of a policeman known as “Vaquero.” Inmates deemed as needing further punishment were locked in “Castellanos,” a small block of solitary cells famous for their medieval conditions.

When the razzias in Havana streets somewhat calmed down, the ward became less crowded and I got at last a

One cellmate strangled his mother to steal her apartment.  Another cellmate raped his own 14-year-old daughter

bed. To my right slept a parricide, a young man who, aided by his girlfriend, had strangled his own mother to steal her small apartment in El Vedado, a centric Havana neighborhood. To my left, a mustachioed hefty peasant who had raped his own 14-year-old daughter. He went scot-free: he worked at the “Valles de Picadura” agricultural complex in the east of Havana province. He also happened to be a protege of its director, Ramon Castro, Fidel’s older brother.

The filthiness, squalor, promiscuity, chaos and violence inside “Carbo Servia” were totally beyond explanation, unless they were part of the punishment. A memory that comes fleetingly: the dirty shower stall, gray water overflowing; the row of stinking Turkish toilets; an old black man, a derelict, given a glass jar for a feces analysis, filling it with his hands; then, hearing the tumult, angry shouts and quarrels that announced the meals, rushing to the dining hall, getting hold of an aluminum tray with the usual slops, and eating them with his soiled hands.

I could go on an on, but I think that’s enough to make my point. The same way the “Cancer Ward” depicted by Solshenitzin represented a cross section and indictment of Soviet society under Stalin, “Carbo Servia” constitutes for me the symbol and epitome of the intrinsic evil of Fidel Castro’s regime and of the way it has corrupted and utterly destroyed the moral fabric of Cuban society.

Castro’s is a regime de facto abetted by the present American administration, which returns to Cuba dehydrated rafters picked up by the US Coast Guard on international waters, maybe to be locked in that same “Carbo Servia” inferno. American immigration officials are currently considering deporting Heriberto Mederos to Cuba. During a family visit to Miami in 1984, he requested and was given political asylum in the US. It’s incongruous and ironic that the State Department gave a visa to him, the torturer, while denying it four times to me, the victim.

I keep no grudge against that perverse but insignificant nurse, now converted to a scapegoat. And I think that he shouldn’t be deported into Castro’s hands. That would only give satisfaction to the dictator. True, Mederos lied to get a visa, but if he wasn’t a bona fide refugee then, he certainly is one now. The Geneva Convention clearly states that no one should be sent back to a country where his life is at risk. And for the US to send Mederos back to Cuba would be tantamount to murder, be it at the hands of his former colleagues of the G-2, or the jackals among the penal population he so brutally tortured.

Though at a time he loomed so menacingly over my own sanity, Mederos was, after, all a mere pawn in the game, a tiny cog inside the gigantic repressive machinery that goes on crushing the lives of 11 million Cubans. It happened to be Mederos who wrecked havoc in my brain and killed billions of my neurons, but if it weren’t Mederos, it would have been someone else. So a Stalin can rule but you need millions of little Yagodas, Yezhovs and Berias to run his bureaucracy.

I don’t act willingly as advocatus diaboli, defending my own tormentor. If I describe the degradation I endured, “it is not to stand naked under unknowing eyes.” And not out of Christian spirit either, offering the other cheek to the enemy’s blows.

My only motivation is a sense of proportion. By all means, put Mederos for life in a maximum security American prison, perhaps such as Dannemora, to keep company with the likes of such notorious psychopaths as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz; for all I care, send him in shackles to Guantanamo Navy Base. But don’t deliver him to a fate maybe worse than death. Because he is no guiltier than the glamorous defecting military or Mafioso big shots granted by the FBI the protected federal witness status and golden pensions for life at the expense of the American taxpayers.

I know I’m preaching in the desert. The mills of the American INS grind slowly but irrevocably, and, other than writing this, this is one Cuban exile who won’t lift a finger to save his former tormentor. But nevertheless, I feel it my duty to raise my voice and follow my own conscience. Something I learned from my bitter past is that revenge is a naked dagger that turns against whomever wields it.

Post note by Al Aronowitz, “Unfortunately, Manuel didn’t specify what prompted Mederos to flee Castro’s Cuba nor what makes him not want to return to that island. But Manuel’s vivid recollections of life behind bars in Cuba kept my eyes glued to the page. No matter how populist a government might pretend or aspire to be, its people will always end up ruled by a dictatorship of the bureaucracy. That is because even the most benevolent governments must construct robotic machinery in order to govern. And one thing a robot can never have is compassion. In a letter accompanying his manuscript, Manuel wrote that he had suffered his third lung thrombosis. As an illegal alien, he said he resisted going to the hospital for too long. “If you don’t hear from me in the immediate future,” he added, “it’s because I kicked the bucket.”

Source:  The Blacklisted Journalist, Column Six, February 1, 1996


  1. I was a good friend of Manuel Menendez, when he was living in London in Colenso Road. He had his problems, but so did I. He was a man of immense culture and intelligence, and I loved him. He gave me all his short novels (they are about 10 or 11) and photocopies of the 3 or 4 articles he published. I’d love to get them published one day, the man deserves it, they are just BRILLIANT! Unfortunately I lost touch with him (as I said, I had my own problems), and when I tried to contact him again, the telephone was disconnected. I’d love to know that he’s alive and well, I suspect he committed suicide, I would love to be proved wrong. If anybody has any news of Manuel, please do get in touch…….
    Giorgio Curcetti

    • I wish you could be proved wrong, too (on the suicide). What an incredible mind. The kind of person I could sit down with and just listen and ask questions to for hours upon hours. Thanks SO much for commenting and providing a personal touch to this posting.

      • We are all fearing the worst because we know how prone to dark depression he was. After all he’d been through, who could blame him? Flashes of the good times now pass through my mind: playing computer Monopoly with him; talking about articles, literature, politics. His fondness for Bob Dylan; His hatred for Castro; The world is certainly a poorer place without people of his ilk, who are becoming a rarity anyway. The automatons are taking over and good old soulful Manuel is fast becoming an anachronism…….what a crying shame…………….

        • By the way, great website! Finding some intelligence is always refreshing!! Keep up the good work! Respect!

        • Oh…. thank you so much. Compliments such as this from people who have more than two brain cells to rub together mean a lot to me. Please keep coming back to visit. You may not always agree with everything, but that is perfectly fine, and feel free to say so. Other opinions and view points often show me another angle which had not occurred to me. Wisdom is not from always being “right” the first time around, but growing and learning from others and evolving one’s own thoughts and opinions. Knowledge is a very powerful and wonderful thing when used properly and not out of anger and hatred.

          Naturally, I know very little of and about Manual, but just the bit I have read I regretfully have to agree that he is the type of soul that is prone to a tragic ending in life. Sad. The world is difficult for people of higher knowledge and awareness. Society’s ignorance and hatred is just as dangerous as someone pointing a gun at him – and pulling the trigger. And I do firmly believe that the world, the people as a whole, are “dumbing down” thus making it more and more difficult for many to survive in.

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