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May 02, 2004

The BBC Visits Cuban Jails

Well, the editors at the BBC have indulged in yet another spasm of Castro reverence with unbelievably naïve and lauditory article, which at best makes me long for the objectivity of Tass and Isvesti back in their heyday. What's interesting is that you can see the correspondent playing along so as not to lose his access, but the editors of the BBC sure aren't making it clear that the whole things a sham, lest they offend the sensibilities of delusional socialists. So the article has a dual feel to it.

It has been more than 15 years since the government last let foreign journalists take a look behind the walls and razor wire of Cuba's prisons.

And why would that be? With so many regimes friendly to Cuba, such as France, why wouldn't the Cuban government allow journalists in to look at Cuban prisons for 15 years?

But the authorities have clearly decided it is time they be allowed another look.

That's key to the rest of the article. The authorities decided it was time to let the journalists in. Not the other way around. This isn't what you'd call a snap inspection.

"Good", said the lady from the foreign ministry. She told me to report to Havana's international press centre the following day.

And notice that the authorities called these journalists up the day before the visit was to take place. Do you smell something, kind of like three day old cod, perhaps?

So the next morning I found myself boarding a Cuban tourist bus, normally used to take holidaymakers to the beach, but this time packed with foreign journalists looking forward to a day trip to jail.

If this article is an example of the mindless dreck the journalists churned out then perhaps they deserve a trip to jail.

Last year Cuba imprisoned 75 political dissidents.

I guess he heard that on the tour bus, because Cuba keeps their jails far fuller than that. Otherwise we wouldn't keep getting all those people floating over in inner tubes, now would we?

While it has shown itself unfazed by the international criticism that followed, it has taken great exception to allegations from some of the relatives of those in jail, that their loved ones are being denied proper medical care.

And did this journalist perhaps have a list of those 75 names? Did he actually visit the people in question? Nope.

Facilities

Health care for all is one of the great boasts of this revolution.

Indeed. In a country where a doctor makes about $10 a month you know you're getting the finest health care, otherwise they might steal the 20 cents per patient that would be allocated, given their own pay scale. Maybe that's why other BBC reports relate how Cuban women prostitute themselves to buy money for aspirin.

The Cuban Government was determined to show us that "all" includes its prisoners, by letting us see the medical facilities in two prisons.

Oh, and you just know that those prisons were absolutely typical of all the ones that the journalists would be shot for stepping foot in. After all, maybe there's a good reason that no Western journalist has been allowed to step foot in a Cuban prison for 15 years.

First stop on the tour was the Combinado del Este jail, around half an hour outside Havana.

It is the biggest prison in Cuba. A vast complex surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers with armed soldiers peering out.

All went quiet inside our coach, as the gates were opened for us. None of us knew what we were about to see.

In case the idiots at the BBC are completely unfamiliar with totalitarian communist states, such as the Soviet Union used to be, they're all going to get to see exactly what the communist government wants them to see. The BBC used to know this back in the old days, but now their socialist ideology has obviously blinded them to it.

Castro's dark dungeons, as President Bush describes Cuban prisons?

Degrading, filthy cells, as some of the dissidents' relatives allege?

Well, the first thing we saw was a baseball pitch.
Did this idiot correspondent forget that the previous day he received a phone call from the Cuban government telling him to get on a tour bus to come see the prison?
Around 200 male prisoners were out in the open air. They were not close enough for us to speak to them, but close enough for us to see that they seemed intrigued that a tourist bus had come to visit.

"So those are the people whose visit is making us pretend to play baseball, hey Pedro?" "Si"

The sports ground was surrounded by huge white, windowless cell blocks.

We gazed at them from the outside, but we were not allowed in.

Note that two paragraphs up the same journalist who just wrote down "windowless cell blocks" was snidely saying "Castro's dark dungeons, as President Bush describes Cuban prisons?" Freakin' amazing, isn't it? That "dark" and "windowless" might be related, yet a BBC correspondent can't quite make the connection?

Welcoming committee

Instead we were efficiently ushered by a team of uniformed ministry of interior officials to the prison hospital.

You just know that prisons worldwide are always staffed with uniformed ministry of interior officials. They are. There's nothing to see here. Move along.

A tape of soothing love songs was playing in the lobby, and there was a strong smell of paint. It is a smell you rarely come across in Cuba, where paint always seems in desperately short supply.

You know, one of the things most people would point out when they smell fresh paint is that the place has just been painted. The last coat was probably finished the previous day, when the call went out that said "Si. The painters have just finished, so call up the journalists. We are ready hefe."

A welcoming ceremony - for our benefit - began with a passionate speech by a young man in a red shirt. "Fidel you are great", he proclaimed.

Well, it's not quite good enough to please Kim in North Korea, but I guess any good greating will do.

I assumed he was a local Communist Party figure, there to start things off on the right note.

In fact, he was a convicted thief, serving 20 years and the first of many successfully re-educated convicts we were to meet.

Did this correspondent stop to wonder why a "successfully re-educated" thief is still in prison after 20 years? What did he steal, a Russian submarine?

Our guides ushered us through what seemed like a very well-equipped prison hospital. Then we were led into a classroom, where a lesson was under way.

Not exactly wandering around, are they? What part of "dog and pony" show doesn't apply here?

A group of prisoners was studying nursing. They all stood to attention as we walked in. One took the opportunity to deliver another speech, saying how prison had enabled him to transform his life.

And I'll bet he had to work days at memorizing it, while the rest of them were drilled on standing at attention.

Performance

All this incarcerated happiness was slightly unsettling. But there was much more to come.
How can he write this tripe, when Eastern Europe is freely open and anyone can learn all they want about how people were forced to sing happy work songs?
We got back into the coach and drove across town to Cuba's main women's prison. An even stranger place.

As we walked in, we were offered a flower by a smiling receptionist.

The prison has a receptionist? How many visitors do they get? Oh, I forgot. Once every 15 years someone is allowed to visit. I wonder what the receptionist does on her off decade?

For some reason I felt that visiting a Cuban prison holding a gladiolus would compromise my journalistic objectivity, so I declined.

Now that's just funny. He said "journalistic objectivity". I mean as British comedy goes it's not quite "shrubbery", but damn close.

Our tour began in the prison theatre. We were given some lengthy statistics regarding motherhood and births in the prison.

And someone happened to be standing there who could just reel these off the top of her head, no doubt.

Then a glamorous singer took to the stage. She had an incredible voice, and sang - with great feeling - a revolutionary song.

It makes me wonder if the glorious work song was translated from Russian, Romanian, or Korean.

"She cannot be a prisoner?" I said to the government minder standing next to me. "Of course she is", he replied.

Idalys was serving 12 years for robbery. She said she was falsely accused and should not be in prison, but that now she was inside she was delighted with conditions.

Oh, so I'm sure all the Cubans on the street are just banging on the doors to get in, eh?

I asked her how many people shared her cell. She was about to answer when the interior minister man standing next to her told me it "varies", and we moved on to the tour of the maternity ward.

Whew! She could've gotten a trip back to solitary. Good thing the interior minister intervened. He must be awfully good at his job to know the details of her particular room assignments, don't you think?

Restricted view

The ward was full of teddy bears and beaming mothers holding young babies.

So just who keeps knocking up all these prisoners, anyway? I just have to ask.

Sara was a lawyer just ending a five year sentence for falsifying public papers.

She must've accidentally reported what the cane harvest actually was or something.

She said she had had three miscarriages outside prison, but had delivered without any complication behind bars. Prison had given her the best gift of her life, she said, as she gazed at her sleeping son.

Yep. Cuban prisons, best thing that could happen to a person, outside of North Korean deep mines.

It was time to go. As we left, the crop-haired female ministry of interior official who had organised the visit, thanked us for coming. She asked if we had any questions.

There was a long silence.

Well obviously any half-wit would want to ask one question. "Do you really think we're this fucking stupid?"

Finally a Spanish journalist said what we were all thinking.

"When might we be able to see where all the other Cuban prisoners live, or visit an actual cell?"

That's it? Asking when they will let you see something, on a pre-arranged appointment basis? Why even bother? You'd think a serious journalist would impersonate a Cuban, get arrested for public drunkeness and thrown in the tank, till his embassy can bail him out. How about interviewing a Cuban who's just been released from jail? How about even interviewing those who escape to Florida? The ones who talk about Cuban prisons and give us the impression that they're "dark dungeons"? You'd think the BBC would be at least able to accomplish that much. But know. In the Cuban workers' paradise all his sunshine and light, even if they only let you see inside once every 15 years, on a pre-arranged basis of course.

"Soon, I hope", replied the woman from the ministry.

Soon is a long time in Cuba.

Well, it all depends on how soon they can round up some more paint for their next Potemkin village.

May 2, 2004 in Politics | Permalink

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Comments

I had the same question you did.

"We were given some lengthy statistics regarding motherhood and births in the prison."

The lawyer serving 5 years just had a baby so she was not pregnant when she arrived.

I highly doubt Castro is providing conjugal visits from these women's husbands. Gee, a tyrannical dictator would never have rape rooms where the guards (or Castro himself)can knock up the prisoners, would he?

Posted by: twalsh at May 2, 2004 11:08:59 PM

I've seen this for years in the European left media.
I've always seen it as a sort of double standard thing, where it's not newsworthy to report about conditions in socialist countries, everyone should know that allready, but it is newsworthy to report and criticise much smaller things from the US. This article kind of sounds like those, kind of written with a "yes, we know it's not like this, but lets show it from their side, since we are not allowed to report at all otherwise"
But this has been steadily turning to just biased reporting, when the reporter actually seems to believe what he writes, and thinks it's a balanced view, simply because he writes it.
Kind of sad, because it does shape public opinion, since this is the kind of reporting that most people always hear...

You'd be amazed at what now passes as "conventional truth" in the general public...

Posted by: Erik at May 3, 2004 9:10:29 AM

Holy crap that article is ridiculous. WTF is wrong with these people? Even if I was left wing liberal I like to think I'd be honest.

Posted by: Calliope at May 3, 2004 8:46:23 PM

Can't help but be reminded of the "special" concentration camp run by the Nazis for visiting Red Cross and other observers, with a Jewish orchestra playing, shops, restaurants...

Posted by: John Anderson at May 4, 2004 11:52:31 AM

Ok, that article may have been bullshit but...

I spent 6 months working in Cuba, however, and comparing the pay of a cuban with that of a US citizen is meaningless. Two things: doctors in Cuba willingly become doctors despite the fact that they get lower pay specifically because they've been liberated from the concept in which health care is based on the self-interest of doctors as in the US. Second, you can live better on $10 in Cuba than 2k per month in the US because housing, food, medicine and transport and just about everything is either not included as "income" or a hell of a lot cheaper.

Cuba beats the US at several medical standards and all developing countries...just check the international journal of epidemiology. That's nothing to scoff at given the blockade and their poverty. It has to do with priorities.

You wouldn't see any different reception at US prisons (this is a country with 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population).

Posted by: Ben University of Chicago at Oct 23, 2006 5:46:06 PM

Ok, that article may have been bullshit but...

I spent 6 months working in Cuba, however, and comparing the pay of a cuban with that of a US citizen is meaningless. Two things: doctors in Cuba willingly become doctors despite the fact that they get lower pay specifically because they've been liberated from the concept in which health care is based on the self-interest of doctors as in the US. Second, you can live better on $10 in Cuba than 2k per month in the US because housing, food, medicine and transport and just about everything is either not included as "income" or a hell of a lot cheaper.

Cuba beats the US at several medical standards and all developing countries...just check the international journal of epidemiology. That's nothing to scoff at given the blockade and their poverty. It has to do with priorities.

You wouldn't see any different reception at US prisons (this is a country with 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population).

Posted by: Ben University of Chicago at Oct 23, 2006 5:46:09 PM