Red ink: The high human cost of the Cuban revolution

Cuban artist Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado mocks Fidel Castro's death (Spanish)

Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado, known as "El Sexto," was picked up by authorities on Saturday after he posted a video of himself mocking Fidel Castro's death. He is being held at a police station in Guanabacoa, a municipality of Havana. Relatives s
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Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado, known as "El Sexto," was picked up by authorities on Saturday after he posted a video of himself mocking Fidel Castro's death. He is being held at a police station in Guanabacoa, a municipality of Havana. Relatives s

Danilo Maldonado’s collision with the Cuban revolution is, in some ways, a silly asterisk to history. And in others, it practically defines the country’s dilemma of the past 57 years, a state that defines itself as the people’s political vanguard, but more often seems to be their jailer.

On Christmas Day of 2014, Maldonado — a dissident graffiti artist better known as El Sexto — was riding along Havana’s waterfront Malecón when traffic cops pulled his car over. Hearing odd scrabbling noises from the trunk, they opened it to find a pair of pigs with names scrawled on their backs: Fidel and Raúl.

Without another word, the cops arrested the 30-year-old Maldonado. (Not that his explanation would have helped; he was taking the pigs to perform in an informal production of George Orwell’s withering anti-communist satire “Animal Farm.”)

Charged with “disrespect of the leaders of the revolution” — the police clearly did not believe it a coincidence that the pigs’ names were the same as those of the Castro brothers who have ruled Cuba since 1959 — Maldonado languished in jail without a trial for 10 months until Amnesty International labeled him a “prisoner of conscience” and the government finally turned him loose.

Those 10 months — 300-some days, 7,000-some hours, all irretrievably lost — are a tiny part of the human cost of Fidel Castro’s revolution. If Castro strode the stage of world history the past six decades, preaching socialism and making allies and enemies of nations a hundred times Cuba’s size, the price was paid — in jail time, in exile, in blood — by his unwilling countrymen. It is a price that defies accounting.

“The price? I couldn’t begin to give you the numbers,” says Carlos Ponce, the director of the Latin American and Caribbean division of the human-rights group Freedom House. “I can tell you that 2 million Cubans live outside Cuba, I can tell you that in the last 10 years, there have been nearly 18,000 political detainees.

“How many in jail since 1959? How many executed? How many lost at sea? I can’t even guess.”

There are organizations that try to track those numbers. But extracting information from a secretive totalitarian regime that likely doesn’t even know the answers itself is a nearly impossible task and likely to remain so, even if there are significant changes in the way the the Cuban government does business following Fidel Castro’s death last month.

“Even after the Soviet Union fell, when some of its archives opened up for a time, all we really learned was the extent of the cover-up, all the measures the Soviets took to cover up their crimes,” says Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which studies the human-rights histories of communist regimes.

“But we never got a precise number of victims, or their names. The Soviets didn’t want to keep precise records — they had learned their lesson from the Nazis, who did keep precise records, which were used to indict Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.”

Approaching the problem from the other end — compiling statistics based on accounts from victims or their friends and families — has its own difficulties, including the human tendencies to exaggerate or even deliberately falsify information for propaganda purposes.

In the mid-1990s, one of the most visible reproofs to Cuba’s human-rights record was the “Quilt of Castro’s Genocide,” a collage of hand-sewn cloth panels bearing the names of about 10,000 Cubans believed to have met their deaths at the hands of their own government. But within a few years, the quilt disappeared after many of the “victims” proved to be alive or to have died of natural causes.

Yet even with all the obstacles, some groups have at least made a start in establishing the broad outlines of what Castro’s government has cost its people.


The late and widely respected University of Hawaii historian R. J. Rummel, who made a career out of studying what he termed “democide,” the killing of people by their own government, reported in 1987 that credible estimates of the Castro regime’s death toll ran from 35,000 to 141,000, with a median of 73,000.

“I think that’s a good range,” says Smith. “It’s compatible with what we’re comfortable using, which is ‘tens of thousands.’”

Yet the Cuba Archive, the Coral Gables-based organization generally regarded as the most scrupulous in documenting human-rights abuses in Cuba, uses a much lower figure of 7,193 (which, incidentally, includes 21 Americans, several of whom worked with the CIA).

“Those are the ones we’ve documented, using either information released by the government or the testimony of eyewitnesses, not hearsay or guesswork,” says Maria Werlau, the group’s president. “We know the numbers are much, much higher, but this is what we can actually document so far.”

Part of the difficulty is figuring out what deaths to include. The 5,000 or so executed in the immediate aftermath of Castro’s 1959 takeover — sometimes after kangaroo-court trials, sometimes without even that — are included in nearly everybody’s figures. (Figurative talk about a balance sheet for the human costs of the revolution turns quite literal when the executions are discussed; for a time during the 1960s, the Cuban government extracted most of the blood from the victims before they were shot, then sold it to other communist countries for $50 a pint.)

But what about the Cuban soldiers killed during Castro’s military adventures in Africa during the 1970s and 1980s? (The official death toll: 4,000. But a Cuban Air Force general who defected in 1987 put the number killed in Angola alone at 10,000.) And the county’s suicide rate has tripled under Castro. Should the 1,500 or so Cubans who kill themselves each year be included? If not all of them, how about the 10 a year who commit suicide — or die of medical neglect — in prison?

The largest number of deaths is believed to be those lost at sea trying to escape Cuba on makeshift rafts. For years, the Cuba Archive used an estimate worked up by Harvard-trained economist Armando Lago of about 77,000 rafter deaths by 2003.

But that number was always controversial. It was derived not from eyewitness testimony but a shaky mathematical formula. Lago first estimated the number of Cuban refugees reaching the United States by sea, then assumed that they represented just 25 percent of the attempted crossing. The rest were presumed dead.

“After Armando died in 2008, we quit using that 77,000 number,” Werlau says. “We don’t really know how many people arrive by sea — the U.S. Coast Guard does not cooperate with us, and in any event, they don’t catch everybody who comes by sea. And the 75 percent mortality rate, that was just an assumption that was not really defensible. It might be lower. It might be higher.”

Instead, the Cuba Archive uses a much lower number — 1,134 missing or dead — collected from accounts of survivors who saw other rafters go astray. “We know that number is far too low — far, far too low — but it’s what we can prove,” she says.

Whatever the real number of deaths that can be attributed to Fidel Castro’s regime, it’s clear he was an underachiever compared to other communist regimes, where large percentages of the population were killed. “Our estimate on deaths in the Soviet Union is 50 million, and in China, 60 million,” says Smith. “Castro is small chops compared to that.”


Whether you count in cold economic terms as time diverted from productive work, or as an unquantifiable sentimental loss of moments with friends and loved ones, the uncountable thousands of collective years Cubans have spent in jail for political offenses is certainly part of the human toll of the revolution. But it’s a number that no one is even willing to guess at.

“There is no one list of political prisoners that can be considered complete or reliable,” says Matt Perez, a spokesman for the New Jersey-based Union of Cuban Ex-Political Prisoners. “Even court records and prison records wouldn’t tell you.

“For instance right after the [1961] Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro rounded up everybody who might remotely be considered a suspect in working against the government, thousands and thousands and thousands of people. They didn’t have enough jails to hold them all, so they took over schools and then houses and just put people inside, so crowded that they couldn’t even sit down.

“Some of those people were released in days, some in weeks, some in months, and some went to jail for a long time. Most of them never had any kind of trial and hearing. But every single one of them was a political prisoner, at least for a little while.

“Perhaps someday, if we’re lucky enough and the regime falls and we can get into the archives, we can know this. If they don’t burn them first.”

Even the archives might not be enough. Many criminal offenses in Cuba, from the illegality of owning a boat to the prohibition on farmers slaughtering cattle to feed their families, wouldn’t be crimes at all in a democracy where people can come and go as they please and sell the products of their work to whomever they choose.

“In Cuba, telling the difference between a political crime and a common crime can be very complicated,” says Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova, author of several books harshly critical of the Castro regime. “The prohibition on slaughtering cows, for instance — you might actually spend more time in jail in Cuba for killing a cow than for killing a person, because they don’t want farmers selling their beef to anybody but government slaughterhouses.”

Freedom House’s Ponce, during conversations with Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor jailed for five years in Cuba on spying charges, was astonished to learn that Gross’ cellmate was in prison for accepting an unauthorized tip from a foreign tourist. “Five or six years in jail for taking a couple of dollars from a tourist!” exclaimed Ponce. “Most human-rights groups do not include those types of crimes when they are making lists of political prisoners, but I don’t know what else you could call it.”

Nearly everyone who has examined the issue of Cuban political prisoners agrees that, over the course of Fidel Castro’s rule, they numbered in the hundreds of thousands, serving jail time ranging from a few hours to a few decades. And there is no sign that his death has changed anything.

Within a few hours of Fidel’s exit from the mortal coil, Danilo Maldonado, barely a year out of jail for his renegade pig humor, was locked up again, accused of writing anti-Castro graffiti on the wall of the Hotel Habana Libre, where Castro lived for a time following his victory in 1959. The words Maldonado scrawled: Se fue. He’s gone.

Clearly, he’s not.