Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’

Seen here is the Presidio Modelo prison on the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba, in an undated photo, which once imprisoned Fidel Castro. (AP Photo)
Seen here is the Presidio Modelo prison on the Isla de la Juventud in Cuba, in an undated photo, which once imprisoned Fidel Castro. (AP Photo) ASSOCIATED PRESS

On a remote island off the southwest coast of Cuba stands a complex of circular structures once described by French philosopher Michel Foucault as a perfect model of disciplinary power. Those held there can’t tell if an armed guard was watching from a tower situated in the heart of the penitentiary.

But for those detained there, as well as other Cubans, the panopticon serves as a symbol of revolution and counter-revolution.

Originally designed in the 18th century by British philosopher and social reformist Jeremy Bentham, the so-called “Model Prison” was copied by Cuban dictator Gerardo Machado early in the 20th century and erected at the Isle of Pines or Isla de Pinos, as it was known then.

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.

Vazquez’s mission: to defy the perpetual vigilance at Isla de Pinos and take photos of the loads of dynamite the Castro government had placed on the ground floor of each of the buildings.

The explosives were intended to prevent the “counterrevolutionaries” from staging a prison revolt and join an “imperialist” aggression should such an attempt take place.

At the time, Vazquez was a national leader of the anti-Castro 30th of November Revolutionary Movement whose objective was to “overthrow Fidel’s system,” he said, “because we felt betrayed.”

Like many others, Vazquez had initially joined Castro in a revolution to oust then dictator Fulgencio Batista.

“I fought against Batista, and Fidel derailed our initial plans for the revolution completely,” Vazquez said. “We exhausted all our resources to try to overthrow him.”

But what exactly where the initial plans for the revolution?

“For it to be based on the constitution of 1940, for freedom to exist, for oppression to end,” he said. “And all of that resulted in Fidel’s farce. He lied to the people, everything was a terrible lie.”

In February 1961, just a year after Castro’s “triumph of the revolution,” Vazquez was arrested with “sensitive material,” a euphemism for guns, explosives, radio equipment or whatever other tools people who were against the new regime could use.

Anastasio Rojas, the driver who transported Vazquez and the “sensitive material” was executed. Seventeen-year-old Vazquez was sent to the Model Prison.

Today, Vazquez is 71, has a soft voice and is a man of few words. He doesn’t like talking about his prison experiences too much, though he agreed to an interview with el Nuevo Herald. He introduces his sister, Guillermina Vazquez, who is bed stricken but mentally able to add to her brother’s memory.

The Dynamite

Guillermina Vazquez was the contact person between the various jails and the 30th of November National Revolutionary Movement. She recalls receiving a message from prisoners needing a camera.

In 1962, a prisoner who escaped and managed to make it to Miami spoke publicly about the explosives. On September 14 of that year, Patria newspaper published this account:

“We’ve seen the work [the jail]. It’s completely full of dynamite. The dynamite can be set off from a far away hill, by two means: by an electric battery or by using a material which explodes in sections until reaching the dynamite,” the escaped prisoner, whose identity was kept anonymous, told the newspaper.

But the political prisoners still needed proof of the allegations — the photos. That’s where Guillermina managed to transport a minuscule spy-like camera fabricated by the German company Minox into the jail. In order to sneak the camera past the guards, she hid it inside a tampon.

“They did extensive searches to women visitors,” she said.

Added her brother: “I was the one who took the photos of the dynamite along with another friend. In the cell where I lived, on the first floor, there was an opening where the water ducts ran through.”

With a lot of work, rebar and the help of other prisoners, Vazquez managed to break the floor enough to be able to pass through.

“When we broke it, we already had the camera ready and both of us went in there and we began taking pictures of the dynamite,” Vazquez said.

The mission was accomplished but not without reprisals.

“Later came the problem of them finding the hole [on the prison floor] and punishing us,” he said. “We were isolated in the pavilions, the jail cells were barren and they left us there with nothing more than underwear.”

The photos ultimately made their way to the outside world with the help of another Vazquez sister during a separate visit.

According to Guillermina, “the searches were made when you entered the jail but not when you left.”

Vazquez wasn’t a seasoned photographer and the images, which were published in the Miami Spanish-language paper Diario Las Américas in 1964, aren’t of high enough quality to be reproduced today. One can barely make out the bundles of dynamite and holes in the walls.

“But we did it!,” Vazquez said. “The interesting part of this is that we took the photos. Otherwise the world wouldn’t have known about this.”

The prison

“Eventually, one day after the October Missile Crisis, they removed the dynamite although [and] they never covered the holes,” Vazquez said. “I don’t know if they have now, I’ve heard they’re using the prison as a museum.”

For political prisoners like Vazquez, united by a strict moral code, their time in prison was another stage of their “struggle.” They, along with many others in the rest of the country, lived in a state of “permanent war.” The wounds they received because of maltreatment and abuses became “combat injuries.” Flaking out was unforgivable.

Vazquez and his friend, Israel Abreu Villareal, were among the first plantados, the term given to political prisoners who rejected forced labor. The day they decided to chuck work, the guards responded with violence.

A buff sergeant called “Champion” [Campeón in Spanish] grabbed a gun and hit Vazquez over the head.

“He knocked me out and later woke me up. He was being sarcastic and hitting me incessantly until I managed to get up and keep walking,” he said.

After this incident, Vazquez and Abreu were transported to the hospital inside the prison where they started a hunger strike lasting 42 days.

In a blunt testimony published in the book Cuba: Clamor del Silencio, Abreu added chilling details to Vazquez’s tale. In the midst of the hunger strike, Campeón and another sergeant, identified as Girón, once again got a hold of Abreu and took him to the field where they proceeded to beat him repeatedly with a bayonet until the bloody bone of his hip protruded from his skin.

Unnamed Island

The testimonies of these two men are not exceptional. Abreu’s book documented at least 100 other similar stories. Other testimonials also were documented in a 1963 report by the the Organization of American States’ Interamerican Commission on Human Rights.

The Cuban government discarded these accusations and made them a mere footnote of a political and diplomatic battle it considered more important, the battle between Cuba and the United States, one in which the OAS and the Latin American governments were touted as “puppets” of imperialism.

Still, a more powerful gesture may have been needed to rewrite Cuban history and erase an uncomfortable memory. In 1967, when the Model Prison was closed, Isla de Pinos became an island without a name.

In a speech made on Aug. 12, 1967 Castro said this about the nameless land: “...this island is proof of the revolution and this is a starting point. This island, which for now we will call, not of the Youth (Juventud) and not of the Pines (Pinos), because there’s little of both of those things now.”

But Castro promised to transform the island into “a grand center of social experimentation, where we will resolve in the measure possible, as a vanguard of our people, the problems which the idea of creating a communist society implies.”

Part of the new experiment was to recruit youth from several provinces to “revolutionize nature and revolutionize society.” To add drama to it all, the former prison would host 20,000 students.

Almost 10 years later, the unnamed island was officially baptized in 1978 the “Island of Youth.”

Cuban press regularly reports on the anniversaries of this proclamation and the social transformation of the second largest Cuban island, which was “recognized before the revolutionary triumph by the horrors of the Model Prison,” according to the newspaper Juventud Rebelde.

The Pardon

It’s no surprise that those born in Cuba after 1959 can only associate the Model Prison as the place where Castro and his fellow assailants of the Moncada Barracks in 1953 finished a jail sentence of less than two years.

In May of 1955, Batista freed Castro and his group.

But a pardon for Vazquez and the rest of the 3,000 political prisoners didn’t come until 1979, after representatives of the Cuban exile community and the Cuban government signed an agreement for their freedom in December 1978. The accord stated that the U.S. and Cuban governments would facilitate the transport of prisoners and their families to American soil.

Vazquez finally made it to the United States in August 1979. Here, he made a career as a banker.