Commentary Magazine

Against All Hope, by Armando Valladares

Castro's Gulag

Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares.
by Armando Valladares.
Translated by Andrew Hurley. Knopf. 381 pp. $18.95.

The 20th century, possibly because it has been a century rich in failed utopian experiments, has also been an epoch of anti-utopian literature. One should not, however, overestimate the influence of the genre: the illusion of a perfect society just beyond the horizon persists almost in inverse proportion to the actual facts needed to support it. It required more than four decades for the Soviet Union to lose its privileged status, and even then, the cause was not the disappearance of millions of people (including many outstanding leaders of the revolution of 1917), or the remarkable testimony of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but the secret speech of Nikita Khrushchev to a party congress in 1956. Moreover, one wonders whether the Soviets would have declined quite so rapidly in the esteem of many Western (or Westernized) intellectuals had not China already existed to take up the spiritual slack.

The rather muted attention paid thus far to Armando Valladares's harrowing prison memoirs—his account of twenty-two years under conditions of virtually unimaginable brutality and sadism—suggests that the Castro regime still enjoys a minimal immunity, even though a younger version of Cuba is already in place in Nicaragua to Shelter the disillusioned. This is not to say that some Western intellectuals have not protested individual cases of cruelty against Cuban dissidents, particularly writers, but there has been a certain reluctance to draw systemic conclusions from the facts. For example, Bishop James Armstrong and Reverend Russell Dilley concluded after visiting the island in 1977 that “there is a significant difference between situations where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to perpetuate inequities (as in Chile and Brazil, for example) and situations where people are imprisoned for opposing regimes designed to remove inequities (as in Cuba).”

Against All Hope shows how wrong these gentlemen are. However one chooses to interpret the Castro regime's ultimate intentions for Cuban society, it treats political prisoners with consistent brutality and barbarism, including frequent cases of murder, mutilation, long periods of isolation in subhuman circumstances, beatings, biological experiments, and extreme psychological torture—a gratuitous cruelty which, given the ironclad control the regime exercises over society, can only be dictated by purely psychotic considerations.

There is no point in comparing the sufferings of political prisoners in Cuba with those in, say, Chile, to determine which is worse: from the point of view of the victim, the ideological signature of the regime is irrelevant. Still, one cannot help reflecting that the sheer capacity of Communist governments to perpetuate themselves in power extends the agony of their victims far beyond the “normal” limits: Valladares's more than two decades of incarceration is a Latin American record, so far as I am aware. Moreover, nobody in his right mind, and certainly no non-Chilean, would hold up the Pinochet regime as some sort of model for Third World development, much less as an exemplar of liberal, humanitarian values. Yet when Castro says there have been no tortures or disappearances in Cuba, all too many intellectuals in the United States, Latin America, and Western Europe still ache to believe him.


Three aspects of Valladares's awful tale are particularly worthy of note. First is the remarkable capacity of prisoners to circumvent the limitations of their environment—to communicate, to organize, and to exchange food, equipment, letters, and so forth. In that sense, though it is not a great work of literature, Against All Hope is a tribute to the unconquerable resilience of the human spirit. In Valladares's various places of confinement, he and his fellow prisoners created their own “radio”; they planned and executed an almost (but not quite) perfect escape; they were even able to verify the claim of prison officials that huge dynamite charges had been placed in the foundation of their building, to be ignited automatically in case of an American invasion. Valladares regularly corresponded with his fiancée (later his wife) under the nose of jailers determined to keep the two apart.

Second, it is clear that Cuban officials pursue a double standard in the treatment of prisoners: common felons rank “higher” in the criminological hierarchy than dissidents, and indeed the former are often used to harass the latter. An enormous emphasis is placed upon compelling dissidents to “rehabilitate” themselves, that is, to confess their “errors” and collaborate with prison officials against their former comrades. Thus, not satisfied with depriving these men of their freedom, their families, and the pleasures of daily life, Castro's jailers attempt to strip them of the last thing which remains to them—their self-respect. Most of Valladares's book is a grueling account of the various ways in which he and his fellow dissidents resisted, for the most part successfully, the pressure inflicted upon them. In one case they even won over one of the guards, until he too fell afoul of the system. All of this stands in stark contrast to the treatment that was accorded Castro himself as a political prisoner under dictator Fulgencio Batista; by his own admission, Castro was permitted to live almost as well on the “inside” as on the “outside,” and moreover he was amnestied after just two years of a lengthy sentence.

Third is the complicated international dimension of the Cuban human-rights problem. Particularly piquant is Valladares's discussion of the Tartuffian activities of Mon-signor Zacchi, the Papal Nuncio, who sought to shore up the declining fortunes of the Cuban Church by collaborating with the regime, even to the point of dispatching a prelate to convince resisting dissidents to submit to “rehabilitation.” The Nuncio apparently went out of his way to “paint Castro as a man with deep Christian values,” in exchange for which the Cuban dictator “soon gave [Zacchi] his own brand-new bus to transport seminarians to farms where they would work ‘voluntarily’ to help the revolution.” All of this occurred at a time when dissident priests were actually serving hard labor in Cuban stone quarries. After Zacchi's arrival in 1961, Valladares reports, “never again did the Catholic Church in Cuba raise its voice against the crimes and tortures or demand that the firing squads be abolished. During that time it was not only a silent Church, but something much worse, a Church of complicity.”

The circumstances attending Valladares's release also shed some interesting light on certain dark corners of the “human-rights” community. In Sweden the present Deputy Foreign Minister (and international spokesman for the Social Democratic party), visited by Mrs. Valladares, heard her out with a nervous courtesy, assuring her that “very few of us in Europe still think Cuba is a paradise.” But to speak out, he added, “would be giving the Americans a publicity weapon.” Fortunately, in Norway the actress Liv Ullman, outraged by this archetypical example of Swedish international conduct, organized a movement of journalists and intellectuals which eventually enlisted the support of French President François Mitterrand and achieved Valladares's release in 1983. Even so, having sustained serious injuries as the result of mistreatment by guards, he required some months of orthopedic therapy to render him minimally presentable to the Western press, and at the last minute Cuban officials tried to get him to leave the island without the rest of his family. Today he resides in Madrid where he directs a commission on behalf of political dissidents in Cuba.

Even in Spain, however, the long arm of Havana continues to reach out for him; as recently as 1985 two functionaries of Castro's embassy were discovered attempting to break into the commission's offices and destroy records compiled at vast human cost. And while Spain's Prime Minister Felipe González is said to be privately unhappy with the situation in Cuba, many personalities in the ruling Socialist party regard as an unfortunate provocation the presence in the country of Valladares and of Valladares's friend and fellow refugee from Castro's prisons, the essayist and publisher Carlos Alberto Montaner.


To put it bluntly, Against All Hope is not a good read. It is slow, plodding, tortuous in its descriptions, and constantly shocking. After a while one becomes reluctant to turn the page, fearful of what will come next. Quite clearly, Valladares felt the need to record not only his own fate, but that of many men and women who will never be heard from again. After all—the point bears continual repetition—for Cuba there will be no Argentina type commissions on “disappeared persons,” no Sábato Report; no trials of the guilty; no movies like The Official Story; and precious little international solidarity for the victims. In terms of intellectual fashion this book has far too much going against it to make it a publishing sensation. Nonetheless, it remains an indispensable contribution to Cuban history and to the growing literature on revolutionary dictatorship. One hopes that it may also achieve the reading public it deserves.

About the Author

Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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