Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’
Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’
BY NORA GAMEZ TORRES
10/26/2014 9:46 AM 10/26/2014 2:46 PM
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
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
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
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
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.”
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Vazquez finally made it to the United States in August 1979. Here, he
made a career as a banker.
Source: Uncovering a dark secret at ‘Model Prison’ | The Miami Herald –