HAVANA TIMES — The Cuban government allowed the international media access to several of its prisons in Havana on Tuesday, a few weeks before the UN Human Rights Council’s regular and comprehensive review of practices on the island, reported dpa news.
Havana opened its jail doors to the media for the first time in almost a decade (the previous government of Fidel Castro organized a similar visit in April 2004).
However, for years Cuban authorities refused to allow inspections of its prisons by humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International or the Red Cross.
“We’ve repeatedly asked for access,” said the head of the regional delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Karl Mattli. He added that this request is for “on-going” access, since the organization has not had been able to enter Cuban prisons since the 90’s.
Nevertheless, the deputy chief of the National Directorate of Cuban Prisons, Colonel Osmany Leiva, commented, “I don’t know of the prison system having received any such requests.”
These petitions reach prisons through the Ministry of the Interior, he said, adding that “prisons are visited by many institutions that come to events” on the island.
The interest of humanitarian organizations focuses on political prisoners, with the UN Human Rights Council set to makes its customary review in Cuba on May 1.
According to organizations such as the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), led by dissident Elizardo Sanchez, there are currently about 90 people detained on the island for political reasons.
“There are currently less than 50 cases for crimes against state security,” said Leiva. The Raul Castro government doesn’t officially recognize the existence of “political prisoners,” and accuses dissidents of being mercenaries financed from abroad to destabilize the country.
Sanchez counters by saying: “They are only taken to tour “places that are presentable… The aim is to lead visitors and journalists around in places previously chosen by the government. To me it’s all rigged,” criticized the opposition leader of the main non-governmental group that collects data on human rights on the island.
Cuba has a prison population of about 57,000 inmates, according to figures released by the Cuban government in May of last year for the first time in decades. The CCDHRN puts the figure at between 60,000 and 70,000.
Several foreign reporters visited four prisons in Havana on Tuesday, including one of the five high-security facilities in Cuba, and a women’s prison in the town of El Guatao.
The tours included opportunities to talk with inmates. The authorities tried to demonstrate that prison conditions are suitable for all prisoners. The institutions are equipped to house women with children, are supplied with medical facilities and provide training so that inmates can be reincorporated into society.
“We’re never full,” said Sonia Rubio, the director of the women’s prison in Havana. The El Guatao jail has a capacity 500 people, though it currently houses only 400 to 420 inmates.
Most women, 63 percent, have been convicted of property offenses, of those 50 percent were convicted of embezzlement. “It’s a crime that has always been prevalent,” said Rubio. Raul Castro’s government has acknowledged that widespread corruption is one of the main ills afflicting the island’s battered economy.
Among the prisoners at the women’s prison are foreigners, serving time mostly for drug trafficking. “I had a debt and I needed to pay it,” explained one of these prisoners, 34-year-old Claudia Carvallo.
The Bolivian mother of three children was arrested more than five years ago at the Havana airport with 800 grams of cocaine in her suitcase. She was delivering it to the island in exchange for $1,000. Her sentence is for 15 years, but she could be released in about ten months for good behavior.
Although Cuba suffers almost no drug problems, in recent years there have been increases in the arrival of “mules” (carrying the drugs in their luggage or on their bodies) as well as clandestine shipments by sea en route to the United States, which is the world’s largest drug market.