Cuba’s Two Memories

By Maykel Paneque

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UMAP brigade officers and laborers.

HAVANA TIMES — Some days ago, I read a piece published by Cuba’s Juventud Rebelde titled “Obama to Hiroshima: Peace without Apologies.” The article pointed out that, even though Obama is to become the first US president in office to visit Hiroshima, “he will not offer an apology for the use of the atomic bomb in that city and Nagasaki, under orders from President Harry Truman.”

Among other comments, the note reminded readers that, 71 years ago, “on August 6, 1945, the bomb killed some 140,000 people in Hiroshima, and, on August 9, another bomb killed an additional 80,000,” adding that, even though “the great majority of casualties were civilian, the world has yet to hear a formal apology from the White House.”

The ability of Cuba’s official press to vividly recall certain incidents and conceal others is remarkable. We needn’t look too far: This past November 19th marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Cuba’s Military Production Aid Units (UMAP), an appendage of the country’s obligatory military service which resulted in the creation of forced labor and concentration camps.

Neither Juventud Rebelde, nor Granma nor Trabajadores, to mention only the major newspapers, made mention of this horrible experiment or cared to recall that more than 25,000 thousand young people and others who were not so young, suffered captivity, besieged by guard dogs, armed guards and barbed-wire fences that were electrified at night.

As though suffering from collective amnesia, the journalists, editors and editors in chief of those official newspapers do not appear to recall the 14 to 16-hour work days and the people who made up the population of those camps in Cuba’s province of Camaguey: homosexuals, practitioners of different religions and anyone considered a dissident, people who did not fit the mold of the “new man” established by the government in its attempts to impel the revolutionary process. There they would be reeducated and turned into real men.

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Medals for officers at the UMAP camps.

The passionate need to forget – or, better said, deny – the past has led to attempts to conceal the horrible toll of the UMAP: 72 deaths from torture and executions, 180 suicides and more than 500 people who ended up in psychiatric hospitals.

The Cuban government and, needless to say, the official media, have buried these figures and sought to cover the suffering and pain with a cloak of silence. To date, they have yet to corroborate or deny the statistics, nor have they called upon any of the survivors to offer proof of having lived through these ordeals. As they say, “silence is consent.”

The handful of reports published by Granma, El Mundo and Verde Olivo in 1966 were commendable pieces of misinformation, destined to distort the reality of a senseless, speculative experimental work devoid of any scientific basis, such as the use of electroshock therapy and insulin shocks to try and change the sexual preferences of homosexuals.

Of course, the Cuban government is in its right to chalk up these figures and the alleged confessions to hearsay, people’s morbid imagination and the decontextualized analysis of incidents that took place between November 19, 1965 and June 30, 1968.

The government has the right to say Cuba was isolated, that it needed to beef up its workforce to breathe fresh air into a dying economy. But it must also explain what its selection criterion was, because if the revolution was for everyone, why were homosexuals, the religious and a broad spectrum of “disaffected” souls – potential deserters, vagabonds, pimps and others – considered “scum.”

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Memories of the UMAP.

It also has the right – or, better said, the moral duty – to publish the details of how those concentration camps were filled: by summoning people whose names were collected in the big crackdowns carried out in popular places, from reports issued by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) and worker unions, as well as from files classified by the Depuration Operations carried out at universities and other educational facilities, “clean up” operations that, in addition to being the forerunners to the UMAP, spread terror and undermined confidence in the emancipatory project.

We have looked abroad again, as we have done so many times, and have expressed indignation at the fact Obama will not offer apologies for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during his visit to Japan at the close of May, to attend the G-7 summit.

When will the official press express anger for the silence that has surrounded the events in the UMAP for more than half a century? When will they ask forgiveness of the victims for having put them in that hell, and admit, while they’re at it, that they’ve left scars that endure to this day? Will we have to wait 71 years before Juventud Rebelde owns up to the truth?

This part of our history –the UMAP camps- should hurt us all, and if we are going to be looking for the straw in another’s eye we should have the courage to remember and demand formal apologies here at home.

20 thoughts on “Cuba’s Two Memories

  • I never alleged that balance prevents atrocities. I contend that our system allows those who disagree with the US government to seek redress. The possibility is this redress does have a chilling effect on those bad actors would otherwise commit atrocities.

  • Moses, you choose to be blind to the worst excesses of the US government, as if alleged “balance” prevents attrocities. I send this reply to you on the 71st Anniversary of Hiroshima. I have been there and met a few survivors and I was a unwitting participant in the US domination and occupation of Okinawa for some years. Each country and people deserves to be considered in context and with an honest intent to judge what is just for the greater good. You are the one who wants to believe the Cuban society and revolution is to be assessed in terms of the Castro’s while you want to ignore not just the relevance of the US societies injustices in general, but more importantly the actions of the US that have directly caused death and suffering to Cubans that was neither necessary nor just. Your attempt to redirect the the issues to the Castro’s is like the cop who argues a bad cop is just a single bad apple. The US government is guilty and Cuba deserves not just apologies, but compensation and relief.

  • Well, this is a first. For once you have conceded I have some good points.

    But you echo my point, that it is a slippery slope to justify anything, post hoc (my addition). In the moment, the people making the decisions are acting on the best information available, trying to decide what is best for the people who they are charged with protecting, President Roosevelt, and Truman after him, acted in the best interests of the American people. As it happened, they saved hundreds of thousands of US lives and millions of Japanese and Asian lives. For you to insist that it would have worked out better if the US had done nothing, as if the raging war could have been put on pause, is to indulge in delusions of moral narcissism.

    Every day, thousands of innocent civilians were being murdered by the Japanese Imperial Army. Using the atom bomb stopped that within a week. Perhaps a squadron of magical unicorns could have appeared over Tokyo and needed the war with pixie dust. All other alternatives, short of fantasy, would have allowed the slaughter to continue.

  • Some good points. I don’t agree that firebombing civilians is justified either, even if they support their government or to save your own soldiers. It’s a slippery slope to justifying anything. Concentration camp guards justified their role as their “war duty”. These things often come back to bite you in the long run. I agree that there was a lot of fanaticism on the Japanese side but it remains a possibility that this could have achieved results given time. I agree with Ken that the US did indeed want to demonstrate the bombs power to the USSR.

    I never “pretend to moral outrage” and you have completely misunderstood what I was trying to say. I was saying how easy it is to justify an atrocity on the basis of another previous atrocity. I was showing what Bin Ladin could say to justify 9/11.

  • Whether it was morally right or not to bomb a city of a country which had attacked the US is one questions, and it can be debated endlessly. The other question of whether it was worse to use an atomic bomb rather than conventional explosives is another question. The firebombing of Tokyo on March 9th, 1945 killed more civilians than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s not at all clear that these victims died more humanely than the victims of Hiroshima.

    The question of whether or not it is ever morally justified to target civilian population in war is a messy and complex one. It’s a delusion to think these questions can or should be argued from an armchair and without considering the historical and social context of the war.

    Suppose the civilian population overwhelmingly supports their military which has been engaged in an aggressive war against their neighbours? This was the case with Japan, which had invaded and attacked Korea, Manchuria, China, Indochina, Philippines, Taiwan and Hawaii. This war of aggression by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had the overwhelming support of the Japanese population. Are these civilians, therefore, not equally responsible for the war? In this situation, was it not justified to take the war to the Japanese civilians as a means to ending it? For the US President, who’s prime responsibility is the defence of the United States and it’s people, the decision to end the war as quickly as possible was chosen because it was the best way to reduce the number of US casualties.

    By the way, that consideration, to reduce the number of casualties, never once troubled Stalin. He gave no concern to saving the lives of Russian soldiers which he used as cannons fodder. His goal was only to extend his own power.

    The argument that the US could have held a demonstration detonation to convince the Japanese to end the war has been thoroughly refuted, and by the Japanese themselves. At the time, the US had only 4 atomic bombs. They detonated the 1st one in New Mexico to see if the idea worked. The US warned Japan that they now possessed a powerful new weapon and were prepared to use it. Japan ignored the warning. They dropped the bomb on Hiroshima on August 6th. The Japanese refuse to surrender. Speeches were made in Japan that the Japanese nation would fight to the last man, that they would rather be annihilated than surrender.

    Nagasaki was bombed 3 days later, on August 9th. Still the Japanese refused to surrender. At a council of war ministers, the fanatical military still insisted on fighting to the death. The Emperor Hirohito did not agree. On August 12, the Emperor decided to surrender. While on his way to the radio station, the Emperor’s motorcade was ambushed by a group of army officers intent on stopping him. Fortunately, the Emperor’s body guards fought off the attackers and the Emperor was able to make his speech. Subsequent to the war, interviews with senior Japanese officers confirmed the view that no demonstration explosion would have convinced them to surrender. They were all prepared to fight to the death.

    The suggestion that the bombing was militarily unnecessary and done as a demonstration to warn Stalin is also false. Stalin already knew about the atomic bombs, as he has spies inside the Manhattan project. The USSR declared war in Japan after the bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Russian troops were moving to invade and annex as much of Japan and it’s defeated empire as quickly as possible. Stalin’s behaviour was not that of one who has been warned off aggression.

    The moral outrage you pretend to uphold is surprisingly lopsided and selective. When you write, “look how Israel treats the Palestinians”, you must also look honestly at how the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states have treated Israel. They have all made public their intention is to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea. You should also look at how Palestinians are abused by Arab states who treat them as vermin: for example, in 1970 the Jordanian military attacked Palestinian refugee camps and killed some 9000 people, driving them into Lebanon.

    The US has indeed backed Muslims: they sent troops to defend Muslims in Bosnia & Kosovo. When sectarian terrorists in Iraq where car bombing mosques, it was US troops who defended Muslim civilians. In Afghanistan, were Taliban terrorists shot school girls, it’s US troops who defend the Muslim children. The US has sponsored countless peace negotiations between Israel & the Palestinians, only to have the Palestinians reject every offer. Still the US & Europe continue to subsidize the Palestinians with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for schools, hospitals and infrastructure.

    And why would the Palestinian leaders ever accept peace? They’ve become very wealthy scamming the West for cash, living high in Dubai, while the Palestinian people are held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, or by Fatah in the West Bank, or in refugee camps in the repressive Arab dictatorships.

  • What you are saying is very dangerous. The thing with war crimes, human rights abuses and terrorism is that you can’t justify them on the basis of anything else. If your adversaries don’t hold up to the standards that is no excuse for doing the same. If they kill civilians, you can’t do the same. And you can’t justify it on the basis of some greater good. Otherwise think about the implications. Bin La din could say look at how the women and children were massacred in the refugee camps in Lebanon, look how Israel treats the Palestinians, look how the west looks on and never backs Moslems and justify 9/11 on that basis. The US didn’t need to choose a city to bomb and one that was build up and encircled by surrounding hills in order to maximize the carnage and civilian deaths. If they wanted to show the power of the weapon they possessed they could have easily done so on an uninhabited part of the country or another small uninhabited island nearby.

  • This isn’t a matter of opinion, but of historical record which I am presenting. If you are saying Fidel Castro said one thing, but meant another, now that is an opinion as it can’t be proved either way. All the correspondence between them is in the public domain, so why not read it. The last two sentences from the cable are “I convey to you the infinite gratitude and recognition of the Cuban people to the Soviet people, who have been so generous and fraternal, along with our profound gratitude and admiration to you personally. We wish you success with the enormous task and great responsibilities which are in your hands.” And your point is?

  • Dani, although respecting your right to express your opinion, I believe that Nikita Kruschchev as an ally who knew Fidel Castro personally, was better qualified to comment upon the contents of Fidel Castro’s cable than you are. Why don’t you re-read the final two sentences of the Castro cable, the implication is clear.

  • What a great idea, Ken. I pray one day Cuba will have a Truth & Reconciliation process to hear the voices of all of the victims of the Castro Regime.

    Until that day, I applaud HT and the author of the above piece for putting the crimes of the Castros in the light of day.

    (By the way: as horrible as the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, there is no doubt they brought an immediate end to WWII. Without the atom bombs, the US would have had to invade the main island of Japan. The war would have dragged on for 2 more years & the estimates are that 500,000 US troops would have perished along with millions of Japanese soldiers & civilians.

    These estimates are based on the casualty rates of Tarawa, Iwo Jima and other battles where the Japanese fought to the death and refused to surrender even when their defeat was certain. In the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese army chained bombs onto civilian women & children and sent them in mass waves against the US marines, who were faced with the terrible choice of shooting these women & children, or of being blown to pieces by them. An invasion of the main island of Japan would certainly have included the same kinds of mass war crimes carried out by the Japanese army against their own civilians.

    Furthermore, in the final 6 months of the war, when Japan knew they could not win, they Japanese Imperial Army began slaughtering Chinese, Korea, Philipino civilians at a rate of 500,000 per month. The horrible fact is the use of the atomic bombs saved the lives of millions of people.)

  • Simply put…ego. A 37 year-old Fidel found himself in the middle of the world’s two superpowers. Craving to be taken seriously, he obviously went to extreme lengths to stay relevant. Thanks be to God that Kruschnev and Kennedy ignored him.

  • Good idea. However there’s a “snowball in Hell” chance it will take place as long as the Castros are alive, let alone in power.

  • Since you are clearly predisposed to defend the Castros by pointing out the worst aspects of the US, you should consider this difference between the two systems. While we are as vulnerable to the excesses of power here in the US as in any other country, there is a balance. If the government chooses to obscure, an independent media is free to illuminate. If one media outlet is friendly to government interests, a competing media outlet will fill the void. If ALL media is compromised, then individual Americans may lawfully protest against the media biases. The Castro regime you seem to blindly support lacks ALL of these possibilities. There is NO comparison between the oppression in Cuba and the system, albeit flawed, that you have enjoyed in the US.

  • The comments were made in the context of an invasion of Cuba by the US.

    The full text of the Armageddon letter is here I will quote some parts. “Given the analysis of the situation and the reports which have reached us, [I] consider an attack to be almost imminent — within the next 24 to 72 hours.” “If the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the dangers of their aggressive policy are so great that after such an invasion the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists could carry out a nuclear first strike against it.” “The imperialists.. are preparing to invade, while at the same time blocking any possibility of negotiation, even though they understand the gravity of the problem.” “We will maintain our hopes for saving the peace until the last moment, and we are ready to contribute to this in any way we can.” Now does that sound like someone who is advocating a first strike.

    The US didn’t need to invade Cuba. They certainly didn’t have a god given right to do so. If they had done they would have initiated the conflict.

  • All countries have their dark sides and episodes. I have yet to find a society that tells the whole truth in its textbooks or newspapers. My country is as guilty of hiding and distorting the truth as any until this very moment. It is good when alternative views can be made public, but be careful to automatically believe such criticisms without careful research and corroboration. They tend to onesidedness and exaggeration.

    For example this article doesn’t mention that that Fidel has admitted the policies against homosexuality were wrong and specifically apologized for his contribution to these mistakes. Now Obama was not born in 1945, but as president he could have been more truthful and officially respectful of even the likelihood of the atomic bombings being war crimes. Just as the massive bombings in Vietnam and elsewhere are seen by the world as similar or worse crimes.

    So lets urge young people to question and research what they are taught and to the extent they are truthful and informed, we will all benefit. But keep in mind the worst use of emotionally and bias driven propaganda has been to support the worst national behaviors, many of which continue to this day. I could cite a long list including the many continuing suicides and deaths the US is responsible for, far exceeding any mistakes or crimes of Cuba.

  • Agreed Ken. Also there was the Tutu reconciliation commission in South Africa!

  • In Canada we have been through a Truth and Reconciliation process to examine the abuse of aboriginal children in the residential school system. It seems to me that Cuba would benefit from a similar examination of the UMAP experience. it will be painful, but the country will be better for it.

  • You bring up Castro and the 1962 missile crisis and I too remember and studied it well. No excuses but I question what drove Castro so insane to go that far? That was and remains the most frightening 24 hours I ever lived in my entire life, no hype, just fact, we were minutes away from annihilation.

  • My father suffered greatly at one of these camps in late 67. He was just a shadow of himself, suffering from malnutrition and dysentery, when he came home. We were lucky to flee Cuba on the “freedom flights” a few months later.

  • The pro-Castro family regime supporters will have little to say about this article. One can bet that Juventad Rebelde had nothing to say about Fidel Castro urging Nikita Krushchev to start a world war by a pre-emptive nuclear attack upon the USA.

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