By Maykel Paneque
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.
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.”
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.