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Culture Q&A

Armando Valladares

Armando Valladares: Mind games

How one man survived 22 brutal years in Cuba’s prisons

Armando Valladares: Mind games

Armando Valladares (Graziano AriciLeyevine/Redux)

From 1960 to 1982 Armando Valladares, now 78 years old, languished in Fidel Castro’s prisons. He survived because of his faith in Christ: See “Lifetime achievement.” I interviewed Valladares on Nov. 6 in Miami.

When Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, what were your thoughts? I was hopeful, thinking he would respect human dignity.

When did you first realize something was wrong? Only a few months after Castro came to power. In 1959 Castro always said he was not a communist. In April 1961 he said, “I have always been a communist.”

Late in 1959, when you headed the communications department at a bank for laborers, why did you refuse to put an “I’m with Fidel” sign on your desk? A group of communists put on everybody’s desks little signs saying, “If Fidel is a communist, sign me up because I am with him.” I said, “If he’s a communist, I’m not with him.” Not allowing that sign was enough to say I was an enemy of the revolution.

What did you think would happen to you when you refused that sign? I thought they would kick me out of my job. Instead, they gave me a sentence of 30 years in prison. But I thought it would end after three or four months. I thought the United States would not accept a communist country 90 miles away.

‘If they had been able to break me, I would have been a trophy for them.’

On Jan. 5, 1961, Castro’s men took you to La Cabaña, the 18th-century fortress that became Che Guevara’s military prison. What was it like? Dungeons they could fill with water. They would blindfold people and yell, “Fire.”

How far was the execution wall from your cell? Every night I could hear those about to be killed screaming, “Long live King Jesus.” Then guards shut the mouths of people about to be shot because they couldn’t stand the screaming.

You had the opportunity to accept political rehabilitation. I could have signed a document saying, among other things, that all of my previous life was wrong, that I do not believe in God and regret my previous life with God, that the revolution gives me the opportunity to be a new man. 

Then what? They would have sent me home. That would have been spiritual suicide. And, if they had been able to break me, I would have been a trophy for them.

Communists who wanted to break you made you an offer? When I was 15 years in jail, an official took me to a little room and said, “This is just you and me here. You don’t have to sign the paper, but if you tell me face to face that you are wrong and we are right, in 48 hours we will set you free.”

How did you respond? I said, “Let’s suppose you never tell anybody, but I’ll know it and I will never be able to look at myself in the mirror.” He asked me why. I said, “Because you’re the ones who are wrong, not me.” He got up and said, “You’re crazy,” and he left me.

They put you in solitary confinement. Did you have anything to read? Nothing.

Did you have a window? In those cells of solitary confinement the window was covered with metal so you couldn’t see outside. But there were three tiny holes, and through one of the holes I could see a little ray of light.

That was all the light you had? It was always dark inside. No electricity. No artificial light. Just a 10-foot by 4-foot room. I spent eight years in a cell like that. No water. No toilet paper. A hole to use as a toilet, and what you accumulate would be there for months and months and months. It was full of worms, and the worms would go up the walls. I slept on the floor.

The last two years you were in a special cell? Yes, they prepared a special cell in the hospital so I would get lost in time and in space. I was not able to see if it was day or night. The room was all white, with 12 neon lights on all the time. That was the worst torture for me, the last two years, because after perpetual lights a person can sleep but not rest. The cerebellum starts weakening, and it will finish you.

Did you have any sense of days passing by? When the guard gave me breakfast, I heard far away in the distance a horn they play at 9 p.m. so the thousands of inmates would keep silent. Some trucks would come at 6 a.m., so now I had two points of reference. The psychiatrist would come, wearing his watch so I could see it, but it didn’t have the true time. I pretended to be anxious to look at the watch. That’s how I would trick them.

How did you pass the time? I organized conferences with an imaginary room full of people, with an imaginary audience. As a hobby I had studied astronomy, so I did conferences about the temperatures in the stars and galaxies or the age of the earth. Imaginary conferences and imaginary audiences. One day the guard heard me talking like that: He sneaked in and thought I had gone nuts, but I maintained my mind and my vocabulary because I kept repeating all of the knowledge I had.

And you created poems? I would do the first verse. They never gave me anything to write on. It was all in my head. When I finished a first verse, I would seek the second verse, and I would repeat those two verses to memorize them. All day long I would say those verses. When I had done 30 poems, all day long I would repeat those 30 poems.

Thousands of other prisoners—for example, Roberto López Chávez—did not survive. What happened to him? Roberto was 17 and a political prisoner. He went on a hunger strike because of the horrible things they were doing to the other prisoners, so they put him in solitary confinement as well. After two or three days he was on the floor, in agony. He begged for water. Four guards came and said, “Are you thirsty?” They urinated on him. He died the next day, age 19.

What do you say to those who say, “The United States has had an embargo regarding Cuba for more than 50 years and it hasn’t worked?” The embargo was never intended to remove the government in Cuba. The embargo has worked because it has prevented the Cuban government from receiving millions of dollars from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other banking institutions.

Now that the U.S. government and the pope embrace Raúl Castro, what do you think will happen? The only person who really inspires terror in Cuba is Fidel Castro, even if he’s agonizing in a bed. That’s how it was with Josef Stalin. Raúl Castro is alive because his backbone, Fidel, is alive. The day Fidel Castro dies will probably end the entire process.

Listen to a portion of Marvin Olasky’s interview with Armando Valladares on The World and Everything in It.


  •  William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:08 am

    >> I thought the United States would not accept a communist country 90 miles away.- But now we do.Sawgunner, good point.

  • Sawgunner's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 11:08 am

    The brutal sadistic butchery this man endured truly made him the Solzhynytsyn of Cuba. I read Against All Hope some decades back and even now the chilling nightmare world of the Cuban gulag is still quite vivid. I would place Valladares' book on the shelf right beside Carlos Eire's memoir of a childhood sabotaged by Castro, "Waiting for Snow in Havana". May our Lord give us leaders who won't shy from exposing the hellish world created by Che, Fidel and Raul