Political Prisoners in Cuba and in the United States: Facts and Fiction

Gustavo A. Maranges

Part I
Protest for the freedom of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal in the US. photo: Bill Hackwell

In recent days, we have witnessed an avalanche of accusations by United States government officials against Cuba for allegedly holding over 600 political prisoners after the protests on July 11. Assistant Secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols and the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have been among those leading this campaign, alongside the US embassy in Havana.

These accusations conveniently hide many details we should not overlook. First of all, where is the information coming from? Is it true? Why are top US officials so eager to resurrect this campaign against Cuba? And, last but not least, how does the United States hold any moral high ground to judge anybody for holding political prisoners?

The oversized number of 600 political prisoners comes from a Spain-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called the “Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH)” and some others like Prisoners Defenders. Year after year, these organizations receive thousands of dollars from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has become their main donor. So it is expected that this less than impartial group will provide information that will be heavily biased. Likewise, these organizations have been involved to the core in previous and ongoing campaigns to promote a regime change in Cuba, something that became a known scandal after the July 11 protests in Cuba when American and Cuban journalists tracked US taxpayers’ money up to these NGOs.

It is worth noting that many of these so-call political prisoners were involved in acts of vandalism against public property, and some others have admitted that they were paid for their violent and destabilizing actions exposing that they were not exactly a grassroots political opponents as they try to show. Rather they must be called by their real name: mercenaries, who are serving prison time as they would all over the world, including in the US. Just to give a clear example, we can look at the case of Jose Daniel Ferrer, apparently the top political prisoner from the US point of view. This operator is the head of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), a Florida-funded organization linked to violent acts on the island. Ferrer has denounced torture and psychological aggression, but his theatrics were exposed after authorities released a video showing how he injured himself by hitting his own head against a table in the interrogation room.

The State Department started a campaign against Cuba right after the July 11 events to demand the freedom of the protesters who remained in jail, which is a blatant act of meddling in Cuba’s internal affairs. They act as if Cuba doesn’t have laws and there are consequences if they are broken as it is in every country on the planet. High-ranking US officials, like the ones quoted above, have used Ferrer’s case to try and prove that Cuba does not respect due process. Nevertheless, they ignore that Ferrer refused to have any defense. Later on, he claimed himself to be a political prisoner, even after he had been incarcerated by breaking the house arrest he was serving time for after beating a man, which has nothing to do with politics.

For the United States’ own political interest it is better to ignore that many of their “political prisoners” are nothing less than the result of their own failed strategy to promote insurrection on the island on July 11. However, the current context offers a double gain for those US politicians: first, to try and show they do not abandon those who aligned with them inside the island, and second, it is the perfect excuse to back President Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan statements that justifies maintaining and increasing the strangling economic sanctions on the Cuban people.

Once again, the strategy is clear: they pretend to support the Cuban people when what they really mean is the opposition while hardening sanctions that stifle the Cuban economy and the government’s capacity to outpace the current crisis. It is not new at all, it rather is an old and recurrent tactic of the United States to fight progressive movements and those they consider rogue States, namely Venezuela, Syria, Iran, Nicaragua.

Despite the US accusations, Cuba is a country that has tirelessly fought to close Guantanamo Bay prison, where dozens of people have been incarcerated and tortured for decades without a trial under alleged charges of terrorism. And let’s not forget the case of the Cuban Five; political prisoners who served 16 years in US prisons on unprovable conspiracy charges for political reasons. However, US statements are even more cynical if we take into account that many American civil rights and anti-racist activists found refuge in Cuba after being politically pursued in the US, as is the case of Assata Shakur a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army.

The US has no moral high ground to accuse anyone, even less Cuba, of holding political prisoners. A 2018 report by National Jericho Movement concluded there were at least 523 political prisoners in the prisons of the US. In the same vein, in July 2021, the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) updated its list of political prisoners, many of whom were sentenced to life. However, US officials are raising the alarm because Cuban courts issued 5 to 15-year sentences for people who decided to overthrow a democratic government. It seems like a joke, but it is not.

The US often attacks as its best defense to cover up its own oppressive nature. It accuses the whole world of Human Rights violations and political repression while implementing the most elaborate ways of doing just that at home.

However, regardless of the numbers, the worse part of the political prisoner issue in the US is the treatment they receive in the jails,  its vast prison network, and the cruelty of a system designed to tear people down and annul their ideas. Little known is that there is a vibrant political prisoner’s movement there that knows that the bars can’t stop fair causes and the drive for justice. We will elaborate on this in the second part of this article in the coming days.

It is evident that anti-Cuban politicians in the US have a lot of sway on the national stance towards the island. Now after their failure to gain an advantage from the July 11 protest and the one they called for on November 15 that never happened, they are scrounging around to create the image of a dictatorial regime. This sets the tone for the internal opposition to harass and accuse any international media of siding with the government if it explains the truth about those that flagrantly broke Cuban law.

This is a well-designed campaign where the United States is in charge of funding and giving international relevance, while the internal opposition is used to create the arguments, legitimatize the speech, and, at the same time try to poison the Cuban people, inside and outside the island. Unfortunately, they have made some progress so far, but the more we spread the reality of the Cuban people, the fewer chances they will have to succeed. This, together with the actions by the Cuban government to show the transparency and independence of the judiciary, are the two best ways to dismantle this new undercover attack to end the Cuban Revolution.

Part II
Protest outside overcrowded prison in Chowchilla California. photo: Bill Hackwell

In the first part of this article, we went over the ongoing hypocritical accusation of high-ranking United States officials against Cuba for allegedly holding over 600 political prisoners after the July 11 protests. It is remarkable the way that the US, together with its allies inside the island, have manipulated this topic to create a false image of revenge by the Cuban government, and to promote the idea of a country with zero liberties.

Neither US officials and their Cuban allies nor the many websites or news agencies that cover this propaganda campaign seem to  have never wondered why nobody talks about political prisoners in the US. I am sure that many people, naïve ones at best, think that in the “land of liberty” such things would never happen, but they do, and shockingly so.

The existence of political prisoners is quite a skeleton in the closet for so-called US democracy and its judiciary system because it is one of the most painful and evident proofs of the oppressive nature of the US political system. It is part of the untold history of a society, which for the most part fervently believes that the US is the freest county in the world while ignoring that there are dozens of people, both American and foreigners, who have spent most of their lives in prison for the crime of fighting for their right to think differently and fight for a more equitable world.

Most of these people have been imprisoned after rigged trials in which it was a foregone conclusion that they were guilty regardless of the circumstances of the court hearing which is a clear violation of the presumption of innocence. In many cases, people were denied a proper defense by hiding evidence from the process, poisoning public opinion against them, and even the acceptance of testimony from unidentified sources.

One of the most resounding of these examples is the case of Sundiata Acoli, who was sentenced to life in prison, plus 30 years for allegedly killing a New Jersey State trooper. It sounds exaggerated that such an extreme sentence was handed down when it was never factually proven that Sundiata had killed the trooper. Even more egregious was the judge’s statement describing Sundiata as “a red-boned revolutionary”, It is clear that his trial was not to decide whether he was an innocent or not but to make a political example of him as to what can be done to those who decide to oppose the status quo as the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Movement member did.

Sundiata just turned 85 years old, with almost 50 of those years behind bars. He has been denied parole 8 times even when there are legal precedents in New Jersey courts to grant parole to people who fulfills the conditions of release. The last denied petition was in March 2021, when he was 84 years old, and the Parole Board argued that he was still a threat to public safety, a totally ridiculous and inhumane argument. Acoli now suffers from early stage dementia and on top of that he got COVID-19 in 2020, which severely impacted his health, he also has a 27-years record without any disciplinary incidents and before the pandemic, he was teaching inmates. It is unconscionable to keep imprisoning a course titled “Avoiding Criminal Thinking”. Therefore, it is cynical to keep holding him under those circumstances. He represents no threat to anybody and exemplifies the unfair system of social and political oppression ruling the entire US.

Another similar case is that of Russel Maroon Shoatz, who died this past December 17th, only 51 days after being released. Maroon had suffered from cancer for years before he died, and during the last several years in prison, his health was so fragile that he couldn’t even stand up on its own. Despite his lack of mobility, the Pennsylvania Parole Board kept insisting that he was a risk to public safety. This is a form of torture, not only for the prisoners but for their families, who have to experience revenge from the system.

Now, the State of New Jersey can do the same to Sundiata, who will be 93 years old the next time he can appears before a Parole Board. A large political campaign is being waged demanding that Sundiata be freed for medical and humanitarian reasons.

There are so many examples of people being held unjustly under draconian circumstances that could fill dozens of pages with similar upsetting stories like Leonard Peltier’s (two life terms in prison); Dr. Aafia Siddiqui’s, 86 years, Shukri Abu-Baker’s 65 years; and Ghassan Elashi’s 65 years, but the point here is even beyond the people whose lives are cut short, this so-called judicial system is about a system ingrained with political repression starting with the police, counterintelligence programs like COINTELPRO, the media and the courts and ultimately the prisons.

All these people, and many more, suffer degrading treatment in prisons, especially in the Control Unit Prisons. These prisons were created to hold “highly dangerous” criminals, which target people who dissent. Sundiata Acoli and the Puerto Rican pro-independence leader Oscar Lopez Rivera, Leonard Peltier and many others spent years in highly regulated conditions in near total isolation. Many are held in solitary confinement in their cells 23 hours a day, even when the International Law considers any time beyond 15 days in isolation to be torture. Today, over 80,000 people in the US are kept under similar conditions.

The United States has an astonishing 2.3 million prisoners, 25% of the world’s in-prison population while the country only makes up 5% of the global population. The conditions and the treatment of prisoners live under are allegedly intended to rehabilitate them. However, it is really a system made to break people down, especially those who are fighting for social justice.

This shocking reality is the result of policies that marginalize oppressed people while doing little to eliminate social inequalities that force many into braking the law just to survive. Thousands of prisoners, disproportionately people of color, languish in prisons and jails under 3 strikes law that exists in 28 states where someone who has 2 previous felony convictions receives life sentences for a third. This could include stealing food from stores. The poorer a person is in the US the more likely they will wind up in the prison system.  The US government seems to ignore this reality and has chosen to foster a private prison industry for profit , instead of supporting social movements fighting for a more inclusive, more equitable, and less discriminatory society. This year, the Biden Administration has also allocated 4 million dollars to expand the Guantanamo Bay prison facilities, where torture and other human rights violations have been systematically practiced throughout its 20 years of existence. As of today, 39 people remain there, while another 700 have the traumatic memory of spending years and decades there without a trial or even being charged.

During the last 40 years, the number of prisons in the US has grown quickly, especially private ones. Year after year, federal and states institutions pay millions of dollars to maintain prisons and immigrant detentions prisons. If only a small part of this money was dedicated to the improvement of social services, the development of vulnerable communities, the creation of decent jobs, and to fund the studies of young people from these communities, we would see a very first step in reducing the number of black and Latino people in prisons.

After all, the land of liberty is hardly the best name we can give to the US. A country where people like Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, or Mumia Abu-Jamal still pay the cost of acting and thinking freely does not deserve to be called that.

Meanwhile the US government and the corporate media have no problem condemning Cuba for putting on trial people who have not only broken the law but many who have been financed by its colossal neighbor to the North to do it. The hypocrisy could not be clearer.

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