From the Gulag to the UMAP: Official History and the Control of Memory

The U.M.A.P: Where Work Makes the Man

Abel Sierra Madero, Hypermedia Magazine, 15 May  2020 — Yuri Brokhin, a Soviet filmmaker who defected in 1972 and settled in the United States, described his experience trying to purchase a Volga automobile in the late 1960s. In all of Voroshilovgrad, Ukraine, there were only twelve of these cars available for sale to the public, but they were already reserved for soccer players. One police commissioner, who wanted to “enter” History, told Brokhin that if he made a film about his department’s accomplishments, he could help him with the matter of the car.

“We must show the Soviet people…. what a modern correctional camp is like,” he recommended. [1]

Lights, Camera, Action…

Given the enthusiasm with which the police commissioner described it, Brokhin said, it was possible that the Soviets were choosing their vacation destinations wrongly. It was much more pleasant to go to a forced labor camp.

When the crew arrived at the Voroshilovgrad Oblast gulag, which was dedicated to building boilers for locomotives, they found at the entrance, tied to the barbed wire fence, a sign with the inscription: “Labor turned the Ape into Man – Friedrich Engels.” [2] The filmmaker was astonished, but his thoughts were only of his Volga. continue reading

Since the idea was to show the “miracle” of the forced labor camp, they filmed several detainees, including Sidorov, who was charged with armed robbery. In a colorful and romantic scene, Sidorov stopped working and greeted the commissioner with a warm handshake. Immediately, he and other inmates protested and asked why they had not received additional ideological materials to read, for example, the five volumes of speeches by Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Supreme Soviet, and more books by Marx and Lenin.

The film crew also took some shots of the residential area of ​​the camp. In these scenes, some barracks looked impeccable, its lawn green and freshly trimmed. It was likely, Brokhin reflected, that the facilities were in good shape because there were no political prisoners, or perhaps these were set for propaganda and public relations purposes.

In the film one of the wardens introduced on-camera the enthusiastic comrades, who spoke of the miracle of re-education. Among them was Savchenko, a.k.a. Pot, who was announced as an “ex-thief and active homosexual.” “Citizens, for the first time in my life, I understand what a collective is. Thanks to the collective, I have become a changed man,” said Pot. [3] According to Brokhin, several around Pot muttered, “Yes, yes, he’s changed from active to passive.” [4]

Other speakers criticized US imperialism and called to increase production levels. The film ends with the hymn, “The Party is our Guide,” by the Soviet composer Vano Muradeli. The police commissioner kept his word, and by the end of 1967, Yuri Brokhin was driving his Volga.

A still from Solovki, by director Aleksandr Cherkasov, Sovkino, 1928.

Yuri Borkhin was not the only one involved in the project of changing and exporting a positive image of the gulag, even Eisenstein himself participated as well as other artists, photographers, painters and writers, including Maxim Gorky.

In 1934, the playwright edited – along with S. G Firin (Semen Georgievich) and Leopold Averbach, a critic who was shot in 1938 – Belomor, The “Stalin” Channel Between the Baltic and White Seas: An Account of Its Construction. This was a volume commissioned by the secret police (GPU) to produce a positive memory of the gulag. Several writers and inmates participated in the project, which, in a tone of self-criticism, praised the policy of reeducation and the role of the political police.

But the representation of the gulag as a resort had already been attempted in Solovki, a 1928 picture directed by Aleksandr Cherkasov, whom the GPU had commissioned to produce a propaganda film. The material was part of a strategy to counter the allegations of Sergei Malsagov, who had escaped from the Solovki prison camp and was making statements to the English press.

The vision of Cherkasov’s film has nothing to do with horror. On the contrary, in it the filmmaker portrays a “model” camp, in which the viewer can appreciate comfortable accommodations, delicious food and even cultural attractions: theater, variety shows and concerts. The Solovki gulag portrayed in the film also boasted a museum, a newspaper, a school, and a library. And, of course, we can also see young people taking a dip in the lake after work or playing sports.

A still from Solovki, by director Aleksandr Cherkasov, Sovkino, 1928.
A still from Solovki, by director Aleksandr Cherkasov, Sovkino, 1928.

The Solovki, or Soloviets camp was located in the premises of a former cloistered monastery. At the entrance was a banner with huge letters, which stated a cordial welcome: “With an iron hand we will lead humanity to happiness.” [5]

Cherkasov’s film is at once pleasing and terrifying, with a clear, example-making message for the enemies of the Soviet state. The film narrates the tortuous and long cycle of rehabilitation. “Spies, speculators, thieves, bandits, those who disturb order, and counterrevolutionaries are sent to the Solovki Islands, in the White Sea,” explained the written narrative of the film. [6] According to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, religious envoys, including Orthodox monks, prostitutes, and intellectuals – such as Dmitri Likhachov and Pavel Florensky – were sent to Solovki. [7]

The camp’s mission, as clarified on a poster, was to “create work habits and re-educate socially harmful persons to turn them into useful members of society.” [8] Some administrative details are given in the film. “Those who resist education through work are transferred to a punishment section on Sekirnaya Mountain,” it warns. [9] In a military-type formation or parade, inmates are ironically described as the “trash” of society, term proper to communist biopolitical jargon.

The scenes depicting the massive transfer on trains of people escorted by the military with long weapons are overwhelming. The choreography of inmates in a boot factory, the composition of machines, forges, lathes, and agricultural laborers picking and shoveling amid the speed and quietness of “silent” cinema, create an even more oppressive ambience. A herd of aligned pigs became the image of the inmates.

The UMAP We’ve Been Taught and the Control of Memory

In Cuba, the history of the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) has also been camouflaged and distorted by official narratives. But unlike the Soviets, who saw cinema and literature as instruments to wash the memory of the gulag, the leaders of the Cuban Revolution did not take such risk. The installation of those infamous forced labor camps, between 1965 and 1968, was managed as a state secret. But when the atrocities and abuses began to generate an international panic over the authoritarian symptoms that the Revolution was showing, the strategy changed. Then a policy of damage control was developed, aimed at constructing a different public memory of the concentration camp.

I will not dwell on the details of the structure, design and organization of the UMAP, nor on the punishments. This essay has a different objective. In 2016 I made a couple of contributions to the topic that readers can access. These are “Academies to Produce Macho Men in Cuba,” an article that was published by Letras Libres magazine, and “‘Work will make you men’: National masculinization, forced labor and social control in Cuba during the sixties”, a slightly longer essay published in issue 44 of the academic journal, Cuban Studies.

The government’s damage control policy toward the UMAP, was based on the construction of narratives about economic success and the “miracle” of forced labor camps as an educational model. Adelante, the newspaper of the province of Camagüey, was one of the platforms from which attempts were made to manage the memory of the UMAP. It was in that region that most of the units were installed.

The campaign began on the recommendations of Raúl Castro himself. On April 9, 1966, a few months after the camps were put in place, Castro visited Camagüey and spoke with some journalists. “I don’t know if you will have time to do a little reports on the UMAP out there.” [10] Immediately, a journalist alleged: “The problem is that there is no authorization to report about the UMAP.” [11]

In the photo, Captain José Q. Sandino, one of the officers in charge of managing the forced labor camps. Verde Olivo, Year VII, No. 23. Havana, June 12, 1966.

Apparently, the journalists received the authorization, because the “little reports” that Raúl Castro requested started coming out a few days later. On April 13, 1966, the journalist Luis M. Arcos published in the pages of Adelante a pamphlet in which he affirmed – using language typical of manuals of Marxist-Leninist philosophy – that the UMAP had a formative, educational character, and that they played “a very important role in the radical transformation of the nation.” [12] He also said that the camps had been created for the welfare of society, and that they were the subject of “continuous speculation by counter-revolutionary elements.” [13]

These contents, published in the state-controlled media, are far from a model of investigative journalism. They are generally written for propaganda purposes. The curation of the images and quotations tacitly support the official account.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and its press organs also sold the idea that inmates with high productivity in cutting sugar cane were rewarded with material goods. On October 30, 1966, Verde Olivo magazine published a note with some photographs, which gave the assurance that the “comrades” had been compensated with motorcycles, refrigerators, radios and watches.

It is likely that the awards ceremony was a staged as public relations event. The text quoted a short speech by José Q. Sandino Rodríguez, chief of the UMAP General Staff, in which he assured that the ceremony “once again disrupted the string of lies rolled out by the enemies of the Revolution”, who tried to present it as a “punitive institution”. [14]

In one of the passages in his book, After Captivity, Freedom: A Real-Life Account of Castro’s Cuba, Luis Bernal Lumpuy refers to the disguise exercise the guards carried out in the facilities of his unit, when they expected visits from the press. He also talks about the “performance” that they were forced to do every time this happened.

In the spring of 1966, Bernal Lumpuy wrote that they received a visit from Commander Ernesto Casillas, then head of the UMAP General Staff, who came with journalists and cameramen. They brought baseball gloves, bats and balls, and distributed them among the inmates. “They had such a hearty lunch that it later affected the health of the starving prisoners, and they prepared an event in the camp for the commander to speak.” [15] Casillas promised family visits, “as if that were a generous act of the Revolution, and he even lied when he said that we would be given permission to go to our homes that month, which did not happen until months later.”

They had arranged, concludes Luis Bernal Lumpuy, for the cameras to capture “the enthusiasm of some who lent themselves to the propaganda game.” A few days later “the press, radio, and national television showed groups of youth from the UMAP carrying Commander Casillas on their shoulders as though he were a hero.” [16]

As part of the campaign that I have been describing, the Army decided to choose some of the inmates and grant them military ranks. They were awarded the title of “corporals”. This strategy sought to establish in public opinion the notion that the UMAP were not concentration camps, but rather military units. According to the testimony of José Caballero Blanco, some commanders “were abusive in exchange for perks. This is nothing new, if you consider that there are jails that use some prisoners to repress their colleagues.” [17]

Indeed, in other concentration camp settings, it was very common for the wardens to use inmates to suppress their peers and do the dirty work. In Nazi camps, for example, there was the sad role of the Sonderkommandos: Jews put in charge of aiding the machinery to exterminate their own people. However, the category of Kapos (or Funktionshäftlinge), is more in line with the squadrons that were created in the forced labor camps in Cuba. In the gulag they were known as “foremen” (nariádchik).

Within the CENESEX, everything – against the CENESEX, nothing

I have explained this on several occasions, but I think it is necessary to say it again. For some years now, we have seen a series of mutations taking place in the Cuban regime aimed at guaranteeing the continuity of the system and erasing the past. I call this process of political shapeshifting, “State transvestism” and it consists in a readjustment of Cold War revolutionary rhetoric – using the notion of diversity in an instrumental way to offer an image of change for foreign consumption – when in fact very few changes have been made. [18] This strategy began to be tested a decade ago by the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), directed by Mariela Castro Espín, the daughter of General Raúl Castro.

The notion of “transvestism” is based on a reading of the State as a porous, fluid body, and not as a rigid and immovable structure. I use it mainly to describe the masquerades, camouflages, and appropriations that official institutions make of the practices and “performance” of the transvestite and their milieu. “State transvestism” is, therefore, a project of de-politicization and assimilation, aimed at producing certain bodies and subjectivities, as well as controlling their political and cultural history.

This project, besides testing new modes of political control, promotes an amnesic transition, a washed-out national memory, and the rewriting of History. The idea is to rearrange and rewrite certain historical processes that connect the Revolution with discrimination and homophobia.

For decades, homophobia in Cuba was a state policy that legitimized the purges of homosexuals from institutions and the establishment of forced labor camps, designed to build the communist “new man”.

Mariela Castro has tried to minimize the scope and dimension of the UMAP in the History of the Cuban Revolution. She even promised an investigation on this topic. We are still waiting for it. Since then, the director of CENESEX has stated in many appearances and interviews that the UMAP constituted an isolated error and were not in any way forced labor camps.

Mariela Castro recently did it again and provoked in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, multiple and bitter controversial reactions. It occurred during an online broadcast, where she used biopolitical terms and the language of animality against critics, calling them “cheap trinkets” and “tics”. One more term to add to the large repertoire of hate and intolerance discourses designed to attack and dehumanize those who dissent or think different.

Comments on social media exploded instantly. “Everything within CENESEX, nothing against CENESEX,” some answered, in frank allusion to the 1961 speech delivered by the late Fidel Castro, which became known as “Words to the Intellectuals”.

A few days ago, Mariela Castro was invited to La tarde se mueve [Afternoon Moves] a show hosted by Edmundo García on YouTube. The activist is known for his affection for the Cuban regime, even though he lives in Miami. It is not by chance that Castro Espín used this platform to talk about the UMAP. Her statements coincided with the fact that the documentary, Pablo Milanés, produced in 2016 by Juan Pin Vilar, became available to the public. The film was censored in Cuba and was restricted on Vimeo until now. There, Milanés talks briefly about the UMAP, where he was sent in 1966, when his musical career was taking off.

“Although there is no comparison, I can tell you that I was at Auschwitz and the facilities were better than those of the UMAP (laughs). The facilities were scary,” he said. Auschwitz is a superlative representation of horror that ex-UMAP inmates have used repeatedly. However, this analogy has produced serious consequences for the legitimacy of their narratives, because, among other things, there were no crematoriums or gas chambers at the UMAP. This exercise must be understood within a strategy aimed at locating their experiences within a universal story, on a global map of concentration camps.

In the film, Pablo Milanés says that while in the UMAP, he suffered from Stockholm syndrome. Along with the actor Ricardo Barber, a play was produced and performed in their unit. This is how he describes it: “We did a work that favored those who had sent us there and blamed ourselves for having gone there. We felt guilty, because every day they told us, ‘you are trees that have grown crooked’.” Apparently, the guards were pleased and proposed that we perform it in other camps. “Barber and I tore up the play and said we didn’t remember it and that we didn’t want to do it anywhere. We had been rendering tributes to those who sent us there,” he concluded. Ricardo Barber left Cuba in the 1970s and went to New York, where he died in late 2018.

For some time after leaving the UMAP, Pablo Milanés became one of the icons of the Nueva Trova movement. His songs, along with those of Silvio Rodríguez, among others, formed the soundtrack of the Revolution that influenced millions of people. Although in Cuba it was an open secret that Milanés had been sent to the concentration camps, Pablo waited several decades to discuss the matter.

Until Juan Pin Vilar’s documentary came out in 2016, the singer-songwriter had limited himself to giving just a few details to foreign journalists who interviewed him during his international tours. The few bites of information he provided regarding his experience in the UMAP always coincided with the promotion of his concerts in Latin America.

It is possible that the Stockholm syndrome of which Pablo Milanés speaks has affected him for a long time. In 1984, almost twenty years after leaving the UMAP, he wrote, “Cuando te encontré [When I Found You]”, a love song to the Revolution that advocates: “It would be better to drown in the sea than to betray the glory we have lived.” In addition, there are indications that in 1980 he participated, along with other members of the Nueva Trova, in a repudiation rally against his colleague Mike Porcel.

“The release of this documentary and the statements of Mariela Castro Espín in La tarde se mueve are connected. In what seems like a response to Pablo Milanés, the director of CENESEX tried to downplay the UMAP. To give it a little opacity, she said that the UMAP is an “exaggerated and distorted issue.” Although she acknowledged that “the process of arresting civilians was terrible,” she justified the settlement and installation of the forced labor camps: “There were people who were totally distanced from the country’s problems and did not want to do their bit.”

In addition, for obvious reasons, she blamed the raids and arrests on the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and not on the Ministry of the Armed Forces (FAR), an institution that her father, General Raúl Castro, was then leading. “That was a job that was done from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT), it was not compatible with what the Armed Forces had decided,” she assured. This way, she not only deforms collective memory, but also exempts the culprits of the experiment from responsibility.

According to Mariela Castro, the experience of the inmates in the forced labor camps depended on the circumstances of each location. “At the UMAP there were “managers” [officers] who were not homophobic, and who treated their people well, and who were understanding,” she added. I will return to this later.

In another part of her remarks, the chair of CENESEX continued the practices of accommodating traumatic experiences and the falsification of History. She referenced the Escuela al Campo [Schools in the Countryside] program developed by the revolutionary leaders in the mid-1960s. “We went to Schools in the Countryside. Was going to a School in the Countryside the same as being in concentration camps? We certainly learned a lot and we had a lot of fun and we questioned everything. We had a great time…” she said sarcastically. If these discourses are accepted, it is possible that in the near future we will see the UMAP represented in school textbooks and in the public sphere as simple summer camps or vacation destinations.

As is known, the “Schools in the Countryside” program, begun in 1966, was connected to the project of creating the “new man”, and thousands of children and adolescents were sent to work in agriculture on a compulsory basis. While intensifying pedagogy of indoctrination, the state seized the workforce without providing any economic compensation. This policy was extended across the country for several decades, until the official press announced its end in the summer of 2009.

When I was a teenager I went to a School in the Countryside where I worked the fields and no, it was not a pleasant experience. I always saw it as an absurd, authoritative, and not at all fun imposition. Standards had to be met, and I often felt the hardship of hunger. There were consequences if I refused to work, and I immediately fell under suspicion. The allocation of scholarships or university admissions was subject to my performance as a farm worker.

Castro Espín’s comments try to connect that experiment to a field of affect. Within this logic, forced labor was a kind of carnival, a space of entertainment. We had already seen this type of gesture in the music of singer songwriter Frank Delgado. In the song “Maletas de Madera” [Wooden Suitcases] (2007), the Schools in the Countryside program is represented in a nostalgic dimension, and those years are made into an object of desire. This gaze has consequences for the memory it generates. The latrines, the red soil, and hunger, gained very positive connotations and depoliticized the experience itself. The catchy tune went something like this. “Vamos a formar, una conga, con maletas de madera, tomando agua con azúcar encima de una litera” [“Let’s make a conga with our wooden suitcases, let’s drink water with sugar on top of our bunk beds”].

The most problematic area of ​​Mariela Castro’s comments in La tarde se mueve has to do with her concept of History. According to Castro Espín, historians must stop “picking through the garbage with bad intentions.” This eschatological notion deployed by the director of CENESEX represents researchers as ill-intentioned “garbage collectors”, and History as a discipline that belongs exclusively to the past. It is aimed that the official History of the Revolution be established as a fixed and incontestable narrative. But as writer Reinaldo Arenas would say, Ah, how the shit sizzles when it is stirred. [19]

“The Hour of the UMAP”

State transvestism as a political strategy is also based on the creation of spaces for controlled criticism in which certain discourses are tolerated, as long as they do not endanger the hegemony of the State. These spaces are used systematically to promote certain narratives about the Revolution that guide how some complex historical issues, such as the UMAP, should be read and assimilated.

In November 2015, on the fiftieth anniversary of the installation of these forced labor camps, the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue-Cuba, an institution that seeks to reform the battered Cuban socialism, held a meeting in Cárdenas, Matanzas province, of ex-inmates from the UMAP to discuss the subject.

Several of those attending the event recounted details of their experiences in the forced labor camps and referred to the mistreatment and abuse to which they were subjected by the guards. “I felt disgust for my country,” said Moisés Machado Jardines then. [20] “Because of having been in the UMAP, I was marginalized from my old job and others that I tried to get when I got out, and I even lost my wife, who left with my two children.” [21]

Rafael Hernández, director of Temas, a Social Sciences journal that functions as a space for controlled criticism “within the Revolution”, also participated in the Cárdenas meeting. His contribution was aimed at accommodating and diluting the injustices of the UMAP within Cold War rhetoric. “It is not just about evaluating the justice or effectiveness of those measures, but remembering the historical context in which they were developed,” he said. [22]

Days later, in the Temas blog Hernández published: “The Hour of the UMAP: Notes for a Research Topic”, where he proposed a very particular reading of the forced labor camps in Cuba, and set forth how they should be investigated. For the intellectual, the UMAP were a sort of “re-education schools” – or at the least, “punishment camps” – but not forced labor camps.

At a certain point, he recognized that, given the structure and discipline implemented, the UMAPs were closer to prisons than to military units. At first, he adds, the camps were made up of “antisocial and habitual loafers of military age – that is, people with criminal records or considered pre-criminal.” [23] Here he reproduced the criminological jargon that justified, precisely, the persecution of citizens and the establishment of forced labor camps, without questioning in the very least the biopolitical nature of the Revolution.

By publishing this article in Temas, one of the very few academic journals on the Island, it gave the text an aura of legitimacy and independence from the State, which it does not possess. As I mentioned before, Temas is a space for controlled criticism and ultimately responds to government institutions. Hernández’s work falls within the official History of the Revolution rather than accomplished an investigation done with historiographic rigor and archival research. His text is designed, above all, to detract from the strength and scope of the testimonies produced by Cuban exiles about forced labor camps.

Rafael Hernández’s argument about the testimonies of Cuban exiles is ideologically biased. According to him, these accounts were exaggerated and described only “extreme situations”. On the other hand, those published in Cuba – by some evangelical churches – present a more unbiased and humanized vision.” [24]

Hernández uses as an example of this type of writing the book Dios no entra en mi oficina: Luchando contra la amargura cuando somos víctimas de la injusticia (2003) [God doesn’t come into my office: Fighting bitterness when we are victims of injustice]. This is an autobiographical book written by Alberto I. González Muñoz, a seminarian who was sent to the UMAP. Unlike religious exiles – who were seeking the denunciation of the Cuban regime for establishing the forced labor camps and to spark a debate on public memory policy – González Muñoz urges the reader to not take the book as an “accusation”, because, he suggests, ultimately the UMAP experience was not as horrific as other models of forced labor camps. [25]

The author tries to detach himself from the Auschwitz analogy, the most powerful representation of the concentration camp and totalitarian power, used repeatedly by Cubans who have decided to testify about their traumatic experience in the UMAP. Auschwitz is the image of horror, dehumanization, and perversity of biopolitical power to a superlative degree. The grisliness of that experience makes other models of concentration camps and forced labor, such as the Soviet Gulag, or the UMAP, seem not so terrible.

Alberto I. González Muñoz’s text is inscribed within this logic, it goes so far as to say that he felt “privileged” to have been sent to the UMAP, because he learned more about human nature and about himself. In this book, the design of the institution and the severe punishments appear as “errors” and not as systemic strategies of the apparatuses and control mechanisms established by the Cuban government at that time. [26]

When presenting Dios no entra en mi oficina as a model for “objective” writing, Rafael Hernández overlooks the fact that Alberto I. González Muñoz received privileges from the guards and corporals. As a result his experience in the UMAP was not so tortuous. This particular case cannot be used to minimize the hardship to which thousands of men suffered.

In short, just like Temas, Rafael Hernández’s UMAP text is part of the authorities’ exercises and political strategies aimed at producing certain frameworks of interpretation on the Cuban reality. It consists of a project aimed at erasing and assimilating collective trauma using specific languages and spaces of remembrance, in order to dictate what and how Cubans should remember.

These mechanisms, of course, have repercussions on spaces of memorialization of traumatic events. In literature, for example, it has had a great impact. We have seen how writers, even those who do not depend on Cuban cultural officials to be published, accommodate the past and treat certain events with the same tools of representation used by the State.

Totalitarian regimes tend to produce narratives that dilute repression to distort the scope of tragedy. Wipe the slate clean, some say. The Cuban model is not an exception. In this process, even the victims of the system themselves produce stories that try to accommodate the traumatic experience within a framework of political correctness and forgiveness.

With Dios no entra en mi oficina, Alberto I. González Muñoz constructs a story that in the end absolves those responsible for this atrocious experiment, while distorting, diluting and closing the debate of the politics of memory and the future administration of justice.

This book seeks not only to freeze the past, but also to establish a direct relationship between traumatic experience and the discourses of healing. At the end of the introduction, the author urges those who lived through that nightmare to channel their wounds, pain, and sense of loss through faith and hope. It is the “wisest and healthiest decision,” he says. [27]

Alberto I. González Muñoz insists that the history of his experience at UMAP belongs entirely to the past. “It is useless to raise accusations and condemn what no longer exists, precisely because in due course, it was recognized as wrong and was shut down,” he states at the beginning of his book.

In another passage he says that the closure of the UMAP “in itself was an act of social justice and thus must be historically recognized.” [29] It is worth clarifying that González Muñoz lives in Cuba. I have explained this several times: authors who write from the Island are very careful with their political positions.

The Ethics of the Witness

This accommodative approach is very problematic because of the type of memory it creates and promotes. It is a kind of “fetish memory”, as Isaac Rosa would say. That is, a memory articulated in the anecdotal, the sentimental, rather than one that generates an ideological discussion, a debate about responsibilities and justice. [30] However, at the same time it can be productive to think the different positions of subjects regarding an event, and the witness ethics – of which Giorgio Agamben speaks – when narrating an experience. This ethic is crossed by a kind of moral code that shapes the testimony into a constitutive relationship with politics.

González Muñoz’ witness ethic is based on what he claims as “objectivity”, regarding his relationship with one of the guards. The passage reads: “Listening to him, I comprehended that although he was part of the re-education machinery, he was also a victim like any of us.” [31]

At another point, the author goes further and says that some of the officers “showed sympathy, compassion and affection to the inmates”, to later add: “Many tried to be fair, humane and positive in the midst of the negative circumstance that enveloped them. The experiences with Rosabal, Concepción, Marrero, Zapata, Rojas and others, in addition to mitigating my anxieties in the Military Units to Aid Production, taught me lessons that I urgently needed. Lessons that gave a new dimension to my life”. [32] This statement raises several questions.

Are victims and victimizers in similar positions?

What are the consequences in the construction of public memory when oppressors are portrayed as victims?

What are the tools generated by this argument that can help future processes within the administration of justice?

Here, I consider it opportune to include Primo Levi’s ideas on the role of the witness and the representation of concentration camp wardens. In an appendix he added to the 1976 edition of If This is a Man (1947), Primo Levi clarified that he used the “moderate language of the witness, not the regrettable of the victim or the angry language of the avenger”. [33] The distinction between victim and witness is fundamental to this discussion. Levi thought that his word “would be more credible the more objective and less passionate it was; only in this way does the witness in a trial fulfill his function, which is to prepare the ground for the judge. The judges are you”, he concluded. [3. 4]

That position could be problematic, Levi knew, because the search for a more complex and encompassing “comprehension” of events somehow implied some justification. This is how he put it: “Perhaps everything that happened cannot be comprehended, or should not be comprehended, because to comprehend is almost to justify. I mean: ‘to comprehend’ a proposition or human behavior means (even etymologically) to contain it, to contain the author, to put himself in his place, to identify with him”. [35]

Although in Dios no entra en mi oficina there are no references to Primo Levi, the memory project in which Alberto I. González Muñoz is involved, leads me to think about the notion of “gray zone” outlined by Levi himself. The “gray zone” has to do, precisely, with the act of narrating the experience in an “objective” way. The intention is to “comprehend”, also, the position and subjectivity of the victimizers.

However, that process inevitably leads to the humanization of some of the oppressors. As is known, Levi came into contact with some of the officials of the Nazi extermination machinery when he began to publish his texts and become a public figure. One of them was Ferdinand Meyer. Thanks to the biographies by Ian Thomson (Primo Levi: A Life) and Marina Annissimov (Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist), we know of the correspondence that Primo Levi established with Meyer. Levi made it very clear to him that although he did not feel hatred, he could not forgive either. This exchange allowed the witness to approach those who participated in the Nazi system, without being vile or infamous, as “gray” subjects. In this way, Levi tried to break the binary framework between “good” and “bad”, to assign full responsibility to the system and not to specific subjects.

This position earned him much criticism, including from some who suffered the same fate in Auschwitz, such as Hans Mayer, who wrote, under the name of Jean Améry, At the Mind’s Limits. According to Levi, Jean Améry considered him a “pardoner”, perhaps because his search for “comprehension” somewhat overshadowed the dimension of the tragedy and the responsibility of the guilty.

Miami and Resentment

Améry’s contributions to the debates on forgiveness are important to think the place of justice in the reconstruction of the past and in the imagination of collective memory. In At the Mind’s Limits, Améry states that those who forgive their victimizers, consent to the erasure of their individuality, and are capable of conceiving themselves as part of a collective. [36] That is, one who accepts himself “as a de-individualized and interchangeable piece of the social mechanism”, is diluting the traumatic experience and the figure of the witness, in a collective and accommodative narrative. [37]

For Améry, this process is part of the languages of the oppressor; hence the calls for reconciliation are always suspicious because they impinge upon History itself. He explained, “It seems logically senseless to me to demand objectivity in the controversy with my torturers, with those who helped them, and with the others, who merely stood by silently. The atrocity as atrocity has no objective character”, he explained. [38]

He positioned himself as a witness from a place of “resentment”. The oppressor has to be forced to face the truth of his crime. [39] In his argument, Jean Améry charged against the psychology that constructs victims as sick and disturbed subjects; also against Nietzsche, who in his Genealogy of Morals had spoken of resentment as a category tainted by revenge and lack of integrity. “Thus spake he who dreamed of the synthesis of the brute with the superman,” Améry replied. [40]

In the Cuban case, the notion of “resentment” has generally been associated with the languages ​​of exile. It is a category loaded with a pejorative sense. Within this logic, Cuban exiles are nothing more than spiteful beings, mobilized by revenge, because they have not been able to “overcome the past.”

However, as Améry demonstrates, the notion of resentment does not necessarily have to be associated with revenge, the affective sphere, or the psychological, but rather is, above all, a political and philosophical category. The challenge is to turn resentment into a productive space of memory and not into a repertoire of empty notions of the Cold War. The idea is to convert the act of resentment into a process of updating the past, making memory a space not only of archive, but of critical thought.

Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others


[1] Yuri Brokhin: Hustling on Gorky Street: Sex and Crime in Russia Today, The Dial Press, New York, 1975, p. 103. The translation is mine.
[2] Id.
[3] Ibid., p. 105.
[4] Id.
[5] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Archipiélago gulag (1918-1956), Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, ​​2002, p. 321.
[6] Aleksandr Cherkasov: Solovki. Solovki. Campamentos de Solovki con propósito especial, Sovkino, 1928, minute 3:40. I thank my mother, Noemí Madero, for the Russian to Spanish translations of this film.
[7] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Op. cit., p. 25.
[8] Ibid., Minute 12:45.
[9] Ibid. minute 18:55.
[10] “Brief conversation with Commander Raúl Castro”, in Adelante, April 9, 1966, p. 1.
[11] Id.
[12] Luis M. Arcos: “UMAP. Donde el trabajo forma al hombre”, in Adelante, April 13, 1966, p. 5.
[13] Id.
[14] Juan Armas: “Premios en las UMAP”, in Verde Olivo, year 8, no. 43, October 30, 1966, p. 15.
[15] Luis Bernal Lumpuy: Tras cautiverio, libertad. Un relato de la vida real en la Cuba de Castro, Ediciones Universal, Miami, 1992, p. 62.
[16] Id.
[17] José Caballero Blanco: UMAP: Una muerte a plazos, Dhar Services, 2008, p. 65.
[18] Abel Sierra Madero: “Del hombre nuevo al travestimo de Estado”, in Diario de Cuba, January 25, 2014.
[19] Reinaldo Arenas: El Central, Seix-Barral, 1981, p. 87.
[20] José Jasán Nieves: “El silencio que no entierra a las UMAP”, OnCuba Magazine, November 30, 2015.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Rafael Hernández: “La hora de las UMAP. Notas para un tema de investigación”. Temas. Cultura, ideología, sociedad, December 7, 2015.
[24] Id.
[25] Alberto I. González Muñoz: Dios no entra en mi oficina: Luchando contra la amargura cuando somos víctimas de la injusticia (2003), ABG Ministries, Frisco, 2012, p. 12.
[26] Ibid., p. 21.
[27] Ibid., p. 22.
[28] Ibid., p. 12.
[29] Ibid., p. 13.
[30] Isaac Rosa: El vano ayer,  Seix Barral, Barcelona, ​​2004, p. 32.
[31] Alberto I. González Muñoz: Op. cit., p. 140.
[32] Ibid., p. 293.
[33] Primo Levi: Si esto es un hombre. Translated by Pilar Gómez Bedate. Muchnik Editores, 1987, p. 303.
[34] Id.
[35] Ibid., pp. 340-341.
[36] Jean Améry [Hans Mayer]: At the Mind’s Limits. Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.  Translated by Sidney and Stella P. Rosenfeld. Indiana University Press, 1980, p. 71.
[37] Id.
[38] Ibid., p. 70.
[39] Ibid., pp. 67-68.
[40] Ibid., p. 147.

From State Homophobia to Marriage Equality in Cuba

The acceptance of unions between two people of the same sex owes more to “State transvestism” than to pressure from the LGBT community (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Abel Sierra Madero, New York | August 28, 2018 — For the past few years the Cuban regime has been producing some sudden changes meant to guarantee the continuity of the system and to erase the past. I called this process of “gatopardism” (a political strategy of changing things so that everything remains the same) “State transvestism.”

It is a readjustment of the revolutionary rhetoric of the Cold War that uses the notion of diversity as a method to offer to the outside world an image of change, but with hardly any tweaks. State transvestism is also a policy that uses new means of managing political control and (self) transition being brought about by the old Cuban political elite.

This strategy started to be tested a decade ago by the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), directed by Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of General Raúl Castro. From 2007, Mariela dominated the headlines when, to the party rhythm of the conga, she started to parade through the streets of Havana surrounded by gay people, insisting that sexual diversity formed part of the Revolution and “in a revolutionary manner.” continue reading

In 2008, CENESEX got the Ministry of Public Health to approve a resolution that authorized sex change operations, which regenerated great affection on the international level as well as on the island. At that time, the institution proposed a new family code and a law of gender identity.

The issue remained silenced for years, until a few days ago, when the Cuban National Assembly — totally controlled by the regime — approved, unanimously and true to the old Soviet style, a new Constitutional text prepared in secret which even Raúl Castro himself helped to edit. They say that it will be submitted very soon to popular consultation, although the general clarified that the consultation would consist of a debate supervised by the Communist Party.

Cosmetic and semantic politics

The project of the “new” constitution is getting tangled up at the same time with cosmetic and semantic politics. It says that private property will be recognized and that the construction of Communism will be renounced, although the Communist Party will continue togovern the destinies of the nation. It assures that socialism is irreversible, but behind the curtain the socialist model is being supplanted little by little by a neoliberal capitalism of the State, which concentrates power in a military elite and more and more cuts the budgets of state services like public health and education — areas on which the Cuban government has rested its legitimacy.

However, the paragraph that most stirred up the media and caused an explosion on social media was Article 68, which considers the “officially approved voluntary union between two persons with the legal capacity for it.” No longer is it limited to a man and a woman, as it was up until now. This simple change can open a pathway to the recognition of gay marriage in Cuba.

Marriage equality has its supporters and its detractors. In the United States and Europe, for example, it has been criticized by queer theorists and activists for the demobilization and the depoliticization it has generated inside these communities, which have seen marriage as the end of a historic agenda to fight for. But that is another discussion.

In Cuba, supporters will say that the approval of equal marriage signifies a step toward the recognition of individual rights, historically diluted in the impersonal and collective mass. To a certain extent they are right. I am in favor of all laws that favor groups that are vulnerable, whether for reasons of race, sexuality, gender, or politics. However, I cannot help pointing out the logic on which the recognition of marriage equality on the island is set up, and the consequences that it could have, thinking about the future and the history of the Revolution itself.

Marriage equality responds to assimilating policies that are being tried out by the State to create politically docile identities. Finally passed, marriage equality would create a protective framework basically circumscribed by the patrimonial one. For years we have seen many people stripped of the goods and properties of their partners, because they did not have the legal protection to inherit. But at the same time, it turns into a device, an instrument aimed at assimilating and canceling out a more comprehensive democratic discussion, not circumscribed to the specific issue of sexuality.

With the way things stand, marriage equality seems to be turning into another space of controlled diversity created for public post-revolution relationships. “With this proposed constitutional regulation, Cuba places itself among the countries at the vanguard of the recognition and guarantee of human rights,” pointed out Mariela Castro. In this way, marriage equality turns into an instrument of propaganda over human rights, an area in which the government has come under harsh criticism.

So, can a country which every year registers high numbers of arbitrary arrests for political motives be considered “at the vanguard” of human rights? A country that considers dissidents or opponents as mercenaries at the service of foreign powers or as traitors to the homeland? A country where freedom of expression, of association, among others, is practically prohibited?

Yesterday’s False Hope

Some activists from the LGBTI community in Cuba have claimed this change as a result of the pressure they have exerted on the institutions. However, this conjecture doesn’t have much support if we take into account the strong pressure that opponents, the Cuban diaspora, the exiles, and international organizations have exerted for decades for the government to recognize other liberties and rights, while those who pull the strings of power haven’t moved a muscle.

Without discounting the agency or the importance of the work of activism, I must say that marriage equality is anchored to this “State transvestism” of which I spoke at the beginning. This policy, in addition to trying out new means of political control, promotes an amnesiac transition, the washing of national memory and the rewriting of history. It is a matter of reaccomodating or rewriting certain historical processes that connect the Revolution to discrimination and homophobia.

For decades homophobia in Cuba was a policy of the State that legimitized purges of gay people from institutions and their internment forced labor camps, like the infamous Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), aimed at the construction of the Communist “New Man.” The washing of memory and the rewriting of history began in August of 2010, when Fidel Castro told La Jornada that he recognized his historical responsibility in the implementation of these forced labor camps.

A few months later, Mariela Castro, in an interview with the Swiss Institute for Cooperation (COSUDE), embarked on a damage control campaign where she ended up saying that “Fidel didn’t even know about UMAP. He was concentrating on the survival of the Revolution and on the changes that they were making in politics, the laws in favor of the rights of the people, amidst complex and tense international relations.”

Mariela Castro has tried to minimize the scope and scale of UMAP in the history of the Cuban Revolution. She even promised an investigation into the matter; we are still waiting for it. Since then, the director of CENESEX has said, in every forum she has appeared in or every interview that she gives, that UMAP was an isolated error and that they were by no means forced labor camps.

Mariela is not the only one engaged in this effort, other cultural commissioners are also trying to reproduce and export this version. If these speeches manage to take root, it’s possible that in a not too distant future, we will see UMAP represented in textbooks and in the public sphere as mere summer camps.

In Cuba I see many of the elements that Isaac Rosa pointed out in his novel Yesterday’s False Hope (2004). Rosa called attention to the existence in Spain of narrative forms that tend to tame and anesthetize the past, while offering a placid image of the Franco dictatorship.

One of the passages reads: “Consciously or unconsciously, many novelists, journalists, and essayists (and filmmakers, let’s not forget) have transmitted a deformed image of Francoism… By doing so they construct a digestible impression of the banana republic in front of the reality of a dictatorship that applied, in detail and until its last day, refined techniques of torture, censorship, mental repression, cultural manipulation, and the creation of psychological ways of thinking that even today we have not managed to completely get rid of.”

On the island, this type of representation goes back to the 90s. Let’s not forget conciliatory exercises like the film Strawberry and Chocolate (1993). “Fidel, with this film, assumed, and with nothing to say, we close internationally that horrible moment that some call a Chapter and that I prefer to call a “digression” that was the UMAP,” wrote the then-director of the Cuban Institute of Art and Film, Alfredo Guevara, to the comandante.

Finally, with the passing of marriage equality, Cuba would take an important step toward becoming a gay-friendly State, which can create large businesses in areas like tourism and sex change operations. Until now, the principal market for these surgeries is in Thailand, but the scene could change because Cuban doctors are now carrying out these procedures, after having received the know-how of European specialists for several years, as part of the CENESEX program.

In recent days, Grupo Gaviota, a corporation belonging to the Cuban military — yes, the military — signed an agreement with the European chain Muthu Hotels & Resorts to manage a hotel in Cuba aimed at the LGTBI community. The company made the announcement with great ceremony on its Twitter account.

The police raids and underground spaces, the forced labor camps and the state-sanctioned homophobia, will remain in obscurity. Celebrities of the gay world can marry in Cuba without fear of being arrested. Now more than ever we need a policy of memory that is not aimed at the clinical space of healing, but rather at justice and compensation for the victims of this harmful policy. It is the only way to ensure that the past not be that “yesterday’s false hope” of which Isaac Rosa spoke.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


Editors’ Note: Abel Sierra Madero (Matanzas, Cuba, 1976) is an essayist, researcher, professor, and critic. With the author’s permission we are reproducing this text which was previously published in the Mexican magazine Letras Libres.

The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Academies To Produce Macho-Men In Cuba / Abel Sierra Madero

Card issued by the “National Information Center,” which was tied to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in the 1960s. This document constitutes a valuable source for the study of vigilance and social and political control in Cuba. On the upper right corner of the card appears the word, “secret,” along with instructions to informants. These should contact the Center when they “know of any instance or indication of enemy activity,” and use a password to maintain “secrecy.” Photo courtesy of María Antonia Cabrera Arus.
Card issued by the “National Information Center,” which was tied to the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in the 1960s. This document constitutes a valuable source for the study of vigilance and social and political control in Cuba. On the upper right corner of the card appears the word, “secret,” along with instructions to informants. These should contact the Center when they “know of any instance or indication of enemy activity,” and use a password to maintain “secrecy.” Photo courtesy of María Antonia Cabrera Arus.

In the 1960s, close to 30,000 young men were detained in forced-labor camps. The mistreatments that took place in these camps, known as Military Units to Aid Production UMAP, in the name of “social hygiene,” testify to the homophobic component of the Cuban Revolution.

Abel Sierra Madero, From Letras Libras, January 2016 — Between 1965 and 1968, the Cuban government established, in the central region of the country, dozens of forced-labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), where about 30,000 men were sent under the pretext of the Obligatory Military Service Law (SMO). The hybrid structure of work camps cum military units served to camouflage the true objectives of the recruitment effort and to distance the UMAPs from the legacy of forced labor. Thus the military-style organization and discipline to which the detainees were subjected could be justified. November 2015 marked 50 years since the regime implemented this experiment.

Historians have generally avoided research into state social-control policies based on forced labor, concentration and isolation of thousands of Cuban citizens at rural locations set up during the 1960s. Likewise, they have rejected the usage of such terminology, as if it did not apply to the case of Cuban socialism, or its use was not “politically incorrect.” By the same token, testimonies and narratives produced by former UMAP detainees have almost always been held suspect. A fascination with beards and uniforms on the part of the mainstream press in Europe and the US, along with powerful images constructed by revolutionary propaganda, have up to now overshadowed the testimonies of Cuban exiles regarding their terrible experiences in these camps.

These accounts became part of an anti-communist narrative to which, supposedly, the exiles had to conform in order to survive outside Cuba. At least, that was what Ambrosio Fornet, one of the most recognized intellectuals on the Island, thought in 1984 while giving an interview to Gay Community News. Although he recognized that the UMAPs were a sort of “academy to produce macho-men,” Fornet criticized the perspectives on the repression offered by exiled continue reading

Cuban writers and artists in the documentary film, Improper Conduct (1984), by Néstor Almendros and Orlando Jiménez Leal. According to Fornet, the majority of the witnesses who appeared in the film lied about UMAP; the writers were saying “what they should say because they’re making a living off of anti-communism.” He added, “The idea of a repressive police state that persecutes individuals is totally absurd and stupid.”

UMAP cannot be understood as an isolated institution, but rather as part of a project of “social engineering” geared toward social and political control. That is, a technology that involved the judicial, military, educational, medical and psychiatric apparatuses. For the establishment of these camps, complex methodologies were employed to identify specific subjects and purge them from mass institutions and organizations, up to and including their recruitment and internment.

Masculinization and Militarization

There were several criteria that the authorities took into account to recruit and intern thousands of subjects in the forced-labor camps. One of them was homosexuality, and it is estimated that around 800 homosexuals were shut away in the camps. Nevertheless, there were other, political, reasons.

In the mid-1960s, Cuba was involved in a transnational process of constructing socialism along with the Soviet Union, the Eastern socialist bloc, and China. These regimes invested many symbolic resources in the creation of national stereotypes that were almost always associated with complex processes of masculinization. In this sense, the concept of the “New Man” was one of the most powerful ideals within these systems, although it had also been used by German Nazism and Italian Fascism.

In the Cuban case, this concept was associated with a broader ideological strain of social homogenization in which fashion, urban sociability practices, religious creeds and work-related behavior were key elements to bring in line with the official normative vision. Thus it is not strange that—besides homosexuals—delinquents, religious believers, intellectuals or simply young men of bourgeois background, were also sent to UMAP.

The psychologist Liliana Morenza, a member of the UMAP research team of psychologists, with two homosexuals from Company 4, Battalion 7, Unit to Aid Production, “La Violeta,” Camagüey, 1967. Photo courtesy of Dr. María Elena Solé.
The psychologist Liliana Morenza, a member of the UMAP research team of psychologists, with two homosexuals from Company 4, Battalion 7, Unit to Aid Production, “La Violeta,” Camagüey, 1967. Photo courtesy of Dr. María Elena Solé.

Although the establishment of the forced-labor camps was accomplished towards the end of 1965, these camps were created under the pretext of Law 1129 of 26 November 1963, which established Obligatory Military Service (SMO) for a period of three years, for men between the ages of 16 and 45. The law exempted those who were the only source of economic support for their parents, spouse and children. At least in theory, the law allowed for a deferral of the recruitment of young men who were finishing their final year of secondary school, pre-university, or university studies.

Nonetheless, the authorities applied those sections with discretion, employing political criteria regarding UMAP. Some young men who constituted the only support for their families were recruited without regard for the consequences for those domestic economies. Many students of diverse educational levels who were at the point of graduating became eligible for recruitment to the SMO when they were expelled as part of a “purification” process. This process, which began around 1965—a few months before the first call to UMAP—had the character of a “purge,” a social crusade, headed by the Union of Young Communists (UJC) against those who were not perceived as “revolutionaries.”

In a communication published in Mella magazine on 31 May 1965, the UJC admonished high school students to expel “counterrevolutionary and homosexual elements” from their groups in the final year of study, so as to impede their university admissions. Also mentioned are those who display “deviances,” or “some kind of petit-bourgeois softness and apathy towards the revolutionary activities being performed by the student body.” They should be sent to the SMO so that they may “gain the right” to be admitted to university. “You know who they are, you have had to fight them many times […] apply the strength of worker and peasant power, the strength of the masses, the right of the masses against their enemies […] Away with the homosexuals and counterrevolutionaries from our schools!” Thus concluded the communication.

Seen here is psychologist Liliana Morenza, one of the specialists who joined the UMAP research team of psychologists, with various homosexuals and military officials. Company 4, Battalion 7, “La Violeta” Unit to Aid Production, Camagüey. 1967. (Courtesy of Dr. María Elena Solé).
Seen here is psychologist Liliana Morenza, one of the specialists who joined the UMAP research team of psychologists, with various homosexuals and military officials. Company 4, Battalion 7, “La Violeta” Unit to Aid Production, Camagüey. 1967. (Courtesy of Dr. María Elena Solé).

A few days later, Alma Mater magazine—the official organ of the Federation of University Students (FEU)—went along with this policy, assuring readers that the purification was the result of the historical moment, and a “necessity for the future development of the Revolution.” The assertion was that the purges of counterrevolutionaries and homosexuals should not be understood as two isolated processes, but rather as one, because “so noxious are the influence and activity of both of them to the formation of the professional revolutionary of the future.”

Once the purges were finalized, those young men were left exposed and at the mercy of the State. Their entry into UMAP was a matter of time. No sooner were the purifications concluded, via the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR)—one of the most effective surveillance institutions created for social and political control in Cuba—than censuses were conducted to identify those youths who were not working nor going to school. This information was provided to the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Revolutionary Armed Forces (MINFAR), the entities charged with recruitment for the UMAPs.

By 1964, Fidel Castro was boasting of the impact the SMO was having on Cuban youth, and emphasizing the failure of institutions such as the family and school in the education of young people. “All right, then, what they could not teach them at home,” he would declare, “what they could not teach them in school, what they could not teach them at the institute, they learned in the army, they learned in a military unit.” For his part, his brother Raúl Castro Ruz, at that time minister of the FAR, gave assurances in a speech delivered on 17 April 1965, that the objectives of the Revolution could only be achieved with a “youth of tempered character,” possessing a “firm character” that was “forged in sacrifice,” far from “softnesses.” A youth that would be inspired “not by dancers of the Twist and Rock and Roll, nor by a display of pseudo-intellectualism,” a youth that would stay away from “all that would weaken the character of men.”

The economic utilization of the body

By way of these processes of militarization and masculinization, the intent was not only to correct gestures and postures, but to reorient and reintegrate those forces and bodies to an economic apparatus. The rhetoric of war, employed repeatedly by the leaders of the Revolution, was incorporated into the ideological and economic discourse in the form of military-type campaigns, and the workers were seen as heroes and soldiers—not just to insert them into a political rituality, but to utilize them as a workforce without having to compensate them financially. In a 1969 article, economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago analyed the types of non-paid work during the 1960s in Cuba, and among those models mentioned UMAP. According to Mesa-Lago, the government achieved savings of around $300-million Cuban pesos through non-paid labor between 1962 and 1967.

Photo taken by the team of psychologists during a session of hormone therapy administered to homosexuals in UMAP, 1967. (Courtesy of Dr. María Elena Solé).
Photo taken by the team of psychologists during a session of hormone therapy administered to homosexuals in UMAP, 1967. (Courtesy of Dr. María Elena Solé).

Around the 1960s, the Cuban economy was dependent on sugar, but the mechanization of cane-cutting was not widespread, therefore the success of the harvests depended on manual cutting. During this period, the sugar harvests began to form part of a great ideological leap that Fidel Castro had planned for 1970. The Maximum Leader was trying to take the Island to a higher degree in the construction of socialism by way of a harvest of ten-million tons of sugar. To achieve the desired effect, Castro needed to mobilize and deploy a major workforce to the areas where large sugar plantations were located. Camagüey province, with considerable expanses of land and scarce labor, was strategically selected for the establishment of the UMAPs in the final months of 1965.

Thus, the camps were inserted into the planned socialist economy, as had occurred in the Soviet Union with the gulag (General Directorate of Labor Camps). Vladimir V. Tchernavin, who managed to escape from a Soviet gulag, describes how, at the start of 1930, that institution became a great forced-labor enterprise, appearing to be a correctional entity, which allowed for the establishment of development plans in places where such an endeavor would have been very difficult without the available forced labor. According to Tchernavin, the gulag provided a structure and functions similar to those of a state enterprise, it was organized like military units, and the detainees received a miserable wage for their work.

A similar thing occurred with UMAP. The inmates of these camps, as well as others recruited by the SMO, received a salary of seven pesos per month, and they were compelled to participate in what is known as “socialist emulation,” a type of competition to incentivize production in which the “vanguards” did not receive financial compensation, but rather diplomas or recognition during political and mass events.

Cover of Sin Tregua! [Without Truce], informational bulletin of the UMAPs political arm, No. 6, 1967. “Social hygiene is what this is called”
Cover of Sin Tregua! [Without Truce], informational bulletin of the UMAPs political arm, No. 6, 1967.
“Social hygiene is what this is called”

It could be said that at the start of 1959, moral panic was the ideological framework on which the campaign for national regeneration was based, which called the entire nation to liquidate the “vices” of the past and consolidate revolutionary power. But very soon, this religious sort of schema was complemented with speeches about hygiene and the notion of “social sickness.”

On 15 April 1965, some months before the first recruitment drive for the UMAPs, the writer Samuel Feijóo, in El Mundo newspaper, published “Revolution and Vices,” an account of the tensions that caused the merging of the religious, political and hygienic discourses. Among the vices that still needed to be eradicated, the writer pointed to alcoholism, and “rampant and provocative homosexuality.” He assured readers that the matter was “not about persecuting homosexuals, but rather about destroying their positions, their procedures, their influence. Social hygiene is what this is called.”

In this manner, the discourses on hygiene and those that came out of the field of psychology were adapted to justify the UMAPs. The camps became a quarantine area, a laboratory that provided not only for the isolation of inmates, but also for the opportunity to study them. In May of 1966, a few months after the UMAPs had been established, María Elena Solé put together a team of psychologists and physicians that made up a secret operation organized by the political arm of MINFAR, to design and work on rehabilitation and reeducation programs for homosexuals in UMAP.

According to Solé’s testimony to me in March 2012, the team’s work consisted in “evaluating these persons from a psychological perspective.” But the evaluation and classification was not based exclusively on aspects related to the generic-sexual configuration of the individuals, but rather incorporated also an ideological criterion.

The team of psychologists drew upon the notion of “afocancia,” a cubanism not recognized by the dictionary, which has been employed to negatively describe those persons who stand out publicly because of certain physical or moral characteristics. Thus, a Template A (for “afocante”) was designed, to distribute homosexuals across four scales: A1, A2, A3 and A4. Type-1 “afocantes” were considered to be those “who did not make a public show of their problem, and were revolutionaries—in the sense that they did not wish to leave the country—comported themselves in a normal fashion, and were more or less integrated into society.” Conversely, “one who let his feathers fly and who, besides, was not integrated into the Revolution nor had any interest in it,” and had expressed a desire to leave the country, was considered a Type-4 “afocante.” As María Elena Solé explained, “there were revolutionaries in this group, but if someone made a display of his problem, we would not classify him as A-1, but as A-4.”

Some of the former UMAP inmates assure me that the team of psychologists conducted various experiments and tests of a behaviorist and reflexologist nature, which included the application of electroshock. However, Dr. Solé asserts that the tests that were done were solely designed to “measure intelligence.” In contrast, Héctor Santiago — a theater person connected to one of the most controversial cultural projects of the 1960s in Cuba, Ediciones El Puente, and who was sent to a UMAP — assured me that the team’s examinations were, at least in their totality, of another character. According to Santiago, the psychologists and psychiatrists utilized behaviorist techniques in the UMAPs such as shocks produced by electrodes, and insulin-produced comas. These experiments consisted in the application of alternating-current shocks “while showing us photographs of nude men, so that we would subconsciously reject them, turning us by-force into heterosexuals.”

This description concurs with various articles that detailed this procedure and that circulated in specialized Cuban journals of psychology and psychiatry during the 1960s. This therapy, which had been developed in Prague by K. Freund, consisted in creating conditioned reflexes. In Cuba it was Dr. Edmundo Gutiérrez Agramonte who incorporated this practice.

Felipe Guerra Matos, the official in charge of the dismantling UMAP, remarked to me during an interview in June 2015, that the idea of placing teams of psychologists in the UMAPs had been his, and that up to 30,000 subjects were confined in them, including approximately 850 homosexuals. At one point in the conversation, Guerra Matos stated, “We committed grave errors, imposing punishments on the little faggots, a lot of things were done there […] They were made to stare into the sun, to count ants […] ‘Go ahead, stare into the sun, you’ll see.’ Any abomination that occurred to some harebrained guard. I am at fault, because I signed off on recruitments.”

The punishments in the UMAPs could range from verbal insults to physical mistreatment and torture. Several of my interviewees assured me that one of the methods of punishment employed by some guards consisted in burying the detainee in a hole in the ground and leaving him with his head exposed for several hours. Some were dunked in a tank of water until they lost consciousness; others were tied to a stake or a fence and left for the night, exposed to the elements, so that they would be food for mosquitos. According to Héctor Santiago, this method of punishment was called “the stake.” The torment and mortification of the body had a purpose of intimidation and formed part of a narrative in which the punishments were given names such as the “trapeze,” the “brick,” the “rope,” the “hole,” among others.

On the other hand, many of the camps were surrounded by barbed-wire fences, used repeatedly in jails and concentration camps. According to the singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, who was sent to UMAP in 1966, these fences were composed of 14 wire strands, arranged so that they reached up to six meters in height. A brief song is dedicated to this wire fence and the enclosure, entitled, “Fourteen Strands and One Day.” Milanés explained to me that the song was not recorded in those years, but rather later, in the studios of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry, in the 1970s.

Fourteen strands and one day separate me from my beloved,

Fourteen strands and one day separate me from my mother,

And now I know whom I will love

When the strands and the day

I am able to leave.


The history of this sad experiment has remained buried on the Island. Up to today, the Cuban government has constantly denied the character of the UMAPs, and has sought to erase from the collective imagination anything related to this subject. At the same time, the international Left has preferred to view UMAP as an error inherent to revolutionary movements. This ideological exercise has been influenced by the manner in which the figure of Fidel Castro became one of the most powerful representations of the Revolution. Therefore, once the critiques and international campaigns calling for the dismantling of the camps began, it became indispensable to disassociate the Maximum Leader from these processes, so that UMAP could be justified as an exception that should not be identified with the Revolution. This is how, for example, Ernesto Cardenal did it. In his book, En Cuba (1972), the Nicaraguan poet and theologian told of how he was visited by two young men who were interested in complementing his official view of the Island. One of them had been a “jailer” for UMAP, and assured Cardenal that it was Fidel Castro who eliminated those “concentration camps,” invoking at times the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The picturesque account that Cardenal narrates in his book constitutes the only source that makes this type of reference. In 2010, during an interview granted to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Fidel Castro himself finally “assumed” his responsibility in the establishment of those work camps.

UMAP was officially dissolved via Law 058 of October 1968. Although these camps disappeared as an institution, other, more sophisticated devices and institutions replaced them, keeping intact the spirit and motivations that created them. The decade of the 1970s was still to come.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison