‘The Body Never Forgets’, an Essay on the Concentration Camps in Cuba

The official Cuban press extolling the work of the UMAP camps in the 1960s. Headline: Where work makes the man.

14ymedio biggerEFE (via 14ymedio), Jorge I. Pérez, Miami, 5 April 2022 — The forced labor camps in which, as in the Soviet gulag, dissidents, religious, homosexuals and artists were confined in the Cuba of the 1960s, left “a lot of pain and trauma” not yet healed, affirms the Cuban historian Abel Sierra Madero, who has just published an essay on this subject with the title El cuerpo nunca olvida [The body never forgets].

Subtitled Trabajo forzado, hombre nuevo y memoria en Cuba (1959-1980) [Forced work, new man and memory in Cuba (1959-1980)], the book brings together, for the first time, memorabilia, personal photos, testimonial sources and fictional literature on what was officially called Military Production Assistance Units (UMAP), “Because it must be said that I handle fiction as truth,” Sierra told Efe in an interview.

A specialist in studies of sexuality, concentration camps, the Cold War, memory and trauma, Sierra, who has lived in the US for years, interviewed more than 30 people or relatives of people who between 1965 and 1968 were in the UMAP. The interviews were conducted between Cuba, Miami, New Jersey and New York.

According to Sierra (1976) in the book’s introduction, “the UMAPs formed part of a more complex economic system within a broad project of social engineering.”

For this purpose, dozens of forced labor camps were created in the Camagüey plain, the Cuban province where sugar cane was best grown, and some 30,000 people passed through them between 1965 and 1968, according to data from the author.

“The UMAPs had a double meaning: re-educational, political and ideological, and also an economic one,” he comments.

“They were plantation enclaves. In the book I call it ’the development of the socialist plantation’, based on a colonial market which was that of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe,” he says.

“The implementation of these camps allowed the State to appropriate a large part of the workforce without having to compensate them financially,” he says.

“There is still a lot of pain and trauma. An interesting part in this book is the theme of silence; you can see how silences speak. I was interested in taking the witness to that place of remembrance and denunciation,” Sierra details.

The volume shows “how the notion of the ’New Man’, which was the fundamental term to establish the revolutionary ideological structure and architecture, also served to implement forced labor camps, to manage power and create control mechanisms.”

Retrieving “los escombros,” something he prefers to call, in English, “the debris,” processing the information and writing a 528-page essay took him about a decade, he confessed shortly before presenting his book this Saturday at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, in Miami.

The cover is an image by Canadian photojournalist Paul Kidd taken at the entrance to one of the camps in 1966. It shows an armed soldier next to a fence of 21 strands of barbed wire.

Sierra comments that the photo is the product of Kidd’s audacity, who appeared there alone and without warning.

Hundreds of homosexuals were taken to these gulags to be “cured” according to the concept of the Cuban revolution that saw the nation as a sick body and the State as a medical benefactor, the book’s publisher, Rialta, said in a presentation on Facebook.

Benjamín de la Torre, “a boy who moved in art circles, committed suicide after that experience,” Sierra points out.

Singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés entered the UMAP at the age of 23, but according to Sierra his stay there “was an open secret until he considered it important for his career to unfreeze this issue.”

About the experience, Milanés wrote the song 14 pelos y un día, in which he invokes the wire fences, which were reduced from 21 strands to 14 when international criticism began to surface, according to 14ymedio.

Sierra was unable to interview Milanés after two attempts. “He was so traumatized that when everything was ready for the interview he canceled at the last minute,” he says.

The few available sources, beyond the official newspaper archives that “tell a different story from the UMAP,” were texts written by religious inmates of the camps “from a narrative of forgiveness.”

“Then I realized that I had to carry out a deep investigation that collected the before and after of the camps, the inside and the outside,” explains the author, who included a bonus track touching on the Mariel exodus in his essay (1980).

“An archive is created to be able to be destroyed, and that is the logic in which the Cuban regime has operated: Create a mystique around the archive, create a morbidity about its existence or disappearance to make believe reconstruction is an impossibility.”

“It has been shown how a history without an archive can be reconstructed, and that is what I have done, a history of the UMAP without an official archive. I have created my own,” says this professor at Florida International University (FIU).


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