Presidio Modelo, School of Revolutionaries

Autumn 2009

“In truth to think about an escape in the Isla de Pinos is extremely difficult. We were subjected to imprisonment. But they did not imagine that ideas cannot be locked up nor exiled.” Fidel Castro

Cuban Alejandro Gortazar, a professional photographer, and reporter living between Havana and London, writes about the ‘La Modelo’ - the notorious prison on Cuba’s Isle of Youth where Fidel Castro and Juan Almeida Bosque were imprisoned following their attack on the Moncada barracks.

Text and photographs by Alejandro Gortazar

Edited and translated by Maria Castro

The Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), better known as Isla Pinos (Pines Island) is located one hundred kilometers south from the small fishing village of Batabanó on the main island of Cuba.

It was baptised La Evangelista (The Evangelist) by the controversial mariner Christopher Colombus when he discovered it on 13 June 1494. For more than 400 years the Isla de la Juventud was accosted by pirates and smugglers, gaining it the name Isla del Tesoro (Treasure Island).

Centuries later, during the rule of the tyrant Machado, the Presidio Modelo (Model Prison) was opened on the 16 September 1931. It was based on the model of the Panopticon, a type of prison designed by the English jurist and reformer Jeremy Bentham more than a hundred years before, which allowed an observer to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched.

Michel Foucault, French philosopher, wrote about this design in his Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975):

“...the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it...”

Indeed, the design, based on Joliet Prison (Illinois), permitted the imprisonment of the highest number of highly dangerous convicts than ever before in order to ‘reeducate’ them. Initially with a planned capacity for just under two thousand inmates, it was to increase threefold to six thousand risky prisoners, which led to severe overcrowding in very small cells.

As well as dangerous prisoners, those who manisfested ideologies perceived as threats to those ‘misgoverning’ the nation and deportees were also held in the Model Prison. Curiously, during World War II (from 1939) La Modelo served as a concentration camp.

Although there had been plans for eight cell blocks, only four were built in addition to the large central dinning block; this was called the ‘thousand silences refectory’ because it was forbidden to make any sound or noise, including the noise of cutlery! -the legend goes that inmates would prefer to eat with their hands lest all should be punished for breaking this rule.

In addition, there were three areas for forced labour:: La Yana, El Cocodrilo (The Crocodile) y La Fuente Luminosa (The Luminous Fountain). The high level of security and savagery inside the Model Prison made it notorious. Immune crimes were committed by both guards and prisoners, the long list of horrors is too much to mention here but it made of La Modelo an extermination camp. Myth and cruel facts mounted over the years in this most feared prison in Cuba during the period of the Pseudo-Republic.

After the failed 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba, the revolutionary survivors were jailed and brutally tortured. They were transferred to the isolation of the Isle of Pines and La Modelo due to fears that an uprising may try to free them and which would provoke a national spread of revolutionary ideas. The revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida Bosque and Diaz Cartaya, were subjected to a double punishment; being sent to La Modelo they were deprived of contact with their families, in a sort of exile, and it made impossible any attempt to break out.

“In truth to think about an escape in the Isla de Pinos is extremely difficult. We were subjected to imprisonment. But they did not imagine that ideas cannot be locked up nor exiled.” Fidel Castro

There, in his cell, Fidel Castro reconstructed his self-defence argument: “La historia me absolverá”, (History will absolve me), which was to become the programme for the Cuban Revolution and would be printed and distributed surreptitiously throughout the whole country. It was in the Modelo, over 580 days, including the period in which first Fidel and then Raul, were punished with solitary confinement, that the colossal Batalla de Ideas (Battle of Ideas) took place.

With the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, there were many the measures carried out by the government to ensure the people acquired at least literacy to facilitate a higher cultural level at grass roots. A clear sign of this commitment was the transformation of military areas into schools, which were to serve for the education of millions of Cubans right up to this day.

The Presidio Modelo was one example of this, as are the Moncada Barracks. What once had been the setting of vile tortures, murders and humiliations, today house centres of education. La Modelo was rebaptised and is today called the Palacio de Pioneros 15 de Mayo (Palace of Pioneers 15 May), and has been declared a National Heritage site, a proud mark of revolutionary work.

Today the site opens its doors to hundreds of students, young men and women of science and technology, who are the future of our homeland. Specialties such as telcommunications, applied industrial chemistry and metallurgical studies, textile manufacturing, among others, are delivered to young students to create vocation from an early age. This is seen as a way to help students select their future careers and create the basis for a productive life, whilst at the same time contributing to the development of the nations’ industry and economy. Cuba has 127 centers of this type which can be found throughout the country.

After such a dark history, the Modelo prison has became a school for young revolutionaries; a place to unite solid ideas to ensure the continuation of what was, from 1 January 1959, “La Gran Revolucion Cubana” (the great Cuban Revolution). The principles of all of those who died for the Revolution and the example they set will always remain in the hearts of the Cuban people and continue to drive the Battle of Ideas.

I make today a call for all the workers of the world to unite in solidarity our efforts towards a better world. Meanwhile, today we will shout even louder: Patria o Muerte, Venceremos!!!

Hasta la Victoria Siempre.

‘Cuba, Treasured Island’ - Exhibition by Cuban photographer Alejandro Gortazar

2 November 2009 - 2 December 2009

Opus, 10-13 King Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8HN

Cuban photographer Alejandro Gortezar has an exhibition of his work at the Opus store gallery in London in November.

Featuring a selection of his traditional photographic work on Cuban landscape, wildlife and people this exhibition reveals a Cuba beyond the clichés of salsa, decaying buildings, cigars and revolution.

Gortazar, who was born in Havana, was granted special permission to visit protected nature reserves which are inaccessible to visitors.

Following his passion for nature photography he has travelled the island incessantly, exploring remote areas rarely discovered by both foreign and local visitors. Gortazar captures the energy and luminosity of Cuba, with its people living in harmony with their natural environment. “They may have old clothes but they also have real happiness,” he says.

This exhibition offers a glimpse of the true treasure that to him constitutes Cuba, “bastion of struggle, sacrifice, culture, nature and love”.

Alejandro, who will be writing further features for CubaSí, has also photographed recent CSC events such as the Miami Five vigil and Trafalgar Square forth plinth event in September. CSC members who are based in or wil be visiting London during November are encouraged to visit the gallery to support Alejandro’s exhibition, where his work will also be available to purchase.

Opus opening hours are Monday to Saturday 10am - 6pm, Sunday 12 - 5pm.

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