And the Interrogator Wasn't Even Johnny Depp

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To follow up on Nick Gillespie's point about cual es mas gulag, one of the people I interviewed in Cuba in 1998 was a guy named Gustavo Dominguez Gutierrez, who had just days before been released after serving five years, five months and 20 days for "enemy propaganda" and disrespecting the president (Bill Maher would have a helluva time maintaining his lifestyle in Cuba). Before that term, Gutierrez had previously been sentenced to three years for refusing to report to compulsory military service. Here's part of our interview, conducted through an interpreter, about the conditions inside Castro's jails:

In Camaguey we formed a political prisoners group, and our main task was to denounce constantly the repression inside the prisons—The lack of medical and food attention, which provoked great illness. There were many sick prisoners, and they weren't given the food they were supposed to. We also denounced that there were prisoners who had contagious diseases. Also the violation of the Constitution in respect to religious rights. Also the beatings. And this is why they moved me from one prison to another.

And sometimes I was even tortured. For example they hit me. Another way to torture me is they would make me naked in the cell, with handcuffs and ankle cuffs, for 21 consecutive days. For example, I was in punishment cells naked, then officers would ask me to stand up to respect them, and I wouldn't, and that's why sometimes they punished me. Sometimes they would hang me by my wrists, so that I was on my toes.

As infuriating as that is, the truly heartbreaking bit, a variation of which you hear often in Cuba, was this:

It's very difficult for me because I love my country very much. I'm confident that changes have to come. I can't believe that Castro's heart can all be black. I hope that even though it's going to be a slow process that we could obtain the rights to which we are entitled. I will try to survive.

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  1. But. . .but. . .but. . .keeping people naked and chained for days at a time isn’t torture! Hanging them from the ceiling by their wrists isn’t torture! Beating them isn’t torture! If it were, that would mean we Americans were torturing people in our War on Terror prison camps, which is clearly impossible since we can do no wrong!

  2. I didn’t know they had fraternities in Cuba.

  3. I haven’t read the article, only the bit posted above, but the truly sad thing is that Gutierrez was treated better in Castro’s jails than our prisoners are treated in our overseas prisons. And the guys sent to Gitmo without charges or trial would have LOVED a three-year sentence; a three-year sentence would mean they were let out over six months ago.

  4. Let’s see: Guantanmo houses POWs. Prisoners who want totalitarianism. Camaguey houses political prisoners. Prisoners who want democracy. But Jennifer sees no difference. After all, they are all prisoners. I guess this is reality based thinking.

  5. Let’s see: Guantanmo houses POWs. Prisoners who want totalitarianism. Camaguey houses political prisoners. Prisoners who want democracy. But Jennifer sees no difference. After all, they are all prisoners. I guess this is reality based thinking.

    Ass. Yes, they’re both prisoners. Many, if not all, of those prisoners in Guantanamo never faced trial before they were imprisoned. We have no way of telling whether or not they want totalitarianism. And does it really matter? Do the political motives of prisoners make a difference, if their only crime is opposing the government that imprisoned them? Give me a fucking break. Talk about totalitarianism . . .

  6. Wow, Jack, that’s a wee bit of oversimplification. We don’t know that about either group of prisoners.

    Guantanamo surely does house some prisoners who want totalitarianism, but it surely also houses some prisoners who have a bad last name. Similarly, Camaguey surely does house advocates of democracy, but it surely also houses some prisoners who “deserve” to be there based on their actions.

    So, yeah, they’re all prisoners, and there’s no place for torture while their guilt or innocence is determined.

    In my America, we don’t support torture. Period.

  7. Jennifer,
    You need to realize that it really isn’t torture. You see, we’re only protecting our citizens from evil terrorists! What Fidel Castro has achieved is much, much, better-a paradise of social justice! You can’t do that without breaking a few eggs now, can you? I hereby sentence you to go back to college for a few years and take a bunch of political science classes until you get with the program on Cuba.
    (Sorry- the subject of Cuba makes me feel like my head’s going to explode. Rant over now).

  8. Guantanmo houses POWs. Prisoners who want totalitarianism.

    Tell me jack, do kids in their early teens also qualify as POWs who want totalitarianism.

  9. “But. . .but. . .but. . .keeping people naked and chained for days at a time isn’t torture! Hanging them from the ceiling by their wrists isn’t torture! Beating them isn’t torture! If it were, that would mean we Americans were torturing people in our War on Terror prison camps, which is clearly impossible since we can do no wrong!”

    I realize I’m walking a tightrope here, but I don’t know that we have demonstrated that: a) torture in US maintained camps was institutional or widespread or b) that what is occurring is of qualitative similarity to a Fidel prison camp.

    I’m not saying that torture certainly didn’t occur, and US forces certainly can be guilty of such, but my feeling is that there is a libertarian inclinantion to make no distinctions between a gulag and gitmo, and I doubt very seriously if the experience of prisoners was remotely the same. It is an easy argument to make because no one wants to be on record defending torture, but you need to be careful here.

    I invite you to read Andy McNabb’s account of his experience as an Iraqi POW in Bravo Two-Zero. I’ve heard no accounts of anything approaching that.

  10. LisaMarie-
    I sympathize with your feelings about Cuba. And as a Castro-hating freedom-loving person, it makes me sick to realize that, in at least this one regard, Castro is, in fact, behaving less badly than we are.

  11. The deeper point is that if a Guantanamo inmate claimed to have undergone the treatment that Gutierrez describes, the Glennosphere would be buzzing with declarations that this wasn’t really torture at all. (“He had to wear handcuffs? The poor baby! Doesn’t he know the Islamofascists would have cut off his head?”)

  12. Jennifer, I’m not sure what you mean by “in this respect”, but it sure doesn’t sound to me like anyone is putting on weight in Castro’s jails (like they do in Gitmo), or has their very own personal copy of the Koran provided courtesy of the US taxpayer (like they do in Gitmo).

    Whatever abuses may have occurred at Gitmo, the most recent reports (I believe from the ICRC)indicate that they have stopped, and no one has ever shown that it was routine and expected that every prisoner at Gitmo would be underfed, denied medical care, and otherwise abused. This is and has been the practice in Cuba for decades now. Not a few years, but decades.

    So, do please expand on the ways in which the US is worse than Castro.

  13. RC-
    A few days ago I posted a New York Times story in which even the Army admitted that the Afghan man tortured to death by Americans in Bagram was innocent. Our own military had admitted that a lot of the prisoners in Abu Ghraib–including some of those who were killed there– were innocent. Gutierrez had a horrible experience, but at least he’s alive to talk about it. Not all of our victims are so lucky.

  14. Somewhere in Cuba, Jack Wayne’s soul brother is explaining why everybody in Castro’s prisons is ther ebecause he deserves to be.

  15. Jennifer-

    Yeah, but unlike Castro, Bush hasn’t done anything to entrench the central government’s role in the provision of health care and education.

    Oh, wait.

  16. Jennifer — Not all of Castro’s victims are so lucky, either. Many/most are imprisoned not because they were *suspected* of Al Qaeda membership, and/or captured on a battlefield, but because they wrote or signed petitions to the government asking for free elections. I would wager plenty that the day-to-day conditions for sanitation, health, intra-prisoner violence and freedom of religious worship are far, far worse in Castro’s prisons than in Guantanamo. And Gutierrez, for one, has spent at least 8 years of his adult life in those jails.

  17. But. . .but. . .but. . .keeping people naked and chained for days at a time isn’t torture! Hanging them from the ceiling by their wrists isn’t torture!

    Nope, that’s loooooove.

    -Marv

  18. Matt-
    I’m not trying to argue for Castro’s sainthood here; I’m just pointing out that some of our prisoners are treated even worse than Gutierrez was.

    Yeah, so far our overall record is better than Castro’s, but that alone does not make us moral, any more than being smarter than Paris Hilton is enough to make one a genius.

  19. If Fidel really hated the guy, he would have sent him to Bolivia.

  20. Yeah, so far our overall record is better than Castro’s, but that alone does not make us moral, any more than being smarter than Paris Hilton is enough to make one a genius.

    Exactly. Overall we’re still better-behaved than Fidel Castro, but I was always taught that America aspires to a standard higher than “Well, Cuba would be worse.”

  21. “I can’t believe that Castro’s heart can all be black.”

    “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”

    1984, George Orwell.

  22. OK, what’s the Johnny Depp reference?

  23. Yeah, but unlike Castro, Bush hasn’t done anything to entrench the central government’s role in the provision of health care and education.

    thoreau, you slay me. Good one.

  24. “I realize I’m walking a tightrope here, but I don’t know that we have demonstrated that: a) torture in US maintained camps was institutional or widespread or b) that what is occurring is of qualitative similarity to a Fidel prison camp.”

    I don’t know what you mean by “institutional”, but it was established in the Schlesinger Report that a) the Geneva Conventions were lifted on the orders of Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld personally approved actions that were previously prohibited as tortuous, and that b) Donald Rumsfeld made those policy changes on the advice of Gonzales who is now our Attorney General.

    …I’d call that institutional.

    “I’m not saying that torture certainly didn’t occur, and US forces certainly can be guilty of such, but my feeling is that there is a libertarian inclinantion to make no distinctions between a gulag and gitmo, and I doubt very seriously if the experience of prisoners was remotely the same.”

    I agree that there were huge differences between Guantanamo Bay and a gulag.

    …in spite of all the similarities.

  25. my feeling is that there is a libertarian inclinantion to make no distinctions between a gulag and gitmo

    The very fact that we even have to contemplate such distinctions is a troublesome sign.

    Yes, yes, I would agree that we remain a free society, but it’s not like there’s a sharp dividing line between free and unfree, with no sign-posts to let you know that you’re getting close to the line.

    In reality there are plenty of warning signs. One of those warning signs is when you have to go to lengths to assure everyone that a prison operating in a legal gray area is still better than anything the Soviets cooked up.

    It’s not too late to turn things around, but the only way to turn things around is to get our heads out of our asses and realize that there’s a problem when even on a libertarian site people think it’s a sufficient defense to say “Well, we’re still not as bad as the Soviets!”

  26. I’ll know that the end is near when somebody says “Of course, Kruschev would be much worse.”

  27. The lesser of two evils is still evil.

  28. “I’ll know that the end is near when somebody says “Of course, Kruschev would be much worse.”

    I hit on that in the other gulag thread…

    “To cop thoreau’s phrase, Stalin would have been much worse.”

    Comment by: Ken Shultz at May 26, 2005 03:09 PM

  29. And bringing up gitmo makes us ignore our own prisons where anal rape is expected by everyone in the system to be part of the sentence, yet somehow we just can’t seem to find any institutional policy that explicity says so.

  30. “Well, we’re still not as bad as the Soviets!”

    I’m having trouble formulating this thought, and this area is already a minefield, so if you could give me some latitude to talk my way through my points here …

    The argument from principle that ‘torture is wrong’ is obviously true. The argument that we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than the Soviets is a bit mushy. We should hold ourselves to the same standards we hold the Soviets. We should not hold ourselves to the same standard to which the Soviets held themselves.

    I have this feeling that libertarians and others employ these two arguments as a way to close out tough cases from discussion. You can shut down a very legitimate argument about what constitutes the boundaries of torture, whether Geneva is reasonable in this regard, and so forth, just by saying that anything more permissive than Geneva is obviously torture. I don’t know that that is the case.

    Even worse than that argument to me is the presumption that anyone not on the Gitmo = Gulag bandwagon MUST be arguing from the standpoint that ‘the soviets were worse’. There are qualitative differences so large that discussion of them shouldn’t be swept away with a quick accusation of torture apologetics.

  31. Right on, JC. Not only that, but it’s apparently so expected by everyone outside of the system that it’s a perfectly OK subject for a humorous TV commercial.

    It reminds me of ancient Rome and the gladiators, or London, and the heads on pikes at London Bridge and the marching of criminals to the gallows at Tyburn or Smithfield. People accept barbarism when they can enjoy the spectacle and tell themselves the participants deserve it one way or another.

  32. Larry-
    What is this commercial you’re referring to?

  33. Even worse than that argument to me is the presumption that anyone not on the Gitmo = Gulag bandwagon MUST be arguing from the standpoint that ‘the soviets were worse’. There are qualitative differences so large that discussion of them shouldn’t be swept away with a quick accusation of torture apologetics.

    I agree completely. But while a gulag comparison is clearly absurd, the combination of indefinite detentions and abuse/torture allegations does make comparisons between the treatment of prisoners by the US military and the police and military forces of some fairly unsavory governments on this planet increasingly justified.

  34. But while a gulag comparison is clearly absurd, the combination of indefinite detentions and abuse/torture allegations does make comparisons between the treatment of prisoners by the US military and the police and military forces of some fairly unsavory governments on this planet increasingly justified.

    Exactly. It’s not a question of whether we’re better than thugocracies around the world. Clearly we are.

    It’s a question of what direction we’re moving in, and whether we really want to move in that direction while talking about how other countries should liberalize. No matter how much better we might be, the fact remains that a country which preaches the virtues of freedom and the importance of transforming the world will inevitably be held to a higher standard than other countries. Movements in the wrong direction will inevitably undercut credibility, no matter how good we remain on an absolute scale.

    Plus, the fact remains that it is objectively worrisome when a President asserts the authority to hold US citizens without trial or charges. Or when a government asserts that it can maintain prisons that are outside any judicial scrutiny. Especially when those prisons are, at best, loosely regulated with regard to torture and when the government is later forced to admit that a lot of the inmates are innocent.

    I mean, those are just objectively worrisome things, no matter how you slice it. Better than Castro? Sure. Good enough? Hell no!

  35. …btw

    …I have little doubt that if we were left to the mercy of Messrs. Bush, Gonzales and Rumsfeld that things would have been much worse. But in America, there are still enough people who are disgusted by such policies, and such people still have few enough infringements on their ability to speak out, and there’s still a free enough media to cover such things, and there are still enough Americans for whom Constitutional issues still resonate, and in spite of all the advertising and jingoism that money and fear can buy, politicians are still fearful enough that swing voters will see through it all, and so, in the end, the vicious, incompetent bastards in the Bush Administration had to back down.

    …So let’s hear it for moral appeals! …and the Constitution!

  36. There have been various references to PoW’s and the Geneva Convention. Those two concepts are irrelevant to the inmates at Guantanamo. If they deserve some minimum level of decent treatment, it isn’t a claim that can be made on that basis. It would make just as much sense to say that Mr. Martinez was mistreated because he wasn’t treated by Castro as a prisoner of war.

    If someone has info that a Guant. inmate was captured in battle in uniform AND obeying the laws of war, I’ll stand corrected.

  37. “America: Better than than the Soviet gulag!”

    Somehow that slogan just doesn’t sound as catchy as “America: Land of the free!”

  38. Siberia…
    Siberia…
    Siberia, FUCK YEAH!
    Coming again, to ruin your mother fucking day yeah,
    Siberia, FUCK YEAH!
    Freedom is so over-rated,
    Capitalist your game is through cause now you have to answer too,
    Siberia, FUCK YEAH!
    So lick my butt, and suck on my balls,
    Siberia, FUCK YEAH!
    What you going to do when we come for you now,
    it?s the dream that we crush; it?s no hope for tomorrow

    FUCK YEAH!

    Bread lines, FUCK YEAH!
    Pravda, FUCK YEAH!
    Ugly babushkas, FUCK YEAH!
    Purges, FUCK YEAH!
    Cult of personality, FUCK, YEAH!
    Yugos, FUCK YEAH!
    No hot water, FUCK YEAH!
    Slavery, FUCK YEAH!

    FUCK YEAH!

    Thumb screws, FUCK YEAH!
    Black markets, FUCK YEAH!
    KGB, FUCK YEAH!
    Forced confessions, FUCK YEAH!
    Censorship, FUCK YEAH!
    Poverty, FUCK YEAH!
    Torture, FUCK YEAH!
    More purges, FUCK YEAH!
    Forget the bread line, it’s all gone, FUCK YEAH!
    Collectivized farming (Fuck yeah, Fuck yeah)

    Five year plans, FUCK YEAH!
    Peace treaty with Hitler, FUCK YEAH!
    Wars of conquest, FUCK YEAH!
    Still more purges, FUCK YEAH!
    Stasi, FUCK YEAH!
    Citizen informants, FUCK YEAH!
    Immigrants fleeing in droves, FUCK YEAH!
    Single party rule, FUCK YEAH!
    Politburo, FUCK YEAH!
    Killing Rasputin (still killing him)
    (fuck yeah, fuck yeah)
    Steroid-enhanced athletes
    Book burning

  39. Well, Thoreau, there’s always my old favorite: “America: Hey, it could be worse!”

  40. America: Making fine distinctions on torture since 2001.

  41. Um, I mean, winking at fraternity pranks since 2001.

  42. “I hereby sentence you to go back to college for a few years and take a bunch of political science classes until you get with the program on Cuba.”

    I have a better idea. I’ll buy you a one-way ticket to Cuba, Jennifer, as long as you sign a contract that guarantees me 10 times the cost of getting you there if you come back before Cuba becomes a democracy.

  43. Since 2001? Back in the 80’s our prisons at home were second worse than the Sovitets.

    We also had the second highest incarceration rate, and then the Soviet Union fell apart, and we then became the #1. Yeah, we’re #1.

    At some point I think our recividism level rose from 80% to high 90%. But they are not prisons anymore, now they are correctional facilities. 90% recividism, I am not sure what they are correcting.

    They should just change the name of Gitmo. Correctional facility has been taken, so they should figure out another name, and then it won’t be so wrong.

  44. Excellent idea, Mark. After all, if people stop pointing out Amerca’s problems, then the problems don’t exist, right?

  45. I think the word I’ve been looking for is ‘facile’. I mean no offense to thoreau and others, whose views I respect in most instances, but this kind of cutesy sloganeering is not very informative.

    If torture is a moral wrong, it is a moral wrong. What is clearly at issue is the definition of torture. What I’m hearing is that we are moving in the wrong direction, but I don’t really know what that means because nobody will come out and say that torture has a given set of characteristics. The fuzziness of the word allows anyone at any point on a continuum from uncomfortable beds to pulling teeth to be accused of torture. What I am asking is that if you want to make a point about the treatment of prisoners, you should really speak in specific terms.

    What specifically should we be able to do to extract information?

  46. Good question Jason Ligon. Also to what lengths should we be able to go to extract information that could save many lives?

    Rush Limbaugh had something about that regarding an episode of 24.

    On a side note, I have heard so much about 24 and yet have not seen an episode, the PX does not sell the series on CD, and yet they sell the series ‘Andromeda’, really WTF?

  47. Jason-

    How much information are we getting by torture at the moment? Let’s start with that practical question.

  48. Thoreau:

    That is a fine question. I note that it carries an implication that a) torture is being employed and b) that the level of acceptable torture should have something to do with what we get out of it. What I’m looking for is what consitutes torture so we can all agree on A in a given instance, then we can discuss whether B is a legitimate concern.

    My feeling is that there is a level of acceptable unpleasantness that is shy of torture, and then there is torture. I am not willing to say categorically that even what I consider torture could never be employed. There is probably a cost that is high enough to justify it. The cost of not torturing would have to be extremely high, but still. I can conceive of cases where I think that innocents might have to be actually killed to protect large numbers of people from being killed. Hostage situations come to mind. Infectious diseases might be another. Once I have accepted that level of force, I have a hard time saying to myself that torture is completely off the table for all imaginable situations.

    I suspect much information can be attained by way of unpleasant measures like minimization of protein intake and sleep deprivation. I’m told that these things make it difficult to keep your lies straight, so you can get at a minimum some information about what is not the case. I doubt that beating the crap out of someone accomplishes much unless you are really committed to some horrible stuff.

  49. How much information are we getting by torture at the moment? Let’s start with that practical question.

    I’m sorry sir, that’s classified.

  50. An old Chineese saying goes;
    “No one with holds information when asked correctly”

    Well I don’t really know if that is really a Chineese saying, I think I saw it in an episode of “Kung Fu”

    But everyone does have a breaking point. Some cultures are better at getting at it than others.

  51. “There have been various references to PoW’s and the Geneva Convention. Those two concepts are irrelevant to the inmates at Guantanamo.

    Actually, those concepts are directly related, but don’t take my word for it. Look at the Schlesinger Report.

    http://www.npr.org/documents/2004/abuse/schlesinger_report.pdf

    In it, you’ll find that the “Independent” panel blamed the horrors of Abu Gharib on the policy confusion created when Rumsfeld, on the advice of the Gonzales Torture Memo, abandoned the Conventions at Guantanamo.

    …Thank God Rumsfeld realized what a stupid mistake he’d made and reversed course.

  52. “What specifically should we be able to do to extract information?”

    Jason, I don’t think this standard is as slippery as you seem to be suggesting. Yes, torture can be hard to define specifically, but we had policies in place for eons that carefully circumscribed how to treat prisoners–any flavor you like–right up until the Bush Administration decided to chuck those policies.

    …It is my understanding that we’ve gone back to the old policies now. Have we not?

    With all respect, you seem to be suggesting that an effective policy to avoid torturing people isn’t really possible when, in fact, we had such a policy in the past. Indeed, when we abandoned the old policy, we suffered the sort of disgrace the original policy prevented.

  53. “With all respect, you seem to be suggesting that an effective policy to avoid torturing people isn’t really possible when, in fact, we had such a policy in the past.”

    If everyone agrees that Geneva defines torture, then yes. Geneva didn’t prevent torture from the perspective of anyone who thought its standard was too low. Also, I hear quite a bit of the old “t-word” thrown about for things that did not violate Geneva.

    I’m not actually suggesting that effective anti torture policy isn’t possible. I’m suggesting that useful discussion would be more specific than what I’ve been reading. If Geneva is your standard, let’s talk about those specific things tha Geneva said something about. Barking dogs isn’t in there, for example.

  54. Jason-

    Leaving aside international law and whether it applies and what it actually would proscribe in any case, there’s a separate issue. That’s the distinction between the misery that is inevitably part of any prison, and the misery that arises from individual guards deliberately doing something to selected individual inmates.

    Denying somebody his freedom, feeding him crappy food, putting him in an uncomfortable cell, keeping him bored out of his mind with nothing to do, and surrounding him with unfriendly guards is one thing. It’s the way the system is. Those parameters can be varied to make the system as pleasant or unpleasant as we want, and we can debate where to draw the lines with those sorts of things. (e.g. just how extreme would the temperate have to be before it’s unacceptable? How little food can they get without crossing lines?)

    However, there’s something qualitatively different when guards start acting with discretion to torment individual inmates or groups of inmates. The misery inflicted is no longer the inevitable misery of being in a miserable institution. It’s now about interacting with another person. If the torment is no longer institutional and impersonal nature, then it becomes a matter of how sadistic the guard feels like being. Whether that manifests as extreme humiliation or physical hurt, the key point is that guards are shedding discipline and external controls, and substituting individual sadism for institutional factors.

    That’s just plain dangerous, and is not the sort of slope that we should be playing near.

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