TASK FORCE SEEKS UPDATE ON MISUSE OF PSYCHIATRY IN TYRANNY OF CUBA

by Jonathan T. Stride

MIAMI - Believing they may save some lives and influence the Fidel Castro regime through publicity with the Vatican and other international organizations, a south Florida task force headed by a Miami psychiatrist gathers data on misuses of psychiatry in Cuba. Although not sponsored by any of the many Cuban-exile groups, the group hopes for their support.

Directing the force is Dr. Rigoberto Rodriguez, 42, Cuban- born, who received medical training at Temple University Hospital, Philadelphia, and moved to Florida to set up private practice in 1988.

He admits the information he seeks is not easy to obtain. Misuse of psychiatry is politically incorrect internationally, and reports indicate Cuba's State Security (SS) agents of the Interior Ministry treat political-psychiatry cases as `top secret.' They are treated in "forensic" wards, according to psychiatrists who recently left Cuba.

Dr. Rodriquez was chosen by heads of the South Florida Psychiatric Society (SFPS) after American Psychiatric Association (APA) officials in Washington, DC., requested current data on Cuba. The APA plans a mission to Cuba if Cuban officials will permit them to select a Cuban American as part of their delegation. To date, they have no such permission.

According to a 1991 book, "The Politics of Psychiatry in Revolutionary Cuba," by Charles J. Brown and Armando M. Lago (Freedom House and Of Human Rights, publishers), the Castro regime used Marxist-Leninist doctrine in the 60's to pattern its criminal code after that of pre-glosnost Soviet Union and other socialist states. In 1979, Cuba revised its laws to declare certain acts often considered political as common crimes, possibly to try to cut the count of "prisoners of conscience," the terminology of Amnesty, International.

Communist theory holds that incarceration is for reeducation. Recidivists who aren't re-educated so to cease "incorrect" acts, then, must either be agents of a foreign power or mentally ill. Therefore, the State Security apparatus took control of the diagnostic process from non-party psychiatrists in many political cases, the authors said.

"Although forensic wards in Cuban psychiatric hospitals theoretically" come under the joint control of State Security agents and physicians from the Ministry of Public Health, "they are in reality little more than part of the punishment apparatus of the secret police," the authors said.

"Psychiatry has become a tool of state repression."

Cuban political prisoners often get excessive doses of psychotropic drugs--as pills or hypodermic injections--and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). The authors said the victim may be forcefully strapped to or merely held down on a damp floor possibly covered with vomit, urine, and excrement from earlier cases.

He or she may be doused with cold water to improve electrical conductivity. Usually, no physician is present. Other inmates often are brought to the chamber and ordered to watch.

A rubber bit may or may not be inserted in the mouth to prevent the tongue from being bitten. Electrodes are not only attached to the head but sometimes to various parts of the body, such as the testicles, the authors said. The ECT may be applied until the victim convulses and loses consciousness, sometimes for hours.

Four cases recently brought to Dr. Rodriguez' attention by Jesus Leyva Guerra, now of Miami, involve men still in Cuba who reportedly were misdiagnosed and given ECT for no medical reason.

The four are Oscar Pena Rodriguez, Pedro Angel Mustelier Limenta, Gil Feal Avalo, and Alcide Ponce de Leon Escobar. Leyva, a former Cuban maritime union and civil rights activist, also was placed in psychiatric facilities and tortured at various times over a period of years before being expelled from Cuba in 1989.

The first-named, Pena, is secretary-general of the Sindicato Independiente de Trabajadores Baragua (SINTRABA, Independent Union of Baragua Workers), in the eastern Province of Santiago. Leyva says Pena also was the first delegate from Mella, a town near Santiago, Cuba, of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights (Comite Cubano Pro Derechos Humanos, or CCPDH).

Because Pena's case has been published internationally, he says SS agents may have become cautious about how they treat him; he has received no psychiatric treatment in the Jagua "ward" of the Gustavo Machin Psychiatric Hospital in Santiago since 1989.

However, he reports that oppression continues. In October 1994, as he was walking alone toward his daughter's house after speaking at a union meeting, Pena was attacked by a gang of about 30 "stoolpigeons, police, and security agents." In a letter, he added:

"They attacked me brutally with electric batons, slapped me, kicked me, and beat me. They forced into my mouth some granules wrapped in pieces of paper which they said was enemy propaganda and demanded that I chew and swallow it."

They also insisted that he confess to distributing anti- government leaflets in Palma Soriano and to setting fires in cane fields of Palmerito de Cauto, an extremely grave crime. He refused to confess, insisting that he was only a union organizer and human rights advocate.

They continued to give him electric shocks and said they would not stop until he said "Viva Fidel!" and "Viva Communism!" Instead, he shouted, "Down with Fidel!" and "Down with Communism!" Losing patience, they continued to beat and electroshock him until he lost consciousness. He was later found lying on the ground by his daughter and some neighbors.

Pena remains a target. For example, early in 1995, a worker named Oriel Abella was imprisoned on three occasions for periods of 7, 10, and 14 days and threatened with prison for many years on charges of sabotage. The agents said they would ease Abella's sentence if he would accuse Pena as the instigator of the sabotage. He refused and reported to the union, which issued an appeal for international condemnation.

The second person named by Leyva, Pedro Angel Mustelier, is a powerful dark-skinned karate athlete. Lives in Guantanamo, he was a high school teacher when first arrested in 1980. He was taken to the Jagua institution and forced to take psychotropic pills and receive ECT.

Later that same year, Mustelier was taken to the Mazorra (Havana Psychiatric Hospital), still headed by Guillermo (Wili) Barrientos, M.D., the State Security chief who selects the clinicians who work for him. Mustelier was again locked up for "treatment" in 1980, then in 1982, 1984-86, and 1988. His current situation has not been determined.

The third person named by Leyva, Gil Feal, was a Santiago laborer in the late 60's became a zealous follower of the Alan Kardec doctrine of Christianity. That followed his having been elected to membership in the Young Communists' League. He says he is no longer interested in politics, only in world peace.

He was first denounced and taken prisoner as mentally disordered in 1970. In 1978, he, too, wound up in Mazorra and received ECT and related treatment periodically for three years. He again was locked up for about a year's treatment in 1982-83 and again in 1987-88. He was free at last reports but his condition is unknown.

The fourth person named by Leyva is Alcide Ponce de Leon, a farm worker from San Andres in the Province of Holguin. He entered the Rebel Army at the beginning of 1959 and then, after Castro won control, became a member of the National Revolutionary Police, stationed in Havana.

In 1961, he helped wipe out a strong anti-Castro rebellion in Escambray and helped defeat the Bay-of-Pigs invasion sent by the Kennedy Administration. Ponce de Leon was elected as a founding member of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965 and in 1966 sent to the USSR for special studies. He said his experiences there turned him into a dissident and he was sent back to Cuba, where he was able to obtain a discharge from the armed service.

In 1973 he was arrested and sent to Mazorra, where he was given ECT and other such treatment for a couple months. He was again confined in 1974 and 1975 and again given ECT. Of 50 ECT applications in 1975, he said 43 were of "unlimited" time and 24 were "homicidal." Similar electroshocks occurred in 1981 and 1984, from which time he was kept until 1987 in Mazorra.

His current whereabouts and status are unknown here.

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